Australian spatial economics

August 19, 2014

Even in this digital, online world, it’s no secret that all economic activity has an important element of physical space.

Economists and geographers know this. In fact, a whole field of study is devoted to it, and it’s called economic geography.

Unfortunately, the spatial dimension to our work and our consumer lives is something that government policy makers, economic planners and regulators often seem to forget or never even consider. Too many government policies and programs assume that we are all sitting in the same space – presumably (when here in Australia) within a five to ten kilometre radius of the central business district of one of our capital cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide – or perhaps Canberra (but certainly not Darwin or Hobart).

Here in Australia, about two-thirds of us live in the capital cities, making Australia (despite our “outback” and rural myths) one of the most urbanised countries on earth. Singapore, city-state that it is (with a 100 percent urbanisation), we are not. But more than 89 percent of us live in urban areas, not far behind Japan and South Korea (both at 91 percent).

So the high rate of Australian urbanisation means we can assume geography is not significant, right? Wrong. With our massive continent and our sprawling cities, we have a number of regions that experience profound and intense geographic disadvantage. Think western Sydney, western Melbourne and most regional, rural and remote areas.

The fact is that employment and economic activity is NOT evenly spread along with the population, despite our high urbanisation rate. Economic activity is particularly concentrated in and around the major central business districts, a point made comprehensively and convincingly in a report from the Grattan Institute entitled “Mapping Australia’s economy: Cities as engines of prosperity”, by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan.

The Institute summarises the situation:

More than three-quarters of all economic activity in Australia happens on less than one per cent of the nation’s land mass. In today’s services-driven economy, Australia’s cities are the engines of material prosperity.

For a long time agriculture was the backbone of our economy, as we rode on the sheep’s back. After World War Two prosperity shifted to suburbia, with manufacturing employing one in four Australians. This report shows that Australia’s economy is increasingly driven by knowledge-intensive services located in Australia’s large cities. Within these cities the most intense and productive economic activity is concentrated around central business districts and a small number of other business hubs. The way these areas draw large numbers of businesses and workers together makes them all more productive.

Key facts from the report include:
– “Eighty percent of the value of all goods and services produced in Australia is generated on just 0.2 percent of hte nation’s land mass.”
– The CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne – just 7.1 square kilometres – generated $118 billion during the 2011/12 financial year, almost 10 percent of Australia’s economic activity.

And the major reason for the intense economic activity? The concentrations are of “highly knowledge-intensive and specialised services such as funds management, insurance, design, engineering and international education”, with highly skilled workers. And it is the physical “proximity to suppliers, customers and partners” that promotes efficiency, generating “opportunities to come up with new ideas and ways of working” (report, p. 1).

So there you go. We communicate via digital means and at great distances quicker and easier than ever. But yet, we still prefer – in fact, many of us need – to be physically close in order to work efficiently. Economic planners take note.

Mapping Australia's economy


Australian Israeli Film Festival – August 2014

August 17, 2014

I am old enough to remember when the 1984 prison drama “Beyond the Walls” became the first Israeli film to obtain a significant theatrical release here in Australia. What a moment that was for a fledgling film industry for which even the word “industry” was an overstatement.

How things have changed. By my calculation, some 13 Israeli films have now been nominated for Academy Awards: ten features for “best foreign film” (*) and three documentaries (**). This makes Israel the tenth most nominated country in the world. Pretty good, considering that it had such a late start.

But one of the biggest changes is that we in Australia now have access to the latest Israeli films (and not just random late night SBS TV viewings) through the annual “AICE Israeli Film Festival”, now in its eleventh year. The AICE (Australia-Israel Cultural Exchange) operates in as a genuine exchange, bringing Israeli films to Australia, and in turn taking Australian films to Israel.

The AICE Festival opens in Australia this coming week, running at various times in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

Of this year’s films, “The Second Son” (also known as “Dancing Arabs”) is one of my favourites. Coming directly from a rapturous reception at the Jerusalem Film Festival,  this film is directed by Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”, “The Syrian Bride”), based on two of Sayed Kashua’s bestselling novels. We follow the story of an Arab boy attending a Jewish boarding school, and dealing with crushing cultural challenges. (Below: The Second Son)Second Son photo

In fact, a large number of this year’s festival films deal sensitively with Israeli-Arab relations: “Self-Made” (the opening night film) is a black comedy in which a working class Arab woman and an upper-middle class Israeli artist have a bizarre mix-up at the Israel-Palestinian Territory border.  “The Green Prince” is an extraordinary documentary about a Palestinian and his unusual relationship with his Shin Bet (secret police) “handler”.  “Under the Same Sun”  posits that peace is possible between Israelis and Arabs, through cooperative business (this film won a recent award at the Peace on Earth Film Festival).

Like most film-makers around the world, Israeli film-makers usually sit on the “left” side of politics, and their films often provide highly critical viewpoints on the conflict with Palestinians (and social commentary generally), providing insights and a “human face” that are rarely, if ever, shown on the nightly news cycle. Thus attempts to boycott Israeli films (which have been growing in the wake of the recent Gaza war) are, if anything, oddly self-defeating. These film directors show parts of Israeli society and how Israelis really think and interact with Arabs, going far beyond usual assumptions. Attempts to silence their voices are unfortunate at best and deeply troubling.

Many of the other Israeli obsessions are showcased at the festival, including folk-dancing (“Hora 79”), the conflict between religious and secular (“In Between”), Holocaust survivors (“Anita B”), former Nazis (“Mr Kaplan”), art stolen by the Nazis (“The Art Dealer”), Jewish refugees from Arab lands (“Shadow in Bagdad”) and national commemoration (“The Ceremony”).

(*) The ten features are Sallah (1964), The Policeman (1971), I Love You Rosa (1972), The House on Chelouche Street (1973), Operation Thunderbolt (1977), Beyond the Walls (1984), Beaufort (2007), Waltz With Bashir (2008), Agami (2009) and Footnote (2011).
(**) The three documentaries are The 81st Blow (1974), The Gatekeepers (2012) and 5 Broken Cameras (also 2012).

Self Made photo(Above:  Self Made)

Next to Her(above:  Next to Her)

Kindergarden Teacher(above:  Kindergarten Teacher)

 


Begin Again film review

August 17, 2014

“Begin Again” is one of those romantic overcoming adversity fantasy films that is just grounded enough for you to suspend disbelief. I loved it.

Irish film director John Carney originally broke onto the scene of small, warm, musically-themed films with his “Once”, a delightful drama of two mismatched musicians in Dublin who go against the odds. With “Begin Again”, the action switches to New York City, and he has enlisted a strong cast to tell a similar story.  The result is highly entertaining and upbeat, guaranteed to make you believe that yes, your dreams are possible.

Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is a former music executive who co-founded an independent label with partner Saul (hip hop artist Mos Def), but has fallen on hard times: separated from his wife Miriam (the ever strong Catherine Keener), he wanders the streets in an alcoholic haze and tries vainly to be a father to his 14 year old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Gretta (Keira Knightly) is a sensitive singer-songwriter who has come to New York with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon 5), who in turn becomes a star, and in turn leaves her.

On her planned last night in New York, Gretta reluctantly takes the stage at an East Village nightclub to sing one of her songs, cajoled by old British friend Steve (James Corden). That’s where Dan hears her, and the result is a magical scene where Dan can hear and envision all of the instrumentation behind Gretta’s song. Director Carney does a neat job of presenting both Gretta’s and Dan’s stories to us (neatly filling in the backstories of the day leading to their propitious first meeting).

From there the film takes a familiar, but still highly satisfying course. Yes, Dan convinces Gretta to stay in New York City, and yes he produces an album of their songs. But the gimmick is that because they don’t have enough money to afford a studio, they record the songs at various locations around the city: on a subway platform, on boats on Central Park lake, in an alleyway, and on a rooftop with a view (of course) of the Empire State Building.

No prizes for guessing the outcome, nor for the inevitable Gretta-Dave reunion, nor for how daughter Miriam’s life is changed, etc etc.

Sound predictable? Perhaps. But the true delight in “Begin Again” is the film’s irrepressible good humour, absolute adoration of modern music (writer/director Carney used to play bass for an Irish rock band, so he knows what he films) and an almost pitch-perfect cast. Ruffalo is a great music exec who needs to prove himself again; Knightly, singing with her own voice, brings just the right combination of vulnerability, energy and style to her role; Keener virtually defines the ever-suffering former wife; Steinfeld is the adolescent daughter needing direction and attention; Corden is the perfect “best friend” who has just what Knightly’s character needs; and as real-life musicians both Mos Def and Adam Levine play important roles. If we did not believe the tension between Def’s character and Ruffalo’s, nor if we did not believe the Levine-Knightly relationship, the film would not have worked. Yet it does.

“Begin Again” is about … yes, rebirth, following ideals and the possibility (indeed the necessity) of reinvention. Director Carney understands this basic element of the American character, and brings it to screen in such a buoyant way that we cannot help being charmed into liking both the film and all of its characters.

Begin Again film poster


Snowpiercer – the best film you may never see this year

August 9, 2014

If there was any justice in the world of film distribution, the new English language post-apocalyptic climate change thriller “Snowpiercer” by Korean director Bong Joon-ho would be taking the world’s box office by storm.

It’s a stunning film, technically brilliant, hilarious in parts and fabulously designed, paced and directed. It’s torn from tomorrow’s headlines, and shamelessly borrows from numerous recent films such as “The Hunger Games” series, “The Road” (which still gives me nightmares five years later), “The Day After Tomorrow” (global cooling), “Divergent” and “Elysium”.

Instead, despite a 95% positive critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, excellent acting turns by John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and from Chris Evans (“Captain America”) in the heroic lead, it is only playing in a handful of cinemas here in Australia (just two in Sydney, by last count) – with an Australian box office gross of about Aus$100,000. As of yesterday, it was only in 100 cinemas in North America, where it has grossed a paltry US$4,213,337.

By contrast, the film has pulled in some US$60million in South Korea. All of the reasons for this murky release pattern are unclear but seem to have something to do with arguments between the director and the Weinstein Company, and may well become an unfortunate case study of the decline of theatrical release of films.

“Snowpiercer” may well fall into the category of one of the best films you may never see, and what a shame if it does, because this is a big screen film if there ever was one. It’s winter here in Sydney, and the cinema I saw it in was running on the cold side in my mid-morning session (with just six other patrons), so I acutely felt the cold shown on screen – the only time I have felt this way before was when watching “The Day After Tomorrow” in the cinema some years ago.

The plot, outlandish as it is: scientific attempts in 2014 to avert global warming have resulted in a catastrophic global cooling that has virtually killed off all living life. Picking up the story 17 years later in 2031, the only humans left are those on a high-tech train – invented by mastermind Wilford – that circles the globe. But the situation on the train reflects the worst sort of social engineering and fascist inequality, with severe deprivation and brutality visited on the masses in the last few cars, who are fed with gelatinous protein bars, kept in concentration camp-like conditions and occasionally recruited to do special jobs for the rich and spoiled elite who live, work and – especially – party in the front cars. As a special delight, the film presents a great mixture of white, Asian and brown faces, neatly capturing our “multicultural” present.

The dirty masses dressed in rags are perpetually scheming about how to revolt, and when an opportunity arises they take it, led by Curtis (Evans), with the support of his grand master Gilliam (Hurt), attacking the ideologue “Minister Mason” (Swinton, in a role uncomfortably close to Margaret Thatcher at her worst). As Curtis and his supporters battle their way to the front, they meet one surprise after another: I won’t present any spoilers, because this is where “Snowpiercer” is simultaneously at its most wondrous and barbaric (those who fear gore, be warned).

“Snowpiercer” is an achievement of major proportions. Sure, it liberally uses ideas presented by others on-screen, but does so in a way that is unique, riveting and ultimately very personal. Like the best of films, this one reflects our present anxious moment of both climate change and inequality of wealth (see authors such as Thomas Piketty and “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) in exceptional and unexpected ways.

Snowpiercer poster


Jersey Boys – just not New Jersey enough

August 8, 2014

The main problem with Clint Eastwood’s cinema adaptation of the stage musical “Jersey Boys” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as far as I can see, is that it is not sufficiently “New Jersey”.

The characters all say that they are from New Jersey, and there are a couple of shots with (supposedly) New York City across the Hudson River (Jersey City?).

But the real indicator is an odd shot when the Frankie Valli and the other members of the “Four Seasons” all travel to home of their Mafia-like protector Gyp DeCarlo (a delightful Christopher Walken), who lives in a suburban mansion. The original band manager Tommy (Vincent Piazza) has taken them all into terrible debt to a loanshark, and the meeting there is to sort it out; it’s an important scene where effectively the group splits up (whoops – spoiler alert).

Presumably this scene takes place in “north” Jersey, and we all know that there are a few “mountains” nearby (unlike south Jersey, with its flat sandy plains) – hey, there are the Kittatinny Mountains, along with its foothills – the Pohchuck, Wawayanda, Bearfort, and Ramapo Ridges. And there are the Watchungs – consisting of Orange Ridge, Preakness Ridge, and Long Hill Ridge. But look carefully at this scene: was it really shot in New Jersey? The mountain behind the house seems way too steep to be in New Jersey and the vegetation looked pretty California-like to me.

I am a great fan of Clint Eastwood, and love most of his films of the last twenty years. But he’s a westerner, a former mayor of Carmel, California. He “does” San Francisco well, extraordinarily well: he was born there and had years of “Dirty Harry” characters, as well as directing “Blood Work” and others. He grew up playing westerns. (“The Good, The Bad, the Ugly”, which I once went to for a long-ago birthday present, was long one of my favourites). “Mystic River” – Boston, okay Clint you have me there. You did it once, but that was partly great casting, with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and more. But how about “The Bridges of Madison County” (upper Midwest) and “Unforgiven” (cowboy country) – that’s the west, to be sure, where I suggest you best know your stuff.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with filming in California and calling it New York. Hey, “Friends” was notably shot in Los Angeles, but that never felt very “New York” either, did it? By contrast, didn’t “Sex and the City” just ooze New York? It should, it was actually shot there.

It takes something else to portray those dense, multicultural east coast spaces of the USA. Martin Scorsese has it, in spades. Woody Allen has been criticised for only showing part of what the east coast is all about (he has usually preferred upper middle class, upper east side Jews … I love them, really), but he knows what it was like to grow up in New York City and has created some of the best screen romantic moments of that city. Barry Levinson, a Baltimore native, gets it. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck both get it, and their “Good Will Hunting” (Boston) director Gus Van Sant has been able to “do” both coasts (think “Milk”). The late Sidney Lumet was New York through and through. You want east coast films? Think Spike Lee, Sydney Pollack, Nora Ephron, Noah Baumbach – or the new wave of Lena Dunham and her contemporaries.

But Clint, Clint you never convinced me that I was, indeed, with you in New Jersey. Sure the houses were there and some accents. But a “New Jersey handshake” instead of a contract? Really? Go west, Clint, go west.

Below – character of Tommy on a street in New Jersey:

Jersey Boys Tommy on street

Below – the set of “Friends”, taken at the Warner Brothers studio lot, October 2011:

29Oct2011 NY LA-1 349


Has the “Digital Tipping Point” arrived?

August 2, 2014

Yes, says Deloitte Australia: the “digital tipping point” has definitely arrived, with permanent and irrevocable changes to our information and entertainment consumption.

According to Deloitte, here in Australia this happened some time in this past year. To summarise the main points of their 2014 Media Consumer Survey, the “digital tipping points” here in Australia are:

- Using the Internet is likely to eclipse watching TV as the preferred source of entertainment within a matter of months.
– We have gone “tablet mad” across all age groups – more than half (53%) of Australian survey respondents are now ‘digital omnivores’ – owners of a tablet, laptop and smart-phone, up significantly from 28% last year.
– Smartphone ownership is at 81%, an increase of 21% over the last three years.

Other findings include:
– When we watch hit TV shows, we “binge”: some 72% of their survey participants watch back-to-back episodes (three or more) in one sitting – and more than a quarter of us (26%) are doing this once a week.

- And there’s very bad (and not surprising) news for newspapers, with 92% of Australian survey respondents unwilling to pay for news online:

Compared with other surveyed countries, Australia has the lowest newspaper subscription rates per household, whether print or digital (22%), compared with the top ranking Japan (53%), the UK (51%) and China (44%). An additional 8% have digital-only subscriptions. Within the surveyed population, newspaper subscriptions have declined by 5% over the past three years while digital-only subscriptions have grown by 26%, albeit from a very low base.

Some interesting good news for print magazines:

We love our printed mags – the printed magazine is still holding its own and remains the preferred way to read magazine content (49% of all survey respondents). Nearly half (49%) of magazine subscribers indicated that if the price of their favourite magazine was the same for various options of physical or digital copies, they would prefer to receive the physical copy only, rather than both.

And here’s a cool infographic that summarises the key findings.

Overstating the facts? Probably, as it’s not likely that their survey reached many of the bottom 20 percent of Australians, who experience “digital exclusion”. But the trends are apparent.

Still not convinced that the digital has changed our communication forever? A recent Time magazine article by Katy Steinmetz (August 4, 2014 here in Australia, published a week earlier in North America), notes, “The total number of words in all text messages sent every three months exceeds the word count of all books ever published, according to text-analytics firm Idibon”, which is a genuinely “new age” company  that is based – where else – in San Francisco.

Food for thought.


Further proof that Australians love the USA

July 22, 2014

Just in case you need more proof that Australians love the USA …. if you are near a David Jones department store in Australia, go have a look at their new promotion, entitled “United States of Style”, featuring various iconic American brands.

At Sydney’s Market and Castlereagh Streets, David Jones has turned all of its windows into major themed USA messages.   As I have noted previously, images of the USA – particularly New York City and California – are deemed to be very powerful brands here in Australia (Apple used California; two years ago David Jones actually used New York City.)

The online advertisement appears here:

DJW_0156_wk226_Hero_USA

And the shop windows – David Jones “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” (yep, New York):

David Jones Brooklyn July 2014David Jones “California Dreaming”:

David Jones CA Dreaming July 2014

David Jones “All American Midwest” (definitely a new image – who ever thinks of the midwest here?):

David Jones Midwest July 2014

David Jones New York City, California and USA Lonely Planet guidebooks, along with a “Big Apple” (for NYC):

David Jones NY CA July 2014A pretty interesting representation of what Australians think about in the USA.


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