SPEECH DELIVERED AT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL OPENING

I am very honoured to be here.

“What The Moon Saw” was the second movie that my production company Boulevard Films produced. Since then we have made another five films, all of very different genres. Yet “What The Moon Saw” is the one that seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Earlier this year this film was selected and shown in competition at the Berlin Film Festival where it was such a hit it came to the attention of Miramax who acquired all rights for North America and the U.K. It is the first Australian film ever sold to Miramax.

One of the most exciting experiences, after watching the Berlin Wall come down, was watching the movie with an East Berlin audience comprising of mostly children. It was the first film from the Western world they had seen and none of us knew what to expect. And yet, the enthusiastic audience reacted to the very same things that a Western audience responded go. The same laughter and the same tears. Well, except for when Mrs. Melrose accuses the playwright of being a Communist. I think they thought she was praising him.

The film transcends normal language barriers because it speaks in that most universal language of all – the language of the heart.

Young Steven Wilson lives inside all of us. He’s that child we left behind somewhere in our race to bigger things. Occasionally he resurfaces only to be told (by a grown-up) not to be so “childish”, or “You’re having too much fun”; driven away, by those who’ve lost their sense of joy and the appreciation of simplicity, with slogans like “Time is money”, “Act your age” and, the cruelest jab of all, “Grow up!”

At the beginning of the film young Steven is farewelled by his mum and dad as he leaves his small country town to get on a bus to go to the big city for the first time and spend a week with his Grandma. It is a long winding journey along the coast road as he looks out the window at wonders he has not seen before. And for us, the audience, it is a look at the magic of innocence.

I miss Steven Wilson. I miss his unique point of view. The way the world is so simple to him. Things are either good or bad – black or white – sunny or cloudy – and a grown-up’s word is taken literally. He couldn’t survive in the confusing contradictory greys in which we adults have to exist – so we drive him away. Back home to that other country. That simpler slower world where people do the right thing regardless of the cost. And dreams, not regrets, get you to sleep at night.

Thank you for making me feel so welcome. And my work so appreciated.

You’ve given me some warm memories to take back with me on my long bus ride home.

London 1990.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

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ST. KILDA

The fun park is closed
The wind is streaked with ice
“Just for Fun” says the sign
“Cheap at Twice the Price!”
The night life is dead
I walk these streets alone
Just a kid when I left
Now a man’s come home

St. Kilda by the sea
St. Kilda at dawn
This is where I lived
Where I was born
I can still hear my father’s voice
Ringing through our back street home
Still see my mother’s tearful eyes
When I left to roam
Now I stand at this empty house
A prodigal alone

The beach shack is gone
The gang have moved away
“All for one” we had pledged
But it’s one for all today
The sea beats the rocks
My heart it beats too fast
They say some have no future
They just repeat the past

Oh why should I care?
To care you hurt too deep
“God is dead!” screams a broken man
All I want is sleep
The kid is back in town
The years can take their toll
I stand in the dim light of the morning
A ghost of a lost soul

Still see my mother’s tearful eyes
When I left to roam
Now I stand at this empty house
Where once there stood a home

(C) Frank Howson 2019

MR. WILLIAMS PASSED AWAY TODAY

A million flowers
A million cards
And an unfinished play
A lonely room
Filled with lonely dreams
Mr. Williams passed away today

A hotel lobby
Is under siege
For an expose
The daily press
Want a photograph
Mr. Williams passed away today

Mr. Brando’s unavailable for comment
And Blanche ain’t been seen for years
The streetcars dim their headlights
So a city can cry its tears

Two sailors argue
As theatres close
All around Broadway
They want some light
But they haven’t heard
Mr. Williams passed away today

(C) Frank Howson 2019

POTATO JACK

Potato Jack often left home without his jacket on. His mum warned him he’d catch his death, but she was wrong. Just like she was wrong when she told him he knew Jack Shit. He in fact had total recall of everyone he’d ever met and this person, to whom she often referred, he was positive he’d never crossed paths, or even swords, with. But he didn’t like to tell her she was wrong because she was known to carry chips on her shoulders.

Potato Jack loved nothing more than getting baked. He could take the heat for hours, feeling all mashed and gooey and light. But sometimes he’d die for a pea.

Once, he’d fallen for a sweet potato but she left him for an Au Gratin, and Jack conceded that he just couldn’t compete with such illustrious gems.

So, he lost himself watching endless repeats as he sat on the couch eating wedges.

His dad liked to call him Silly Sausage but that didn’t sit well with his over-sensitive son and gave the youngster a pain in the bun. His father admonished him at times for being thin-skinned and told Jack if he didn’t harden up he’d end his daze in a salad.

Dad had been a big wheel in Idaho and spent much time on the gravy train until it all turned to sour cream. Yes, he’d been skinned by several unsavoury types. A lot of hams still chived him about it, but the wise old potato knew that one potato two potato three potato four.

And that kind of humour a-peeled to him.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

For Raija.

THE FINAL STAGE – Adrian Rawlins review of what he called “My lost masterpiece”.

It started out like a normal day for the man of the house. He had breakfast with his wife. She was no warmer or cooler towards him than she had been for a long time. He read the morning paper, donned coat, picked up his briefcase and left for the office.

She reminded him that there was no office anymore. He had to acknowledge that all that is now part of “the past”. Putting aside momentary chagrin at the loss of anticipated freedom he feels safe. There will be no more journeys into the outside world.

He and his wife relapse into a conversational sortie we know they have ventured into often before, their discourse, though completely Australian, throws up the cliches and truisms of everybody wisdom and in almost Pinteresque way introduces echoes of Oscar Wilde’s sublime parable “The Happy Prince”.

A telephone rings but nobody answers. It has no dial – like the clock face in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”

There is an unexpected knock at the door and a man with failure written all over him seeks admission. He has about him the air of a failed vaudevillian/cabaret performer. Like T. S. Eliot’s narrator he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker…but…”I am not Prince Hamlet…”

The dialogue is cryptic, enigmatic, redolent with oblique references to poems, books and cultural assumptions, skirting banality while continuing the Pinteresque reference to the daily metaphors which have been the cliches while still retaining their nugget of “the truth” and providing many moments of genuine “comedie noir”.

Another visitor bursts in, this time no stranger. Stinky Radford is an actor, lover, a forceful extrovert character, beloved by both Man and Wife. Asked about his life, he bravely lies while we see that he too is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be.

While the husband muses upon the remembrance of the past, Stinky makes love to his wife, who was once his wife too. Then, girding up his loins, he leaves to…try again?…to solve the riddle?…face the music?

By the time the audience have accepted the essentially metaphoric nature of this work of cinema: the room is none other than the stage on which Sophocles presented his vast and mighty tragedies, or Aristophanes his satires: the same stage which Shakespeare saw as emblematic of the world, “on which stars in secret influence comment”.

Another visitor – a youth, streetfighter, violent, working-class poet and thug – shades of Jean Cocteau here – bursts in and now we are given our first inkling of the exact nature of the metaphor we have been watching. Despite his bravado and overt displays of machismo, he is terrified by the wife’s advances. We are justified at this point feeling that perhaps all of the male characters are aspects of the husband’s psyche and that we are witnessing a revelation of Everyman/Everywoman in a decidedly contemporary encapsulation.

The wife reminisces volubly about a lover, a lawyer with an earring in one ear.

Stinky Radford returns, having failed to discover anything. The streetkid wants to go back but Stinky assured him “there’s nothing out there”.

The husband has already asserted “we are kindred spirits,” and “this is the room of the lost”.

Finally, Music and Light and mysterious opening of a door heralds the moment when Man and Wife must Face the Music in an upper room (the Upper Room?). He is the Happy Prince, denuded now of all his finery, and she, the Swallow who will not leave him. They are translated into Light.

Immediately they are gone, another figure bursts through the front door, demanding explication. He is obviously the Lawyer who has been the wife’s lover, and in the manner of lawyers he threatens to sue everyone until “you’ll wish you were dead!”.

As his three auditors laugh and laugh we now know exactly where we are and the form of the film, which has been hovering at the corner of our consciousness now snaps into place – and everything makes sense.

“The Final Stage” is, at its deepest level a work of art covering in an original and ground-breaking way the same philosophic and metaphorical terrain covered by Jean Paul Sartre in “No Exit”. It is also a funny, sad, poignant, piquant, witty and disturbing story which amuses us while it reminds us of the – dare we say? – eternal verities of Life and Death.

Because of the way “the story” unfolds – similarly to the creative method employed by Peter Carey in his best short stories – the film is decidedly out of the ordinary – its unusualness and the charm and variety of the performances, induce us willingly to suspend our disbelief. Those viewers familiar with poetry, the theatre, and great literature will find echoes of those other forms and discovery of such connections gives the film’s delightful tension. Theatre-goers, one hopes, will appreciate more fully the slightly theatrical edge to the dialogue. But everyone should be able to see that “The Final Stage” makes a significant, even historical contribution to our understanding of film form in the deepest sense.

– Adrian Rawlins
Critic &. Poet
1994

Review written for Farrago.

Produced, Written & Directed by Frank Howson starring Adrian Wright, Abigail, Tommy Dysart, Michael Lake, Zachary McKay & Tiriel Mora.

photograph by Luzio Grossi.

WEEKENDS & HOBBIES & ROAST DINNERS

I was asked a few questions recently by a new friend that really had me thinking. Scrambling for answers actually, and aware of the long silence the enquirer was experiencing. In radio they call it “dead air.”

One question was “What do you do on the weekends?”

Yeah. What do I do on the weekends? I guess the question reminded me yet again to my embarrassment that I’m not a normal person. For you see, the answer, truthfully, is I don’t know what I do on weekends. I guess normal people have plans or a regular arrangement. Or habit. Or get-together. Or ritual. Me? Nothing. I go with the flow. Maybe see a movie if there’s something showing for the over-fourteen market. Maybe see a band or a friend performing? Maybe walk along the familiar memory-laden streets of St. Kilda down to the foreshore and watch people having fun in the sun. Or the overcast winter waves crashing in where Brookes’ Jetty used to stand. Maybe meet up with a friend for something to eat and a beer or wine depending on the mood. Although I can always be tempted to have a sublime cheesecake and a coffee at Monarch Cakes in Acland Street.

Sometimes people call in to see me unannounced. Surprise visits are nice, mostly, unless it’s the police and they have the wrong house!

Other times the luxury of just doing nothing and thinking nothing is like a holiday in the French Riviera. That nice warm feeling that grows nicer with the years of just being home, safe, relaxed and alive. Sometimes like the character in the song “Waterloo Sunset” it just feels right to sit and watch the world by my window.

One thing I have enjoyed doing for many years is going to the South Melbourne Market and joining the throng as we file in homage past all the delectable meat, fish, poultry, deli exotics, fresh bread, pastries, fruit and vegetables on display.

In my opinion, the Chinese hole-in-the-wall takeaway at the Cecil Street entrance sells the best spring rolls in the world. When I lived in Los Angeles and would come back to visit my son I’d always make the taxi from the airport stop en route here so I could quickly grab a couple to go, such was the extent I had missed them in La La Land. I guess part of that addiction was that they reminded me of being home.

I remember my Sundays in L. A too when I’d walk from West Hollywood to Century City Plaza, a long but very pleasant leisurely stroll that would end at the cineplex there to watch a new movie and then an hour browsing in the beautiful bookstore (actually all bookstores are beautiful to me) at the bottom of the escalators. One time I chatted to Donald Trump there as he sat signing copies of his then latest book and I wished him well.

So much of my life has been solitary for one reason or another and some times I feel that it’s God’s way for a creative person. Walking, observing, taking mental notes of odd things, thinking, daydreaming, trying to make sense of nonsense, etc.

Would I have preferred to have walked these steps with the person I loved? No doubt. But I have come to grips with the resolution that it was not written to be a part of my story, this time around. Only fleeting years of romance here and there. And now the sweet inner longing has taken on a somewhat beautiful warm glow of loss. And that glow fills many songs and scripts and stories of mine and in them love is reborn and remembered fondly now the scars have healed and left one with the exquisite taste of what will not come again. Perhaps. But such longings can be walked away if you have the right shoes.

The second question I was asked was, “Do you have a hobby?”

Again, I was stuck for an answer. Any answer. But thinking back I remembered as a child buying at the corner toy shop those boxes that contained lots of plastic pieces with glue included in order to fit all the pieces together and make my own replica planes. Normally World War 2 bombers.

I’d also sit in my bedroom as my parents berated each other and read The Adventures of Biggles, Robin Hood, Treasure Island and Johnny Yuma The Rebel.

When I lived in Fawkner Street I’d grab my football each late afternoon after school and walk out into the street in front of my house bouncing my football. You’d only need to bounce it for a minute or two and presto! You’d have a fellow team of boys all eager to grab the football and in their imagination kick the winning goal. Looking back, so much of what we had to make do with was exercising our creative imaginations.

Anyway, back to the question, “What do I do now for a hobby?” It made me a little sad to think that I don’t really have a hobby in the traditional meaning. Everything I do is in some way work related. I write. And the writing is my therapy in that it’s my way of making sense of things.

I go to movies. But even that is in a way work related. Same as going to a play or a musical.

I paint and sketch but that is something I have been doing most of my life but have only recently at the urging of others taken it seriously and have been grateful for a couple of successful exhibitions. I must admit that painting does relax my restless mind and soothe me more than anything else I do. But a hobby? Like going fishing? Not really. Or playing golf? Nah. I like to chat to people. My mum was a chatter person. I like to engage in conversation with others as I like to laugh, to quiz, to swap opinions, to stimulate thought, etc. Maybe that’s my hobby?

When I lived at my previous apartment it had a nice oven and I did like to make a roast lunch or dinner every Sunday and have people drop in for something to eat. I guess it reminded me of my own family when my mother and father were alive and Sundays were a very special day. My dad would be sober and in a great mood and he’d take it upon himself to cook the roast and all the trimmings. It was a sense of family as it should be, as it could be, and it made me feel whole and even as a young boy strangely blessed, appreciating it even at those tender years because perhaps I had an instinctive premonition that these times would rarely come to me again.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

JESUS – THE JEWISH DILEMMA

Who is Jesus Christ? The facts are he was born Yeshua ben Yosef – a simple man from a simple town. Born at a time without the powerful worldwide reach of the media’s sophisticated communications technology and yet he is by far the most famous person who ever lived. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement, and somewhat of a miracle in itself. How does someone get remembered that long and his following just grow and grow into every country and backwater place in the world? And this was initially flamed by just word of mouth from those who knew him and had witnessed his tragic fate.

From all accounts he was a devout Jew, a Rabbi even, and was praised for his spiritual knowledge and the great power of his sermons. He connected with the wisest men of the day, with simple folk, and with those the world shunned – the lepers, cripples, deformed, the deaf, the paupers and the blind. He treated all with the same respect. For he saw past their afflictions and addressed their souls. He also acknowledged women as equals much to the annoyance of his own apostles. His non-judgmental attitude also stretched to the Romans, which led to criticism amongst his own race. We are told that he saw inherent good in us all no matter our race or how far we had strayed into darkness. That belief was his most powerful statement and no doubt why he remains so relevant. It would also be the cause of his shockingly brutal and barbaric death.

Perhaps he still lives because more than two thousand years later, most of us are still grappling with his radical concept of loving everyone, including those who have wronged and seek to damage us.

And therein lies another truth of fact. Jesus was a political and social rebel at a time when such things could get you either banished or killed. That’s why he told parables, child-like fiction stories, that symbolised what he was really trying to tell us. Interestingly, we seem to be headed back to those dim dark ages where you have to adhere to the accepted politically correct opinion of the day. Not sure Jesus would last too long in the modern world either which, sadly, shows just how little we have really progressed as human beings.

Another fact. Mary Magdalene was not a whore. She was married to Jesus and no doubt had children with him. No rabbi was allowed to speak in a temple unless he was married and had children. Jesus spoke in several temples and addressed those in attendance. So why did the early Christians decide to reduce Mary Magdalene to a good hearted whore who needed Jesus to save her? They were men carrying the residue of old doctrines and still too threatened to give women too much power in their new religion. Many wise men throughout history have seen through this rewriting of the truth according to Jesus. Michelangelo for one, who risked his life mischievously painting Mary at The Last Supper seated next to her husband Jesus. Either that or a very feminine looking man in drag, so I’ll go with it being Mary. The unspoken truth is also in Michelangelo’s sculpture “The Pity” which depicts the dead body of Jesus cradled in the arms of Mary. But look closely at the face and it is not that of the mother of a 33 year old man. It is that of young woman. A wife, now a widow.

This truth, to me, makes the story of Jesus all the more powerful. Yes, pity indeed. But while these early Christians were creatively inspired they watered down other aspects of Jesus because obviously the fact that he was a real man with real human contradictions at times unnerved them somewhat. In the words of Father John Misty on his album Pure Comedy, “…they get terribly upset, when you question their sacred texts, written by woman-hating epileptics.”

Isn’t it ironic that the poster boy to a very large majority of the world, Jesus, whom even the Muslims honour as a holy prophet, is not recognised by his own people? I remember when I was living in L.A and serving on the board of the Starlight Foundation and we were having a black tie fund raiser one evening and a very wealthy Jewish woman went into a tirade about Jesus spitting venom and heated hatred about a man she’d never known. Arriving late into this conversation one would’ve thought she was talking about Hitler, or an exhusband. But no, it was that simple man from Nazareth who told us all to love each other. Being the only one with the guts to cut into this tirade with some logic, I offered up as my sacrifice, “Look I can understand you not believing he was the son of God, whatever that means, but what is there to hate about a man who preached love, forgiveness, redemption, understanding, and who loved children, animals, lepers, well, you name it, he seemed to be a walking lovefest?” There was silence and then she walked off in a huff of negative energy. A shame because I was truly interested in getting to the bottom of where this hatred for such a man sprang from.

Also ironic is the fact that people who on one hand intensely dislike Jewish people, on the other worship Jesus. The Rabbi Jesus that is. Strange.

Is the Jewish dislike of Jesus based upon the fact that they were called “Christ killers” in some misinformed circles? Well, again, don’t blame Jesus for that. He laid blame nowhere and on no one.

Another fact. Jews didn’t hate Jesus during his time here. Quite the opposite. They appeared to have adored him. Who were those thousands who came to hear him speak? That lined the roads to greet him? Who came to him with their problems seeking his help? Who were his disciples? Who were the first Christians?

The only Jews who had a problem with Jesus were a very small elite bunch of high priests led, or misled, by Joseph Ben Caiaphas, the highest honcho priest who was clearly in the pocket of the Romans. I have seen the layout of the palatial palace that Caiaphas was given by the Romans in exchange for keeping his tribe in line. Life was sweet for this pampered man until that Jesus character started becoming an overnight sensation amongst his own people. Hosanna indeed. Suddenly there was talk that he may be the long awaited Messiah, which fuelled excitement that the downtrodden masses may rise up and overthrow the Romans. Then came word of miracles. One even performed on the Sabbath. It is understandable why Caiaphas became deeply concerned about an uprising that would jeopardise his own authority and lifestyle. Something had to be done, and it was. The wheels were set in motion when this Jesus character proved he could not be bought or intimidated by threats. I believe, if for no other reason, Jesus deserves our respect for the simple fact that he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. A man so genuine in the beliefs he preached that he laid down his life in the most agonising way to confirm his commitment.

Blaming all Jews for the actions of Caiaphas is like blaming all Americans for Senator Joe McCarthy. Ridiculous.

Jesus had no interest in taking on the Romans, his main quest seemed to be to publicly expose Caiaphas to his own people as the fake and betrayer he no doubt was. A man who’d sold his own congregation out.

Which brings me to Judas whom I believe to be the most wrongly reviled man in history, and again a victim of a slapdash dumbing down rewrite of the complexities of the real story. Fact is Judas had friends among the high priests and I believe Jesus used him as the go-between to force a public confrontation between himself and Caiaphas. At the last supper when Jesus says to Judas, “Do quickly now what you must do” I take that to be an order, and no doubt Judas did too. But then things got out of hand. Jesus didn’t call Caiaphas the “sly old fox” for no reason.

And let’s not let the Romans off the hook. It’s amazing how they have escaped any lasting blame for their involvement in the bloody death of Jesus. Sure, Caiaphas started the fire but Pilate sealed the deal. I find it difficult to believe that a man as powerful as Pilate would be so reluctant to decide the fate of Jesus. What was one more Jewish life to this man? Based upon his track record, not much. Yet according to the scriptures written by Jewish men, Pilate time and again virtually pleads with the angry mob to spare the life of this preacher. He states that he sees in this man’s actions no disrespect or threat to Rome. Finally he pleads with Jesus to say something to let them both off the hook. But Jesus has already accepted his fate and knows full well that the prophecy must be acted out.

The reason we are given for Pilate’s out of character reluctance to execute Jesus is because his wife, Claudia, had a vision one night and told her husband that a holy man would come before him for judgement and that he must not condemn him or he will be condemned himself forevermore. It is interesting that in the Greek Orthodox Church Claudia is considered a saint for having had that vision.

Still, Pilate condemned Jesus to death. He may have washed his hands to symbolise that he wanted no part of the blame, but his failure to stand up to the mob calling for blood (many of whom it is suggested were paid by Caiaphas to begin the chant) makes him culpable just the same.

Given the above, I often marvel at the irony of the contradictory titled Roman Catholic Church. Not quite sure how Jesus would feel about those naming rights for the custodians of his truth. No doubt it was necessary to downplay the Roman involvement in the murder of Jesus in order to have the Empire embrace this new religion.

There are now manuscripts that reveal that Jesus’ brother James (another person who didn’t make the cut), and the apostles wanted to start their own religion in the name of Jesus. It no doubt would’ve stuck closer to the real story as they knew the real man and witnessed all the major events with him. They knew first hand what he felt and thought about things. It’s interesting to note that James was adamant that it would be a Jewish religion and honour all the accepted traditions as Jesus had. But this character named Paul came forth, a man who’d never known Jesus, saying he’d had a vision and been instructed by Jesus to start a new religion and open it up to the whole world. Up till then, Paul had persecuted the followers of Jesus and was on his way to Damascus to arrest others when he saw Jesus in a stunning light. For three days after this event Paul was blind until Ananias restored his sight. It is now believed that the obviously conflicted Paul also took epileptic fits.

With time the majority of Jews sided with Caiaphas and his version of events and the Jesus followers ended up in the St. Paul camp.

St. Paul is now the wellspring on which the current Roman Catholic Church draws its inspiration. I’d say that was a rocky and somewhat compromised source to begin with.

It is indeed a shame that in this sanctification of Jesus, a great deal of the real man has been lost. His very humanness to me is what makes his deeds all the more extraordinary. He did get angry, he did have doubts, he did fear, he did weep, he did love, he did care, he did feel pain, and he did laugh.

He was not an alien, or the angelic haloed image on a million posters and commissioned paintings, he was one of us. A son of man whom God would be most pleased with.

(C) Frank Howson 2019