Book review of Hollywood Blockbusters anthropology of popular films

March 11, 2011

Hollywood Blockbusters MIA book review by Don Perlgut 2011

My book review of Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies by David Sutton and Peter Wogan (Berg, Oxford and New York, 2009; AU$39.95; NZ$54.95) has just been published in the March 2011 issue of Media International Australia.  It’s a fascinating book, with useful insights (I loved the Field of Dreams analysis of baseball).

Unfortunately, in the authors’ enthusiasm for examining how cultural myths have entered the American subconscious, they have ignored some hard truths about the five films they have chosen to examine: only two of the five are bona fide blockbusters – Jaws and The Godfather, both of which topped the American box office in their respective years of first release. Field of Dreams only grossed US$64 million in 1989, and sat in nineteen place in US theatrical box office rankings. While The Big Lebowski may be a cult classic, it never has had pretentions to blockbuster status, grossing just over US$17 million when released in 1998, coming in at 96th place. The Village grossed US$114 million in 2004, sitting in twentieth place in USA box office rankings, and had an extremely rapid fall-off of admissions, testifying to that film’s lack of staying power. While these facts do not undermine the good analyses included, they do mean the book’s title is misleading: simply using the subtitle “The Anthropology of Popular Movies” would have been much more appropriate.

You can read my full review by clicking on the attachment at the top of this post.

Film review of “Wagner and Me”

March 10, 2011

This film review of “Wagner and Me” appeared in the Australian Jewish News print edition on March 10, 2011

The new documentary “Wagner and Me” is a deceptively simple feature length film.  Simply put, if you like (a) British Jewish actor and entertainer Stephen Fry, (b) the music of Richard Wagner, and (c) watching documentaries about musicians, this is a “must see” film.  If you do not fall into at least one of these categories, this is one to skip.

Stephen Fry is one of those modern British media personalities (think David Attenborough, Simon Schama) who seems to be just about everywhere at the moment:  at least two films each year plus untold amounts of TV, including more than 100 episodes of “QI”, plus four novels, two autobiographies, his travelling America documentary series (recently screened here) – and, possibly most significantly, he has been the reader of all seven Harry Potter novels for the British audio book versions.

The BBC co-production of “Wagner and Me” was made both as a television documentary (there is an hour-long version which premiered on the BBC in 2010 and is likely to come to Australian TV eventually) and for theatrical release in this 89-minute version.  This is Fry’s second foray into quality feature documentaries:   his 2008 “Stephen Fry & the Gutenberg Press” won a “BAFTA”.

In the course of the documentary, Fry visits the 2009 Bayreuth festival of Wagner’s music where he meets the composer’s great grand-daughter; Switzerland, the location of the “Ring Cycle”; St. Petersburg, interviewing conductor Valery Gergiev and visiting the Mariinsky Theatre; and Nuremberg – location of the famous Hitler rallies.  Finally he goes to London to interview a Holocaust survivor who actually played in the Auschwitz orchestra, where – we also discover – a number of Fry’s relatives perished.

The German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, of course, is a musician fraught with controversy, both during his lifetime (he died in 1883) and ever since.  He was a strong German nationalist, whose writings included explicit antisemitic themes and attacks on the likes of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, and he was acknowledged to be a major influence on the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, who adored his music.  For Jews Wagner is problematic, and will always be so:  the few performances of his music in Israel have all been the subject of extensive controversy and major protests.

As an explicitly Jewish – and gay – entertainer, Stephen Fry “knows a thing or two” about being a member of minority groups.  But Fry also loves Wagner’s music, and it is this adoration of the music that gives this film some tension.  But despite Fry’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject, he only touches on some of the “big” issues of Wagner; I was left wanting much more depth, more analysis and more insight into how we Jews can truly bridge the conflicts between our love of music and our abhorrence of a musician’s politics.  Those looking for an historical documentary about Wagner and the Jews will be disappointed, but those who secretly (or guiltily) enjoy Wagner’s music will find in Stephen Fry a soul-mate.

Prosperity Index: Australia number 4, USA number 7

March 8, 2011

It’s official: Australia is now a genuinely more wealthy country than the USA. Not in total, of course, but according to the “Legatum Institute Index of Prosperity” shown in the most recent Time magazine article by Fareed Zakaria, which is entitled “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” (my issue is dated 14 March 2011, although the online version is dated 3 March 2011).

According to the full-colour map (which you can view in the Word document below or by clicking here), of the 110 nations listed and categorised, the USA has dropped from a first place tie in 2007 to number 10. Australia is officially rated number 4, following Norway (first), Denmark (second) and Finland (third). After Australia comes New Zealand (5), Sweden (6), Canada (7), Switzerland (8) and the Netherlands (9), with the USA rounding out the top ten.

Prosperity Index 2011 Australia number 4

Interested in seeing the raw data?  The Legatum Institute “rankings page” – an interesting interactive table – makes for fascinating reading: Australia does not score particularly well in health (15th in the world), “entrepreneurship and opportunity” (13th) and safety & security (also 13th), but high rankings in education (2, behind New Zealand!), “personal freedom” and “social capital” (both fourth, again behind New Zealand) are enough to make up for some more mediocre rankings.  A question: is the USA really 1st in health, given the outrageous cost of health care for the uninsured (Obama reforms notwithstanding)?

The decline of the great American empire is, I feel, premature by a very long shot, but person by person Australia is a genuinely richer – or at least more “prosperous” country than the USA.  That is now clear.

The end of bookshops in a Borders age

March 6, 2011

Big news in Australian bookselling in recent weeks has been the imminent closing down of a number of Borders bookshops, following the bankruptcy of the American chain.  What a shame, but not wholly unexpected.  My first experience with Borders was in East Brunswick, New Jersey – my first real book superstore – back in around 1993 or 1994.  What a delight to spend time in there.  So when the Borders chain opened in Australia, I was thrilled.  When others complained that there was just a lot of American books, I found it wonderful – it SMELLED like an American bookshop!  But two things happened: (1) Borders over-expanded (just look at the list of where they opened large shops:  really did some of those malls really want or need 250,000 titles in stock? I doubt it), and (2) they started treating their patrons like, well … shit.  I did not mind (too much) that they did not discount, but I sure minded when they refused to stock latest books (I looked in vain for Philip Roth’s latest book “Nemesis” for months after it was released in late 2010 in the Borders Macquarie Centre, Hornsby and Chatwood shops, all in Sydney’s north shore) and they started charging GREATER THAN the Australian Recommended Retail Price (RRP) – a good example was the book The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – RRP $32.95 in Australia, except Borders was charging $36.95, almost 10% higher.  Who did they think they were?  I KNEW the retail price, and held that book in my hands four times but each time refused to buy it at 10% OVER the RRP.

I am deeply saddened by what appears to be the passing of Borders (I doubt the chain can survive this, mostly because most publishers will probably not want to supply them when they are not paying), but I am not surprised by it.  I love bookshops, almost as much as I love movies, but bookshops must respect their patrons.