Your summer reading list

November 30, 2012

It’s summer here in Australia.  Or, technically it will be here in Sydney in about ten minutes, once the clock strikes midnight to December 1st.

Each year the non-profit Grattan Institute publishes its “Summer reading list for the Prime Minister”.  And they have just published this years list.  It’s an interesting mixed bag, with six books (as well as seven articles), all non-fiction and mostly with an economic tinge.  That’s Grattan’s focus, although I would have liked to see something a bit more creative, as I fear that our Prime Minister (and almost all parliamentarians in Australia) are not reading enough creative works, thus possibly limiting their imagination.

Of the six books, I suspect that Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and An Angry Nation – originally published in June – probably is the most direct (and “on the mark”), but it is all about politics ….  There is also Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, intellectually challenging in a good way.

But all still a bit … uncreative, at least for me.

My own list to come soon.


Australia the film revisited

November 25, 2012

It has been more than four years since the November 2008 release of Baz Luhrmann’s film AustraliaCertainly it was the biggest Australian film in many years, and probably the most expensive Australian film ever made – ever.

Set in the Northern Territory in the late 1930s and early 1940s and presented as a classic “Western” love story between its two major stars – Nicole Kidman (playing Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat) and Hugh Jackman (simply known as “The Drover”), within the opening credits Australia the film rapidly identifies its major theme:  of Aboriginal reconciliation and the “stolen generations”.  This term refers to those Indigenous Australian children who were removed from their families as part of systematic policies of forced assimilation by Australian state and national governments.  This destructive policy lasted from 1909 to 1969 and resulted in the decimation of tens of thousands of Indigenous Australian families, the impact of which is still being widely felt throughout Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  For more information about the ”stolen generations”, go to the following resources:

–  The Stolen Generations Fact Sheet, by Reconciliaction

– The Stolen Generations Alliance

– The original 1997 Bringing Them Home report resulting from the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, available from the website of the Australian Human Rights Commission and from the Indigenous Law Resources Reconciliation and Social Justice Library

The “stolen generations” have been the subject of other Australian films in the past, notably Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce, and adapted from the Doris Pilkington novel Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (1996).  (For a review by Fiona A. Villella of that film, click here.)

Australia (the film) explores this theme particularly through the character of Nullah, played by Brandon Walters, an Aboriginal boy from Broome in his feature film debut, who was 11 years old at the time of the film’s production.  Walters gives an astonishingly natural and touching performance; his interaction with Nicole Kidman’s character becomes the real emotional core of the film, eclipsing the much-promoted Kidman-Jackman romance.  According to Baz Luhrmann at the time, Walters was to be “Australia’s next leading man” (well, not yet, anyway).

When he first began planning the film some years before production, there was no way that Baz Luhrmann could have known that Australia’s (then) new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, would (on February 13, 2008) issue a long-sought apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia for the Stolen Generations.  (Click here for the complete text of the apology and Prime Minister Rudd’s speech; note pdf document of 41kb.)

The fact that the most expensive Australian film ever made has the Stolen Generations as one of its central themes is astonishing.  Although, to be fair, Australia the film has at least seven themes operating.  In addition to the Drover-Lady Ashley romance and the Indigenous mistreatment, there is the robber cattle barons (played by Bryan Brown and David Wenham), the challenging cattle drive to Darwin, the coming of age of Nullah – including his relationship with his grandfather (played by David Gulpilil), the disapproving Darwin “society” and – notably – the World War II impact on Australia, including the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 (more on this last theme shortly).  (Spoiler alert:  this review will now reveal some plot points, so stop reading NOW if for some reason you have not seen the film and want to be surprised when you do.)

The Indigenous themes of Australia extend beyond the plight of Nullah (who is indeed forcibly removed and taken to a mission on an island off Darwin, based on the Tiwi Islands).  Hugh Jackman’s character The Drover has an Aboriginal best mate, who, we discover is his former brother-in-law:  he was indeed previously married to an Aboriginal woman, who died when she was refused treatment in a hospital.

Despite Luhrmann’s best and well-meaning efforts, he has endured some withering criticism for his film’s Aboriginal concerns.  Writing in The Guardian (UK) on December 18, 2008, Australian expatriate social commentator Germaine Greer took issue with the praise of the film by Marcia Langton (Aboriginal studies professor at University of Melbourne: click here for Langton’s Melbourne Age response to Greer) and notes that Luhrmann has “created a new myth of national origin”.  She goes on to say that “Luhrmann’s fake epic, set in 1939, shows Aboriginal people as intimately involved in the development of the Lucky Country; the sequel would probably show Nullah, the Aborigine boy who narrates the film, setting up an Aboriginal corporation and using mining royalties to build a luxury resort on the shores of Faraway Bay.”

Sarcasm aside, Greer is on firmer ground when she points out that:

The camera does not travel to where the Aboriginal workers would have lived with their extended families in a collection of humpies – shelters made of bark and branches – with no clean water, no sanitation and no electricity.  As the humpies were not intended for continued habitation they would have been verminous and filthy; the workers would have been issued with a single set of work clothes, ditto.  Despite the appalling infant mortality rate, there would have been dozens of children of various shades.  The Aboriginal workers would not have been paid, but simply given poor-quality rations, because the station owner claimed the whole community as dependents.  Aborigines did virtually all the heavy work, fencing, mustering, castrating, branding, slaughtering, digging dams, making roads, gardening, washing and cleaning.  No attempt would have been made to educate Nullah or his mates.

These problems – poor living conditions, desperate poverty, illiteracy, institutionalised racism, remoteness and few chances of economic betterment, combined with family destruction – still bedevil Indigenous Australia, with achingly slow progress.

In a discussion on ABC Radio National’s Movietime program on November 27, 2008, Daniel Browning (producer-presenter of Radio National’s Indigenous arts and culture program Awaye!) was equally as scathing, calling Luhrmann’s Australia a “post-reconciliation fantasy”.

These criticisms were, perhaps, inevitable, and one of the key fantasies of Australia – that somehow an English lady in 1930s Northern Territory would become a surrogate mother to an effectively orphaned Aboriginal boy – presents such an unlikely scenario that it threatens to re-write the history of Aboriginal-white relations.

Luhrmann also re-wrote history when he showed a Japanese army landing party on an island off Australia just after the bombing of Darwin:  the Japanese did not, repeat, DID NOT, ever land on Australian soil and shoot Australians.  For more information on the bombing of Darwin, go to the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal article or the National Archives of Australia fact sheet, which notes that “The air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had bombed Darwin 64 times.  During the war other towns in northern Australia were also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs being dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.”

And yet.  And yet.  Luhrmann does succeed in presenting a vision, fantastical as it may seem, of an Australia where whites and blacks do get along.  Racism is there in his film, and it is palpable, and the results are obvious and explicit.  It’s just not realistic, and far from complete.  It’s only a movie, and a Baz Luhrmann movie at that.  From Strictly Ballroom to Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rouge! , Luhrmann has never been a “realist” director.  Why ever would he start being one now?

Postscripts on the reception of Australia:

On 7 January 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald and reported:

In the 5½ weeks since its premiere, Australia has taken $28.8 million….  Locally the film has been a hit in the very place it romanticises, regional and rural Australia.  Greater Union’s national film manager, Bill McDermid, said yesterday that the film had done particularly well in Canberra, Toowoomba, Cairns and Mackay. “Positive word of mouth in our regional cinemas is driving excellent attendances.”

Australia was filmed in a number of outback locations, including Darwin (NT), Kununurra and various East Kimberley locations (WA) and Bowen (QLD), as well as at Fox Studios and various historic houses in Sydney.  The film had four simultaneous premieres in Australia on 18 November 2009:  one in each of the cities above.

Michael Bodey reported in The Australian (Friday 16 January 2009, page 5) that Australia (the film) was far and away the biggest Australian film at the box office in 2008, earning $26.9 million by the end of the year.  It represented more than 75% of all Australian film box office takings last year, which made it a sad moment for Australian film-making generally when all the other 32 films only grossed $8.6 million.  Australia was ultimately the sixth biggest film of the year, behind The Dark Knight  (although it was still going strong on 31st December 2008).  While Australia did not do particularly well in North America, it was been quite popular in both Europe and Asia.

The film received one Academy Awards (Oscar) nomination – for “Best Costume Design” for Catherine Martin (although she did not win).  The film has also received four Film Critics Circle of Australia nominations:  for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (young Aboriginal actor Brandon Walters), Best Cinematography (Mandy Walker) and Best Score (David Hirschfelder).

Ultimately Australia the film became the second highest grossing Australian film (unadjusted for inflation).  The DVD was released in Australia in early April 2009, while the film was still playing in a few Australian cinemas.  Responding to the claim of one British critic that the film left “no cliche unturned”, Luhrmann responded that this comment misunderstood the nature of melodrama, which “has been the building block of storytelling in cinema since the form was invented”.  Take that, you doubters.

Trailer for the film below:

(Next stop:  The Great Gatsby).


The USA on Australian Television: Two must-see shows on SBS

November 22, 2012

If you live in Australia, it’s not too late to start watching the best two hours of weekly quality American television documentary we have going right now.  Appearing each Tuesday evening on SBS One are two outstanding (and astonishingly relevant) four-part series: America in Prime Time (about American television) at 8.30pm and Clinton (part of the “American Experience” series, about Bill and Hillary Clinton) at 9.30pm.

These two series (we have had the first two hour-long episodes of the four already) go well beyond the breathless reporting on American media/culture (the former series) and politics (the latter series) that usually passes for “informed” analysis.  Both were produced originally for the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network (yes, the one that Mitt Romney wanted to “de-fund”).

The Clinton series also has extraordinary timing:  Hillary Clinton just visited Australia, in Perth for a series of meetings with senior Australian politicians for “AUSMIN” talks.  The difference between the Hillary Clinton we saw this past week on the SBS (the early, naive, years of the Clinton Administration in 1993) and the Hillary of now – November 2012 – is amazing. The poised, confident and experienced politician Hillary has moved a long way in the last 19 years.  She is also a political survivor, and able to reinvent herself successfully – first as a very successful Senator from the State of New York and then as a very successful Secretary of State (and hey, didn’t she just help broker the Israel-Gaza cease fire?).  She tried for the Presidency three years ago, losing the nomination to Barack Obama, and she may yet try again in 2016. Somehow I doubt it, but that still does not diminish the oustandingly successful  journey she has been on during the last eight to ten years.

Interested in reading more about the Clintons?  The US PBS network has helpfully put together an online bibliography.


New Jersey Hall of Fame

November 20, 2012

Did you know that New Jersey has a “Hall of Fame”?

I didn’t.  But it does.

I have written previously about the sort of sensitivity New Jersey natives (of which I am one) feel about their home state.  Dwarfed by New York City to the northeast and Philadelphia – and beyond that, Washington DC – to the southwest, New Jersey is constantly in search of a definition in a way that means something.

I suspect the New Jersey Hall of Fame is one of those ways to do it:  by honouring famous New Jersey natives (Michael Douglass, apparently born in New Brunswick) or residents (Albert Einstein), we in turn feel better about … living in New Jersey.  Or being from there.

Like the Academy Awards, the New Jersey Hall of Fame appears to work because people (at least in New Jersey) take it seriously. In fact, at the Hall of Fame “Class of 2012” induction that took place in June 2012, “all of the living inductees accepted in person and many family members were there to accept on behalf” of those who had passed away.

The ten new members were Milt Campbell, Dr. John Dorrance, Michael Douglas, Coach Bob Hurley, Wellington Mara, Samuel I. Newhouse, Annie Oakley, Joyce Carol Oates, Christopher Reeve and Sarah Vaughan. Here’s a photo:


The previous inductees are listed below by year:

CLASS OF 2011
John Basilone
Tony Bennett
Governor Brendan Byrne
Mary Higgins Clark
Admiral William Halsey
Franco Harris
Leon Hess
Queen Latifah
Bucky Pizzarelli
Martha Stewart
Joe Theismann
John Travolta
Bruce Willis
Unsung Heroes:
9/11 Victims & First Responders

CLASS OF 2010
Count Basie
Judy Blume
Justice William Brennan
Danny DeVito
Larry Doby
Michael Graves
Carl Lewis
Jack Nicholson
Alice Paul
Les Paul
Phillip Roth
Susan Sarandon
Wally Schirra
Frankie Valli
President Woodrow Wilson
Unsung Heroes:

Marc DiNardo & James D’heron

CLASS OF 2009
Bud Abbott & Lou Costello
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Althea Gibson
Jon Bon Jovi
Jerry Lewis
Guglielmo Marconi
Shaquille O’Neal
Phil Rizzuto
Paul Robeson
Carl Sagan
Walt Whitman
William Carlos Williams
Unsung Hero:
Captain Brian Brennan

CLASS OF 2008

(the first year)

Buzz Aldrin
Clara Barton
Yogi Berra
Bill Bradley
Thomas Edison
Albert Einstein
Malcolm Forbes
Robert Wood Johnson II
Vince Lombardi
Toni Morrison
Norman Schwarzkopf
Frank Sinatra
Bruce Springsteen
Meryl Streep
Harriet Tubman


Film review of The Sessions

November 15, 2012

(This film review of “The Sessions” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 15 November 2012 in a shorter form.)

Written and directed by Ben Lewin

Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy

“The Sessions” is a challenging and frequently moving film about a highly unusual subject:  sex and the disabled.  The film is set in Berkeley, California in 1988 and tells the story of how Mark O’Brian, a severely disabled writer and poet who eventually received a Masters degree in journalism, strove – against high odds – to become a sexual being.

It wasn’t easy.  And the film takes on a particular power because its basic elements are all true, going so far as to keep the real names of most of the major characters.  There was a real Mark O’Brian, who was paralysed from the neck down and forced to spend most of his time in an “iron lung” to help him breathe.  He did contract polio as a child and at age 38 decided that he wanted to lose his virginity.  He found a sex therapist – Cheryl Cohen Greene – with whom he learned how to have intercourse.

Australian-Jewish director Ben Lewin, who himself survived polio as a child and has walked with crutches since, directed the film and wrote the screenplay from O’Brian’s 1990 article entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate”.  To establish the credibility of “The Sessions”, the real Cheryl Cohen Greene and a later partner of Mark’s – Susan Fernbach – both worked as consultants to the film.  It is clear, however, that Lewin’s own life experiences are reflected in this film in some very profound ways, with Lewin describing O’Brian as a “soul mate”.

John Hawkes, an able-bodied actor, plays Mark O’Brian, whose disabilities were so severe that he could only lie down on a portable bed and move his head to type – with painstaking slowness – his poems and articles.  O’Brian had to be wheeled around by a carer everywhere he went, particularly after his motorised gurney was taken away from him because he had had too many accidents while driving it himself.

Hawkes, best-known for his Oscar-nominated performance as “Teardrop” in the 2010 film “Winter’s Bone”, delivers an extraordinary performance in the role, where the character cannot move and can only portray emotion through his face and voice.  Except for too many muscles on a body that has not moved for three decades (the real O’Brian was only 140 centimetres tall and weighed 27 kilos); the performance is convincing, very funny and devoid of sentimentality.

Helen Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex therapist – married to a Jewish man (played by Adam Arkin) and with one child at home.  The role demands that Hunt is frequently naked, and the film includes full frontal nudity and a number of simulated sex acts.  This is a brave performance, and Hunt’s combination of emotional brittleness and energy are almost perfectly suited for this role.  I will be very surprised if both Hawkes and Hunt are not nominated for Academy Awards early next year; these are the sort of challenging and tough roles that the Oscar voters love and that set “The Sessions” apart from previous films about disability.

“The Sessions” title refers to the therapy sessions which Greene and O’Brian have, limited by Greene to a maximum of six.  The third major character who appears in the film is a wise and supportive priest named Father Brendan, played with warmth and empathy by William H. Macy.  This role appears to be manufactured for the film, giving the audience an opportunity to “get inside” O’Brian’s head, exploring his Catholic guilt and his own emotional journey.  It also gives Macy some of the film’s best lines, delivered with a wry and clever demeanour that goes a long way to restoring faith in the Church’s ability to counsel its parishioners.

Jewish audiences will most likely respond to a fascinating scene towards the end of “The Sessions”, when Cheryl Cohen Greene – who is formally converting to Judaism – goes to a mikvah (the attendant is played by noted Jewish actress Rhea Perlman).  The mikvah’s symbolic cleansing – likely to be lost on most non-Jews – here operates both for her upcoming conversion as well as her choice of unusual occupation.

I lived in Berkeley, California in the late 1970s and my time there overlapped with Mark O’Brian’s.  As a result, I was a bit disappointed that the film only briefly touches on the social and political environment of Berkeley, a city which is the national centre for disability rights and home of the world’s first centre for independent living for disabled people.  Only one other disabled character appears in the “The Sessions”, and an uninformed viewer might think that Mark O’Brian’s situation was more unique than it really was.  Many of the hundreds of severely physically disabled people who live in and near Berkeley are sexually active.  O’Brian’s challenges and his efforts to overcome them were certainly unusual, but mostly of degree.  Much of this has already been covered in a 35-minute 1996 Oscar-winning short film entitled “Breathing Lessons” by Jessica Yu.

“The Sessions” tries very hard to transcend its subject – how a man overcomes great barriers to become sexual – and mostly succeeds, providing clear insights into what really matters in relationships and life.  Tender, funny, touching and unsentimental, its subject may not appeal to all audiences and is probably not suited for casual dates.  “The Sessions” is also inspiring and uplifting and unlike any other film you will see this year.

Here is a trailer for “The Sessions”:

Postscript:  A good source of information about Mark O’Brian is this October 22, 2012 San Jose Mercury article on O’Brian by Karen D’Souza.  The official website for the film is here.


The test of our progress is not adding to those who have much

November 14, 2012

Here is the best quote of the week, originally spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his Second Inaugural Address, on Wednesday 20 January 1937:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

The quote seems particularly important, given that last week’s re-election of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden has confirmed that the majority of Americans do, after all, consider the needs of the “community” to be equal – if not more important than – the individualism put forward by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.  The American election was indeed a choice between two competing ideologies:  the importance of government and the triumph of the private sector.  It was close, but those who favour government were (and are) in the majority.


Hurricane Sandy – Did it make a difference to Obama’s election?

November 11, 2012

There has been much speculation about Hurricane Sandy and did it make a difference in the American election.

My view is that the difference was very slightly positive for Obama, but did not impact the results in any state.  Why do I say this?

First, Obama had already been re-bounding in the polls, consistently so since early October.

Second, the Mmajor impact of the storm was primarily in states that are solidly democratic, particularly New York and New Jersey (they were voting for Obama no matter what).  So while the storm may have encouraged more of them to vote for the President and lift his total numbers, the impact on the actual race is not significant.

Third, the response to the storm certainly made Obama look more Presidential – and particularly positive in comparison with George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The warm embrace by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a significant national Republican figure, certainly helped.  Romney was on the record of saying that FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – should be abolished, not a popular move in the aftermath of the storm.

But this is countered by the difficulties which many people may have in voting because of power outages, lack of petrol and general destruction.  It is the poor people and minority groups who are affected by these problems more so than the rich – and the poor are much more likely to vote for Obama.

On balance – a slight plus for Obama, but no real impact on the electoral college.