California’s Lock on Our Popular Imagination

June 30, 2013

I grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s, well before that state entered the popular imagination through Bruce Springsteen, The Sopranos, Jersey Shore and you name it.

California, that’s where my imagination lay – settled somewhere in the hills above Los Angeles, captivated by American episodic network television.  Or watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate, from the town of Tiburon, in Marin County north of San Francisco.  From my earliest memory, I wanted to live there.  I achieved that goal, although not until I was 24.  And part of me lives there still, my official state residence in the USA despite my long-term residency (or is it voluntary exile?) in Australia.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years and am a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (Masters of City Planning – known as an “MCP”), and many of my most treasured life memories have to do with that great state.  I have flown into San Francisco or Los Angeles airports from Sydney or Melbourne more than 30 times, and each time my excitement builds.  Writing at this desk in Sydney, I can easily call to mind the smells of arrival outside the San Francisco airport terminals – Eucalyptus leaves mixed with diesel, with a dash of San Francisco Bay fog.  Never mind that Eucalyptus is in fact an Australian tree; like so much else, those trees smell much stronger in California.

Nathan Heller in The New Yorker (July 9 & 16, 2012) wrote about the “TED Talks” phenomenon and accurately captured a certain California, a “west coast mood” that:

Becomes palpable down near Big Sur, where the light changes from the buttery subtropical glaze of Southern California to something cooler and more filtered, where people start calling the Pacific Coast Highway by the simpler name of Highway 1.  It is the mood of professionals who wear Converse to work, own multimillion-dollar homes at thirty-two, eat local, donate profits to charity, learn Mandarin, and rock-climb in the Pinnacles on Sundays.

Yes, Nathan, except it’s not subtropical, it’s the Mediterranean.  But let’s not digress.

There are, in fact, two Californias of the imagination – the Los Angeles of film and television and the San Francisco and northern California, now of Silicon Valley and information technology.  Heller writes about how they mesh together, meeting somehow at Big Sur (and presumably Monterey, where people actually live).

The Warner Brothers studio water tower and a view of Los Angeles:

Warner Brothers studio water tower Los Angeles

For more than a century now – since the early years of Hollywood film in the early 20th century, California has often foreshadowed the future of America.  These two Californias now stand in for the two competing ideologies of the digital age:  scarcity and abundance.  The traditional media, represented by Hollywood and the entertainment culture, wishes to withhold content and thereby keep prices high through a “scarcity” approach.  That’s Los Angeles.  By contrast, the new media, represented by Silicon Valley and the San Francisco, promotes an “information” culture that wants to give (or shall we say, “sell”) people the tools to access the free bits of information that are out there.  Sound familiar?  Google, anyone?  Or perhaps Apple?

San Francisco: at the foot of Columbus Avenue and the view from Lombard Street looking east towards Berkeley:

SF Street view SF view Lombard Street

These are not my original ideas, but they do provide a useful way to understand both the challenges that the new digital age presents us with.

Along with the rest of the world, here in Sydney we watch Hollywood films (and are about the sixth biggest world market for them), we “google” for information, and our teenagers spend their days on social media networks created in the image of American colleges and universities (Facebook).  And that’s why California is worth watching closely.

These concepts illustrate how California has been able to reinvent itself and take command of the new 21st century business models.  Along the way, California also maintains its lock on how we think and imagine the past, the present and the future.

The Great Gatsby Watch down under, part 5

June 20, 2013

Writing in the June 19th issue of The Australian, Michael Bodey brings us the following news about “The Great Gatsby” film in Australian cinemas:

“The Great Gatsby” retained second spot at the Australian box office in its third weekend of release, making it Baz Luhrmann’s fourth film in the top 10 highest grossing local films at the Australian box office (not adjusted for inflation).  “The Great Gatsby” earned another $2.7 million to bring its Australian total to $19.2m, meaning the film is likely to fall well short of Luhrmann’s most popular film in this country, “Australia”, which earned $37.5m in 2008-09. Gatsby held second spot behind “Fast and Furious 6”.

So … going strong, but not quite up to last time.  Coming soon:  an updated North American-Australian box office comparison.

DiCaprio as Gatsby


Dr Brian Bowring, Tasmanian rural general practitioner, receives AM honour

June 10, 2013

Today, 10 June 2013, the Australian Queens Birthday “Honours List” includes my former colleague Dr Brian Bowring, a past Chair of the Rural Health Education Foundation and a rural general practitioner in northern Tasmania.  Dr Bowring received an “AM” – a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia, for “significant service to medicine in rural and regional areas, and as a general practitioner”.

Dr Brian Bowring lives in George Town, Tasmania, a small industrial rural community located about one hour north of Launceston.   He was born in Hobart and graduated in medicine from the University of Tasmania.  Aside from his role with the Rural Health Education Foundation, Dr Bowring has been the Chair and Treasurer of the Board of General Practice Training Tasmania, Chair of Rural Workforce Tasmania and Deputy Chair of what is now Rural Health Workforce Australia.

I worked closely with Dr Bowring for more than eight years, reporting directly to him for the majority of my time when I was the CEO of the Rural Health Education Foundation from January 2003 through August 2011.  (He took the role of Chair of the Foundation in October 2002 and left that position in December 2010.)

He is a highly skilled medical educator and has been a generous and tireless campaigner for and practitioner of rural health, making an important impact both within his home state of Tasmania as well as nationally.  I have seen him “in action” doing everything from chairing meetings to staffing exhibition conference tables in places as diverse as Perth and Launceston.  His ability to “connect” with rural and remote health practitioners is unparalleled. I am proud of the eight-plus years that I worked closely with him and very pleased that his life and work has been honoured in this way.

To see the details of this honour on the website of the Governor General of Australia, go to this link and scroll down to page 40.

A photo of Dr Brian Bowring appears below:

Dr Brian Bowring


MoneySmart Rookie financial literacy resources for young people go live

June 9, 2013

For the past year, I have been the project manager for ASIC’s “MoneySmart Rookie – financial literacy for young people” project and educational initiative.  A few days ago, the first of these resources went live on ASIC’s MoneySmart website, including twenty different videos and coverage of seven different topics (credit and debt, mobile phones, moving out of home, first job, first car, shopping & banking online and study).

Have a look here and find the educator resources on the MoneySmart Teaching website.

MoneySmart Rookie banner

Postscript on 19 June:

– The project was launched yesterday (18 June 2013) here in Sydney at the UTS function centre.  You read the ASIC media release here, Deputy Chair Peter Kell’s launch speech here and a article here.

And here are the poster images of the “rookie errors” campaign aimed at young people aged (16 to 25) that accompanies the MoneySmart Rookie education initiative:

Rookie errors phone Rookie errors car Rookie errors credit Rookie errors job Rookie errors moving out Rookie errors online

The Great Gatsby Watch down under, part 4

June 9, 2013

Here is the fourth installment in my monitoring the results of the release of the film “The Great Gatsby” here in Australia.

In the June 1-2, 2013 The Sydney Morning Herald weekend “Spectrum”, book columnist Susan Wyndham reports that release of the film of The Great Gatsby has:

Created ‘a huge sales bonanza’ for the novel, and Scribner (in the USA) is selling more than 100,000 print and e-book copies a week.  Although Gatsby is out of copyright and many publishers have a version, Scribner was Fitzgerald’s publisher in 1925 and has a ‘heritage’ edition with the original cover and a movie tie-in edition appealing to different markets.

She goes on to describe what is happening in Australia, where Nielsen BookScan reports that, “From January to mid-March of this year (2013), average combined sales of 10 editions of The Great Gatsby … were about 750 a week.  Since April 21, average combined sales have risen to about 3200 copies a week.”

What’s next?  Hemingway?  Luhrmann does The Old Man and the Sea?The Great Gatsby book cover blue

The Great Gatsby Watch down under, part 3

June 5, 2013

The film “The Great Gatsby” continues to fascinate Australians, with Sydney-siders particularly engaged.

The Australian distributor of the film, Village Roadshow, released a fascinating news item this Monday 3 June 2013, headlined “The Great Gatsby:  Biggest Australian Film Opening Ever”.  As I detailed in my post of May 20, 2013, “Gatsby” is not actually an Australian film – although it was fully made in this country.  The word “Australia” or “Sydney” never appears.  Not one character is identified as Australian or speaks with a recognisably Australian accent.

But yet.  But yet here we are claiming the film as our own.  Yesterday even Sydney Morning Herald film writer Garry Maddox referred to it as an “Australian film” in his interesting article entitled “Great Scott: Sydney is Gatsby scene-stealer”, which features a number of the actual locations in Sydney where “Gatsby” was shot (many likely to become shrines, if this excitement keeps up).

The Roadshow release starts this way:

Not only is Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” the number one film at the Australian Box Office …. It is also the biggest opening weekend for an Australian film ever.  “The Great Gatsby” has grossed an amazing $6,789,193 on 587 screens (includes 2D & 3D) nationwide from Thursday to Sunday.

There is no doubt that “Gatsby” is a hit (and I am relieved to hear that).  It has passed $100million (US) in the North American box office.  According to Box Office Mojo, as of Monday 3 June, the box office sat on $129,315,576, plus an additional $120million outside North America.  The opening North American weekend (10-12 May 2013) ran about $50million (US), compared to an Australian opening weekend of about $6.8million (Aus).  There is a well-known adage that the standard American box office should receipts should run about ten times the Australian box office for a “typical” film, setting aside exchange rates (which are currently close to parity in any case).  On that basis the Australian opening box office should have been close to $5million, but instead came in about 1/3 above that ($6.7million) – in other words, the initial results appear to show that “The Great Gatsby” is likely to be more successful, pro rata, than in North America (which includes the USA and Canada).

Not that surprising, I guess – but remember that this is a fully American story, not an Australian story.

If we accept “The Great Gatsby” as an “Australian” film, we must then accept the following films as all Australian, as all were shot in this country:  “Accidents Happen” (shot near where I live in Sydney’s north), “Matrix”, “Matrix Reloaded”, “Matrix Revolutions”, “Mission Impossible II”, “Star Wars – Attack of the Clones”, “Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith”, “Narnia – Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, “Dark City” and more.  Last I looked, I don’t think any of these films were ever counted as “Australian” in box office results or were entered in the “Australian Film Awards”.  So then why “Gatsby”?  Three words – marketing to Australians.

I don’t mind the marketing hype; that’s one of the reasons I love film – the hype is great fun.  But it’s foolish to pretend that an adaptation of one of America’s great novels is somehow an Australian film.   It also diminishes Australian stories.

To be continued.

(Below: “The Great Gatsby” outdoor illuminated bus shelter poster in Sydney on Mona Vale Road, May 2013.)

Gatsby outdoor poster Sydney bus shelter

Jewish themes in Sydney Film Festival 2013

June 5, 2013

(This article appears in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 30 May 2013.)

Even in these days of hyper availability of movies via digital television, FoxTel, DVD, Blu-Ray and digital downloads, film festivals continue to play a crucial role in showcasing small, niche and specialist films to a wider audience.  As the second oldest Australian film festival (Melbourne beats it) and operating continuously for 60 years, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) still takes a commanding role in setting the parameters of Australian screen culture and film consumption.

Each year the SFF reflects the Jewish experience in many odd, unusual and unexpected ways.  Unlike the annual Australian Jewish Film Festival (and the newer Israeli Film Festival), the SFF does not have a “Jewish” or “Israeli” quota.  So the Jewish experiences we see reflected on screen are there because they have “floated to the top” of the world’s festival and art film circuit.  So what does this year’s SFF tell us about the Jewish experience?

First off, Israeli films continue to fascinate and engage the world in ways certainly unheard (or un-dreamt) of until recently.  Yes, Israel is frequently in the news, and the modern state of Israel is a rich source of drama (literally), but only lately has this been reflected in high quality cinematic products.  In “The Attack”, an Arab doctor living comfortably in Tel Aviv has his life turned upside down when his wife becomes a suicide bomber.  And in the documentary “Dancing in Jaffa”, a French-Palestinian dancer returns to Jaffa and tries to get Arab and Jewish kids to dance together, a new take on the never-ending attempts to cross the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.

This year the festival also features two oddly autobiographic and charming films from young actresses:  Sarah Polley and Greta Gerwig.  In a relatively short writing and directing career, Canadian film actor and latterly director Sarah Polley has tackled some tough subjects:  dementia (“Away From Her”) and adultery in “Take This Waltz”, which starred Seth Rogen along with a number of other Jewish actors in Jewish character roles.  In “Stories We Tell”, she breaks new ground in the documentary format, with an adventurous, challenging and thought-provoking investigation into her own personal history.  The background is that Polley grew up believing that actor Michael Polley was her biological father.   Some years ago, she discovered that her actual father was Harry Gulkin, a Jewish film producer with whom Sarah’s mother Diane had had an affair while acting in a play in Montreal.  “Stories We Tell” investigates this unravelling of family secrets, using home movies, interviews and re-created scenes from her childhood.  Critic Anthony Lane (“The New Yorker”) calls the film, “a startling mixture of private memoir, public inquiry, and conjuring trick” that leaves the viewer feeling destabilised.  Critic Kenneth Turan (“Los Angeles Times”) describes the experience as “life-changing for the audience”.  Stories of “found” Jewish identity are many, but “Stories We Tell” is likely to be one of the most memorable ones you will see on film.

Actress Greta Gerwig is not Jewish, but the film in which she stars and co-wrote – “Frances Ha” – may very well set the tone for Woody Allen wanna-bes in the next decade.  “Time” magazine calls it “A Millennial ‘Annie Hall'”, but perhaps you should think of it more like “Annie Hall” crossed with “Girls” (the film includes Adam Driver from that series, here in a Jewish character role), splashed with a touch of “Greenberg”.  The “Greenberg” analogy is apt, because Gerwig’s collaborator (and the film’s director) is Noah Baumbach, who comes as close as anyone can to being the true inheritor of Woody Allen’s mantle of New York Jewish comedic angst.  (Like Allen, Baumbach grew up in Brooklyn attended Allen’s former high school – Midwood.)  This delightful comedy follows Gerwig’s character from hilarious disaster to disaster.  And the autobiography?:  Gerwig’s parents play themselves as her parents, a great personal treat for me, as her father was a friend of mine back in our university days.  Recommended unreservedly.

The Festival also features a number of films made by Jewish directors.  My favourite of these is “Lovelace”, a drama about the life of infamous porn star Linda Lovelace (“Deep Throat”) made by my second cousin Rob Epstein and his partner Jeffrey Friedman, Jewish film-makers from San Francisco whose work has frequently featured at the SFF (most recently “Howl”).  A different film comes from first-time Jewish director Stuart Blumberg:  his sex addiction support group comedy “Thanks for Sharing” stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins.

Fans of Polish-Jewish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) may wish to catch her lengthy television series, “Burning Bush”, examining Czech history from the historic changes in 1969.  Jewish installation artist Jem Cohen has made “Museum Hours”, a drama set in Vienna that one American critic calls “the best drama ever made about museums and the connection between visual art and everyday life”.  I am somewhat less enthusiastic:  the film is slow, physically bleak (Central Europe in winter does not excite) but artistically ambitious – in many ways a true “art” film that the Festival audience may very well love.

Sydney Film Fest banner and State Theatre