Apple is making a big deal about how well their iPhone 6 can take photographs. The latest I have seen is in the photograph below, which I took in Sydney’s Town Hall railway station … yes, appropriately with the iPhone 6.
Books still have power. Did you know that the Silicon Valley venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz has a carefully curated library of 800 books in its waiting room? A lot of people do now, because of this article in Wired magazine by Cade Metz. Each of the books has been selected and placed there by Marc Andreessen, the firm’s co-founder (and one of the original Internet browser inventors through Netscape). The collection – focussing on Hollywood, Silicon Valley and computer programming – is so legendary that “as authors and publicists come through, many of them slot in their own books—sometimes in bulk”, Metz writes. “Andreessen is the room. And the room still has the desired effect: It makes you want to talk to the people inside.”
According to the article and the photographs accompanying it, the library includes many of my favourites, including Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invested Hollywood, David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus.
(This film review of “Ben-Hur” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on September 1, 2016.)
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, based on the novel by Lewis Wallace; and starring Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Haluk Bilginer and Rodrigo Santoro.
Certain stories in film and literature can persist for decades, resonating in each retelling or remake. So it is with the latest film version of “Ben-Hur”, the first biblical-style movie epic released since “Exodus – Gods and Kings” and “Noah” both premiered in 2014.
This “Ben-Hur” draws on an impressive historical pedigree, going back to the original 1880 novel, entitled “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, by Lewis Wallace, a former Civil War general. This is the fifth screen adaptation of Wallace’s novel: the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston in the lead role won 11 Academy Awards and remains the most vivid in the popular imagination.
This “Ben-Hur” tells the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Jack Huston (grandson of legendary film director John Huston and nephew of actress Angelica Huston), a “born to station” Jewish prince living in ancient Israel during the Roman occupation (“33 AD”).
Although a great horseman, Judah lives a soft life in an enormous villa with an extended family, having no apparent work to do other than racing his horses. Judah has an adopted Roman brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), who has an identity crisis: while welcomed into the Ben-Hur household as a son, he also feels excluded because he is not Jewish.
After an incident where Messala is blamed for Judah’s near-fatal horse-riding accident, Messala runs off to join the Roman legions to fight in “Germania”. Years later he returns to Jerusalem as a senior officer. In the meantime, the “Zealots” have been causing trouble through guerrilla actions against the Romans. Judah opposes this uprising, but faces a conflict. He supports them as individuals but not as a political movement: when asked by the now-Roman officer Messala to identify the Zealots, Judah replies, “I’m not going to name names”, a deliberate reference to the Communist witch-hunts in the USA in the 1950s and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”.
Judah’s support for an injured Zealot is his undoing, as the man who he shelters attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate, an act blamed on Judah. This event results in the incarceration of the whole Ben-Hur household, with Judah sentenced to become a “galley slave”, rowing for years in the dank depths of a Roman warship.
Working from a script co-written by John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter”) provides some great action, but is less successful in developing the personal relationships that underpin the story and make us want to care about the characters. These underdeveloped relationships may have resulted because of the film’s duration: the three and a half hours of the Heston version is now cut down to two hours, but still needs to cover a lot of ground.
This latest version of “Ben-Hur” strives for authenticity, nicely shot in the ancient World Heritage centre of Matera in southern Italy, standing in for Jerusalem of Roman times, and the famed Cinecitta studios in Rome. It’s no coincidence that Mel Gibson also filmed “The Passion of the Christ” here.
There are many pleasures in this “Ben-Hur”. The film’s two major set-pieces, the naval battle and the famous chariot race near the end (where Judah and Messala face off), are thrillingly filmed using digital effects that were not available to earlier directors. The addition of Morgan Freeman as a Nubian horse-racer is a total delight, bringing his authoritative personality, mellifluous voice and regal bearing: he has, of course, played both God and the President of the USA in previous films.
This “Ben-Hur” is more avowedly Christian than the Heston film, inserting more scenes of the Jesus figure than its 1959 predecessor, where Jesus’ face was never seen – a particularly effective technique to create mystery. Although the majority of this “Ben-Hur” is straight action-adventure, Jewish viewers are warned: at its heart, “Ben-Hur” is a Christian film, drawing a number of scenes from the Christian Bible books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
This latest “Ben-Hur” also does something new, consciously inserting imagery and action that compares the Roman occupation of ancient Israel with Nazi actions against the Jews. Two scenes stand out. At one point, Roman soldiers desecrate a Jewish graveyard for building materials, stones that we later see with faint Hebrew writing behind Pontius Pilate. And most telling of all, after the attempt on Pontius Pilate’s life, the Romans execute 20 local Jews in retaliation.
A note on the history of “Ben-Hur”: According to the US National Endowment for Humanities, Lewis Wallace’s novel was “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”. For more than 50 years after publication in 1880, it outsold every book in the US except the Bible, until “Gone With the Wind” appeared in 1936; the English language version has never gone out of print. Aside from the 1959 film version with Charlton Heston directed by William Wyler, there have also been two silent film versions (1907 and 1925), as well as a 2003 animated version produced by Heston, who also voiced Judah Ben-Hur’s character. There was also a very popular play in 1899 that even travelled to Sydney and Melbourne, a 2009 London stage version, and a 2010 British-produced TV mini-series.
(below: image for the promotion of a 1901 stage dramatised production of Ben-Hur)
There is no doubt that the digital world is changing our lives in profound ways. Not only publishing, film and television production/distribution, newspapers and music are affected. Accommodation – think Airbnb. And of course now taxis and ride-sharing: think Uber.
So it comes as a shock when a digital organisation does promotion and advertising in the “material world”. That’s just what Uber did in downtown Sydney, with a host of people handing out Uber “starter” discount cards (see below). Perhaps there is a limit as to how much promotion can reach in the digital world?
(This film review of “Indignation” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 18, 2016 in a shorter form.)
Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger and Noah Robbins
This week’s release of the film “Indignation”, based on a 2008 autobiographical Philip Roth novel, calls our attention to this pre-eminent American-Jewish novelist of the late twentieth century. Without exception, each of his more than 30 novels and collected stories exist in a Jewish world and Jewish framework of reference.
He also holds the record for more film adaptations than any other American-Jewish author. Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven other Roth novels have been turned into movies, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”) and “The Humbling” (2014).
“Indignation” the film closely follows the plot of the book and is based on Roth’s experiences studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Set in the early 1950s, 19 year-old Marcus Messner – the only son of a Newark kosher butcher – leaves home to study at “Winesburg College”, in itself a fascinating reference to Sherwood Anderson’s early twentieth century short story collection.
Jumping from Jewish New Jersey to Gentile Ohio is a shock for young Messner: of 1400 students on campus, only 80 of them are Jewish. Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students. He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.
But Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) – who is haunted by excessively anxious parents back in Newark – does not count on meeting the wealthy, blond-haired and very beautiful WASP, Olivia Hutton. Hutton is played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.
After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a voice-over, “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing. But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”
These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus. Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust Caution” and “Taking Woodstock”. Schamus – who is also Jewish – has assembled an extraordinary cast of unknown faces that bring a real freshness to this film. In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the antisemitic Dean of Students of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’ parents. The two tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Dean Caudwell, are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.
“Indignation” carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel antisemitism faced by American Jews at the time, topics that were popular in the 1960s but have mostly faded from cultural consciousness. This film’s closest cinematic relative is “School Ties”, an inferior and less intellectually complex 1992 movie about a Jewish football player at a very non-Jewish college who also faces antisemitism. That film was also a “throw back” to the era of “Marjorie Morningstar” and other films that explored the American-Jewish post-war suburban experience of assimilation and suburbanisation.
Because “Indignation” is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as “Transparent” have done, it may not grab a large audience. But that’s a pity, because it is one of the finest coming-of-age dramas released in cinemas in 2016, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.
If I were now – as I once was – an American-Jewish college student on campus now, “Indignation” could very well have become my favourite film of the year, in the way that “Goodbye Columbus” captured my attention so many years ago. Yet I am thoroughly taken by the charms and emotional depth of “Indignation”, a major achievement by Schamus.
(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)
Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century. Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films. All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).
Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”. “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.
“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script. “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”: Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.
“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general. It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.