This “cultural map of New Jersey” by Rutgers employee and New Jersey native Joe Steinfeld went viral two years, but as I missed it then, you may have also. (So much for the reach of social media in our instantaneous age!) Some great truths lie here.
It seems to be some sort of obscure Hollywood law: by some strange turn of our collective unconscious, two films with virtually identical themes are released at the same time.
The latest proof of this theorem is the almost simultaneous openings of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “How I Live Now”, both of them futuristic dystopian films with reluctant female heroes.
This is not a case of shared screenwriter dreams, as I wrote a year ago, comparing “The Sessions” and “The Intouchables”, as well as eight other “paired” films. Both of these new films arise from popular books – “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (published 2009), and “How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff (published 2004). Both are “young adult novels” and take a traditional male-style action story, turning it into one aimed at young women.
I adored this second film of “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence is a true star and I look forward to following her career for years to come), although “Catching Fire” did not have the same elements of surprise that the first film had. It’s a crowd-pleaser and I am not surprised at its worldwide success (see below).
Of the two books, Rosoff’s is much better literature (it won a swag of awards). But in many ways, the film version of “How I Live Now” is actually a superior movie to Hunger Games 2. Dramatically, it is understated, and use of “off-screen action” makes for a chilling drama.
The plot in brief: Daisy, a young American woman (played by Saoirse Ronan) travels to Britain to spend the summer with her aunt and first cousins. Her mother is dead, and she is increasingly estranged from her father, who has remarried and has a new child. Her arrival at the British airport is filled with scenes of high security – a bit like all major airports now, but just more so, more tense, more guns. Young Daisy seems unaware of all of this, and is picked up by one of her young cousins, who parks illegally outside the airport (an indication of things to come). When she arrives are the country house, she finds her cousins living a carefree life while their mother (the aunt) is mostly away travelling on what appears to be international relations peace business. Many small things foreshadow something big coming, but Daisy – slowly falling in love with her oldest cousin (George Mackay) – misses all the cues.
One day, when the cousins are all swimming while their mother/aunt is travelling, they experience what turns out to be a nuclear blast at London many miles away. And here is where the film truly comes into its own – we do not see the devastation of “tens or hundreds of thousands”, but we see the fierce wind, hear the dull but immense blast and then watch the gray dust. After a short delay, despite their mother’s absence, the cousins regain their good humour … until the electricity fails and the army comes to round them up and move them out, as battles are soon to be fought in the area. Who is the enemy? What is the war about? We never know. Remember, it’s all from Daisy’s 17 year old point of view, so what is missing is equally important as what is there.
And a note to fans of the book: the film does not include the final scenes of the book, which does change the dramatic arc, leaving it much more fluid and much less settled. Probably a good narrative choice, but I was looking forward to the epilogue.
At its best, “How I Live Now” approaches the intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “The Road”. (Even now, almost four years later, both the book and the film – directed by John Hillcoat – still haunt me.) It is alternately creepy, scary and thrilling. What a shame that fewer than 3600 people have seen “How I Live Now” here in Australia – compared to almost 2.5 million who have seen “Hunger Games 2”.
In Australia, after two weeks of release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had grossed a whopping Aus$24,814,266 and was still sitting in the number one box office position, playing in 578 cinemas. By contrast, in its first week of Australian release, “How I Live Now” did not even crack the top 20 in box office – meaning that it grossed less than Aus$36,000 that week. As of Monday 9 December, it was only playing in a few scattered cinemas around Australia at odd hours. I could have predicted that result: the evening session I attended at Event Cinemas Macquarie Centre had five (yes, five) patrons, including me. By contrast, “Hunger Games” was packed.
Internationally, “The Hunger Games” set a new Thanksgiving weekend box office record in North America, and has already grossed almost US$600 million worldwide. “How I Live Now” has grossed $60,000 in North America, and a modest – but much better – $746,000 in the United Kingdom.
There is no simple explanation for why “Hunger Games” is so popular and “How I Live Now” so forgotten. Part of it is production budgets (sure Hunger Games is much bigger), part marketing budgets, part stardom (Lawrence), part Hollywood film versus British film, and part what is sometimes called “The Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer, and the differences between “good” and “great” can be enormous (also see my favourite author Malcolm Gladwell).
It’s a popular culture mystery not easily explained. Seek out the film of “How I Live Now” and see what you think. Here’s the official trailer (viewed by at least ten times more people than who have seen the film):
And an image from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire:
Have a look at the photo below; it accompanies the article (and you can see a portion of it online):
I have been writing for some time how the California brand (see Apple) has now become such an important part of the technology marketing. What, exactly, is it about California that is meant to convince us? I am not sure, but clearly people believe that the California identification is important.
This film review of “Fill the Void” was published in a slightly different form in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 28 November 2013. Sydney release to follow.
Written and directed by Rama Burshtein
Starring Hadas Yaron, Chaim Sharir, Ido Samuel, Irit Sheleg, Yiftach Klein and Hila Feldman
I am old enough to remember an historic moment in Israeli film: when “Beyond the Walls” was released in Australian cinemas in 1984 – the first time an Israeli film opened here theatrically. At the time, Israeli films were rough, unsophisticated – and rare.
How times have changed. This week’s opening of “Fill the Void”, following its successful premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, shows just how far the Israeli films have come.
“Fill the Void” is set in an ultra-Orthodox community in modern day Israel, and tells an intimate Jane Austen-style story of Shira, an 18 year old woman who is facing a major life choice. When her older sister Esther dies in childbirth, she comes under increasing pressure to marry her late sister’s husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein). In that way, her baby nephew, the first born of the next generation and beloved by all, would remain in Israel. This is the alternative to the tempting offer that Yochay has of a match with a suitable widow who lives in Belgium. Thus the choice is set young Shira, who had been expecting someone much closer to her age.
Shira (winningly played by Hadas Yaron) is already preparing for marriage, and having a number of “dates”, ultra-Orthodox style. These consist of short ‘at home’ interviews with immature young men, barely older than her, who ask clunky questions. Shira, by contrast, is wise beyond her years, and has an inner stillness and a beautiful – but not yet fully appreciated – soul.
Ultimately, it is women who drive this film – Esther’s death, an aunt with an unusual physical affliction, Shira’s choice and the pressure on Shira from her mother (Irit Sheleg), a powerful figure indeed. The men, try as they might, are secondary to the women’s concerns – and their ultimate power and control.
Writer/director Rama Burshtein is, apparently, the first ultra-Orthodox woman to direct a dramatic feature film aimed at a wide audience. It may be a while before we see another: New York-born Burshtein became religious after attending the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem; it’s hard to imagine an ultra-Orthodox woman choosing to study secular film-making. But after Burshtein’s lead, anything is possible.
Modern films with Chassidic characters are not new. Chaim Potok’s book “The Chosen” (1981) was made into a well-received film. Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” (1983) examined romance from an unusual feminist perspective. Sidney Lumet’s “A Stranger Among Us” (1992) detailed a murder investigation in New York’s Chassidic community. It’s fair to say that these films – all written and directed by Jews – still had an “outside in” perspective on ultra Orthodox Jewish life. “Fill the Void” is different, made by people who know it intimately.
And “Fill the Void” is indeed intimate, mostly set in small, crowded, almost claustrophobic interiors. The focus is on the characters and their relationships with each other. Each gesture and each word matters; Burshtein exhibits an unexpected level of restraint and control in the scenes. Each frame has meaning.
Although set in modern-day Tel Aviv – an interesting choice, not Jerusalem or B’nei Brak – one reason for the film’s success is its timelessness; it could just as easily have been set in modern New York or Europe a century ago. But a good script and a strong director require actors with the skills to make it happen, and here Burshtein allowed herself to cast non-religious actors. As Shira, whose emotional journey provides the film’s core, Yaron gives a performance of exquisite subtlety. She won best actress at the Venice Film Festival and as well as Israel’s 2012 “Ophir” Awards (where the film virtually swept the awards), and some even promoted her for a possible Oscar nomination (nice idea, but unfortunately no chance).
Intergenerational tensions, the politics of marriage and the competition between women for the best men – Austen presented these 200 years ago. “Fill the Void” provides a fresh take on these timeless themes, in an unusual but somehow appropriate setting. The result is well worth watching.
He is only one of five people who have their own “category” on this blog. He has been my favourite musician since 1983 – more than 30 years now. It’s Bruce Springsteen.
Last night here in Australia, SBS TV broadcast the documentary “Bruce Springsteen and I”, a collection of delightful and frequently moving testimonials by Springsteen fans, interspersed with the man’s music. Cleverly, in many cases peopled told a story about a certain concert that they attended and how they were called on by Springsteen to sing, or come up on the stage for a hug (he does that sort of thing) or whatever. And we get to see the original footage as well, edited into their stories.
A truly moving experience for Springsteen fans, now on sale here in Australia on DVD.
And the boss does not stop. He has a new album out on January 14, 2014: “High Hopes”, recorded in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Australia and New York City. (Astute readers of this blog will note my strong connections with three of those five places.) The “High Hopes” tracklisting:
High Hopes tracklisting:
1. High Hopes (Tim Scott McConnell) – featuring Tom Morello
2. Harry’s Place * – featuring Tom Morello
3. American Skin (41 Shots) – featuring Tom Morello
4. Just Like Fire Would (Chris J. Bailey) – featuring Tom Morello
5. Down In The Hole *
6. Heaven’s Wall ** – featuring Tom Morello
7. Frankie Fell In Love
8. This Is Your Sword
9. Hunter Of Invisible Game * – featuring Tom Morello
10. The Ghost of Tom Joad – duet with Tom Morello
11. The Wall
12. Dream Baby Dream (Martin Rev and Alan Vega) – featuring Tom Morello
This year, the American holiday of Thanksgiving – established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November since FDR mandated that in 1939 – and the Jewish holiday of Chanukah fall on the same day. According to Chabad.Org’s “brief history” of the two holidays, this has happened three times in history: 1888, 1899 and 1918. (There are two “Texas only” exceptions that I will ignore; not many Jews in Texas). The confluence is projected to happen again in 2070, assuming that the Thanksgiving celebratory day remains the same.
This is more than a footnote in history. Wikipedia has an extensive, carefully written and well-research web page on “Thanksgivukkah” (complete with 61 references and five additional external links). A Google search on the name comes up with more than 4.5 million hits. For those who do not know, Thanksgiving has always been a favourite holiday for American Jews: seen as a secular Sukkot-like celebration, American Jews have warmly embraced Thanksgiving, giving them a “holiday season” opportunity to participate as “Americans” so close to the overwhelming (and off-putting, for many) Christmas.
Ever wonder why assimilation of migrants in the USA is so different? Well, it is. Certainly not like here in Australia. And especially not like in Europe.
In a fascinating article in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Assimilation Nation”, Jason DeParle provides good insights:
Compared with Europe, the U.S. attracts more immigrants who share the dominant faith. (Imagine if Mexicans built mosques.) An economy that, until recently, had lots of entry-level jobs has made it easier for immigrants to find work. American schools generally provide students second chances, while Europeans are more likely to leave stragglers on vocational tracks. The U.S. also had Martin Luther King Jr.—the civil-rights movement, cresting just before the current mass migration started, bequeathed a robust apparatus for promoting opportunity. And American culture sells, in all its tawdriness and splendor. In Europe, the children of immigrants sometimes cling to the Old Country more than their parents do: sons import brides. In the U.S., the bigger danger is assimilating too fast: children get fat eating french fries and watching TV.
These are the reasons that so many of the worst fears of protectionists in the USA have not come to pass. The migrants are, by and large, Christian. And their young people, by and large, are given lots more chances to “join” the country. And there’s a history: ironically, the African-Americans helped to pave the way.