Macquarie University graduation

March 22, 2012

I will officially receive my PhD from Macquarie University on 18th April, and have been invited to be the student commencement speaker – a great honour.  I will post my speech here after I have delivered it.

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French film festival in Australia features “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “Free Men”

March 10, 2012

As dedicated film-goers understand, the beauty of film festivals is that they bring to us the new, surprising and off-beat films that simply will not find a mainstream audience for a general release.  The irony is that even in our moment of sixteen free-to-air television channels, unlimited video on YouTube and easy illegal downloads of “How I Met Your Mother”, film festivals have continued to grow in popularity.

The Alliance Francaise film festival is one of the most popular “foreign” festivals in Australia.  This year it surprises us with two unique French-Jewish historical films, one about a rabbi in early 20th century Algeria and the other about how Arab émigrés helped to save Jews in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” (French title: “Le Chat du Rabbin”) is based on a five-part series of graphic novels (we used to call them “comics”) by French-Jewish artist Joann Sfar.  At age 31, Sfar is one of a new generation of French comic artists, and acknowledges his debt to 1930s American animation styles, and is particularly influenced by Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine (a Jewish expressionist painter) and Will Eisner.  He comes from both an Ashkenazi and Sephardic background and is strongly identified Jewish in his life and work.

Sfar had previously directed “Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life”, which had a brief cinema release in Australia in mid-2010.  He both wrote and co-directed the film “The Rabbi’s Cat”, and thus the animation is lovingly faithful to his striking visual style.  However the true delight of the film is how it cleverly frames questions of modern Jewish identity.  The fantastical story of how the widower Rabbi Sfar (yes, same surname), his grown daughter Zlabya and their talking cat (who swallowed a parrot, thus can speak) negotiate life in Algeria in the pre-war years operates in part as adventure story and in part as philosophical meditation on Jewish life.  For Jews, many of the film’s scenes are, quite simply, laugh-out-loud funny.

Reviewers have described the film’s visual style as a cross between “Tintin” and Chagall, and compared it favourably to the Iranian animated film “Persepolis”.  It won a top award at the 2011Annecy International Animated Film Festival, which is the premiere “go to” place for animated films.  With its talking cat, there are shades of the 1986 animated film “An American Tail” (a Russian Jewish mouse emigrates to America) as well, but “The Rabbi’s Cat” is definitely for adults.

By contrast, the film “Free Men” (“Les Hommes Libre”) takes a direct dramatic approach.  Set in 1942 occupied Paris, a young Algerian Muslim black market trader Younes (Tahar Rahim) is coopted by the French police to inform on activities at his local mosque (whose imam is played by Michael Lonsdale from “Of Gods and Men”).  The politically naive Younes is gradually drawn into the intrigue and ends up supporting local Arab efforts of working with the Resistance to save French Jews.  Reportedly “inspired by true events”, the film is a conscious effort to show that Arab-Jewish enmity is not ordained.  The film provides a unique view (the Arab perspective) of a crucial period in history French-Jewish history, although the narrative develops somewhat slowly and the limited production values pale against sharper French films set during this period.

Both films screen numerous times in each city where the festival runs:  Melbourne (7-25 March), Sydney (6-25 March), Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.

(This review appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Jewish News on 1 March 2012.)


My Week With Marilyn – religion and class on screen

March 5, 2012

Directed by Simon Curtis

Written by Adrian Hodges

Starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Zoe Wanamaker, Dougray Scott and Dominic Cooper

My Week With Marilyn released in late November in both the USA and the UK, but is still relatively early in its third week of release here in Australia, where it has grossed more than Aus$1.5million – not bad for an art-house film.

The year was 1956.  She was one of the most famous women in the world.  He was one of the most acclaimed actors.  Thus Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and Lawrence Olivier Kenneth Branagh) began their collaboration on the film The Prince and The Showgirl, based on the stage play The Sleeping Prince by Terrence Rattigan  It was the first production of her company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and was shot in England’s Pinewood Studios.  Olivier had previously acted in the stage play with his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond); when Monroe’s production company obtained the film rights, Olivier agreed to come on board as long as he could direct and co-produce, as well as co-star.

Colin Clark (1932-2002, played by Eddie Redmayne in the film) was 23 years old at the time, and his family was friends with Olivier/Leigh:  his father was Sir Kenneth Clark, the great art historian (and presented of the television series Civilisation). Colin’s two accounts of the making of the film – on which he was “third assistant director” – have become the source material for My Week With Marilyn, and which unashamedly tells the story of its difficult and strained production history during the period August to November 1956.

I am a sucker for films about historical films (and so, apparently are the Oscars: witness the recent success of The Artist in the recent Academy Awards).  There is something very delightful about showing the British film industry in the 1950s – truly an under-exposed slice of film history, at least to American audiences for most of whom non-American film production is simply unknown.  Michelle Williams is a delight as Monroe, and has proven to be a popular choice, receiving a Golden Globe for her performance, as well as being nominated for both an Oscar and BAFTA.

As My Week With Marilyn tells the story, Olivier was brutish, impatient and brusque with Monroe, who was a combination of delicate flower and sex goddess.   Monroe had recently married the Jewish playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), who accompanied her to England for the production and – only six weeks into their marriage – reportedly were already having relationship difficulties.  Monroe is accompanied by a number of other minders, acting coach Paula Strasberg the daughter of “Method” acting guru Lee Strasberg (played by Zoe Wanamaker), manager/production company executive Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and publicist Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones).  Once Miller leaves England, as Clark tells it, Monroe’s insecurities, worries and drug problems started to become more significant, and she took him on as her support person in a romantic relationship that captivated him, despite the disapproval of almost everyone on the production.

It’s a wonderful young man’s fantasy, reinforced by the young Clark taking Monroe to his old school (Eton) and to Windsor Castle, where they are allowed in because Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi) – the Royal Librarian – is Clark’s godfather.  What a dream for every 23 year old!

And also what an odd view of celebrity.  Clark, as we know, is anything but an “everyman”.  He came not simply from the upper middle class, but from what I will call the “working” or “employed” upper class of England, with a “Baron” father and connections to the highest levels of British society.  This background inevitably colours Clark’s portrayals in the film (and presumably his original source materials):  Judi Dench’s Dame Agnes Sybil Thorndike comes across as intelligent, discreet and kind.  Perhaps she was.

But of greater concern are the portrayals of the Americans:  although the film does not specify it, all five of the American characters in this film are Jewish, including of course Monroe, who had converted to Judaism on 1 July 1956 to marry Miller.   At one point, Paula Strasberg calls Monroe “bubbaleh”, which is a Yiddish term of endearment like “pet” or “honey”, but aside from that, there is no indication of the Jewish characters.  In fact, other than Marilyn, the other four Jewish characters come across as crass and uncouth – a distinctly (shall we say) British upper class view of American Jews.  The very strong implication in this film is that the Colin Clark character somehow “saves” Monroe from both a nasty Olivier and the four grasping American Jews.  The idea here is that Monroe, as a blond, middle-American convert to Judaism, is not really Jewish at all, but has somehow been “taken in” (or manipulated) by Jews because of the Jewish “control” of Hollywood.  At one point, when Monroe kisses Colin in the film, she says “that’s the first time I have ever kissed anyone younger than me”, and then something about a lot of older (did she mean Jewish?) men in Hollywood.  Monroe’s conversion certificate is below:

And what happened to The Prince and the Showgirl, which was released in June 1957?  Despite its alleged production difficulties and mixed reviews, the film still came in under budget and became profitable, gaining five BAFTA nominations and won Italian and French film awards for Monroe.  Monroe made three more films in her lifetime: Some Like it Hot (1959, directed by Billy Wilder), Let’s Make Love (1960, George Cukor) and The Misfits (1961, John Huston).  Monroe was only thirty years old at the time of The Prince and the Showgirl, and died just five years after the film’s release in 1957.

Good sources: An archival site about Milton H Greene, Marilyn’s manager/production partner, who was particularly famous for his photography. A wonderful description by Elisa Jordan about the production history of The Prince and the Showgirl, on The Examiner.com.  And here is the original trailer for that film:

And of course the original trailer for My Week With Marilyn:

And finally, here is Marilyn Monroe’s imprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood (photo credit: C Perlgut, Nov 2011):


YouTube and the streaming of America

March 4, 2012

It’s not just America, of course, but since YouTube is now owned by Google and is an American company, let’s leave this title as is for now.

A January 16, 2012 article (“Streaming Dreams: YouTube Turns Pro”) in The New Yorker by John Seabrook updates us about where YouTube is fitting in the world.  For the sake of brevity, here are his key points.  I encourage you to read the full article if you have any interest (and you should) in the impact of the online world.  Because where YouTube is today, the rest of the world will be tomorrow.

– By 2016, one half of all US households will have Wi-Fi enabled devices on their TVs.  The impact of this will be profound, because all of that web video will come to us in our lounge (living) rooms, in glorious widescreen.  Home entertainment, as we know, will change even more.

– YouTube went live in May 2005, created by three former PayPal employees in … a Silicon Valley garage (but of course).

– YouTube is now the second most popular search engine in the world (after Google).

– YouTube has 800,000,000 million unique users a month, generates more than three billion views per day and 48 hours of new video are uploaded to the site every minute.

– YouTube has some 30,000 “partners”, and the top 500 earn more than US$100,000/year from their videos on the service.

– Advertisers spend some US$60 billion annually on television, but only $3 billion on online video (not certain if this is just in US or not).

– One reason for this lack of video advertising is that for a long time, YouTube was not seen as “brand safe” because its streets “were not clean and well lit”, according to David Cohen, a Universal McCann executive vice president.

And finally, Seabrook makes a good description of the dichotomy between the “Hollywood” mind set and the “Silicon Valley” mindset.  Hollywood is founded on “scarcity” (in TV, airtime is a scarce resource, and expensive to create) so “entertainment works by withholding  content with the purpose of increasing its value”.  By contrast, Silicon Valley is founded on an “abundance” mentality (information, rather than entertainment), and spends its time “writing great programs to process it” and “giving people useful tools to use it”.


Joan Didion and the female imagination

March 4, 2012

Almost three years ago, I highlighted a great article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” books.

Well, Flanagan has surpassed herself in an article in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic about Joan Didion – entitled “The Autumn of Joan Didion”.  Unlike so many news and cultural outlets these days, The Atlantic appears to make all of its content free online – and thus I, for one, am keen to support them as much as possible.  So buy their magazine (and then throw out the paper copy once you have finished with it – or better yet, pass it on to a close friend – and keep looking at the online links if you need to go back to it, as I am now) and patronise their advertisers. Keep them in business, please, with writers like this one.

I am not in the core Didion demographic, not being of the female persuasion, but I have always enjoyed her work (although not the recent efforts – more on those, perhaps, another time), particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays.  Here is one description by Flanagan:

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures.

Or this:

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.

But what makes Flanagan’s writing so memorable and touching is her interweaving of the personal with the cultural and the historical.  She (Flanagan) grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of the Chair of the UC Berkeley English Department.  Her description of the dinner which Didion attended at Flanagan’s house (Flanagan was 14 at the time) and Didion’s major lecture on the campus during that visit, is one of the best in recent English-language essay writing.  This was Flanagan’s view at the time:

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall.

The personal, the political, the literary, the historical all combine here in an evocative and moving cultural memoir about female writers in America.


Streep wins Oscar for Iron Lady, credits her Dartmouth experience for understanding the role

March 4, 2012

This post belongs in the “sad but true” category, as it does not reflect all that well on one of my “alma mater” undergraduate universities:  Dartmouth College.

One week ago, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” for her stand-out performance in The Iron Lady.  For a couple of months now, a number of news sources have been reporting on how Streep connected her performance in that role to her experience as an exchange student (from Vassar College) at Dartmouth College in the (northern) autumn of 1970 – see The Dartmouth newspaper, The Seattle Times, and the “Simply Streep” fan blog posting from 18 May 2000.

As I revealed on this blog in my review of the film Julie and Julia (6 October 2009), I acted with Meryl Streep in a student-written play – called “The Killer Ape” – at Dartmouth in October 1970 during her exchange period.

A 19 May 2000 interview in The Dartmouth newspaper (reporter Mark Bubriski) provides much of what we understand about Streep and Dartmouth College.  She went to study there because of its reputation for good theatre and the students there “seemed pretty cool”.  She took a playwriting class with Errol Hill, a dance class (in which she was the only woman) and a costume design class (and received all “A’s” in her courses).  She reportedly “does not remember” the plays she acted in while at the College, although the interview notes that she did participate in the “less than memorable” Frost playwriting competition one acts – which she does not remember.  Okay, for the record (including Meryl’s, in case she is keen to collect this sort of thing, which I somehow suspect she is not), here is a copy of the program of part of the Frost competition in that October 1970:

And yes, there’s my name on the program with hers.  Click on the image above to enlarge it.

For those who are interested in this sort of thing (and hey, what Dartmouth or Vassar grad is not?), The Dartmouth interview also notes that Streep returned to live in Norwich, Vermont – near Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth to be with her boyfriend at the time, who was starting at the Dartmouth Medical School.  She acted with the Green Mountain Guild in Vermont and waited on tables.  The following summer, while continuing to act and wait tables, she applied to the Yale University School of Drama. She received a scholarship to attend and enrolled that fall.  The rest, as they say, is history – or rather, very public history.

Neat, huh?  And the connection to The Iron Lady?  Well, Streep has been quoted saying that as one of 60 female exchange students with 6000 men at Dartmouth in the fall of 1970, she felt the isolation which she could later translate to her role as Margaret Thatcher and get inside the head of the character:  “And so a little bit of my emotional work was done for me.”

Actually, it was 120 female exchange students (as I recall) and only 3000 men, but it probably felt worse to her, so I won’t argue.


Australian Independent Media Inquiry Reports … and the implications are profound

March 3, 2012

Yesterday (Friday 2 March 2012) the Australian Independent Media Inquiry – headed by retired Federal Court Judge Ray Finkelstein – issued its report.  And what a “doozy” it is.

Here is some background, taken from the report (to access it, click here on the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy web page), which runs a full 474 pages. Announced by the Minister (Stephen Conroy) on 14 September 2011, the terms of reference were to report on:

– The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms.

– The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment.

– Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints.

– Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

The result is a philosophical, “folksy”, easy to read and quite comprehensive snapshot of where the Australian press is today – and particularly examining the issues of freedom of the press, media business models and regulation.  It is not every report to the Minister that quotes Thomas Macaulay, John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty (1859), John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), US Supreme Court cases from 1951, Canadian Supreme Court cases from 1957, radical thinker Cass R Sunstein’s Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech (1995), Jurgen Habermas’ The Postnational Constellation (2001) and US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart – and that’s only in part of chapter two (“The Democratic Indispensability of a Free Press”).  I was particularly interested in chapter three “Newspaper Industry Structure and Performance”, about which I will write more in detail in a later post.

I attended one day of the Sydney public hearings of the Inquiry:  Thursday 17 November 2011 at the University of Sydney, in a windowless, featureless and bland small lecture room called the Marjorie Oldfield Lecture Theatre.  I was there particularly to hear Dr Margaret Simons, who is the Chair of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation (of which I am a Board Member) and who (in December 2011) took on the position of Director for the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of the new Master of Journalism at The University of Melbourne.  Surprising to me (as the Inquiry did not publicly advertise it) were the next people to appear: John Hartigan and Campbell Reid from News Limited.  The press really showed up for that.  I sat right behind them during their “discussions” with Justice Finkelstein (and believe me, Mr Hartigan showed no pleasure at all about his being there).  Here is a photo of me from the next day’s Sydney Morning Herald, sitting behind them (in the gray shirt between Hartigan and Reid):

I have not attended very many of these Inquiry hearings, but this one struck me as rather unusual.  Finkelstein conducted all of the questioning himself and did so frequently in a very informal manner, wishing to engage his participants in philosophical debates at times, and keeping the discussion very wide-ranging (the report certainly reflects this style).  Characteristically, Finkelstein has decided with the publication of his report NOT to engage in public discussion about it (this strikes me as relatively unusual in this day and age), providing the following rationale in his media statement:

  1. While the report is lengthy there is a summary which sets out my recommendations together with a synopsis of my reasons.
  2. The report proper contains a detailed analysis of the issues I thought ought to be addressed. There is nothing I can usefully add to that analysis.
  3. Having completed my task, it is appropriate for me to await any discussion about the report’s contents, rather than to pre-empt that discussion.
  4. I do not think it fair to speak to individual members of the media lest it be thought I am showing preference to some over others.

I don’t think the media is thrilled by this, because they thrive on personalities and conflict and extravagant statements.  This Finkelstein declines to do.  Good on him – although I suspect he will continue to be in a minority in this regard.

Here is a link to the The Sydney Morning Herald article (page 3, Saturday 3 March 2012) about the inquiry’s report, which is entitled “Fears of media showdown if new watchdog wins approval”.  The greatest worry expressed in the article is that the key recommendation – to set up a government-funded “News Media Council” (replacing the voluntary industry regulation through the Australian Press Council) – “would be tantamount to government regulation”.  I am not so certain about this, partly because it seems to be universally acknowledged that the Australian Press Council is not fully functioning as it needs to (at least that was the sense in the hearing I attended).

So far, the reaction has been News Ltd, Western Australian Newspapers and the Institute of Public Affairs all do not like it, the Greens party does and Fairfax Media (publishers of the Herald) were “still digesting” the report.  I am not so worried about the “government regulation” problem, although this would necessitate some changes to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the current regulator of many broadcast and advertising activities.  Let’s see how this one plays out in the coming weeks and months.