Urban murals: The Annandale House

January 10, 2019

I’ve seen lots of urban murals, but the one below is an exceptional example of the genre: a mural of a house painted on the side of the house that it depicts. This one is in Annandale, a historic suburb of inner Sydney.

The mural

The house

 

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Film review of The Favourite

January 10, 2019

This film review of “The Favourite” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 January 2019 in a slightly shorter form.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn

*****

“The Favourite” is a bawdy comedy-drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Lanthimos specialises in off-kilter worlds; here he has created a world of insider court intrigue, deceit, manipulation and sex, especially lesbian sex.

Queen Anne ruled during a time of political turmoil and change, with bitter rivalries between Whigs and Tories, and ongoing military actions against both France and Spain. The film is set not long after the death of Anne’s husband the Prince of Denmark (1708), and Anne is perpetually in a foul mood, exacerbated by increasing poor health: she suffered from severe gout and a number of other medical problems, could hardly walk and is usually pushed around in a wheelchair.

The film extrapolates, with significant poetic liberties, from the acknowledged intimate relationship that Anne (played by an almost unrecognisable Olivia Colman) had with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Jewish actress Rachel Weisz), who becomes the Queen’s closest advisor. The two call each other by pet names – Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman – apparently as a means of establishing a level of equality between them. A competitor arrives in the person of Sarah’s first cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Although down on her luck and fortune – Abigail is literally thrown into the mud from a carriage outside the palace in an opening scene – through careful scheming and attentiveness to Queen Anne’s infirmities, Abigail becomes a power player in the court.

Without its trio of acclaimed female performances – Colman, Weisz and Stone – this film could have become a mash-up of seedy British monarchy stories. The performances are astonishing, lively, energetic, funny, lusty, erotic and frequently nasty. All three have been nominated for Golden Globes, a feat likely to be repeated at the Oscars, with the film and director also in competition for major awards.

Satiric spoofs on the foibles of the British political and social upper classes have rarely been as cutting as this. Palace residents and courtiers are breathtakingly out of touch with what’s happening in the world, preferring to race ducks, shoot pheasants and bombard each other naked with fruit.

“The Favourite” also operates as a form of revisionist history: these three women appear to be the most powerful people in Britain, with many men clamouring – often fruitlessly – for the attention of their monarch. The men are dressed absurdly, with long wigs and bizarre make-up. England is at war – a fact that Queen Anne occasionally forgets – and senior members of the Parliament and the army seek her approval on war strategy and financing the war effort; in both areas, Anne is way out of her depth.

“The Favourite” includes delightful lines, such as when Abigail greets a nobleman who has come to her room unannounced: “Have you come to rape me or seduce me?” “Madam, I am a gentleman,” he responds. “Rape me then,” she replies.

The film also presents as tragicomedy: Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits in her chambers, each of them affectionately named, representing her 17 lost children, most of them by miscarriage. In poor health and growing obese, Anne eats whatever and whenever she pleases, simply vomiting into a pitcher when she is full. Prospective viewers are forewarned: under its comedy, “The Favourite” has a hard and cynical edge; these players are angling for power and the stakes are high.

 


Film review of Can You Ever Forgive Me

January 10, 2019

(This film review of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 7 December 2018.)

Directed by Marielle Heller; written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the memoir by Lee Israel; starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Marc Evan Jackson and Joanna Adler

*****

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is probably the best film you will ever see with an unlikeable and unattractive Jewish lead character.

Melissa McCarthy – American comic actress best-known for her vigorous and occasionally gross physical comedy (witness “Bridesmaids”) – plays Lee Israel, a failing Brooklyn-born non-fiction freelance writer whose career has run into trouble. Despite modestly successful biographies on Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead, her book on Estée Lauder has bombed and no publisher is interested in her next project – on Jewish actress and comedian Fanny Brice.

Lee’s agent gives blunt advice when Lee complains bitterly about Jack Clancy’s success at writing action thrillers: “You can be an asshole when you’re famous.”

Desperate for funds, Israel starts selling her possessions, including her prized Hepburn letter. When she accidentally finds a Fanny Brice original letter in a library book, she realises the value of celebrity correspondence in the ephemera and memorabilia market. With no more “real” letters to sell, she develops a career as a forger of letters from the likes of Noel Coward and others, using her literary and research skills to embellish the letters in ways designed to appeal to dealers and collectors.

Set in the 1990s, this melancholy film is given extra poignancy because the story is true: Lee Israel was a real person (she passed away in 2014) – a Jewish lesbian who resurrected her reputation (she is ultimately caught) through her autobiographical book telling of her short career as a literary forger, which ultimately became this film.

Lee Israel stumbles into a close friendship with Jack, a gay man played with wild abandon by Richard E. Grant. His occasional over-acting perfectly fits his character: flamboyant, intensely verbal, slavishly loyal (too loyal) to Lee, partaking in numerous sexual delights and easily distracted.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” acts as an ode to New York City: shots of the 59th Street Bridge from director Marielle Heller and Jewish co-writer Nicole Holofcener (read my review of Holofcener’s film Friends With Money) consciously evoke Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. It’s also a film about books, writing, biography, creativity (or its absence), money (or its lack), fame (or its opposite, obscurity), professional ethics (or none), and frustrated or mis-directed love.

The film also hints at deeper questions: what, in fact, is real when forgers are so readily believed? (The film-makers slyly hint at the present moment of “fake news”.) A wordless scene near the end of the film is telling: a bookstore owner realises that a celebrity letter (written by Israel) in his shop’s window is a forgery, and removes it. After a moment’s hesitation, he puts the letter back in the window.

But the film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is Melissa McCarthy’s. Her character is unhygienic (look for the great comic scene with her cat), grumpy, ornery, irascible, unhappy and anti-social. But she’s also energetic and oh-so-real, serving to charm audiences with her story of decline, fall and ultimate resurrection.

Melissa McCarthy in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved


The Community Colleges Australia Summer Reading List

December 30, 2018

This year, I wrote Community Colleges Australia’s first “Summer Reading List”, with selected recommendations for members and friends. (You can view the CCA version here.)

“Summer reading is a sacred pastime. For many of us, it’s about the only time we now have to read without constant distraction.” – Tim Soutphommasane 

Understanding Australia 

My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches by David Marr 

David Marr’s My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches is a massive collection of his writing, from the 1970s onwards, including early works, such as the first review of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries,” writes Marr. The book is filled with Marr’s wisdom: “The true radicals in Australia are those who call themselves conservative…. Australians are a practical people…. We fight change hard here – often brutally hard – but the leaders we come to admire are mostly reformers.”

I suspect I am not the only person on whom David Marr has grown over the years. Perhaps best-known for his biography of Patrick White, Marr’s work has broadened and deepened in recent years, turning him one of Australia’s most insightful cultural and political commentators. In recent years, Marr has published Quarterly Essay biographies of Tony Abbott, George Pell and Bill Shorten. Listen to Marr’s ABC Radio National “Conversations” interview with Richard Fidler (13 November 2018) for a preview of his book’s contents. 

Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up by Gabrielle Chan

In this week’s Sydney Morning Herald (29 December 2018), Shane Wright writes: “Capital cities are eating up the rest of Australia. Already home to more than two-thirds of the nation’s 25 million residents, each capital city will soon dominate their respective state or territory in a way that will challenge Australia’s economic and political landscape.” Capital city populations became dominant in 1916 in South Australia, 1921 in Victoria, 1942 in Western Australia, 1954 in New South Wales and 1991 in the Northern Territory. It’s projected to take place in 2027 in Queensland and 2040 in Tasmania. The social, political, economic and cultural implications of this national demographic shift is profound.

It’s also one cause for the political restlessness of non-metropolitan Australia, with increasing numbers of non-major party politicians winning seats such as Cathy McGowan; the further you get from the state GPO, the higher the disillusioned minor party vote. 

That’s the context of Gabrielle Chan’s book Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up. Born to Chinese immigrants in Sydney, Chan became a journalist and moved to western New South Wales in 1996. She separates the book into 2 parts (“Shedding my city skin” and “The politics of country”) and 19 chapters – which she calls “lessons”. Examples: 1. WTF? There are people west of the divide; 2. Place is everything; 5. There is an education divide; 7. Not all kids want to go to uni; 11. Rural politics is stuck in an old model; 15. The economics of a small town are tricky. Listen to Chan’s interview with Philip Clark on ABC Radio’s “Nightlife”. 

Seize the Fire: Three Speeches by Richard Flanagan 

Acclaimed novelist Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) has begun to develop a reputation as one of Australia’s most insightful speech-makers. This short volume includes three of his recent speeches, encapsulating a unique Australian voice: “Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather an invitation to dream, and this country—our country—belongs to its dreamers . . . if we are finally to once more go forward as a people it’s time our dreamers were brought in from the cold.” 

Understanding America

The United States of America has always fascinated Australia, however during the last two years – since the ascendancy of President Trump – the need to understand what is happening across the Pacific, and it’s meaning for Australia, has become acute. These two works should assist.

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

This ground-breaking, lengthy and acclaimed historical work by Harvard academic and New Yorker essayist Jill Lepore attempts in one volume to explain the full scope of American history. Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes: “I can think of no stronger endorsement than this: These Truths is 932 pages long—and, reader, I didn’t want it to end…. Here are some of the most urgent and defining truths of the current moment—among them inequality, partisanship, nationalism, and, in particular, racism—told in reverse, Metacom to Cotton Mather to Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray to Phyllis Schlafly to Barack Obama … [p]eople who, treading the vast American landscape, bent the arc of history.”

Companion piece: Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein, a recent visitor to the Sydney Writers Festival; listen to her Festival talk here.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

American journalist, historian and environmental activist Rebecca Solnit – author of Men Explain Things to Me, about male arrogance which preceded “mansplaining” – has marked out her place as one of the most original voices on feminism, ecology and the environment and how place matters in the modern age. Her latest collection consists of 20 essays separated into four sections – Electoral Catastrophes, American Emotions, American Edges and Possibilities. The pieces in this collection were all written since 2016 and are thus imbued with a sense of urgency within the shadows of the Trump presidency. Solnit lives in San Francisco, and brings a unique West Coast perspective, compared to the New York-Washington-Boston intellectual approach we are used to.

Companion piece: Women and Power: A Manifesto by British classicist Mary Beard.

Understanding the Crisis of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, with its accompanying marketisation/privatisation agenda, has made a profoundly negative impact on Australian vocational education and training (VET), and – as a result – the community education sector. These three recent books provide arguments against the marketisation agenda and essential reading on what to do next:

Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next by Richard Denniss is a passionate, highly readable essay that shows how “the language, ideas and policies of neoliberalism have transformed our economy and, more importantly, our culture.”

The Wages Crisis in Australia: What it is and what to do about it is a free e-book from University of Adelaide Press, edited by Andrew Stewart, Jim Stanford (a recent speaker to NSW community college CEOs) and Tess Hardy. Read chapter 9, “Contracting out community services, marketisation and wages”, by Fiona Macdonald and Michael Pegg.

Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired, edited by Damien Cahill and Phillip Toner, includes 19 case studies of how marketisation has failed Australia. Read Toner’s chapter entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, which I reviewed back in November.

Understanding Economics, Democracy and Politics

And finally, the age of Trump means that more authors are writing passionately about and why democracy should be saved:


Jewish films released in Australia on Boxing Day

December 20, 2018

(This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 December 2018.)

Boxing Day – 26 December – is traditionally the “biggest” movie-going day in Australia. Freed from the holiday responsibilities, many Australians flock to the movies to watch the biggest summer releases. This year four films feature important Jewish actors or creatives behind the scene.

Holmes and Watson: Sherlock Holmes has, by some count, been the most portrayed character on screen, first featured in a one-minute silent one-reeler in 1900; by 1995, more than 25,000 Holmes and Watson related cultural products had been produced in 63 languages. That competition hasn’t dismayed Jewish Israeli-American director, Etan Cohen (who grew up in Efrat) – not to be confused with Ethan Coen of the famed Coen brothers – who has directed this latest effort. Will Ferrell (as Holmes) and John C. Reilly (as Dr John Watson) star and sport English accents, along with Rebecca Hall, Ralph Fiennes (as Professor Moriarty) and Rob Brydon (Inspector Lestrade). Director/writer Cohen has made this version a comedy: it’s broad, it’s for families, and clever enough to appeal to more sophisticated audiences through pop culture references.

The Favourite: “The Favourite” is a historical period comedy-drama film focussing on behind-the-scenes politics between two cousins jockeying to be court favourites during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. British Jewish actress Rachel Weisz (who played Deborah Lipstadt in “Denial”) takes the role of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. “The Favourite” is already garnering accolades in the upcoming end-of-year awards season: it won the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and been nominated for Golden Globes for Olivia Colman (best actress), Emma Stone (supporting actress) and best screenplay. (Full review coming soon.)

Cold War: The film “Cold War” is, appropriately, set during the 1950s Cold War in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish and died in Auschwitz, previously directed “Ida” (2013). His new film is an epic love story between two passionate and mismatched people of different backgrounds and temperaments. Shot in black and white, a cineaste’s delight.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: What can you say about an animated comedy where the second and third featured actor voices are Jewish women? Worth seeing, we’d say. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” stars the voice of John Reilly (again!) along with stand-up Jewish comic Sarah Silverman and Israeli actress Gal Gadot (Miss Israel 2004 and star of “Wonder Woman”). In this Disney 3-D computer animated film, Silverman plays Vanellope von Schweet (pronounce that five times fast), best friend of Ralph (Reilly). Gadot plays Shank, a tough-as-nails racer in “Slaughter Race”. The plot makes little sense to anyone over age 15, but tech-savvy children are likely to be charmed – and not confused – by the colour, movement and three-dimensional representation of the Internet as only a Hollywood studio can do it. There are hundreds of characters, all of them a mystery to this reviewer, but high entertainment value is guaranteed in this sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012): the film has been nominated for a “Best Animated Film” Golden Globe.

(image below: “Cold War” film theatrical poster)

 


What would a next Labor Government do with Australian vocational education and training: read this book

November 18, 2018

Speculation about changes of governments in Australia even reaches international audiences. So what would a change of national government mean for Australian vocational education and training? I have been monitoring the statements of the Federal Labor Opposition and report below.

Few areas of Australian public policy are more fraught than the recent experience with vocational education and training (VET). For years, commentators have criticised the marketisation/privatisation of Australian VET. They are particularly scathing over the failings of the (now defunct) VET FEE-HELP program, which may have cost Australian taxpayers up to $7.5 billion. Even the economically dry Productivity Commission described that program as “a well-documented example of how policy can fail if governments do not ensure proper policy design along with suitable regulatory oversight.”

The failures have been compounded by consistent ability of VET funding to keep up with other education funding, as the Mitchell Institute has shown: funding has gone backwards in the last ten years, especially notable compared to funding increases in university (53% up), schools and pre-schools.

The results of funding scarcity and VET brand “trashing” continues to have a “long tail” impact: Australia’s lack of a national VET policy means that not-for-profit community providers have continued to lose out.  The recent VET FEE-HELP reforms, while necessary and welcome, are not sufficient. Despite numerous well-publicised private for-profit VET college failures, it’s not over yet: On 9th November, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) instituted Federal Court proceedings against Productivity Partners Pty Ltd, trading as Captain Cook College, alleging “systemic unconscionable conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law” going back to 2015, and impacting 5,500 students.

So how is VET shaping up in the Federal sphere? If you are looking to work out the Federal Labor policy on VET, the easiest way is to read the speeches of Shadow Skills Minister Senator Doug Cameron.

An interesting theme runs through Senator Cameron’s speeches: his most quoted source is Dr Phillip Toner, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Senator Cameron has quoted Dr Toner three times this year: in his speech at a Federal VET Policy Forum in Melbourne on 16 July, at ACPET’s national conference in Canberra in August and at the AEU National TAFE Council meeting in Melbourne in April.

So what does Dr Toner advocate? The best way is to read his chapter, entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, published in a recent book that he co-edited with Damien Cahill, Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired (Black Books).

Toner’s article is 1 of 19 case studies of how “marketisation” has failed Australia. The other chapters deal with early childhood education, private health insurance, prisons, aged care, employment services, public sector engineering, electricity reform, labour market policy, financial deregulation, housing, the National Broadband Network, monetary policy, productivity, inequality, free trade agreements and foreign investment.

In other words, it’s the most complete handbook of what Australian governments have done to deregulate and to send services out to the “market”.

It’s not pretty reading. Here’s how Toner commences his chapter (p.59):

The creation of a ‘training market’ for public and privately funded vocational education and training (VET) is one of the most transparent failures of neoliberal public policy over the last three decades. There is a direct line connecting the early neoliberal economic arguments and pedagogy formulated by VET mandarins – those who designed and managed the VET system in the early 1990s – to its subsequent implementation. The VET market is an exemplar of the great damage inflicted when a naïve , idealised neoliberal conception of how markets work becomes the basis for public policy. Serious quality problems in the VET market arose from a misconceived analysis of both the economics of the private training market, and from the actual level of demand for quality training in large parts of the labour market. Further, the pedagogical system known as competency based training (CBT), instituted to develop competition between registered training organisations (RTOs) and flexibility in all aspects of training content and delivery has actually led to diminished quality of training and malfeasance among many RTOs, employers and students.

After an analysis of why VET matters in Australia, Toner examines the creation of the Australian training market, which has been modelled on the UK experience. He points out that TAFE (83%) and not-for-profit adult and community education providers (15%) delivered almost all publicly funded VET as late as 1996, but this fell to 49% and 6% (respectively) by 2016. The number of RTOs increased from 400 in 1995 to 1931 in 2016, the majority of them private for-profit providers.

Toner discusses the scale of the quality problem (“significant”), and examines the specific economic and pedagogical conditions in the training market that explain the scale and scope of poor quality and malfeasance. Minimal investment is needed, inadequate standards for teaching qualification and teaching resources and the low barriers for RTOs to enter are all exploited by opportunistic providers.

Toner concludes (p. 78) that:

The training market has followed the classic trajectory of neoliberal public policy: ebullient expectations quickly followed by disappointment leading to incessant and expensive – through largely futile – bureaucratic tinkering resulting in intensified regulation and altered incentives…. The time remaining to effect a rescue of the public VET system is rapidly diminishing

Further reading

“Social Service Futures: Marketization and regulation of vocational education and training”, by Professor Valerie Braithwaite, The Power to Persuade, 23 May 2016.

“Marketisation of VET: The New South Wales response 1990s–2017”, by Robin Shreeve and Joanna Palser, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, 16 July 2018.

“New figures quantify the extent of the TAFE disaster”, by Professor Leesa Wheelahan, 23 June 2018.

Competition Policy and Human Services: Where Theory Meets Practice, by Rhonda L Smith & Alexandra Merrett, commissioned and edited by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and CHOICE, September 2018.

(This article originally appeared on the website of Community Colleges Australia on 12 November 2018.)

(image above: cover of Wrong Way: How Privatisation and Economic Reform Backfired, Black Books, 2018)


Film review of Sobibor

October 21, 2018

(This film review of “Sobibor” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 October 2018, in a shortened form. It plays as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.)

The film “Sobibor” comes to the Festival carrying a lot more meaning than a big-budget story about a Nazi death camp., Located in eastern Poland, Sobibor (the camp) was one of the most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps, where 250,000+ Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Holland, Germany and the Soviet Union – notably including Jewish-Soviet POWs – were murdered.

The film provides a fictionalised version of the Sobibor prisoner uprising, the most successful of concentration camp revolts (Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka also had smaller, less successful uprisings). The 1987 British telemovie “Escape from Sobibor”, starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer, previously portrayed these events. (Documentaries have also been made by Claude Lanzmann and Pavel Kogan.) This Russian version carries great meaning and is likely to be one of the most watched films of the Festival, as its director and star Konstantin Khabenskiy (“Night Watch”, “Admiral”) will be a JIFF guest.

The uprising was led by the Soviet-Jewish POW Aleksandr Pechersky (Khabenskiy), who organised the uprising in just three weeks, eventually including the majority of the 550 Sobibor prisoners. With few weapons, they killed a number of SS soldiers and Ukrainian guards. Of those who escaped, about 80 were killed during the revolt, 170 others found and killed later and many others turned over by local collaborators. Yet 53 managed to survive the war – including Pechersky.

“Sobibor” can be a tough film to watch and prospective viewers are forewarned. An early scene shows a large number of naked women herded into a gas chamber and gassed, with attendant screams and vomiting. As Cnaan Liphshiz writes for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “the film is one of the goriest of its kind, there’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.”

Numerous Holocaust films have been set in the camps, notably including Oscar winners “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul”. While “Sobibor” doesn’t rise to the dramatic or artistic heights of these two, its large budget – much of it from Russian government sources – ensures that the action is realistic, although some of the details of Nazi camp procedures may be debated.

The film has already had unprecedented success in Russian cinemas, and is Russia’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards. It also carries important contemporary political significance, as part of a Russian attempt to ensure that the Soviet Union’s role in European liberation is recognised. As Russia Today reports, the film “is a major step … to preserving historical truth … about the heroism of the Soviet people … who saved Europe and the whole world from fascism at the cost of many lives.” A recent screening of the film for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscores how Russia has made the Sobibor revolt an important part of their national story.