I’m Not Dead Yet and I’ve Got Something to Say

Content Warning: This post contains discussions of death, suicide, and mental illness.

Not dead yet.

This has become my go-to response when people ask me ‘how I’m going?’ After a spate of heightened fevers, aches, dizziness, and forgetfulness, amongst other ailments, I received weeks of specialist care that finally culminated in a diagnosis of a rare illness, Still’s disease, that I’ve likely had for the majority of my life. 

Over a terrifying two month period, my blood results painted a horrifying visage of a war within my body, where it decided that attacking itself was the smartest strategy for success. My head swayed and swirled with incoherence, and my ability to focus on something as simple as a picture hanging on a wall became impossible. My patient, and concerned, partner stuck by my side hearing the same story told over and over again, while I lapsed into feverish incoherent ramblings, and then, steadfastly assured as weight fell away from me, that ‘I am going into work tomorrow’. A trip to Coles to get cat food had me staggering out of the shops, holding onto her belt buckle for stability, knowing full well that stubbornness was not going to get me out of this one.

My partner knew what was wrong with me long before the doctors caught up, and for that I’m eternally thankful for. Her data-focused mind helped steady the fear-driven mindset I was plagued with, especially when some of the floated (and still highly possible) diagnosis’ came with a web search that contained phrases like: “…is a severe systemic inflammatory syndrome that can be fatal.” It’s certainly discomforting to rely on the words of the internet for security, but at the same time, when there is precious little certainty between doctors appointments, those words are sometimes all that you have. 

At one of my specialist appointments, my doctor greeted me with a serious statement that could easily have come across as farcical: I’m surprised you’re not dead yet.

And yeah, I’m surprised I’m not dead yet too. 

This is not the first time that I’ve been surprised the persistent status of ‘living’ that I find myself in. I’ve had previous encounters with extreme medical occurrences that, if I lived in a country like America, would have secured my spot in the lineage of human body fertilisers, and as such, I would not be here writing this piece right now.  

Prior to 2020, my most recent brush with the cessation of my own life was in 2017. As summer encroached upon spring, and with climate change promising to obliterate the seasons completely and ensure that the Australian weather would consist of a year-round heat, I found myself in the grips of a depression like no other. I was not seeking treatment, and given my mindset at the time, I didn’t entirely feel that I needed to be here anymore. 

I told my partner at the time that I was heading into work, whom I had told I was sick and couldn’t come in. I drove to Swanbourne beach, presuming that the local nudist beach would be devoid of life as it was a weekday, and surely these people had jobs to go to. I was wrong, but I was also determined. I turned my phone off and left it in the car. 

Traipsing onto the beach, I was amazed and annoyed by the persisting nature of the sun: it hung there in the sky, unaware of our existence so far away, nor the life that it helped create and the destruction it could wreak on the environment. Its heat hung like a fog, accented by a smattering of salt and the floating of the surf in the air. It felt revitalising, yet, I could feel my skin turning a red under its gaze. 

Not that it mattered, I thought as I sat on the beach naked, having buried my keys and rolled up my clothes, staring at the ocean. The sound of the wind and the surf was overwhelming with a level of dominance that suggested that it was, is, and always will be, the only thing that will continually exist. 

I understood later why that kind of repetitive sound would be a source of calm for those who need to still their mind. As the surf reflexes itself onto the sand, it creates a rolling manner that feels almost like depression itself: a mindset that subsides, making you feel like it’s going to be ok, then all of a sudden, it slams into you with all the certainty in the world that everything is not going to be ok. There’s something familiar about that sound, that feeling of an in and out that we live with until we stop: the breathing of our lungs, rising and falling, keeping us alive all the while our mind tells us we should do the complete opposite. 

But, in the moment, my mind rejected any kind of reflection. It rolled around in its little muddy paws a cruel notion that I did not need to be here anymore. While I know that helplines and support groups exist in the world, in that moment in my life, I didn’t feel I had the ability to even approach them at all, nor that they would be of any support or use. 

Earlier in 2017, I’d watched Rebecca Hall’s version of Christine Chubbuck go through this same mindset in the film Christine. Painfully, Christine sat in a help group where every question of help and hope was met with a reasoned explanation of why that support would fail. I had this simmering in the back of my mind for a while, and whenever I felt as lost and helpless as I did, I recalled the way Christine felt that she had no other option in her life, but to end it. 

I got up, walked into the water, and hoped that one of those fabled West Aussie sharks that had claimed countless lives would take me, or failing that, my poor swimming skills would commit me to the bottom of the ocean. Selfishness and a lack of self-worth said that nobody needed my body, and nobody needed to know where I’d gone, so off I swam into the ocean, losing breath after breath after breath. When I started to sink, I had a stupid thought spring into my head:

Maslin Beach.

Sometime in the late nineties, a hormonal me discovered the nudist ‘comedy’ on late night TV and was in awe. Arguably, I’m not alone, as the film became a small success for the night owl crowd, and likely found its way into collections of dads in Australia, recorded from the TV and mislabelled ‘Adelaide VS St Kilda 1997 Grand Final’ to stave off any wandering eyes.

As a teen, I watched the film once, and then that was it. It didn’t erupt in my mind until I found myself sinking a little bit further under the surf, fear of finality sinking in and the realisation of what I was doing kicking into my mind. 

I’m not saying Maslin Beach saved my life – it didn’t, and by gosh does it never, ever deserve that kind of distinction – but it certainly gave it a kick start. My arms feebly erupted out of the water, waving and wailing for someone on shore to possibly save me. I angled myself towards the shore, hoping it would sweep me in with its furious waves, rejecting my body as an offering, spitting out a statement that the sharks didn’t even want you today. 

Two guys saw me, and came running down to the water’s edge, where I had flopped onto the sand like a horrid parody of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Their help wasn’t needed, but their concern sure was appreciated. I made my way back to my belongings and proceeded to vomit seawater on the dry sand. My mind rolled around a bunch of raging thoughts that have long disappeared, but I know they were all tinged with a slather of fury and fear.  

I found somewhere to wash the seawater off me and drove on home. I didn’t tell anyone about this for a long while, and even now this is the first time I’m openly discussing it online. 

After that event, I didn’t feel I had much of a purpose, a sense that has been hard to shake, even with all of my own personal accomplishments. But after my recent diagnosis and the permeating fear that has set up shop in my head, I now feel I do. 

I now know that I have something to say, and the grip of the notion of an impending finality has hastened that. I’m not going anywhere, yet, but I’m also not eager to linger and just wait and see what happens and do nothing. 

Weeks ago, as I sat in the hospital bed waiting for another routine blood pressure monitor check, I thought back on that day in 2017, and cast my mind to Maslin Beach. I know it might be a strange thing to correlate an attempt suicide with a long forgotten Australian film, but that’s how my mind works. I’m never not thinking about Australian film. 

I read what I could about director Wayne Groom’s intentions for the film. I was perplexed by the why and found myself rewatching it in an attempt to decipher its existence. Alas, I couldn’t figure it out. This dud of a flick existed, yet, as I mention in my review, may as well not exist at all. 

But it stuck in my mind as a cultural entity, and that must mean something, right? After all, its bottom-feeding cinematic brethren like You and Your Stupid Mate and Howling III: The Marsupials get mentioned frequently as turgid examples of Australian film, so why shouldn’t Maslin Beach be the same?

There is a point to this, I promise. 

The Curb is a fairly low-key, small website, with a moderate turnover of unique readers, and a nice enough foothold in society that review quotes will occasionally appear on DVD boxes. I have no high intentions of creating the next Junkee or Mamamia, I merely want The Curb to be a destination that readers may stumble upon every so often and discover something unique and interesting. Two years of this site rollicking along, and I feel we’re all heading in the right direction.  

I like to think of myself as someone driven by a desire to highlight the hidden, to point out the wealth of great indie Aussie films we have. The irony is, while I feel that I’m an ego-less writer, there’s something awfully egotistical about considering ones-self a qualifier of quality, and a purveyor of cultural curation. 

Yet, I also find myself watching more Australian films than your average viewer. This is not to say there aren’t equals of me within the Australian critical sphere, (there are most certainly folks who are better and more prolific than me at writing about and exploring Australian culture), it’s just that I want to be more than just ‘someone who watches a lot of Aussie films’. Bringing back that ego for a moment, if I consider what kind of a legacy as a writer I might have, I would hope it would be one that is of someone who is vociferous and hungry to celebrate Australian film. I want my name to be known and remembered as someone who championed Australian cinema when it needed support. 

There was something about the halcyon years of David and Margaret, where Australian cinema thrived and felt critically supported and people sought out the recommendations of these two icons. Where Samson and Delilah gained an audience on the back of two five star reviews; where David’s decision to not give Romper Stomper a rating caused shockwaves through Australian media; where it became common knowledge that Margaret would give Australian films an extra half a star to give them a fighting chance.

There’s a reason these two are still talked about, and still widely revered and celebrated, and still considered the benchmark for Australian film criticism by the wider population at large. While David has a regular column in The Australian and his frequent home video film reviews on YouTube, and Margaret has a film review show with Aussie screen legend Graeme Blundell, they no longer have the same market penetration that they once did. There will never be another David and Margaret, a household name that is on the tip of every Australians tongue when it comes to deciding what to watch.

But that doesn’t mean that people can’t try.

I’m a few decades too late to the professional film criticism sphere in Australia, with the main full time career prospects being completely non-existent here. Sure, there are full time journalists predominantly operating as critics, but for any prospective film critic out there, the notion of being gainfully employed as a critic simply is not possible.

In the decades prior to me, there were writers who could build a body of work under the various mastheads in Australia. They were given access to the film legends of the world, afforded international trips to film festivals, and brought global cinema to the breakfast tables of Australia. With decades of writing under their belt, these writers would then be able to turn their catalogue of criticism into a book, or write a biography about their exploits as a film critic.

As any budding critic will tell you, in today’s world, the path to that kind of success is largely self-made. It’s easy to establish a website, or run a YouTube channel, and carry on with a style of criticism that is, admittedly, a dime a dozen. This is not to slander my critic colleagues, but to highlight the ease that is the path to writing about film nowadays. Less easy is the ability to interview directors, actors, writers, and creative teams. That comes with time and determination, and proving that your writing and work is suitable enough to be part of the ‘promotional’ tool of a film’s release.

I have done both as I built up The Curb from the ashes of a website long gone, having interviewed icons like Ben Elton and Warwick Thornton, and having won an award for my writing. I’ve been able to maintain the site with the support and drive of a team of excellent writers. I’m forever thankful for their dedication. While I know that my writing is of a quality that suggests that I could easily make a run at being a freelance writer, I am just egotistical enough to want to try and make a run at it under my own banner, and to build my own catalogue of writing under one digital ‘masthead’.

Sure, The Curb isn’t The Australian, but if I work hard enough at it, it very well might be some kind of future online equivalent. I can only try.

I think about Maslin Beach, and how Wayne Groom’s desire to produce, write, and direct a film during his life is the core reasoning behind its existence. It is a film, like many other Australian indie films, that shows that anyone with enough energy and drive can make a film. Well, I’m no Wayne Groom, but I darn well know what I want to achieve by the end of my life.

During this hospital stay, as I awaited a diagnosis and I had the notion that I might not be here for much longer in my mind, I thought about my final words. What would I say? Would it even matter what I said? All I could think of was, ‘tell everyone to watch Sweet Country’. I thought, yep, that’d be on brand enough for me. I hope in my short time as a critic that I’ve made some kind of impact on the Australian film criticism sphere, and if I have, that if someone wrote an obituary, they’d write ‘his last words were “tell everyone to watch Sweet  Country”’, and that people would do just that[1].

Writing that makes me fully cognisant of the egotistical nature of what I’ve just written, but it does lean into the purely ego driven manner of being a critic. We write our words in the hope that it’ll persuade a stranger to watch, or not watch, a film, and be entertained or culturally enriched. We’re continually unsure if our words carry weight, with even the most seasoned of critics living with the eternal mindset of imposter syndrome, wondering if their writing actually means anything. But, then to think that in death, our final words demanding people watch a film will carry weight and that they will actually watch Sweet Country, feels a little absurd.

I’m aware of what I’m saying and its moderate absurdity, but I hope that if this piece says anything about me, it’s how dedicated I am to Australian film and Australian film criticism. I’m fascinated and moved by the notion of what it means to be Australian, and that cultural identity is what I would like to explore via my writing. I don’t need to be remembered, but I would certainly like to help continually highlight why Australian film needs to be remembered.

Given the year we’ve just had, and the relatively decimated state that Australian film finds itself in, there needs to be more critics than ever fighting for and stating the case for Australian cinema[2]. This is part of the reason why, going forward, I will only review Australian films on this website, with any writing about non-Australian cinema being published on Patreon[3].

From January 1st 2021, I will only be reviewing Australian films, both new and old, on The Curb. As a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, I would like to think that if I dedicated my critical output solely towards Aussie films, that that would go some way in helping elevate the work of Australian filmmakers.

While this health crisis I find myself in has given my head a bit of a shake-up, it has only solidified what my core passion has always been, and as such, has reaffirmed what I should be dedicating my energy to. I can only hope that over the oncoming years, my perseverance and dedication to Australian film goes someway in some part towards helping support the industry that I love so dearly.

Because, dammit, I’m not dead yet and I’ve got something to say.   

[1] By the way, Sweet Country is on Netflix right now. Don’t wait until I’m dead to watch it out of guilt, do it now.

[2] There also needs to be more diversity in the Australian critical sphere. I urge any critic who is not a straight white man to sign up to either of the critics bodies in Australia, AFCA or FCCA, to help diversify these critic groups.

[3] And hey, if you’re not a subscriber, please join up! It helps keep this site alive, and if there is enough supporters, I can start paying the writers here too.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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