Jewish films featuring in Sydney Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

January 28, 2013

From relatively humble beginnings in 1979, the Sydney Mardi Gras – at first primarily a gay pride parade – has grown into a full series of events and parties, attracting numerous international visitors to Sydney – and not all of them gay and lesbian.  Its Executive Director has estimated that the Mardi Gras is the second largest event in New South Wales, generating an annual income of about $30 million.

An outgrowth of the Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras Film Festival is currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, but stems from a history of gay and lesbian film screenings running back to 1978.  Like the Australian Jewish Film Festival, many of those early years were supported by the Australian Film Institute, although the ownership has long since moved on to Queer Screen, a non-profit membership-based organisation.

Each year, the Festival features at some films of Jewish interest, and increasingly they are films made by Israelis and set in Israel.  This year is no exception, with two planned screenings of Eytan Fox’s new film “Yossi” (February 21 and 23), which originally screened in Australia last November as part of the Jewish International Film Festival.  “Yossi” is a follow-up to the ground-breaking “Yossi and Jaeger” (2003), and features the same character and the same actor at Yossi (Ohad Knoller), now working as a cardiologist but still suffering from the loss of his lover.

Yossi film image2

The film opened in New York City cinemas on 25 January 2013, so this Australian preview is timely, with Australian theatrical release not yet confirmed.  The (US) National Public Radio reviewer Ella Taylor calls the film “sublimely tender”.  Stephen Holden in The New York Times describes the film as a “beautifully acted but overly sentimental story of a man’s emotional rebirth in a more sexually liberated era”.  Holden also called the film “a pointed portrayal of the revolution in social attitudes inside the most liberal and secularized of Israeli cities”, even though he believes the film unrealistically portrays the acceptance of “gays in the Israeli military … (without) the slightest undercurrent of tension”.  As of 28 January, the “Metacritic” website reported four fully positive and seven “mixed” English language reviews of the film – with no negatives.

The other Jewish-related film in this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival is Keep the Lights On, an autobiographical film co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, a gay American Jewish film-maker.  Sachs is a frequent collaborator with Israeli film-maker Oren Moverman: they worked together on Married Life, starring Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams.

Ira Sachs + Oren Moverman

Lincoln and Django Unchained: Products of the Obama Political Era

January 27, 2013

As most films are products of the particular times in which they are written and produced, the late 2012 release of Django Unchained and Lincoln gives us much to ponder.  What strange confluence of events saw two large budget American films both set against the background of slavery around the time of the Civil War?  While Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln uses the debate over the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (abolishing slavery, a follow up to the better known “Emancipation Proclamation”) as a dramatic instigator coinciding with the final months of that bloody war, Quentin Tarantino’s Django presents as a “revenge fantasy” against all of those nasty and brutal white slave owners.

In some very odd way, both of these films are products of the Obama era of American political life.  In fact, it’s possible to see Lincoln as a lengthy parable for the current deadlock in Washington:  a liberal President (Obama) whose policies are frustrated by backwards conservatives.  The year 1865 was different (the Republicans were, more or less, the party of progressivism at the time – although American politics has rarely been as easily categorised as it is now).  And Abraham Lincoln, at least according to Spielberg’s interpretation, working from a script by Tony Kushner, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s massive (916 page) book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, despite his enormous popularity, was having his will frustrated by a “do nothing” House of Representatives.  Like Obama’s experience, the Senators were not the issue at the time.  And somewhere in their film, Spielberg/Kushner seem to be saying that if only Obama were a bit more wiley, a bit more willing to “kick heads”, he might be able to pass his progressive slate of legislation.

Conservative columnist Mona Charen makes the Obama-Lincoln point very explicitly (albeit with a heavy tinge of criticism and negativity):

He swore his oath of office on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. He has asked to give the State of the Union address on Lincoln’s birthday. He rode to Washington in 2009 on a train route similar to Lincoln’s in 1861. He has compared his critics to Lincoln’s critics. He confides to admirers that he likes to read the handwritten Gettysburg Address that hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom…. Obama’s second inaugural poached lines from Lincoln’s speeches.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is, at heart, a two and a half hour film about passing a piece of legislation.  It may have been awfully important at the time, but I doubt that prior to this film’s release more than a small percentage of Americans would have actually recognised what the Thirteenth Amendment actually was (is).  A parable for “Obamacare” perhaps, or maybe gun control legislation or the prevention of climate change?  (Click here for Henrik Hertzberg’s New Yorker article of December 17, 2012 where he details all of the historical inaccuracies of Lincoln.)

Lincoln Day Lewis on battlefield

By contrast, Django Unchained – running almost a full three hours – makes no pretence to actual history (its historical inaccuracies easily outnumber its accuracies, so it’s strange that one Australian film critic recently wrote that he finally “understood” slavery after watching this film), and sets up a virtual fantasy of “blacks fighting back”. Or at least one does (Django, played by Jamie Foxx).  Here Tarantino “does” slavery in the same way that his Inglourious Bastards (2009) “did” the Holocaust.  But what actually is the point of Django?  Setting aside the entertainment value – and the film is genuinely entertaining in a really messy, over-long, funny but bloody way – what exactly is Tarantino trying to say?  Unlike Spielberg, who takes his cue from a 900+ page biography (and the talky screenplay had a hard time cutting out words), Tarantino appears to be more influenced by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.  Tarantino’s first scene is close to a re-make of Brooks’ first scene, and a scene near the end when Quentin Tarantino inexplicably plays a dumb Australian cowboy could also have been taken directly from Brooks.

Django Unchained Foxx and Waltz

Four of the top films up for “Best Film” in this year’s Oscars are based on American history: Django Unchained, Argo – which won the Golden Globe for drama, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. I suspect that the Academy, being what they are (a group of mostly American, mostly 65+, mostly male) will choose one of these.  If so, it will be a shame, because Life of Pi is the year’s most extraordinary film, one unbound by having its feet firmly planted in messy and argumentative history.

Bowral’s Empire Cinema

January 1, 2013

Film-going in Australia from December 26 (Boxing Day) happens like a gun going off at the start of a race:  all of a sudden everyone goes.  This year, reportedly cinema admissions in Australia were up three percent on the previous Boxing Day:  good news for film distributors and for the cinemas.

I celebrated Boxing Day by going to see Les Miserables at Bowral’s Empire Cinema.  If you don’t know Bowral, it’s a country town about 100 kilometers southwest of Sydney on the way to Canberra in the NSW “Southern Highlands”.  Bowral is, by all accounts, a “classy” town – lots of wealthy people, nice shops.  And the Empire Cinema is a real survivor.

Every session of Les Miserables was sold out at the Empire Cinema that day.  Empire is a four-plex, and the cinema we were in held about 150 people, the second largest (I believe):  I suspect The Hobbit grabbed the largest cinema.

Empire has been operating pretty much continuously since the 1920s.  As the historical sign (see below) indicates, it showed its first “talkie” on 15 October 1930.  The film The Jazz Singer (the original with Al Jolson) is pretty much recognised to be the first talkie, and opened in the USA in October 1927, then had its Australia premiere in December 1928.  In other words, The Jazz Singer took fourteen months to make it from the USA to Australia … and then appeared to take another 22 months (almost two years) to make it the 100 kilometers down to Bowral.  Part of it was the sound equipment, of course.   But still, that does mean that The Jazz Singer kept playing in Australian cinemas for two years or more.  A big difference from the “fast in, fast out” cinema releases we see these days.

As for Les Miserables, very enjoyable.  Hugh Jackman does a great job, although I don’t see his getting the Oscar this year (nominated, probably, but not winning).  Anne Hathaway has a much better chance and surely it was a “supporting” role.  Fabulous fun provided by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, in slapstick style roles.  The oddest thing about the film:  it is supposedly set in France, but feels like it was really set in the East End of London.  Purposeful to be certain, but I must check to see if the original stage musical also presented that way.

Empire Cinema Bowral History Dec2012