A writer’s purpose

July 22, 2014

Finding your purpose in life can be complicated. It is also, in my experience, a journey often without end. Just when you think you have it, the meaning eludes your grasp.

When I entered university (“college”) at age 18, I thought that I wanted to be a famous novelist.  That’s what many of us wanted back then.  (Later it was famous film directors; then great IT entrepreneurs.)

In my first semester at university, I took an English literature course entitled, “Youth and Age in Love and War”.  Big mistake.  It was the best way to turn me away from literature, which I had, to that point, so loved.  It was dense, analytical, and certainly not fun.  Not just that course, really, but often the academic study of literature – guaranteed to stifle creativity.

So I ended up taking a different path (the subject of a separate post, another time).

But what of life’s meaning for those who write fiction for a living?  Many novelists have attuned with their times, somehow capturing and giving meaning to our age through their writing.  Think of George Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or many books by Kurt Vonnegut on the futility of war.  (Yes, these are all male; forgive this time.)  It may be about tapping into the “collective unconscious”.

But writing, that most solitary of occupations, can also be the antithesis of a meaningful life.  Think of all of those hours spent alone, scratching your imagination.  Is the writer engaging with the world and helping it, or just hiding out, avoiding the rest of us?

One of the latest additions to a meaningful life through fiction is John Green, self-described “nerdfighter”, successful video blogger and – most notably, young adult novelist of books including Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, which has been adapted into a very popular movie (US$240+ million international box office).

It has two very appealing young stars in the lead roles:  Shailene Woodley is especially good as Hazel; her scenes with Ansel Elgort (Augustus – “Gus”) are both totally convincing and very effective.  The film may mostly appeal to young women, but the screening I was at seemed to be split 50-50 male/female.  And sure, almost all of the men in the film – save one – are sensitive, but it neatly balances the genders of the characters.

In the June 9, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, correspondent Margaret Talbot has written a fascinating profile of Green (“The Teen Whisperer”).  As Talbot writes, Green displays “a youthfully insatiable appetite for big questions:  What is an honorable life?  How do we wrest meaning from the unexpected death of someone close to us?  What do we do when we realize that we’re not as special as we thought we were?”

She quotes Green about teenagers:

I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived.  Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter.  And they’re dead right.  It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves.  We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.

Green has created connections with his fans in engaging ways that few contemporary writers do (actually, few in any age, now or in the past).  According to the Talbot article, when The Fault in Our Stars was first published, “Green did extra credit” in promotion:  he signed all 150,000 copies of the first (presumably American) edition of the book.  It “took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder”.  Is this a first for author devotion in American publishing?  Or publishing anywhere?

A number of times each month, Green talks on the phone with young people with cancer.  And every few months he holds a Skype videoconference with sick young people.  Talbot’s description of observing his Skype session with the teens was eerily and oddly reminiscent of Hazel and Gus going to Amsterdam to ask the “big questions” of Peter van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe in the film):  what about the distances between sick and well people; did he consider a different ending?  But unlike the character of van Houten, Green answered the questions thoughtfully, honestly and delicately.  This is a man who on the inside is pretty much the same as the outside.

No disconnection with the audience here (just the opposite), and lots of meaning.  If you were a young person who had survived – or was going through cancer or any other big illness – I fully believe that this book and the film adaptation could easily become your lodestar.  Green “gets it”.  According to Talbot, at the conclusion of Green’s videoconference with young people with cancer, Green put his head down on the table and wept.  This is not manufactured meaning, but a form of reader engagement almost unparalleled in our time.  Worthy of note.

The fault in our stars film poster


Film appreciation in a time of war

July 20, 2014

Did you ever wonder what it’s like to attend a film festival in a time of war? Tal Kra-Oz’s recent article in Tablet  (18 July 2014) gives a good, insider’s perspective of this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where screenings are interrupted by sirens and the obligatory temporary removal to basement rooms filled with old film reels.

Israel’s artistic elite – of which film-makers are a solid part – are notably more left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the majority of the population.  Thus, the pall cast on this year’s Festival is yet another tragic by-product of the Israel-Hamas conflict now taking place.

But, as Kra-Oz writes, the show does indeed go on: “even when the cannons and sirens are heard, the muses are anything but silent”.

And what a show the Israelis had to boast about. In a country of just 7.8 million people, last year the country produced and released 40 feature films.  In the May Cannes Film Festival, seven Israeli films had official screenings: five features, one documentary and one student film.  Compare that to Australia, almost three times as large (population 23,537,000) , which released 26 films in 2013 and had three films in official Cannes categories (The Rover, Charlie’s Country and These Final Hours).

Kra-Oz’s article captures the spirit of the dynamism of Israeli film-making.  How this relates to the country’s on-again, off-again conflict with the Palestinians is clearly complicated and overlaid with more than 100 years of history.

After some 22+ years of unbroken economic growth, is life too good for us here in Australia?  Do we not have enough to worry about to make good films?  It may be no coincidence that Australia’s greatest success at Cannes this year was Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in which lead Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil – playing a role in part based on his own life – won the “best actor” award in the “Un certain regard” competition.   Indigenous Australians are among this country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and those living in remote regions – such as Gulpilil’s character – even more so.

David Gulpilil(photo above:  David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country)


Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.

*****

Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.


Book review of The Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

July 12, 2014

This book review of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents book review appeared in Media International Australia, issue 136, August 2010.  I am re-printing it here so that it is more easily accessible.

*****

Kemper, Tom, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2010. ISBN 978 0 520 25707 8, xvii + 293 pp.

It is hard to believe that before Tom Kemper’s book Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, there were no academic studies of the history of agents in Hollywood.  It’s not that agents have been ignored: numerous “how to” industry books have dealt with them; Nikki Finke’s tell-all Pay or Play: The Rise and Rise of the Hollywood Agent (1998) charts their modern successes; David Thomson’s The Whole Equation (2005) frequently refers to them; and there have been at least two recent books on super-agent Lew Wasserman.

But Kemper stands in a class alone.  He easily disproves “the standard conception of film history” that agents only became powerful figures in the 1950s with the establishment of MCA, and then ICM and CAA in the 1970s, and commences his study in the Hollywood studios of the late 1920s.  As such, Kemper’s work runs parallel to the historical Hollywood works by Tino Balio, David Bordwell, Douglas Gomery, Thomas Schatz and others, and gives unique and highly detailed insights.

With extraordinary detail, Kemper – a visiting lecturer at the University of Southern California – covers the period up to the 1950s, leaving subsequent developments for a future book.  Kemper’s great contribution is in showing how agency practices and business models – strategies like packaging, story approval guarantees, percentage points and freelance deals – were all first developed, tested and implemented in the 1930s.

Although Hidden Talent deals with a number of different agents and agencies, two agents loom large in the history: Myron Selznick (brother of David O.), the leading agent of the 1930s; and the contrasting Charles Feldman.  Kemper’s chapters take a mixed thematic and chronological approach, dealing with “the power of place”, boutique agencies, the contract industry, agents as producers and then finally the “new fortunes” in the 1940s, and the shift to the “corporate era” of the 1950s.

The book contains clear prose, never falling into deadly academic jargon that can drag film history books down, such as this colourful description of Myron Selznick:  “He rudely relished the power and fortune of his victories by grotesquely spilling cash, owning a fleet of cars, and imbibing biblically.” (p. 25)

One criticism:  While most of the agents of his period are Jewish, Kemper simply avoids the topic, noting that dealing with it is “another project” best left to the likes of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own and Steven Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.  But what elements of Gabler’s assimilation thesis applied to the agents?  Part of our understanding of how Hollywood ran then is in fact based on both on who they were and why they became involved in the industry, not just how they did their jobs.  It is, of course, this “how” that Kemper succeeds in describing, with great breadth, depth and clarity.  He has mined extensive archives (accessing materials that will never make their way online) in Hollywood agencies, studios, guilds and associations.

There is a lot of loving – and highly illuminating – detail here, such as the inclusion of the floor plan of Myron Selznick’s specifically designed new agency officers in 1938.  This one graphic gives us more insight into organisational relationships than many thousands of words could describe.

Hidden Talent book cover


New post on the moment of inequality

July 11, 2014

I have just put a new blog post on Open Forum, about “the moment of inequality”, a topic that I have been frequently writing about in recent weeks.

Open Forum logo


Jesse Eisenberg – an actor on his way

July 6, 2014

Like me, you may be continually astonished at how the young, physically underdeveloped and slender Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg has been marking himself as one of the next “go to” Jewish creatives, with a strong and diverse resume that seems it will only get better with age.

David Denby, in the June 2, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, reviews two Eisenberg films – “Night Moves” and “The Double”, and captures something of Eisenberg’s essence:

Eisenberg was the latest smart-boy Jewish movie actor to hit the mainstream, but he wasn’t neurotic, like the young Dustin Hoffman; or self-deprecating, like the young Woody Allen; or bumptious, like Ben Stiller. He’s openly demanding, a nerd hiding his fears behind aggression.  Richard Dreyfuss did something similar, but Eisenberg is more nuanced.  His indelible performance as Mark Zuckerberg, in “The Social Network,” suggested that a new kind of personality had entered the world, a code-based brainiac who deals with life as if it were data. Racing through Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script, Eisenberg short-circuits or wrong-foots other people.  Yet, on second viewing, you can see that for all his bullying speed, and the smirking put-downs, he ruffles the surface of Zuckerberg’s confidence and reveals an easily wounded temperament underneath.  Eisenberg is an economical actor, often relying on no more than a flutter of his eyelids, or a half smile, or a sweet glance that shades into contempt.  He is unafraid to play jerks, solipsists, narcissists.

He is also an accomplished playwright, contributor to The New Yorker, and has had two of the most noted male film performances in the past decade: playing Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” (my pick for best film of 2010, in large part due to Zuckerberg) and the son in Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). In fact, he played Zuckerberg so well that it took more than a year for the real Zuckerberg to re-instate his own persona to the public. Now, that’s acting.

(Note:  Zuckerberg grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, which is just a short bike ride from my home town of Highland Park.  But, like the best New Jerseyans, he has both kept a certain “New Jersey” core – intellectual, verbal, thoughtful, internal – as well as transcended his childhood.)


Film review of Belle and Sebastian

July 6, 2014

(This review of the film “Belle and Sebastian” appeared in Australian Jewish News on 3 July 2014.)

The iconic French children’s story “Belle and Sebastian” has added a fascinating sub-theme of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland during the Second World War in its new film version. Originally entitled Belle et Sébastien in French, it first started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry. The book was first adapted into a French TV series in the late 1960s and proved so popular that it was dubbed into English and shown on the BBC in the UK. It even provided the inspiration for the Scottish “indie” band “Belle and Sebastian”.

The new film version resets the action to 1943.  Set in the French Alps near the French-Swiss border, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep. As a parallel story, local Nazi soldiers are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  The film is beautifully shot in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing (opening here in Australia in time for the winter school holidays), and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters. “Belle and Sebastian” was the second highest-grossing film in France last year, and premiered in Australia at the French Film Festival in March.


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