Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The best films you've never heard of

Last night, I got a text from our friend Jackie telling me about a film on t.v.. It was called The Castle, and she said it was an Aussie classic, so I should check it out.

It turned out to be absolutely hilarious, a tale of a man who is fighting to keep his house from being bulldozed to make way for an airport expansion. It was sweet without being cloying, telling the story of some really, really dumb people while treating them with love and bemused respect rather than just poking fun at them. It was fantastic, and it's just one of many great Australian films.

Here's a test for you. Name five Australian films. I don't just mean films made in Australia like Happy Feet or Moulin Rouge, or even ones that use Australia as a set like Mission Impossible 2. I mean films that address Australian themes, people and ideas, films that tell you something about the country.

A year ago, I might have said Crocodile Dundee, Japanese Story, and, of course, the overblown Jackman-Kidman blockbuster that lumbered across the screens last year. Since I enjoy quirky late night movies, I would also have said Sirens, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. For bonus points I might have argued for Finding Nemo (with its chorus of "23 Wallaby Way, Sydney"). And I probably would have stopped there.

Ask an Australian the same thing, and not only could they name half a dozen good films, they could probably get them for you: at our local video store I recently rented Romper Stomper, a gritty film starring a young Russell Crowe as a neo-Nazi skinhead in Melbourne; The Castle was shown at 9:30 p.m. on one of the main t.v. channels; we've borrowed a copy of Puberty Blues, a coming-of-age film about young surfers.

I also want to see Picnic at Hanging Rock, Kenny, Galipoli, The Man from Snowy River, Phar Lap, Rabbit-Proof Fence and a host of others, and I suspect I'll have little trouble getting them.

Now name five Canadian films. Ummmm... There's Black Robe. Men with Brooms. Jesus of Montreal. Wayne's World has a joke that only a Canadian will get (a donut shop called Stan Mikita's) -- does that count?

Again, because of my love of late night movies and arthouse cinema, I can add a few others like The Adventures of Faustus Bidgood (a surreal tale of Newfoundland independence), Highway 61 (a road trip from Thunder Bay to New Orleans), Beautiful Dreamers (about Walt Whitman visiting an asylum in London, Ontario), Margaret's Museum (memories of a coal mine disaster, with a cameo by a mummified penis). Not exactly huge hits -- some of them with good reason. I'm not sure how many of those I could find at Rogers Video, but I'd wager it's pretty few. And the last time I saw a Canadian-made movie on prime time t.v. was....?

Of course there are good reasons for this. Canadian filmmakers naturally migrate to Hollywood, or else stay in Canada and work for Hollywood without leaving home. Our stories, you could argue, get told in other ways, or else influence American film-making. (Renfrew of The Royal Mounted, anyone?)

Whatever the reason, though, there are some things Canadians do better than Australians, and some areas where it's the other way around. When it comes to telling their country's stories on film, this one goes to the Aussies.

Friday, March 27, 2009

If everybody had an ocean...

With Sharon still in Canada, it's my job to keep everyone in the house busy and to try and maintain the routine as much as possible. And on Friday afternoons, that routine includes surfing lessons for our two youngest grommets.

It may be possible to spend time in Australia without going surfing, but you really can't ignore it when you're living on the Sunshine Coast. Surfing here is just part of the culture. It's like boating in Muskoka, or swearing at other drivers in Toronto: not everyone does it regularly, but everyone has done it at least once. If I'm going to write a book about our time here, I think surfing is going to have to be a part of it.

Every Friday afternoon, the Coolum Surfing School offers inexpensive group lessons for school kids. Isaiah and Charlotte have had a few lessons, and are starting to get quite accomplished. Charlotte, being our little water bug, is the most enthusiastic about it; Isaiah is drawing quite nicely on his snowboarding experience.

On Monday, Ana and I decided the time had come for us to get in on the act, so we took a lesson at the main beach in Noosa. And yes, I'll answer the question everyone asks about your first surf lesson: we stood up.

More than that, we had a blast. We were using big 9-foot boards, which are stable and forgiving, and even when we fell off we felt that we were really, really close to getting it right -- close enough that we just had to wade out and try it again. We didn't learn to surf on green waves, we spent more time in the water than on it, and after a couple of hours we were sore and tired. But every now and then we'd catch a wave just about right, get up on our feet for a few seconds, and feel the wave moving beneath us rather than moving over us. It was enough to convince both of us that surfing can be completely addictive. We were, as they say, stoked.

So now we're on the lookout for a board. If anyone's got an old Mal in the garage that they want to sell real cheap, or better yet that they would be willing to lend us for the year...

So far there's only one problem with surfing: I can't get the music out of my head. All week I've been alternating between the Beach Boys and the Ventures. I love them both, but it's starting to drive me crazy. I even feel glad when I get an 80s indie flashback and start hearing long-forgotten bands like punks The Forgotten Rebels (Surfin' on Heroin) or Jerry Jerry and the Sons of Rhythm Orchestra (who defined Canada's take-it or leave-it approach to U.S. culture with the line "I don't like basketball or surfin', but Lord I do love bourbon.")

This afternoon, Isaiah decided to sit out the surf lesson and Ana took the school bus straight home. So I body boarded while Charlotte surfed. As the sun got lower and the gold tones became richer, I just knew I had to ditch the board and grab the camera. The shots don't do the light justice, but they give you a bit of an idea of how much fun we were having.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The new normal

It's hard to believe it's only been a week since we got the call, saying that Sharon's dad was declining rapidly. She flew to Toronto last Sunday. On Monday she called to say that Gerd had passed away.

Time really does move at a varying pace. Just a month ago, Gerd and Lorna were here with us, planning the next leg of their journey which would take them to New Zealand. It may as well have been a year ago, the way it feels from here. For Sharon, it may feel like it was yesterday.

Sharon is with Lorna now, and will be there until nearly Easter. Sharon says each hour is a little easier than the one before it, which is the way these things go. The kids and I are doing OK, slowly returning to normal.

Of course, normal is a little different around here. Normal is surfing lessons after school on Friday, and going for a swim between torrential showers. It's banana pancakes topped with custard apple for breakfast (imagine a fruit that looks like an enormous dried apple, but tastes like apple pie filling), and watching Friday night rugby on the telly. But it's also road hockey with a friend (Isaiah has introduced his friends to the joys of mini sticks), grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, and going for a bike ride.

Sunday we'll probably go to the main beach in Noosa to watch the finals of the surfing competition. Gerd loved the beach, and enjoyed watching people perform well at any sport. Going to the beach seems like an appropriate thing to do.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We've been Hamished

The people along the boardwalk had a look I've seen before, a mix of disbelief, shock and curiosity. You see it in the crowds that gather wherever a disaster has taken place, as they watch firefighters douse the remains of a gutted building, or railway workers assess ways of righting a derailed train.

There is patience in the air at these gatherings. There isn't much happening, not much to look at. The drama is over, but people will stand for hours waiting to see if anything else occurs. Here and there a cluster of people will talk quietly, sharing a little news and a lot of speculation about what has happened and what will happen next. But most just stand in silence, lost in a reverie as they contemplate the changed landscape.

The people on the boardwalk this morning had that same look about them as they watched the diminishing waves from Cyclone Hamish pound what remained of Coolum Beach.

A cyclone isn't like the storms we are used to in Ontario, which arrive, wreak havoc, then move on. This cyclone spent days travelling slowly down the coast, pushing high tides even higher, whipping the waves into monstrous swells, and ripping leaves and limbs from trees. For three days the waves pounded the shore, hitting harder and higher than usual, each one taking a mouthful of sand from the beach and dragging it out to sea.

By Friday morning, the damage was clear. Walkways that once followed a meandering path from dune to beach now end abruptly two metres above the sand. Beaches which had offered many metres of sunbathing even at high tide were now awash, the high tide waves lapping at the base of the dunes in one spot, spitting up against bare rocks in another. Similar damage has been reported all along the coast. Noosa's main beach, which is notoriously prone to erosion anyway, is reportedly now nothing but bare rock. (I've not been there to see it yet, but reports say it will take two or three months of sand pumping to restore the beach.)

But the bigger concern is not what the water has done, but what is still in the water. A container ship was damaged in the storm in Moreton Bay, losing 620 tons of sodium nitrate overboard and sending somewhere between 30 and 100 tonnes of bunker oil into the ocean from its ruptured fuel tanks. It's now started washing up on beaches all along the southern Sunshine Coast.

This morning at Coolum, we watched as a black smear began to take shape in the waves just south of the surf club. Slowly all we idlers drifted down the shoreline, mesmerized by the inky mess being whipped to a froth by the waves. Oil? It sure looked like it. But as people dipped their hands in the mess, doubts began to surface. It didn't smell oily, nor did it leave a residue on the skin. One man said it could be an odd algal bloom. Another suggested plankton. One of the oldest men in our little cluster, speaking with the authority of one who has lived in the area for years, said the black "coffee rocks" that underlie the beach sand sometimes get pounded to dust by the waves, staining the water. "That could be just rock," he said, "but I've never seen it that black before." Over our heads, a helicopter made its way up and down the shore, presumably seeking the same sort of answers we were.

Even if Coolum has been spared the oil, the same can't be said for beaches further south. Lovely sand islands like Moreton and Bribie have been declared disaster areas; so have many of the beaches in places like Mooloolaba, just to the south of us. Cleanup costs are estimated at $100,000 a day or more. There is talk of charging the skipper of the ship, of fining the owners. The premier says this may be Queensland's worst natural disaster ever -- which is saying quite a bit in a state where two-thirds of the land was recently flooded by another cyclone.

Eventually it will get cleaned up. The beaches will recover (Noosa faster than most, since it is equipped with an elaborate sand pumping system that sucks sand from the mouth of the river and pumps it on to the main beach.) With luck the containers of sodium nitrate will be found and recovered before they, too, leak into the bay.

And there is even some good news in all of this. The cyclone has left us with some terrific surf conditions, just in time for the international surfing festival that starts in Noosa this weekend.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I say! Is that a dinosaur in your tent?

Apologies that I haven't blogged in a couple of weeks. Sometimes life just gets in the way of everything else, including blogging.

We just got back from a fabulous weekend on North Stradbroke Island, which I'm not going to tell you about yet. First I want to tell you about last weekend, when we went camping.

Camping is a part of our lives. Sharon and I both grew up camping with our families, and we honeymooned in a tent. Before we had kids, we did some great back country canoe trips and hiking trips, and in the past few years we've spent at least two or three weeks of every summer camping in the tent trailer. All of which means one thing in Australia: we have a great supply of bear stories.

Australians, you see, are kind of freaked out by bears. It's the one animal guaranteed to come up in every conversation about life in the Canadian wilderness. They view bears the same way we view crocs and sharks -- as mysterious and exotic creatures that can eat you. (The difference is that there have been about six fatal bear attacks in Ontario in the past century. Sydney alone has seen three shark attacks in the last three weeks. None fatal, but still...)

For both bears and sharks, though, the response is similar: you learn to understand the creatures, and you do what you can to minimize the chance that you'll see them. The result is that Sharon and I have only once seen a bear in our campsite. That one sighting is a good story, though, and we've also got a few tales about what you need to do to keep bears from visiting. It makes for good campfire chatter.

So last weekend, Sharon's teaching partner Jackie and her husband Kadek invited us to join them, camping on the shores of Lake Cootharaba, a shallow lake which is only about 20 minutes from our house. Kadek and I took their son Josh and Isaiah out of school on Friday, and went to set up camp. The girls joined us on Friday night. We camped at Eulanda Point, which is a private campground on the shores of the lake. It's really just a big field, but it's cheap and cheerful, and at this time of year it wasn't overly crowded. We pitched our tents beneath a gum tree, swam, and just had a great afternoon. When Jackie arrived that night, she queried our choice of campsite -- it seems gums are known for dropping limbs on careless campers. We had a good excuse (Kadek is Balinese, and apparently they don't have gum trees there any more than they do in Canada), but we insisted we'd looked for dangerous branches before pitching the tent. And in fact we had done both those things, although not necessarily in that order.

That night, Sharon and I got our first camping surprise: you don't need to lock up the food in Australia! In Canada, we are meticulous about cleaning the site of all scraps before bed. If we're in the back country we hang the food pack in a tree to keep it from bears and raccoons; when car camping, everything that even smells edible goes in the car. In Australia, you just put a lid on the food box to keep the possums out, and go to bed. It's fantastic.

Sharon saw a couple of possums that night, because we had overlooked some fruit, but they're so cute and dainty that you really don't mind them pinching a few grapes.

Over the weekend, we watched some of the other wildlife. A kookaburra sat just a couple of metres away from the site, and waited for scraps. We didn't feed it -- they're really big birds, with a wicked looking bill, and we've heard tales of people getting their hands cut by kokaburras that are trying to snatch food from their hands. There was an enormous carpet python in the roots of a nearby fig tree, and kangaroos hopping through the fields. But the freakiest creatures were the goannas. They're big lizards -- monitor lizards, officially -- and the ones at this park are about a metre long. They've got enormous claws, and they're heavy-looking creatures, and when they walk they look just like the models for a cheesy cave-men-vs.-the-dinosaurs movie.

They're apparently harmless, but they also show little fear of humans, and it's impossible to watch one waddle past your chair without wondering what would happen if it decided to climb your leg. So when they decided to investigate our campsite a little closer than we wanted them to, we got more than a little freaked out. One of them even strolled through my tent, although not when I was in it. The Australians insisted that they are quite harmless, but we noticed that they too kept a close eye on the lizards. The only person I really believed was Kadek, who said goannas are considered quite tasty in Bali. Everyone else just seemed to be a little too forced in their calmness.

Still, we had a terrific weekend. So good, in fact, that Kadek and I decided to keep Charlotte and their daughter Indie at camp and stay up there for an extra night. Even though we went to the information office on Sunday, where I read about the sightings of bull sharks in Lake Cootharaba... Perhaps goannas and bears aren't so bad after all!

Banjo Patterson also had a few thoughts on the goanna. Enjoy:


by Andrew Barton [Banjo] Patterson

Down along the Snakebite River where the overlanders camp,

Where the serpents are in millions, all of the most deadly stamp,

Where the station cook in terror, nearly every time he bakes,

Mixes up among the doughboys half a dozen poisonous snakes.

Where the wily free selector walks in armour-plated pants;

and defies the stings of scorpions and the bites of bulldog ants,

Where the adder and the viper tear each other by the throat ---

There it was that William Johnson sought his snake-bite antidote.

Johnson was a free selector; and his brain went rather queer,

For the constant sight of serpents filled him with a deadly fear,

So he tramped his free selection, morning, noon and night,

Seeking for some great specific that would cure the serpent’s bite,

Till King Billy, of the Mooki, chieftain of the flour-bag head,

Told him, “Spos’n snake bite pfeller, pfeller mostly drop down dead,

Spos’n snake bite old goanna, then you watch a while you see

Old goanna cure himself with eating little pfeller tree.”

“That’s the cure,” said William Johnson, “point me out this plant sublime.”;

But King Billy, feeling lazy, said he’d go another time.

Thus it came to pass that Johnson, having got the tale by rote,

Followed every stray goanna seeking for the antidote.

Loafing once beside the river, while he thought his heart would break,

There he saw a big goanna fighting with a tiger snake.

In and out they wriggled, bit each other, heart and soul,

Till the valiant old goanna swallowed his opponent whole.

Breathless, Johnson sat and watched him, saw him struggle up the bank,

Saw him nibbling at the branches of some bushes, green and rank,

Saw him, happy and contented, lick his lips, as off he crept,

While the bulging of his stomach showed where his opponent slept.

Then a cheer of exultation burst aloud from Johnson’s throat,

“Luck at last,” said he, “I’ve struck it! ‘tis the famous antidote.”

“Here it is, the Grand Elixir, greatest blessing ever known --

Twenty thousand men in India die each year of snakes alone,

Think of all the foreign nations, Negro, Chow and Blackamoor,

Saved from sudden expiration by my wondrous snake-bite cure.

It will bring me fame and fortune! In the happy days to be

Scientific men in thousands, men of mark and note,

Rushing down the Mooki River, after Johnson’s Antidote.

It will cure delirium tremens when the patient’s eyeballs stare

At imaginary spiders, snakes which are not really there.

When he thinks he sees them wriggle, when he thinks he sees them bloat,

It will cure him just to think of Johnson’s Snake-bite Antidote.

Then he rushed to the museum, found a scientific man ---

“Trot me out a deadly serpent, just the deadliest you can.

I intend to let him bite me, all the risk I will endure,

Just to prove the sterling value of my wondrous snake-bite cure.

Even though and adder bit me, back to life I’d float.

Snakes are out of date I tell you, since I’ve found the antidote.”

Said the scientific person, “If you really want to die,

Go ahead – but, if you’re doubtful, let your sheep-dog have a try.

Get a pair of dogs and try it, let the snake give both a nip.

Give your dog the snake-bite mixture, let the other fellow rip.

If he dies and yours survives him then it proves the thing is good.

Will you fetch your dog and try it?” Johnson rather thought he would.

So he went and fetched his canine, hauled him forward by the throat.

“Stump, old man,” says he, “we’ll show them we’ve the genwine antidote.”

Both the dogs were duly loaded with the poison glands contents.

Johnson gave his dog the mixture, then sat down to wait events.

“Mark,” he said, “in twenty minutes Stump’ll be a-rushing round,

While the other wretched creature lies a corpse upon the ground.”

But, alas for William Johnson, ‘ere they watched a half-hour’s spell

Stumpy was as dead as mutton, t’other dog was live and well.

And the Scientific person hurried off with utmost speed,

Tested Johnson’s drug and found it was a deadly poison-weed.

Half a tumbler killed an Emu, half a spoonful killed a Goat ---

All the snakes on earth were harmless to that awful antidote.

Down along the Mooki River, on the overlander’s camp,

Where the serpents are in millions, all of the most deadly stamp,

Wanders, daily, William Johnson, down among those poisonous hordes,

Shooting every stray goanna, calls them “black and yaller frauds”.

And King Billy of the Mooki, cadging for the cast off coat,

Somehow seems to dodge the subject of the snakebite antidote.