In memory of Senator Paul Wellstone

April 30, 2009
Senator Paul Wellstone passed away on October 25, 2002. The following is the article which I wrote about him for the Australian Jewish News, published on November 8, 2002.

It seems to have passed without much notice here in Australia, but one of the great Jews of American politics died on Friday October 25th. Senator Paul Wellstone, the unabashedly liberal-progressive, fiery, passionate two-term senior senator from the state of Minnesota, died in a small plane crash in snowy northern Minnesota, along with his wife, daughter, three staff members and two pilots of the plane.

Paul Wellstone was a man of deep principle and conviction, widely popular and an unshamed supporter of the little man.  In 2001 he published his book The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda.  He was also active in the American Jewish community, as a frequent columnist for Tikkun magazine.  Wellstone was a former high school and university wrestler, and had taught at Carleton College in Minneapolis before his involvement in Democratic politics and his election as senator in 1990.  In recent years, his name was frequently mooted as a possible Vice Presidential candidate.

But Paul Wellstone was something else: my teacher, and one of my first real mentors.  He was the first person to instil a nuanced and deep political consciousness in me, and I will never forget him.  In the (northern) summer of 1971, following my first year of university, I enrolled in summer programs at the University of California at Berkeley.  One of my courses was “Introduction to Politics” taught by Paul Wellstone, then a newly minted PhD and young assistant professor. He was 27 years old.

On day 1 we students entered the classroom, but could not figure out who the instructor was – until a short barrel-chested guy started talking. This was the former champion wrestler, standing probably no more than 5 feet, 5 inches.  For three times/week I sat in his class mesmerised by this dynamic, young, articulate teacher.  Studying with him convinced me to major in Political Science and later do a graduate degree in town planning (at Berkeley, as it turned out).  If we are lucky, a few times in our lives our consciousness is raised, placing us on a whole new plane of understanding.  Studying with Paul Wellstone that summer was one of those times for me.  My term paper was on the topic of racism, poverty and politics in America, and Paul (as he insisted we all call him) gave me an A+.  I still remember his comment on the front: “Don, your paper was very moving to me. May I keep it? Paul Wellstone”.  I did, of course, sadly not keeping a copy.  (I can only hope that somehow it has made it into the collected papers of Paul Wellstone in some university archive, however I suspect not.)

But I have kept the memory of an inspiring and brilliant man, for whom the halls of academia were only a preliminary to a much larger stage – that of state and later national politics.  Paul Wellstone was true to his convictions, drawing from his Jewish roots to promote his progressive politics.  Like millions of others, I mourn his passing, but know that his teachings live on in many – who, like me – were touched by his example.

The future of television

April 30, 2009

In his blog entitled “Questions, but landscape is changed forever” in The Australian on April 13, 2009, Mark Day writes:

If we look through the increasingly clouded questions surrounding the Rudd Government’s plans for a fibre-to-the-home high-speed broadband network, how it will be designed, who will build it, who will own it and what it will cost end users, one thing is crystal clear: this is a game-changer for media.

The $43 billion plan is a television killer.  When it is built it will consign the Packer era of TV to the dustbin of history.  Our future TV menu depends on new technologies and new paradigms.

Existing separate platforms for free-to-air television, cable or satellite systems and telephony – fixed or mobile – will merge in devices using internet protocol.  Most television sets sold by 2015 will have inbuilt internet connection capacity, which, when connected to large pipes, will become an alternative method of distribution.  This changes the nature of TV from a one-to-many one-way broadcast delivery system to a one-to-one, two-way system.

This is pretty profound stuff.  Did you read that correctly?  Possibly within six years most televisions will have excellent Internet access capability.  They are already being sold.  Here in Australia, the ABC and SBS are already putting numerous programs as “video on demand” through the Internet once they have been broadcast.  The future is now, and there is clearly no going back.  More on this topic to come.

Mary and Max

April 26, 2009

The new Australian film Mary and Max opened in Australia on Thursday April 9th.  It’s a beautifully made film, done with extraordinary care and love, by Oscar-winning film-maker Adam Elliott (Harvie Krumpet).  In my Australian Jewish News film review (click to read the full review), I concluded that the film “is unlikely to find a significant cinema audience because of its bleak outlook”. 

I am afraid that I am right on this one.  After two weeks of release, despite overwhelmingly positive (indeed, ecstatic) reviews, Mary and Max was sitting at number 12 in the Australian theatrical box office (see urbancinefile box office) with $653,618 gross box office – as of April 22nd on 50 screens with a weekly screen average of $5,553.  That’s not a bad screen average, but the film will need to pull better figures through positive word of mouth to keep playing.  We will watch with interest.

Philip Roth on screen

April 24, 2009

Philip Roth continues to be one of the most astonishing writers of our age, proving year in and year out that he “still has it in him”, by writing consistently interesting – and frequently popular – novels, even as he has just passed 76 years old.

I have always felt a strong affinity with Roth, ever since I read his first short novel (novella, really), Goodbye Columbus, first published in 1959.  I loved that book – set, as it was, in the suburbs of New Jersey (where I also grew up) and charting the bittersweet romantic adventures of a lower middle class Jewish guy and his upper middle class Radcliffe girlfriend.  In my junior (year 11) or senior (year 12) of high school, I wrote a major paper for English class about Roth’s then first four novels: Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go (1962), When She Was Good (1967) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).  I recall my English teacher at the time arguing with me that he was not a major writer, but I successfully argued back that he would indeed be one.  So I got to write the paper.

I was right, of course.

I have not read all of Roth’s books, but well more than half, and he continues to astonish me. I  am still haunted by his book The Plot Against America, truly one of the best “alternative histories” ever written.

He and I have a few things in common:  like growing up Jewish in New Jersey, and both of our fathers working for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. A nd here’s another one – my former yoga teacher’s father taught English at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey … to Philip Roth.  Just two degrees of separation there.

Considering Roth’s amazing output of books (twenty-five novels, two memoirs, two books about writing, and apparently two more in the works – The Humbling due out later this year (2009) and The Nemesis due in 2010 (see Wikipedia’s Philip Roth Bibliography) – it’s interesting that relatively few have been adapted to the screen as films:

Goodbye Columbus, made in 1969 (with the action transferred out of New Jersey to New York and the suburbs north of New York City), starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw – and a candidate for one of my favourite films of all time.  The best portrayal of American Jewish middleclass life circa the late 1960s (when the film is set, a good ten-plus years after the book was set, which was in the late 1950s).

Portnoy’s Complaint, made in 1972, again with Richard Benjamin, and a definite contender for one of the worst films of all time.

The Ghost Writer, a TV adaptation made in 1984 which I have not seen.

The Human Stain, made in 2003 starring Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, the African-American pretending to be Jewish (see my March 2004 review of this film), and Nicole Kidman as his illiterate girlfriend.

Elegy (based on Roth’s book The Dying Animal), which has just been released in Australia in April, starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz (see my separate posting on Elegy).

American Pastoral, apparently set for release later this year (2009), directed by the Australian Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, Patriot Games and Newsfront, which surely is one of the best Australian films ever made) and rumoured (BUT NOT confirmed) to be starring Jennifer Connelly, Evan Rachel Wood and Paul Bettany.

The Human Stain

April 24, 2009

Film review of The Human Stain, originally published in the Australian Jewish News, March 5, 2004

Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise and Wentworth Miller

Noted American-Jewish author Philip Roth’s novels have had a mixed result when adapted to the screen (see my post about this topic):  Goodbye Columbus became the most successful Jewish-theme films of the 1960s (and remains fascinating to this day for its insightful and humorous portrayal of suburban Jewish life), but Portnoy’s Complaint was a classic case of a book that never should have been adapted to the screen. So it is with interest (concern?) that I approached the latest adaptation: Roth’s best-seller The Human Stain, directed by Robert Benton and written by Nicholas Meyer.

The Human Stain is not a perfect novel, but arguably one of Roth’s most fascinating creations and one of the most absorbing modern American novels on the nature of personal identity.  The lead character is Coleman Silk, a professor of classics at a New England college who carries a wounding secret:  he is an African-American, but “reinvented” himself in the late 1940s (well before it was fashionable to do so) as Jewish.  In doing so, the light-skinned Silk turned his back on his family and rejected not only his race and his roots but his whole young life.

The book (and film) picks up the story in 1998, during the Clinton Presidential impeachment hearings.  Coleman Silk – who has had a very successful academic career at Athena College, rising to the position of Dean of the College – is accused of racism for referring to two absent (and totally unseen) students as “spooks”.  To this charge, Silk only responds with anger, and not the (hoped for) contrition.  Silk, now at age 70, later commences an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner at the college who is half his age.  This passionate relationship comes with its own trials, shadowed by the recent death of Faunia’s two children and her half-crazed violent husband Lester, who stalks her.  The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman (a character from a number of other Roth books), a withdrawn and emotionally damaged Jewish writer (with a passing resemblance to Roth himself) who befriends Coleman Silk and discovers his secrets.

 There is a lot of plot in The Human Stain, what with extensive flashbacks to Coleman’s early life in the navy and in university, backgrounding his decision to “become” Jewish – neatly turning the question of Jewish assimilation 180 degrees: Jews want to become Anglos, but the blacks are so desperate they want to become Jewish.  In all of this, Meyer’s script is outstanding, and one of the best complex adaptations I have seen.  He has kept the main story both in feel and in action, and stripped the book of inconsequentials.

Benton is also an excellent director, and The Human Stain (the film) looks exactly like I had imagined it should:  shot in and around Williams College and Williamstown, Massachusetts, the absolutely perfect setting for Athena College.  The supporting cast are also extraordinary.  Ed Harris plays the redneck Lester Farley with the controlled menace and believable madness.  Gary Sinise – who I would not have picked for an introspective Jewish writer – did end up convincing me, mostly because I felt his pain.  In his first film role, Wentworth Miller reportedly felt his role of the young Coleman very strongly, as he comes from mixed black and white parentage.  Anna Deavere Smith is scintillating as Coleman’s mother.

But I am still troubling over the headlining actors of The Human Stain:  Anthony Hopkins as the older Coleman, and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley.  Hopkins can play crazy, or British butlers or academics, or industrialists, or even Richard Nixon, but an American black man masquerading as Jewish stretched my credibility.  Kidman was a great Virginia Wolff and a convincing Cold Mountain preacher’s daughter (also see my review of her in the film Australia), but has skin too fine and a bearing too regal to become the down-on-her-luck Faunia. Hopkins and Kidman act superbly in The Human Stain, but that’s just what it is: acting, not inhabiting their roles in the true sense that they were written.

The Human Stain is a wonderful and at times moving film marred by odd casting choices.  That, of course, is the point of the story: in modern America, we can reinvent ourselves, be who we want to be, but it does cost us in the end.

SBS Radio interview

April 18, 2009

During 2007 and 2008, I did a number of radio interviews (in English) with Nitza Lowenstein, the Executive Producer of the SBS Radio Hebrew program.

You can access (and download) the January 23, 2008 program by clicking here.  In this program (approximately nine minutes), I discuss the following films:   We Own the Night, Margot at the Wedding, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, Death Defying Acts, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Sex in the City.

The Knowing

April 13, 2009

The Knowing is the new film starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Alex Proyas.  It opened in Australia a few weeks ago, and as I write this it is sitting number 5 in the US theatrical box office at US$68 million after four weeks of release.  In Australia after two weeks, it was sitting at number two with about Aus$4.6 million, and will probably have an equivalent run here (Australia, that is) – which is defined at approximately 10% of the US box office (not discounting for exchange rates).  (These figures will change quickly over time.)

Proyas directed one of my all-time favourite films – I, Robot – the first two-thirds of which are truly haunting, as well as some of the scenes towards the end (robots looking depressed and peering out of shipping containers – wow!).  His other work includes Dark City and The Crow.

Proyas is Australian and shot The Knowing in Melbourne – standing in for Boston (I have always know Melbourne was a good surrogate for Boston or Philadelphia, glad someone else worked this out too), and the film features a large number of Australian actors (Rose Byrne, D.G. Maloney, Ben Mendelsohn, the haunting Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend) all playing Americans.  For those who know downtown Melbourne, there are a number of street scenes where you can recognise landmarks – sometimes digitally altered.  There is also a scene in front of the Victorian Parliament where the film-makers did not remove a Victorian train map (as it was supposed to be in New York at the time).

The Knowing is a highly effective film, sticking with me well more than a day afterwards – although it sure takes an unrelieved “we don’t have free will/mankind is doomed approach” to the story.  (Not exactly the sort of message that makes you want to get up in the morning.)  The action and effects are stunning, but be warned – try NOT to view a complete preview prior to seeing the film.  I saw the preview twice and it gave away the two biggest disaster set pieces in the film, so that I was not surprised when I was supposed to be.  Shame on those who put that trailer together.  (There is a third disaster set piece that was new to me, but it was less important to the plot.)

The Knowing is set in Lexington, Massachusetts – it starts in 1959 with the laying of a time capsule that will be brought up 50 years later, and a young girl had written a whole page of numbers that our hero (Cage, doing his suitably mournful appearance – and boy does he have things to mourn – a dead wife, a kid who hears things, a depressing gray and brown house and the end of the world facing him) works out that the page is actually a whole chart of disasters which took – and will take – place.  I have been to Lexington a number of times, and what a shame that the film did not make more use of this very historic town (one of the birthplaces of the American Revolution) just outside of Boston.  It could just have easily been set in anysuburb USA, why Lexington?  Next time, scriptwriters, make a good connection with historical meaning – perhaps this is where the Melbourne shoot did hinder the film?

A good sci-fi/supernatural/action thriller.

Best New Jersey films, ever …

April 11, 2009

Here is my growing and evolving list of “best New Jersey films, ever …”

Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (2008) – the young characters are all from northern New Jersey and have a long and revealing night out in New York City where they find love and themselves.

The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke’s tour de force – was all set and shot in Central New Jersey, that depressing gray and brown landscape which we native-born New Jerseyans remember so fondly.  My favourite moment:  when his character leaves the hospital – which hospital?  Robert Wood Johnson Memorial Hospital, where I was born.

Garden State – starring and written by Zach Braff.  Read my review.

The Return of the Secaucus Seven – the first film by my great man John Sayles (more on him anon).

Baby, It’s You (1983) – another film by Sayles, this one starring Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano – my 1984 New York Times article about this film will be posted here shortly.  When you go to high school in New Jersey, there is something which imprints in your brain for the rest of your life.  The first time I saw this film I was absolutely transported to central New Jersey, circa late 1960s.  This does not happen very often, so enjoy it when it does.

Being John Malkovich – most of the action actually takes place in New York City, but when the characters are transported “out” of Malkovich, they land … by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.  My review of this film will be posted soon.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) –

Atlantic City (1980) – one of the greatest films of all time.

more to come.

Wikipedia also has a list of films set in New Jersey.  Remember that Wikipedia entries evolve over time and can by idiosyncratic at times.  Still, it’s a good place to start.  The New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission has a “New Jersey filmography“, which includes television series and specials, but not all of them appear to be specifically set in New Jersey.

Garden State the film

April 11, 2009

Continuing my New Jersey theme … the following film review of Garden State appeared in the Australian Jewish News on November 26th 2004.  See my “article in progress” on “Best New Jersey films”.

Review of Garden State – Directed and written by Zach Braff

Starring Zach Braff, Ian Holm, Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard 

The nostalgic American notion of “home town” is enduringly powerful, with numerous books (Tracey Kidder) and songs (Bruce Springsteen) about it.  Even states like New Jersey that have few identifiable iconic images – or perhaps especially in places like New Jersey – the idea of returning to your “home town” after years away at university, work or travel remains a common and near-mythical experience.  In a country with so much choice, opportunity, movement and change, the idea that the home town does not alter, but remains locked in time as you have left it is a seductively strong concept.

This is the background to Garden State, the new film written, directed and starring American Jewish film-maker Zach Braff.  In the film, New Jersey native and wanna-be actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) returns to his home town for his mother’s funeral, after more than nine years away.  His family life had been anything but idyllic:  his mother had been wheelchair bound after a domestic accident Andrew was blamed for, and his psychiatrist father Gideon (Ian Holm) had kept him taking Lithium (an anti-depressant) for years.

There’s lots of local resonance for Andrew, but little real connection.  His remaining friends all have dead-end jobs as grave-diggers, in hamburger joints and hardware shop clerks.  Andrew is a damaged and depressed soul, not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s direction-less homecoming character in The Graduate.  But instead of meeting Mrs. Robinson, Andrew stumbles upon Sam (Natalie Portman, from Star Wars and Cold Mountain) – a warm, lively but equally hurting person – with whom he slowly and tentatively begins to open up to.

Garden State is reminiscent of John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven and David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey – both languid films about twentysomething males seeking their own way in life.  Little actually happens in Garden State, although it is imbued with a deep sadness and sense of loss.  Andrew tries to avoid the inevitable confrontational discussion with his stony-faced and silently accusing father, and slowly unfolds his damaged psyche for Sam.  A substantial part of the film is taken up with a day-long search where Andrew and Sam accompany Andrew’s grave-digging friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) on a half-hilarious/half-delirious treasure hunt, mostly an excuse to introduce us to a good range of weird New Jersey characters.  Sarsgaard, so extraordinary in the recent film Shattered Glass, brings a much-needed animal energy and sense of danger to the film, as Braff plays the depressive Andrew almost too well and too low-key.

Garden State also operates on another level, as a snapshot of an assimilated and moderately dysfunctional American suburban Jewish family, although no-where near the destructive family portrayed in Capturing the Friedmans or the weirdness of Todd Solondz films.  The Largemans are Jewish, as is the doctor (Cohen, played by Ron Leibman) Andrew goes to see.  Andrew’s mother’s funeral is a Jewish one, and the sense here is of an economically successful but spiritually bankrupt assimilated family.  Braff even gives Andrew and Sam one long scene in which they discuss about suburban Jewishness.  It’s an interesting sidelight, one rarely taken by mainstream American films.

I suspect that I am the only New Jersey-born Jewish film critic writing in Australia, so this film should have resonated with me more than it did.  In a strong cast, I found that Braff simply let the side down, as the film’s emotional power is dependent on his performance, and it was if anything underplayed.  But the relationships are all delicately observed and the humour is subtle – many, I am certain, will relate to the themes of loss, change, growth and renewal.  Braff is a writer/director we will hear from again; like David O. Russell, his best work is still to come.

Duplicity the twister plot

April 11, 2009

Saw the film Duplicity recently – a good film, although not quite in the category of writer/director Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton.  I enjoy watching Clive Owen so much that I will go to anything he appears in – although I am still most haunted by his role in the dystopian and rivetting Children of Men.   He plays baffled intelligence and humorous British sex appeal very well – and fits our times in a way that is hard to describe.  For a good article about Duplicity, read D. T. Max’s “Twister” in the New Yorker of March 16, 2009, about director Gilroy.  But be warned – the article makes only partial sense if you have not seen the film.  Gilroy does great time shifts, and his use of a repeat dialogue scene (4 times, by my recollection, each of them with a different meaning – and each of them giving the film a different perspective) between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts is already entering the world of film legend.