Obama’s popularity in Australia

August 28, 2012

It’s official.  If Barack Obama was running against Mitt Romney in Australia, Obama would win by an historic landslide.  As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald today (Tuesday, 28 August 2012), an online poll by UMR Research discovered that 72 percent of Australians would vote for Obama and a miniscule 5 percent for Romney.

I could have told you that.  As a long-resident Australian from the USA, I have found that Obama is possibly the most popular politician I have ever seen … in this country.   My public expressions of support for Obama – from the moment he entered Australian consciousness in early 2008 during the Democratic primary elections – have been met with universal approval here.  That’s never happened to me before. And it’s not like Australians actually like politicians.  Plenty of people here in Australia strongly dislike both the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

But Obama haters in Australia?  I have not found one yet.  In fact, the Herald article quotes Geoff Garrett, Head of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, reporting that during the 2008 American Presidential campaign, “Australia was the third-most pro-Obama country in the world, behind Kenya and Italy”.  (Kenya okay, but Italy?)

Why is this?  No one I know can give a satisfactory answer.  But the survey has stimulated renewed interest in US-Australia political comparisons, including one by Peter Hartcher, the International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.  In the same paper, Hartcher writes in an “op ed” that Australia is much more “left-leaning” than the US, is “the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave” and “does not pay child support to all families”.  As proof of the triumph of conservatism in the US, he quotes John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, British commentators whose book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America examines the phenomenon.

I think that Hartcher, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are missing an important point, one that is less about American politics and more about American society.  The USA is, at heart, a deeply individualistic country, from its very early settlement.  Thomas Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Hearts of America, and the late Joe Bageant wrote about this in Deerhunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. (Ironically, Bageant’s book was, per head of population, MORE popular in Australia than the USA.)  I think that many commentators are confusing America’s die-hard commitment to individualism with conservative politics, Australia and British style.  The success of American commitment to the individual is reflected in its popular movies, a large number of which are about individual achievement and triumph over adversity (let’s think The Blind Side)

Pop quiz:  Which country’s leader is publicly committed to gay marriage – the USA or Australia?  Not Australia, whose unmarried Prime Minister lives with her de facto partner, but implacably opposes gay marriage.  Hmmm. It’s President Obama who supports it.  Which country still has widespread rent controlled apartments (deemed true “socialism” by many commentators of a conservative bent)?  Last I looked, it was the USA, with numerous cities participating, notably New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and numerous smaller communities.  The “Global Property Guide” deems the US far more “pro-tenant” than Australia.  So not everything fits so neatly into a British-Australian attempt to cast Americans as the conservatives in all things.  It’s far more complicated than that.

Postscript: Thursday 30 August 2012 – My letter to The Sydney Morning Herald responding to Hartcher’s Op Ed was published today.  Here is a link.  Mine is entitled “It’s complicated”, and is about 2/3 down the page.

Missed Pitch But Who Knew

August 18, 2012

At least it’s not just me.  Caught up in the hype surrounding the release last year of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (and loving the themes – college and baseball, which I played for years), I bought it in hardcover while in the USA, not waiting for the Australian paperback release a couple of months later.

I got up to page 146 (end of chapter 18); the last words I read were “She nestled into the line of his body, smelled the sweet sweaty odor of his neck, and fell asleep.”  I put it down on my bedside table in February of this year, and have not opened it since (except, just now, to check the page and the last words I had read).

Why was that?  The book is pleasant, but just not very compelling.  No strong reason to keep reading.  Once upon a time, when I was much younger and had more time and more patience … I would have persisted and finished the book.  No longer.  And my view is not alone.  In the May 2012 edition of The Atlantic, B.B Myers (“A Swing and a Miss:  Why the latest hyped-up word of staggering genius fizzles”) analyses the hype, the success and the failure, concluding that the book is “as light and insubstantial as a 512 page book can be … reading the novel through is like submitting to a long and almost imperceptibly light tickling.”  Harbach squanders “flawless if not especially distinctive prose.”

But why such success, despite such lack of substance?  Myers charts this up to a well-timed “puff piece” in Vanity Fair by Keith Gessen, a close friend of Harbach’s, and testimonials from a number of celebrities, including Jonathan Franzen.

Myers also indicts the “literary establishment’s corruption of standards”:  Once upon a time, “people used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness.”

Interested in following this?  Rarely do book reviews get reviewed, but Myers’ was.  Here’s a piece by Michael Miner (“The Art of Blathering”), who points out that Reeves Weideman gave The Art of Fielding a very positive review in the September 26th 2011 edition of … (wait for it) … The Atlantic.  By the way, Michiko Kakutani wrote a glowing review in The New York Times:  “not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside ‘The Natural’ by Bernard Malamud and ‘The Southpaw’ by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.”

Confused?  You might well be.  And I’m still unlikely ever to get past page 146.  There are some truly great American baseball novels.  Sadly, this is not one of them.


Baseball postscript:  I played Little League baseball for three years when I was young (and, unbelievably, I still have my original baseball glove, which has travelled with me since and still works).  The first year I played right field (the position the weakest players are located), and my team – the Mackinney Oilers – went 9-9, coming in fifth out of nine.  The second year I played second base (the weakest infield spot), batted .333 (although not a power hitter), and the team went 9-9 again. My final year, I played shortstop, fielded strongly, but only batted .250 with nevertheless a high on-base percentage due to drawing a large number of “walks” (base on balls) – an ignominious way to get on base, but it happened.  But the team was bad, went 0-18.  We almost won one game, however it was called off on account of rain, and when we replayed it, we lost.  My worst moment:  I came in as a relief pitcher (my only time) in a game we were losing badly, and I promptly walked three batters and then faced Ricky Earle, who was in my year at school (and was later recruited, as I remember, by the New York Yankees, although I do not recall him ever making it to the majors).  Ricky watched me carefully.  I threw the first pitch high and outside but it did not make any difference to him:  he reached over the plate and slammed it over the left field fence for a grand slam home run.  The coach took me off the mound then, and to this day my competitive pitching record is an infinite ERA (earned run average):  three walks, one home run and four runs given up with no outs.  Work that one out.

Harvard, Yale and the Making of American Presidents

August 16, 2012

Everywhere I look now there seems to be discussion about the nature of elite universities and their role in – using the words of Nicolas Lemann (The New Yorker, May 28, 2012, p. 24) – “controlling access to life membership in the elite”.

Lemann also reminds us of the high degree of alignment between the top universities and national political leadership in the USA:

Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale, or in the case of George W. Bush, both  That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting – the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating the “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.

This phenomenon has been clear for a while.  Bob Greene (CNN) wrote about it in April 2012 and the Harvard Gazette noted it back in November 2008.  For the record, the following eight Presidents all graduated Harvard, the institution which has produced the most people to hold the nation’s top office:

–          Barack Obama (J.D., 1991)

–          George W. Bush (M.B.A. 1975)

–          John F. Kennedy (S.B. 1940)

–          Franklin D. Roosevelt (A.B. 1903)

–          Theodore Roosevelt (A.B. 1880)

–          Rutherford B. Hayes (LLB. 1845)

–          John Quincy Adams A.B. 1787, A.M. 1790

–          John Adams (A.B. 1755, A.M. 1758)

And Yale clocks in with the following five Presidents:

–          George W. Bush (B.A. 1968)

–          Bill Clinton (Law 1973)

–          George H. W. Bush  (B.A. 1948)

–          Gerald Ford (Law 1941)

–          William H. Taft (B.A. 1878)

And finally, here is the list of other universities which have produced more than one President:

–          William and Mary (3): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler

–          Princeton (2): James Madison, Woodrow Wilson

–          West Point (2): Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower

–          Columbia (2): Barack Obama (undergrad), Franklin D. Roosevelt (post-grad)

I write with some knowledge about elite American universities, having attended two Ivy League colleges – Dartmouth and Cornell – and receiving my Bachelors degree from the latter.  Again, for the record, here is my brief potted history of American colleges:  I applied to eight colleges out of high school – five “Ivies” – Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania, and to three others – Union, Middlebury and Rutgers.  I was accepted at Dartmouth, Middlebury, Union and Rutgers and enrolled at Dartmouth because (a) a close friend was there and (b) it was the most prestigious place to accept me.  I left Dartmouth after one year and somewhat later (after more than a few life adventures) applied to and was accepted by Cornell (College of Arts and Sciences), where I graduated with my B.A. (or A.B., as they called it there, in the great Ivy tradition).

The year after I graduated Cornell, I lived in Boston and took an “extension” course at Harvard University in city and regional planning taught by Professor Lawrence Mann.  When I applied for Masters degree programs in city planning, I was accepted by Harvard, UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley (but rejected, I hasten to add, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  I consulted Mann about my choice, and he had three words of advice:  “Go to Berkeley.”  So I did and received my Masters degree from there.  But, I can say, I ALMOST went to Harvard for grad school.  To complete the circle, in April of this year, I received my PhD from Macquarie University here in Sydney, having originally started a PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide many years before and yet a prior PhD at Macquarie as well.

Thus I write with some experience about the American college system.  And I can tell you that the nature of American elite colleges is not a new phenomenon:  my own choices (five Ivy League applications) indicate that.  And Dartmouth at the time?  I still hold the “Freshman book” (the Dartmouth precursor of what turned into “Facebook”), with some 800 fresh faces.  At least one third attended elite private prep schools in the northeast.  About fifty percent were first team football players and I think a staggering 10 percent (yes, some 80 students) were captains of their football teams (I was not).

Elite is not new. Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are the inheritors of a tradition of “Harvard men” that extends back to the second American President – yes to John Adams.  Now, that’s history, and in this case elite tertiary education easily trumps racial differences.  Would Obama have become President if he had attended Howard University or Spelman College, both historically “black” institutions?  I suspect not.  Which may lead us to conclude that while racism may be fading (but by no means gone, more on that another time), elite education – as a concept, theme and necessity to enter the “power elite” – lives on stronger than ever.

Postscript:  For this reason, it may not be odd that I have just finished a rather unique and highly engaging novel about American college admissions:  appropriately called Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the book’s main character is an admissions officer at Princeton University (which Korelitz once was) and holds a bachelors degree from Dartmouth (Korelitz again).  I am not certain what form of Ivy League coincidence is taking place, but the previous novel I finished this year was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  All of the major characters of that book attended Brown University.

David Denby on Woody Allen

August 15, 2012

David Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker, writes approvingly of Woody Allen’s new film To Rome With Love (opening here in Australia on 18 October 2012).  In the issue dated July 2, 2012, Denby describes the film as “light and fast, with some of the sharpest dialogue and acting that he’s put on the screen in years”.

However, one of the most insightful comments that Denby makes relates to the key to Woody Allen’s success – how the film-maker turned his weaknesses into career strengths, by “exploiting his own confinements (Brooklyn obscurity, shrimpy size, neurotic fearfulness, etc.)”

Ben Stiller – Everyman and Marginal Man

August 9, 2012

He is, according to a piece in The New Yorker (25 June 2012), “the put-upon Everyman striving for dignity as the mayhem escalates.”

Tad Friend’s article, entitled  “Funny is Money: Ben Stiller and the dilemma of modern stardom”, running at more than 10,000 words and with unprecedented access to Stiller, surely provides one of the best contemporary insights into this talented performer/writer/director.  Standing at a slight 5’7”, Stiller is a “whetstone, a generous actor who elicits his screen partners’ funniest and most unexpected work” – or, as Judd Apatow (the king of modern comedy, if there is one) is quoted by Friend – “ground zero for everything in modern comedy”.

Back in 2009, I wrote that Stiller was very willing “to play – again – a foolish character with smarts.  Or is it the smart character who is really a fool?”

Fun fact about Stiller revealed by Friend:  for many years, Stiller has wanted to make a film of the Budd Schulberg novel What Makes Sammy Run? (and surely Stiller would be ideal in the title role) – a book about a hard-driving (Jewish) movie mogul whose life becomes increasingly empty as he rises the ladder of success.

And not quite the last word on why we like Stiller.  Friend writes:

A star, to the industry, is someone who can dependably get a film “open” – that is, can lure people to see it on opening weekend.  A star, to the rest of us, is the person our eyes are always drawn to onscreen.  A sirloin star like Brad Pitt is someone people long for, or long to be.  A hamburger star like Ben Stiller is someone whose struggles and triumphs give us vicarious satisfaction.

As I wrote on 14 August 2010, Ben Stiller’s characters are indeed frequently classic “marginal men”, informed by Stiller’s slightly uncomfortable status of never quite being “inside”.

Click here for my collection of writing about Ben Stiller.

The Campaign new comedy previews in Sydney

August 7, 2012

The Campaign report – 7 August 2012

On Sunday night we went to the Australian preview “red carpet” screening of the new Will Ferrell film The Campaign.  The gala screening took place at the Hoyts Entertainment complex at Fox Studios in Sydney’s Moore Park, with the movie’s primary star, Will Ferrell, in attendance, giving a brief and reasonably funny introduction.  It’s a lovely cinema – superior to anything I have been at in the USA – and we were treated “royally”, with giveaways for the film (stickers, face masks, buttons) along with free popcorn and bottles of water for everyone.

Lots of minor Australian celebrities attended, and almost everyone (excepting me and my companion) there seemed to be between age 25 and 40.

I am fascinated that Will Ferrell actually came to Australia – a good 14 hour plane trip from Los Angeles (and no short-cutting that trip, I know from long experience) at this stage in the film’s release, as it opens in North America this coming Friday – August 10th, with special midnight screenings from the night before.  Although I have not done a detailed analysis of comparative Ferrell box office between the two countries, I know that we love Ferrell’s work here in Australia. But still, it’s hard for me to believe that Australia’s box office is that significant that Ferrell would take what would have to be at least 72 hours to come to Sydney in the few days before the film’s worldwide release.  When I did the research for my PhD thesis (degree received from Macquarie University earlier this year – 2012), I found out that (as of 2003), Australia was ranked sixth top foreign market for American films, after Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and France.  That’s pretty good, but was it really worth an Australian trip for the sixth market, right now?  A number of people at Warner Brothers clearly thought so, as did Ferrell.  Nice for us down under, I guess.

(As an aside – of little interest to Warners or Ferrell – in 2003, on a per capita return basis, of the top eight box office countries consuming American films, Australia actually rated first, with an average of $AUD8.34 per person, significantly higher than all other countries.  But more on that another time.)

Curiously, the film’s Australian distributor (Village Roadshow) requested that no “print” reviews appear before Tuesday 7th August, as the film opens here in Australia on Thursday 9th August.  This is indeed an almost archaic request, given media convergence, the dramatic decline of print film reviews and the tendency of young people to read reviews online.  But on the other hand the request also seems to respect the power of print, which is certainly encouraging for those of us who mourn the continued decline of classic newspapers under the new media onslaught of the digital business model.

The Campaign runs a tight 97 minutes and is directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers), and has a quality cast, including Jason Sudeikis as Ferrell’s character’s campaign manager, Dylan McDermott as a shadowy campaign manager for Zach Galifianakis’ character, John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd as two conniving industrialists and Brian Cox as Galifianakis’ character’s unloving father.  There are some women also, but no name stars and they are secondary to the action, the plot and the audience.  Yes, this is a man’s man film, pretty much from start to finish.  Target age I’d say is between 20 and 40:  it’s actually rated “R” in the USA, although the Australian rating does not appear to be confirmed yet (update to come).

The film’s description from the Village Roadshow website:

When long-term congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) commits a major public gaffe before an upcoming election, a pair of ultra-wealthy CEOs plot to put up a rival candidate and gain influence over their North Carolina district. Their man: naïve Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), director of the local Tourism Center.

At first, Marty appears to be the unlikeliest possible choice but, with the help of his new benefactors’ support, a cutthroat campaign manager and his family’s political connections, he soon becomes a contender who gives the charismatic Cam plenty to worry about.

As election day closes in, the two are locked in a dead heat, with insults quickly escalating to injury until all they care about is burying each other, in this mud-slinging, back-stabbing, home-wrecking comedy from Meet the Parents director Jay Roach that takes today’s political circus to its logical next level. Because even when you think campaign ethics have hit rock bottom, there’s room to dig a whole lot deeper.

My analysis:  Undoubtedly this is a very funny movie, and the first film I can recall that attempts to satirise campaign finance and ethics (although I don’t know how many Australians are familiar with the McCain Feingold Act, since disallowed by the US Supreme Court, in a truly nasty decision).  There are a number of truly outrageous scenes that will most likely enter movie lore as classic comedy.  There’s a nipple scene (no more said), a baby hitting and a dog hitting scene – all close to the There’s Something About Mary classic comedy.  So good on ‘em for not pulling their punches.

But there’s also an odd tonal inconsistency:  both the Cam Brady and Mary Huggins characters span from nasty to idiotic to sympathetic – sort of a “dumb and dumber”.  Idiotic and sympathetic I can take, but the occasional nastiness was at times too much.

And I was left in a true historical vacuum:  any US congressional election takes place in the context of a national election of all members of the US House of Representatives.  And if it is to be set in 2012, a Presidential election as well (and two out of three times in each state, a senatorial election).  But no mention in The Candidate of any other elections – sort of like a “school board” election, no impact by national politics.  Not only curious, but distinctly illogical.  I could go on, but I guess that’s not the point.  Perhaps I was expecting too much.

Official film trailer:

And a fabulous fake “Cam Brady” and Marty Huggins election ads (both classic comedy):

In Darkness film review

August 2, 2012

The following film review of In Darkness appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 2 August 2012.

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Written by David F. Shamoon, based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall

In the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov, Jews have been herded into the ghetto, which is set for extermination. Ukrainian fascist blackshirts willingly do much of the dirty work for the German occupiers, and local Jews are increasingly desperate. One small group, led in part by conman Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) has worked out a hiding place: they have dug down to escape into the local sewers, although their plan goes no further, with no means of leaving the sewers or how to survive while there.

Local sewer worker and plumber Socha Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a petty thief with no love of either the Nazis or Ukrainians, and when he stumbles upon the group of twenty-plus Jews who have arrived in his sewers, he makes a financial deal to provide them with food, and works out the best hiding places. This is the set-up for In Darkness, a powerful new film based on real events of Jewish survival during the Holocaust. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, whose previous Holocaust dramas Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa have long marked her as one of the top European directors of Holocaust drama, In Darkness was one of the final shortlisted films in last year’s 2011 Best Foreign Film Academy Awards.

In Darkness is quite explicit: most of the film takes place underground “in darkness”. And there is a second meaning: in this world of moral and spiritual darkness, power, brutality and suspicion rule. Be forewarned: with its explicit scenes of Jewish degradation, murder and naked bodies, often shot in a hand-held “cinema verite” style, this is not a film for the squeamish. In Darkness also unfolds in a distinctly European style, without the explicit character set-ups favoured by most English language directors. As a result, we are thrust into immediate action, but this also means that we do not get to know most of the Jewish characters well; thus we cannot care for them sufficiently to make any of their deaths emotionally significant.

Ultimately, like Schindler’s ListIn Darkness is not so much about the Jewish victims but about Socha, the Polish Righteous Gentile, and his moral choices. Like Oscar Schindler, Socha Leopold attempts to profit by the war’s chaos, and again like Schindler he is an initially reluctant but increasingly committed saviour to “his” Jews, risking his life and that of his wife and child for less and less, and ultimately no material gain. The beauty of this film is that we believe in Socha’s transformation from small time crook to moral righteousness.

In Darkness unfolds in scenes of grit, dirt, filth and mud. The few scenes which take place outside are shadowed by gray skies and dirty snow. The fourteen months of sewer living by the Jewish survivors is nothing short of horrific, with suspicious Nazis hovering aboveground, uncertainty who to trust, shortages of food and money running out. Rats run everywhere, aboveground personal tensions are exaggerated in the cramped spaces, and the claustrophobia proves too much for many of them. Some even flee to the Nazi concentration camp as a relief.

This is a tough film to watch. At almost two and a half hours, the emotional journey is a long one, and there is little reprieve from the tension. As director, Holland is unparalleled in capturing the chaos, and the senseless and random brutality of war. Watch for the short but extraordinary scene late in the film when Mundek survives purely by chance when one German officer decides he is a more worthy worker and another is killed in his place.

Born in Warsaw in 1948 to a Catholic mother who participated in the Warsaw Uprising and a Jewish father whose family was killed by the Nazis, Holland brings an extraordinary emotional depth to her Holocaust films, intuitively understanding how survival is often not heroic but simply a mixture good luck, emotional resilience and the right guesses.  Like Roman Polanski, another Polish Jew whose life has been haunted by tragedy and loss, Holland has transcended her background of overshadowing death to produce a number of testaments – works of cinematic art – that celebrate life.  This film is one of them.

A link to the cinema trailer for the film is below.