A creative voice stilled: Sydney’s 99.3fm closes

October 30, 2009

A major cultural and creative voice on Sydney’s North Shore has been stilled:  the community radio station 99.3fm, based in Chatswood, has closed down due to financial issues.  The website does not give any details yet, but I understand that after a number of years of successive financial losses the station’s board of directors decided to close the station and turn its operations over to an administrator.  Excellent talent, a large part of it virtually equal to what you can hear on commercial or ABC radio, is no longer part of Sydney’s airwaves.  Also gone is my weekly radio interview at 3.00pm on Wednesdays, which I have been doing for four months already.

Nicholas Rothwell and the failed state

October 27, 2009

In my decades of reading Australian newspapers, I have never come across a more damning and fascinating piece of analytical journalism than Nicholas Rothwell’s article “The Failed State”, in The Australian newspaper of October 24, 2009.  Rothwell has been The Australian‘s northern Australia correspondent for some years and is the author of two books on the topic, and – unlike most journalists – truly has spent much time travelling and experiencing his enormous “beat” of the Top End.

Here is how Rothwell starts:

In Australia we are used to seeing progress in governance, not failure.  We expect governments in our jurisdictions that function well, provide efficient services, and maintain a fair match betweent the rhetoric of politics and the facts on the ground.

There is, though, a failed state in our midst.  That state is not Aboriginal north Australia, where the social fabric is in shreds and tatters.  No: it is the jurisdiction largely responsible for entrenching this degree of indigenous disadvantage:  the modern-seeming, self-governing Northern Territory.

On the face of things, all the standard attributes of a democratic society are present here in Darwin: a parliament, political parties, government departments, a range of key social institutions that look much like their southern equivalents.  But in fact the Territory is best understood as an interlocking set of interest groups.  It is heavily dependent on outside funding, the bureaucracy is shot through with politics, almost all medium-sized business relies on public sector contracts and the entire system is founded on the administration of an Aboriginal underclass.

This is an extraordinary set of claims, and we will see what sort of impact Rothwell’s criticism may have.

Update November 1:  On October 31, Rothwell published his second article in this series in The Australian, entitled “Giving It Back:  A Revolution in the Bush”.  One of his conclusions:

We stand at a point of redesign for the remote NT.  It is a defining point for the federal government, and for the Prime Minister, whose one great weakness is his portfolio of dying indigenous initiatives.

Worth reading.

Waltz With Bashir film review

October 25, 2009

This film review originally appeared in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on September 12, 2008

Written, directed and produced by Ari Folman

We Jews are excellent at remembering, with many of our major festivals organised around re-telling of historic events.  But what happens when memory does not come?  This is what faced Israeli film-maker Ari Folman in attempting to remember what he did at age 20 during the 1982 Lebanon War, when he ended up in Beirut, very close to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres.  How fitting that Folman is the son of Auschwitz survivors.

One friend asks if has tried psychotherapy, shiatsu, “that sort of thing”.  But Folman went a different route, tracking down people other soldiers who served in Lebanon at the time and turning their stories into one of the most unique documentaries in many years.  The result is Waltz with Bashir, a feature-length animated documentary with re-creations of the incidents described in the interviews.

This MA15+ rated film well and truly earns its strong rating in the first scene:  a pack of wild, mean and very angry dogs race through the streets of a city which appears to be Tel Aviv, knocking over street furniture and terrorising bystanders as they arrive at an apartment building, from which a man fearfully peers down.  These are the nightmares of Boaz Rein-Buskila, an accountant whose job in the Lebanon War was to shoot the dogs in the villages his army unit entered so that their barking would not give the soldiers away.

And thus it goes with each interviewee’s on-screen story.  Ronny Dayag was the only survivor of a unit that was ambushed near a beach in Lebanon, but he survived by swimming south in the ocean at night until he reached Israeli lines.  But he remained scarred by the experience of survival.  And there is Shmuel Frenkel, a unit commander who applied patchouli oil so that his men would know where he was by its distinctive smell.  During a street fight in Beirut when he and his men are pinned down by sniper fire he grabs a machine gun and runs into the street, firing and dancing wildly – thus the film’s title Waltz with Bashir, Bashir referring to the murdered charismatic Lebanese Christian politician Bashir Gemayel.

Most of the interviewees appear on screen in animated versions of themselves, all in discussion with the director Folman, and in most (but not all cases) it is their actual voices which we hear, telling their stories in their own words.

The drawings in the film operate on a number of levels.  They help us to re-live the horror of the war, the visuals of which could be overwhelming if we were watching real pictures or possibly would be distracting if actors played the roles in the recreations.  They also help to shield the interviewees – we don’t see their faces as they re-live what for many are terrible memories.  Instead, we see the film-makers’ interpretations of how they expressed themselves.

The animation – in a strange palette of colours, mostly yellows and greys with occasional flashes of other colours – both simplify and unify the stories.  The animation artists’ strokes are often broad, but the drawings are powerful and emotionally engaging, and frequently blackly humorous.  The sense of the absurd (resonances of Apocalypse Now and other classic war films are surely intentional) is accentuated by a brilliant soundtrack with a mixture of original scoring and a number of popular but biting Israeli songs.

The visuals are captivating, and the result of Waltz with Bashir is powerful and unsettling.  But be warned:  this is strong stuff.  If some of the recreations were live action and not animations, the film could very well have strayed into full “R” (restricted) territory.

With its unusual approach, Waltz with Bashir breaks new ground in film-making and was nominated for best foreign language film in the February 2009 Academy Awards (but did not win, losing to the Japanese film Departures).  It could equally have been nominated for best documentary.  It’s that type of film:  part art film, part psychological journey.  Aside from some explicit criticism of Ariel Sharon’s inaction during the siege of Beirut, there is little specific political content here, although the futility of war (given that Waltz with Bashir was released after the 2006 Lebanon war) is an obvious point to make.  Few films capture the tormented post-traumatic stress of former soldiers as well as this one does.  What surprises will the contemporary Israeli film industry come up with next?

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee film review

October 25, 2009

This film review appeared in the print edition of the Australian Jewish News on October 22, 2009

Directed and written by Rebecca Miller

Starring Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Blakely Lively, Keanu Reeves, Mike Binder, Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder

Sneaking into only a few cinemas in Sydney and Brisbane this week is The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a most unusual and notable film written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who is the daughter of famed Jewish playwright Arthur Miller and married to British actor Daniel Day-Lewis.  Rebecca Miller is an accomplished creative artist in her own right:  this film is her fourth directorial outing, and is based on her novel (released in 2008) of the same name.  One of her films, Personal Velocity (2001), won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Rebecca Miller specialises in character-driven psychological dramas, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee follows in this vein.  Pippa Lee – born Pippa Sarkissian (with an Armenian father) – is the much younger wife of Herb Lee, an ageing Jewish New York publisher.  The film opens as the two of them have moved from New York City to a pleasant but bland retirement community in suburban Connecticut (the state where Miller was born and grew up).  Pippa is superbly played by Robin Wright Penn, in at times anguished performance of a still-young woman uncertain about what to do in life now that one child is studying law and the other working as a professional photographer.  She appears to be some thirty years younger than Herb, who is played by iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, who continues to take on challenging roles (he won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine in 2007).  After a number of heart attacks, Herb is wearily feeling his age and senses that he is moving closer to death.

The move to Connecticut has begun to bring out the stresses in Pippa’s and Herb’s relationship, and we slowly realise that Pippa is carrying some extremely heavy emotional baggage.  This is revealed by a series of flashbacks to her youth with her rigid Christian minister father and mentally unstable mother (a powerful performance by Maria Bello) and to her young twenties of sex and drugs, leading to when Herb – then married to someone else – found her.  Strange things are now happening in the Lee household; is it Pippa’s sleepwalking or something more sinister?

Enter Chris Nadeau (Keanu Reeves), the son of the Lees’ neighbour, fleeing a bad relationship in California, and we know that something is due to happen between him and Pippa.  It’s an odd pairing:  Reeves’ character is meant to be 35 years old, at least ten years younger than Pippa (but Reeves is actually 45) – and Penn is actually 43, younger than Reeves in real life.  But it works, in the strange universe that Rebecca Miller creates.

Miller’s directing style is a bit stilted and mannered, reminding me of David Mamet, another Jewish writer/director.  Although the film ends hopefully, her psychological vision of upper middle class suburban life in the USA is a pretty bleak one.  While there are some flashes of humour, Miller is much more concerned with plumbing the depths of Pippa’s “private lives”.  There are quite a few of them – not quite The United States of Tara – but sitting in neighbouring territory, just without the levity.  The strength of this tight little film is powerful acting, with a cast that also includes Jewish actress Winona Ryder, Jewish actor/director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me) – whose character Sam Shapiro is also clearly Jewish – and Julianne Moore.   The Private Lives of Pippa Lee leaves much unsaid, including the obvious fact that the daughter of a Christian minister has chosen an older Jewish man and father figure for her husband.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee premiered in Australia at last June’s (2009) Sydney Film Festival but is not due to open in the USA until late November, making this Australian opening highly unusual.  Miller’s novel is also currently available in Australian and American bookshops.

Diabetes Channel video

October 25, 2009

A video of me has just (October 23) been released on the Australian Diabetes Channel, which is run by Diabetes Australia – NSW.  In this short segment, I discuss the work of the Rural Health Education Foundation and its four-part educational television series on diabetes type 2.  Go to http://www.diabeteschannel.com.au and click on the News and Research tab to view the video.

The fall of Rome – the ABC’s MD gets poetic

October 22, 2009

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Managing Director Mark Scott is increasingly becoming a true breath of fresh air in his willingness to be provocative and establish new platforms of discussion about media, and is looking like the most interesting ABC MD since David Hill left the national broadcaster in 1995.

Scott’s latest is his October 14, 2009 A.N. Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism at the University of Melbourne, which is entitled “The Fall of Rome: Media After Empire“.  This has been much-discussed in the media (click here for Margaret Simons’ take on the lecture) – but what is particularly interesting is the poetry which Scott uses.  He quotes extensively from W.H. Auden’s poem “The Fall of Rome”, noting that “It took Edward Gibbon nearly 20 years and six volumes to map The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, but that Auden “condensed the experience into just 28 lines”. 

His point (and that of the poem):  “there is no one reason empires fail”.  He ranges over the Hearsts and Grahams (in the USA), and the Packers, and pays particular attention to Rupert Murdoch.  And then he returns to the biggest media issue of the day:  how can media organisations make proper return on their investment in the days of “all is free” on the web.  Rupert Murdoch, to be sure, is attempting to lead a big reverse charge here – see his recent speech in Beijing (October 10) to make the content aggregators (ooh Google, that must be you) pay.

Scott’s “hesitant” solutions summarised:

1.  The only media organisations that will survive will be those who know and accept that all the rules have changed.

2. Successful organisations will be endlessly inquisitive about the new, understanding that no-one knows where the next breakthrough idea or technology will come from.

3. Successful organisations will be willing to empower their audiences to contribute, to create and to share their media.

4. Part of the protection of media assets will come through diversification.

5. The great challenge is to start within, on areas of (internal) culture and behaviours.

Great stuff, fascinating reading.  Big stakes.  And Mark Scott is “stirring the pot” in a way that we have not seen for some time.  Watch this space.

The Curse of the Media Mogul

October 17, 2009

An important article has just appeared in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Moguls’ New Clothes”, by Bruce C. Greenwald, Jonathan A. Knee and Ava Seave, taken from their book – just published in the USA (October 15, 2009) entitled The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies.

Jonathan A. Knee is an investment banker and an adjunct professor and director of the Media Program at Columbia Business School.  Bruce C. Greenwald is a Professor of Finance and Asset Management at Columbia Business School.  Ava Seave is principal and cofounder of the consulting firm Quantum Media and has held management roles at Scholastic Inc. and The Village Voice.

Here is an interesting quote from their article and book:

A number of highly profitable media companies provide so-called must-have content to professional markets, like the legal, medical, or financial communities.  But even here, the actual content rarely creates the competitive advantage.  Indeed, much of the content is not even owned by the media company—for instance, public legal decisions, or the price at which two parties trade a security on an exchange.  The barrier to entry raised by these companies comes instead from how they integrate, analyze, and deliver multiple sources of diverse content, much of which is widely available.  Put simply, the core of any competitive advantage more often than not derives from the manner of aggregation rather than the creation of content, continuous or otherwise.  It is no coincidence that Google, the most profitable and successful new media company, is an aggregator, not a content creator.

Being economists, they go on about the “barriers to entry” and “competitive advantage”, but their analyses – not especially complimentary to media moguls (presenting various myths which the moguls operate on, and demolishing them) – are particularly valuable.  The Google competitive advantage has been hashed and re-hashed many times (and will again shortly, with Googled – The End of the World as We Know It by Ken Auletta – early November release in USA and a 1 December release in Australia).  And it is easy to say that “Google is an aggregator” and therefore so much more powerful than a simple producer of content.  But it is awfully hard to become a financially successful aggregator of content.

Postscript:  Ken Auletta has just published an article entitled “Searching for Trouble: Why Google is on its guard”, in the October 12, 2009 edition of The New Yorker, which draws from his upcoming book.  (Note not all of the article is currently not all available online.)