I read the first news stories about the interim report of the NSW Curriculum Review with the foreboding of someone who has ploughed a field and was now going to have to do it all over again. Would I really go back to all the education experts and teachers I know, and get them to patiently tell me yet again what was wrong with this latest high profile attempt at solving our education crisis? (And if I, a journalist who only occasionally writes about education was feeling like this, how on earth did they – people who had laboured for decades to try to deliver a good education to our school students – feel?)

As The Australian Financial Review’s education editor Robert Bolton pointed out quickly: was the review’s interim report recommending “back to basics” as NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and education minister Sarah Mitchell seemed to believe?

Or was the review “a shift to ‘critical thinking and evaluating solutions’”?

Not back to basics after all?

Bolton quoted the lead author of the review, Geoff Masters himself (see photo below), CEO of the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) since 1998, saying that he would not have described the review as back to basics. “… what I’m saying is we need to think about students’ ability to apply a range of content skills in knowledge applications … We need young people who can solve problems and think creatively. We need to teach for the future.”

A key point of the review is also “reducing the divide between academic and vocational HSC subjects”. Every course would eventually mix theory and application. Academic meaning “mainly knowledge-based”; vocational signifying “mainly skills-based” according to the review’s executive summary. The review also states this of its proposals for an alternative curriculum in schooling’s final years: “In such a curriculum, there would be no place for dichotomies that separate academic from vocational learning, theory
from application, and knowledge from skills.”

Hello? What exactly does this mean?

I adored studying 19th century European history in my senior years at high school … What would my diligent and inspiring teacher now be expected to do to mix theory and application?

I soon received this pungent email from one successful, experienced and battle-hardened teacher: ”This  is just the nonsense [we] fought so hard to avoid over here in WA.  Looks like your State is bringing it on.  Geoff Masters was behind the OBE [Outcomes Based Education] push in WA when it was happening, and here he is again …”


Too much change, not enough progress

In early 2018, I wrote this piece for this blog about this country’s disastrous flirtation with OBE from the early to mid-1990s to about 2007. WA was the state most badly affected. Instead of education being broad and knowledge-based, OBE was about achieving a set of desirable outcomes with a focus on economic growth for the country. One academic paper described how “In addition to abject confusion, some teachers, parents and students experienced alienation, resentment and exhaustion …”

Geoff Masters had indeed been one of OBE’s champions as education writer Kevin Donnelly pointed out in his 2007 book, Dumbing Down: Outcomes-based and politically correct – the impact of the Culture Wars on our schools.  In a chapter titled “The Empire Strikes Back”, Donnelly wrote: “Geoff Masters has been prepared to go public in his defence of outcomes based education.  During the height of the OBE debate in Western Australia, and after The Australian and the West Australian newspapers campaigned against the worst excesses of OBE, Masters (1995c) wrote a defence of OBE entitled ‘What outcomes do we want’ that was widely circulated in Western Australian schools, with a synopsis posted on the Curriculum Council’s website.”

OBE, with its drastic overhaul of the existing education system, proved to be a failure. Yet Masters is behind this latest review which also proposes massive changes, even chucking out progression based on year on year grades in favour of individual attainment levels. “Changing one element of practice is hard enough. Changing many elements of practice is even harder,” the Grattan Institute’s school program director Peter Goss told The Sydney Morning Herald, commenting on the scale of what was being proposed.

Donnelly agreed with certain criticisms made in the Masters’ review, like the overcrowded curriculum and the bureaucratic accountability forced on teachers but he also wrote of the latter in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: “The irony is that, as head of the ACER and a staunch defender of what is known as outcomes-based education, Masters is one of those responsible for forcing this intrusive and time-wasting approach on teachers in the first place.”

Haven’t we seen this before?

As for the review’s push to end standardised year on year progress, against which students can be measured, replaced by attainment levels established for each student, I wrote last year, quoting one principal of a Perth  girls’ school with a large budget, this doesn’t just demand a lot in extra staff levels and extra costs, it can also condemn less able students to never being asked to try harder.

The whiff of similarities between Masters’ latest report and OBE was soon being pointed out in more emails to me from practising teachers and educationists. As one of the latter explained to me over a year ago, and I’ve heard the same thing expressed from others in different ways, the reason we keep seeing the same questionable ideas being pushed in education is because so many of the same people and the same organisations and groups are still around.

A modest proposal

Is that something an excellent education reporter like The Australian’s Rebecca Urban could explore? Possibly in a neat, easy to understand, graphic. All the current big names in Australian education, their current and past positions, along with the proposals, reviews and reforms with which they have been associated over the past several decades. It could provide context for all of us, and especially for federal education minister Dan Tehan.

In a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, Fiona Mueller (pictured below), now director of the education programme at the Centre for Independent Studies, wrote of the Masters’ review: “Most parents, taxpayers and employers will shake their heads at the scale of change recommended … They are entitled to ask how yet another expensive, 18-month long investigation (and stretching until at least halfway through 2020) has concluded that Australian schooling is not serving the nation well. Why aren’t we further down the path to improvement?”

To cloud things even more, there are any number of consultancies, often started by people who used to work in educational institutions or organisations, involved in this same juggernaut, manufacturing peppy phrases and supposedly whip-smart ideas with the assiduity of jargon-meisters to seduce department heads, staff and school principals who should know a lot better.

How not to lose the plot

As Mueller also wrote in her article: “… we lost the education plot a while ago.  We have fallen for one trendy fashion after another, and let standards slide instead of using evidence to determine what works best in our education systems.”

None of this would be necessary if education departments, institutions and schools employed people who, at every level, know what they’re doing, have the track record to prove it (that is, curriculum vitae demonstrating years of hard experience in classrooms) and are allowed to just get on with it and do it. But such people are increasingly hard to find, given not just what has happened to teacher training as it moved from the teacher training colleges to the universities, but the disincentives to be that kind of sensible, rigorous, the-pupils-are-all, person.

A lament from an anonymous teacher

Here’s an email which makes me thankful I don’t have children. It arrived within a few days of the news stories and columns about the Masters’ review. The teacher who sent it necessarily needs to remain anonymous. They wrote:

Please indulge me. It is quite depressing to come to the end of what some might say was an extremely successful teaching career only to be told that everything I have done, everything I know to be true and every resource I have ever produced has been wrong and a complete waste of time. Thirty years of inspiring hundreds of future successful professionals, subject prize winners, Beazley medallists and a string of General Exhibitions count for nothing.

“What pours salt on the wound is my critics haven’t set foot in a classroom for a very long time, if ever…

“Columnist and educationalist Kevin Donnelly, a lone voice in the wilderness, is treated as a right wing outlier. When he says things publicly, these critics see it as reinforcing their own argument: ‘If Kevin says It’s bad, it must be good.’ The fact that he is correct is irrelevant. Truth has no place in this post-modern quagmire we have created.

“Which brings in UWA Professor of Mathematics Mike Adler’s article from Quadrant in 2007 titled ‘The Decline and Fall of the West’ which clearly explains how logical analysis is now a thing of the past. At one stage, he writes, ‘The kind of thinking which produced the world we now inhabit in the West is not being maintained in our schools. Our traditions are being lost …the whole machine is slowly grinding down.’

“The reason these [people] can get away with recycling these three-legged camels camouflaged by a different shade of lipstick is there is no higher authority to shoot them down in flames.

“Politicians are children easily distracted by shiny objects, academics are compromised by chasing the dollar, journalists are too lazy to do any proper research and the public is scientifically illiterate due to decades of educational neglect…

“After the grass roots teacher group PLATO [People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes] successfully defeated the OBE movement in WA, I suggested we create a list of the chief promoters of OBE. I wanted to name and shame them because I knew they would simply go away, lick their wounds, regroup and come back bigger and better than before when new money was on offer. By not doing this PLATO actually did them a favour. They are now wiser for the experience.

“I would like to finish with a personal anecdote which starkly demonstrates how standards have fallen which is, after all, the ultimate test of any educational theory. Thirty years ago I was teaching at Girrawheen high school [a northern suburb of Perth], a notoriously tough gig. A big Year 10 student handed in a lab write-up on a torn piece of paper comprising two or three sentences of barely legible writing.

“I wanted to frame it as this was possibly the first piece of work that pupil had handed in since he started school.

“Thirty years later, I am teaching at a prestigious school which charges $25,000 per year in school fees. Last week, a Year 9 student with no apparent disability handed in a lab write up on a torn sheet of paper with two or three lines of illegible text on it. The most shocking aspect is that he thought this was acceptable. Thank you for your indulgence.”

Departure lounge

This same teacher wrote this in a follow-up email:

“When I came to [the prestigious school where they now teach], it was refreshing to see the level of autonomy they had. We also had a Director of Curriculum who could see through the façade of OBE. We were shielded from the BS flowing from on high. Unfortunately we have had a change of personnel and the 5 Cs [collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical and computational thinking] are now flowing thick and fast.

“ In my teaching life, I have seen the 5 Es [engage, explore, explain elaborate, evaluate], the 3 Rs [reading, writing ‘rithmetic], any number of acronyms and now the 5 Cs. Funnily enough, ‘concentration’ is not one of the essential five skills.  Just as well. Since the advent of laptops, the average Year 9 student has the aural attention span of an amoeba.”

Not surprisingly, this teacher is now thinking of leaving the classroom behind and putting their expertise to use elsewhere. There is a universal law that applies to every field of human endeavour: the better the people working in a field, the better will be the people attracted to that field.

The reverse also applies.


The most disappointing aspect of the ABC’s investigation into the cruelty with which racehorses can be treated once retired was the yawning silence from the people who we see regularly in the social pages, year after year, decade after decade, enjoying the fact they are Names in Australian racing industry.

Gai Waterhouse. Gerry Harvey. Katie Page. John Singleton…

Perhaps they were active behind the scenes but all I heard in public, as various racing bodies issued their statements, was crickets.

The right to race

As one Melbourne cinema pulled the film Ride Like A Girl because, in the wake of the revelations, its owner said he didn’t want to be seen supporting the industry; as viewers everywhere shuddered at the horrific footage of terrified race horses being monstered, kicked and put down with a method that is inhumane albeit cheap; as we learned of one horse for which people once paid $180,000 being sent to an abattoir; and especially as the racing season kicked into gear; these people, who have made so much money out of these beautiful, valiant horses, mostly seemed to be keeping their mouths shut. ABC Offsiders contributor Richard Hinds noted the same thing in a sharp opinion piece.

I’m not sure the newspaper media, at least here in NSW, acquitted themselves too well either. On one side there was the veracity of the gruelling reports and their effect on many readers to be considered, versus the pull of other readers who love racing and the big race dates, along with the floods of advertising money from the racing industry at a time when advertising revenues have been shrinking for years.

The Everest race of October 19 was featured in full and glorious detail. Coverage of the fallout from the ABC revelations ran alongside, but with rather less space. This reader for one felt they could have done a lot better. No doubt the editors reassured themselves at news story conference that, according to Racing NSW, things were different in this state.

That organisation’s boss, Peter V’landys, told Good Weekend magazine in a profile that ran on the Saturday after the revelations (one of the unfortunate perils that goes with magazines with a printing lead time) that “he has introduced a program designed to ensure that they are put out to pasture and not sent to knackeries, for which he’s imposed a 1 per cent levy on prizemoney at race meetings”.

Outrage on both sides

After 7.30 screened, V’landys had gone on the front foot, accusing the ABC of not returning his calls to correct the reporter’s narrative, and issued a statement on behalf of Racing NSW which began:

“I will let the facts below speak for themselves:

  • Racing NSW is the only State in Australia that has a Rule of Racing that prohibits horses from being sent to a knackery or abattoir if they have been predominantly domiciled in the NSW Thoroughbred Racing Industry. Further, in NSW it is illegal for an abattoir to process a horse for human consumption, unlike other States.
  • That Rule is targeted at eradicating treatment such as that of the Meramist Queensland Abattoir detailed in the 7.30 Report …

The statement did go on to list several highly commendable actions which had saved horses that had mostly been domiciled in NSW from being sent to knackeries in Victoria, sent to Asia to race, or which were being ill-treated. I was relieved and heartened to read it.

But just a week later, on the following Thursday night, the ABC ran this story which revealed emails it said proved that Racing NSW had been “told more than a year ago about the unauthorised sale of thoroughbreds for slaughter at a livestock auction in Camden, NSW”.

Unheard warning?

It went on to report that “In 2017, Racing NSW introduced a rule strictly prohibiting owners, trainers and managers from either directly or indirectly sending horses to slaughterhouses and to unapproved livestock auctions. But the 7.30 investigation revealed thoroughbreds were being sold to ‘killbuyers’ — slaughterhouses and their agents — and also sold off at an unapproved livestock auction in Camden, NSW…

“Other documents obtained by the ABC also confirm Racing NSW stewards were told in 2018 about gallopers being sold to killbuyers at a second NSW livestock auction. The sale and slaughter of racehorses is not illegal but it is against the regulator’s rules of racing.”

There was a heart-stopping and – sorry – unforgettable cameo. The report finished with the story of one ex-trainer spotting a frightened, one-eyed, thoroughbred, branded filly being sold off to a “killbuyer” for $275. Sandra Jorgensen, now a horse rescuer, tried to buy the filly to save it but the buyer told her she was “going to be slaughtered” and refused to sell her. Jorgensen alerted Racing NSW in an email to get their welfare people on to it but was then told the organisation couldn’t do anything because the filly had been bought by an organisation registered in Victoria and they had no jurisdiction there.

What kind of logic is this?

In any case, as the ABC report related, a business with an almost identical name to the one which bought the filly is based in NSW, and its owner, Phillip Burns, is also the owner of a knackery. “She wasn’t slaughtered for at least ten days after she arrived at Burns [Pet Foods Knackery] and the racing industry did nothing,” Jorgensen told the ABC.

A visit to Neddy?

I was told by one insider that a ghost writer to one prominent trainer was bemused to discover, during their initial research, that the subject had no idea where their famous winners now were, and worse, had problems remembering their names. And there the writer had been, thinking the trainer would be regularly visiting all the old Neddies with carrots and affection.

On October 18, after the initial 7.30 episode – see still below – had screened, broadcaster and racing aficionado Alan Jones told his audience that “I’m up to my neck in the racing industry. We treat them as our family. These horses are treated like kings.”

That’s not what the ABC story of October 24 showed.

I’ve written before that you can take the moral temperature of a country by looking at how it treats its most vulnerable members. That means all sentient beings as well as humans. It’s pretty clear that Racing NSW has been ahead of its sister organisations in other states and that must be due to the personal efforts of V’landys but clearly more needs to be done. Now!

With the Melbourne Cup looming, the other states need to come on board too and it looks as if they now are with Racing Victoria, for a start, announcing a $25 million plan. Politicians also need to show leadership and get to work on the right protective legislation. There have already been moves towards a national horse register for all horses.

As for the notable racing identities, you know who you are.


In the northern summer of 2014, American animal welfare campaigner Leah Garcés was visiting a commercial chicken farm in North Carolina for a second time at the request of its owner.

On the first visit, they had walked into one of the long, windowless, chicken houses and Garcés had been overwhelmed by the stink of ammonia. She watched as the farmer “popped” the necks of just hatched chicks which were sick or stunted or genetically deformed, and plucked dead and dying birds from the flock. “What does that do to a person’s soul?” Garcés, pictured below, wondered as she watched him.

Now it was 37 days later, and Garcés was there to see the chicks grown to full size. On the first visit, the house hadn’t seemed that crowded. Now it was a sea of white. And the floor of the chicken house, where the chickens sat, wing to wing, was covered in litter and composting faeces. Its temperature was 30.5C.

Chickens too good for this

In her book, Grilled – Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry (Bloomsbury), Garcés describes what she did next: “I lunge for one close by … and swoop her up. My stomach turns at the sight. Her chest is red, sore, bare, featherless. It is hot to the touch. It looks infected and sore. She’s too heavy on her legs to stand up, so she’s been sitting on the litter, composting away along with the faeces. The pain in her red, sore chest must be a very close second to the pain in her legs.”

At the time, nine billion chickens were being raised and slaughtered every year in the United States, in industrial farms like the above. More than 90 per cent of factory-farmed animals there are chickens.

The side effects according to Grilled: “Diseased meat, farmers treated like indentured servants and cruelty to animals” even while the producers labelled their chickens “humanely raised”.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this book where Garcés tells us what she has learned about chickens, speaking to scientists, researchers and animal behaviourists. As a child she used to play with the neighbourhood ducks and observe them carefully so the findings didn’t really surprise her.

“Chickens are smarter than we think … they can see colours we cannot see. They can hear sounds at frequencies we cannot hear. They have visual perception that we will never have… Studies with day old chicks have shown they are capable of understanding basic math concepts such as ordinality or putting groups of things in order of highest to lowest or vice versa …”

They can experience pleasure.

But locked away in chicken sheds, few of those abilities were ever used. As for the delights of dust-bathing, scratching around, and fossicking for bugs and worms… not a chance.

Don’t demonise the farmers too fast

The North Carolina farmer, Craig Watts, pictured below, who had given Garcés permission to visit, was producing chickens for the fourth largest chicken producer in the United States, Perdue, but he could no longer cope with what he was expected to do. For a start, the chicks he was supplied with – it was up to him to grow them for the next six weeks until they were ready for slaughter and the market – had been bred so their breasts would quickly grow to such a size the chickens  couldn’t support their own weight.

They were also susceptible to disease, horrible, painful diseases, but only the company was allowed to administer vaccines and antibiotics. Watts owed money to the company and found it impossible, given these odds and the company’s demands that he keep upgrading his facilities, to ever get on top of his debt.

Until meeting Watts, Garcés had only been worried about the chickens and how they suffered. Now she writes, she felt ashamed. She had demonised the farmers, not understanding what they were also enduring because of the demands of the companies for whom they produced.

A lesson from Gandhi

It was a turning point. “I had fallen into the path of ‘non-violence’.” she discovered. Talking with the enemy would lead Garcés to a point where, amazingly, America’s huge chicken producers would come on board with far better conditions for their charges – human and animal – and within just a few years.

It wasn’t as simple as that of course. After Garcés and the whistle-blowing Watts were able to produce footage of what was going on inside America’s chicken farms and put it up on YouTube, and after The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof came on board and wrote an article with the above photo about the video so that it went viral – a million views in 24 hours – the industry went on the hard defensive. Perdue insisted Watts was to blame for the state of the chickens.

But then, with public opinion firmly on the chickens’ side, and with a barrage of criticism lobbing every time the company even posted a chicken recipe on its Facebook page, with others producing even more horrific exposé footage from other big producers’ farms, and with consumers starting to question whether they should even be eating chicken anymore given what they were learning about disease and breeding, Perdue was the first to begin to shift.

Its chair Jim Perdue led the way by introducing an animal welfare policy just 18 months after the video was screened. Other giant food service companies followed. Then other chicken producers came on board with far better standards.

Garcés’ determination to take the Gandhi line and work with the people she’d once regarded as foes paid off.

Can we cope with this knowledge?

When, in 2009, I reviewed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals for The Sydney Morning Herald, I wrote that I had to read parts of that book about factory-farming through my fingers because of the brutality of some scenes. Grilled is like that too, in many places; I dare you to buy a non-free-range chicken after reading it, and I dare you not to research which labels really do provide proper, humane facilities for their free-range chickens. But the book is also full of hope and inspiration and what can be achieved when adversaries work together and realise common goals.

Garcés writes: “When the meat industry, in particular the chicken industry, found itself in an existential crisis … the most remarkable innovations started to emerge. …Today, the same inventive spirit that created the cruel and destructive system of factory farming is helping to unmake it.”

Of course, the system is still not perfect and America has a way to go. (Nor is any of this about chicken farming in Australia and this fact sheet from the RSPCA is daunting.) Garcés has also copped criticism from other animal welfare activists for working with the big companies but what she and others were able to achieve in the States in a short time seems remarkable to me. (The picture below shows a new and better chicken house with windows so the chickens get sunlight and they can dust bathe.)

Her book is full of memorable scenes and anecdotes but here are two that have lingered with me. The first is heart-rending, the second uplifting.

In the first, Garcés is driving her children along a highway in Georgia on a stinking hot summer’s day when they catch up with a truck loaded with chickens in cages on their way to slaughter. The smell is intense, repugnant. The exhausted birds are squashed every which way. They had never seen sunlight before. “As I scanned the truck,” writes Garcés, “one bird caught my eye. She had somehow found a steady position in the crate. She looked straight ahead. This was her last day, but I thought she might be thinking, ‘At least it’s over now’.”

And the second.

Garcés was shaped by her mother and father with their concern and love for animals. Her family had lived in central Florida with a state park close by and a canal at the end of the garden. A few times a year, the ducks which populated their backyard would produce ducklings and eventually, one dawn,  the mother duck would give the call and lead them down to the canal for their first swim, a canal live with otters, alligators and turtles, all of which regarded baby ducks as tasty snacks.

“This caused no end of distress to my father,” Garcés relates, “who would jump up from the breakfast table.”

In his suit and tie, he would grab a hand-net and get into one of the family’s metal canoes. Then he would follow the duckling family at a safe distance and if one duckling fell behind, he would scoop it up in the net “careful not to taint her with his smell” and keep her safe in the bottom of the canoe.

He would not be satisfied until all the duckling family had returned to land. Then he would go to work.


With some trepidation, I launched a running story on my website several weeks ago. Its title is “All About E”, a play on the 1950 movie All About Eve, and it is about evil. Surprisingly and, a worrying reflection on our times and what we read and hear in the news, people seem to be as intrigued/repelled by this subject as I now am, and particularly fascinated by how evil can be identified, outwitted, defeated.

In a post on LinkedIn which has since netted almost 1000 views (huge for me, the most I’ve ever achieved before is around 200), I introduced “All About E”  with this: “Someone did something shocking to me a few years ago that was so nasty, underhanded, cold, and calculating, they could have been taking coaching lessons from the characters in Succession (see still above). I told another person later, after I found out, that I felt ‘touched by the wings of evil’- and just like that, I had, as a writer, a new subject to explore: evil. How to recognise it; deal with it, fight it, beat it… and how it can permeate a society. Am still exploring. Do we call out evil as often as we should? Do we let some evil things happen because we’re not directly affected and it benefits us? In which case, we pretend what we’re colluding with isn’t evil at all…. “

Our distaste for the silent bystander

Surprisingly, and this really gives me such hope, the most consistent feedback to the post, and to me personally, has been about the passages where I describe people watching bad things unfold while doing nothing to help prevent them. Friends have even remembered being guilty of that themselves and – hope for humanity again – admitted their angst over certain incidents has never left them. They would do anything to be able to go back in time and behave differently. I feel the same. The Asian grocery cashier insulted by a Caucasian idiot, for instance. Why didn’t I object and loudly? How much better and safer would she have felt? What on earth stopped me? Surprise? I certainly speak out now.

I’ve never forgotten a scrap of paper that I found in my writer mother’s desk after she died. She had typed on it: “It’s not that hard to do the right thing.” I try as much as I can to remember that when bad things happen in front of me. (And, of course, we all wonder the same thing: what would we have done in Occupied Europe in WWII?)

The famous quote about “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph …” did not come from the Irish statesman Edmund Burke as so many of us think, but the British philosopher John Stuart Mill who, according to The Independent in the UK, said: Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

The odd thing about evil is how it can creep up on us so we hardly know it’s there, especially if it seems to be aiding us or, if speaking up about it, might mean we risk loss, or if everyone around us seems to be just fine with it. And if you don’t understand how that can happen, think about the normally decent people who have found themselves caught up in corporate scandals which, once unravelled, have onlookers, or worse, lawyers and judges, scratching their heads and saying: “You said nothing?” Think about seemingly sound people who, nevertheless, think it’s okay to cheat on their tax. The slippery slope as they say.

I’m not a prig and I make mistakes all the time, as everyone does, but the surprise reaction to “All About E” makes me understand all over again why Jordan Peterson has stormed the bookshops with his 12 Rules for Life.


Film director Francis Ford Coppola was quoted the other day saying “I don’t think anyone takes anything away from the experience of watching the same film over and over.” He was criticising the boom in superhero films, especially those produced by Disney based on characters from the old Marvel comic books, and complaining they are all alike. So why bother watching another? There he may have a point.

But he is clearly wrong when it comes to the right movies. For a start, who hasn’t watched Coppola’s own films, The Godfather I and II, more than once? (More like, over five times, even over ten times in many cases.)

Gone With The Wind
is another worth multiple viewings and so is Casablanca.

How do I explain this to myself?

But we can also get a yen for movies that aren’t masterpieces. I have watched The Firm, the Tom Cruise/Gene Hackman legal thriller based on John Grisham’s book, at least 10 times. I still get paralysed with nerves for the characters in certain scenes in spite of the fact I know exactly how it will turn out.

Why? And why some films and not others? Would I feel better if I only watched movies like Apocalypse Now on repeat?

I have now watched one not particularly well known 2010 rom-com, Life As We Know It, more times than I’ve watched Pretty Woman (see still above, with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts) and, given how often the latter is screened, I must be the only person on the planet able to say that. But for me, it’s almost the equivalent of pouring a glass of good Champagne on a Friday evening. Nothing lies ahead for me but pleasure.

Off by heart

I can only have watched it by accident the first time. A promo that shows a young couple entertaining a baby is hardly going to get me in.  And the plot – a surprise kid landing in someone’s kid-free life is hardly new. So I reckon I switched on the TV, after it had started, and became entranced. I can now flick on this movie halfway through, five scenes from beginning, three scenes from ending, or wherever, and tell you exactly what happens from then on, what expression will be on whose face, and what Holly the bakery owner (Katherine Heigl) or Messer the jock sports director (Josh Duhamel) – both below – will say next as they battle their mutual loathing while playing guardian to the baby daughter “willed” to them by her parents, their two dead best friends.

I will then watch it again if given the chance. Some Sundays ago, I saw it starting on Foxtel and I sat down. Ten days on, I found it on TV  – close to ending – and thought, well I love that airport scene …

I also love Melissa McCarthy’s overly fertile southern belle and her tiny put-upon husband.  I love the jaded child caseworker who exclaims, “Oh c’mon, people. You had sex!” And I especially love the paediatrician who says quietly, “If my wife and I fought like that, we’d still be married.”

But clearly I am long past the stage when I can pretend I’m re-watching it to appreciate something I didn’t spot 15 viewings ago. So what is it?

A Google semi-fail

Surprisingly, given Google has recently been able to give me hundreds of answers on anything from how to remove cat sick from a wool carpet to what to do when I can’t search a PDF file, there’s little on the question of why we watch movies again and again.

Then I found this recent piece from the BBC’s website which explains a few things that might be at play.

For a start, it takes less mental energy watching a film we’ve seen several times before so it’s like comfort food – or yes, Champagne.

It can remind us of the time we first watched it, which may be a time we like being reminded of. Conversely, it might show us how much we’ve changed since we last watched it (difficult to argue in my case with Life As We Know It given my viewing frequency).

Or there’s the reason I plump for: we know we won’t be disappointed. Every time I finish watching a good film, or even television series, a little bit of me sighs inwardly and wishes I still had the delight of seeing it for the first time ahead of me. Every time I go to see something ghastly like the much praised Joker – nihilistic, self-indulgent, hateful – I flick through Foxtel afterwards and invariably record a movie like As Good As It Gets.

Sometimes you just want reassurance life is rich. And that such a thing as a perfectly-scripted, perfectly cast comedy or drama or thriller has been made within living memory.


And here, a pause for a public service announcement.

Could someone, especially an offender, please explain why, if you’ve decided to bring in a bag of lollies or an icecream wrapped in cellophane or a chocolate bar encased in foil into a cinema, you sit through all the advertisements, the trailers and the announcement about turning off your mobile phone, it’s only as the film actually begins that you decide to work on opening your food supply. Why? WHY?

At a screening of the National Theatre’s The Lehman Trilogy at the Dendy Cinema on Circular Quay a few Sundays ago, one couple chose to do exactly that. If you’ve seen the Trilogy, you’ll know how exquisite the acting is, how subtle and fast-moving the script, how you want to hear every word, enjoy every gesture on the filmed stage.

Instead, squeak, tear, rattle, crackle, crunch… Squeak, tear, rattle, crackle, crunch … Chomp, suck, chomp… Squeak, tear, crackle…

What’s more, these aural terrorists always seem to think that rather than get all the noise over in two seconds, it will be better if they drag it out, a squeak here, a crackle there, over an excruciating five minutes. Longer.

One day, when I’m really old and the control system in my frontal lobe has finally thrown up its hands, I know I will be driven to get up, squeeze myself towards the offenders, grab the bag out of their hands and open it with one triumphant gesture – and then offer the contents to them sweetly.

I think people will cheer. I know I would. (NB cinemas: ever thought about crackle-free wrapping?)



Apologies for the production values of this clip but it’s one of the funniest scenes available on YouTube from the first series of Ricky Gervais’ Extras, in which he and Ashley Jensen play film extras. The segment was filmed in 2005 and Jensen’s character is fretting, as they eat their lunch as police extras, that the black British actor she has a crush on will think she’s racist. For all I know, the instalment has since been banned for being racially insensitive. (It isn’t.)