Time Passing: May 2014

May 28, 2014

The month of May 2014 is coming to an end, never to be experienced again.

I suspect that I am not the only person who collects colourful picture paper calendars that mark the passage of time. My daily workplace currently has five, most of which seem to have some identification with the actual month. What these calendars show, and where they are from, tells a fair bit about me, about the images that I want to see during the day and about the choices that colour picture calendar producers make.

So here are the photos that I have been staring at during the past month:

From my “New York 2014” calendar: “The Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, with the Manhattan skyline in the background”, appears to be at sunrise, as the photo is, I believe, facing east.

May 2014 NY calendar

From my “New England 2014” calendar: “Marina in a cover in Chatham, Barnstable County, Massachusetts” – a bright sunny day with lots of small sailboats at a dock and on a beach.

May 2014 New England calendar

From my “Dartmouth College 2014” calendar: The “Bauner special collection library”.

May 2014 Dartmouth calendar

From my National Rural Health Alliance 2014 calendar: a helicopter and motorcycle cattle drive in the dry Pilbara remote region of Western Australia.

May 2014 NRHA calendar

From my San Francisco 2014 calendar: Golden Gate Park.

May 2014 San Francisco calendar

Quote of the week: the Godzilla trailer

May 21, 2014

Richard Corliss in the May 26, 2014 edition of Time magazine:

“Sometimes, the perfect version of a two-hour movie is its two-minute trailer” – (writing about the new Godzilla movie).

The moment of economic inequality

May 20, 2014

It may very well be a zeitgeist moment.

When was the last time that a 685-page US$40 book about economics hit number one on Amazon? Probably (surely) never. Well, it’s happened just recently. The title is Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and it’s by French economist Thomas Piketty.  As I write this, it’s still number two.

The book is so popular that publisher Harvard University Press is having a hard time keeping it in bookshops. Here in Australia, it sells for $60, but all bookshops here in Sydney are out of stock. All this for an economics treatise. So far it has sold more than 300,000 hardcover copies in English (plus more than 50,000 in the original French), well exceeding the originally estimated 20,000. It’s still number one on the New York Times hardcover non-fiction list after five weeks. Even the book’s English translator, Arthur Goldhammer, is famous.

Last week’s Time magazine (that arbiter of middle-of-the-road taste, helping us to find the “cultural middle”) has decided that this is something too big to ignore: see this article by Rana Foroohar.  In short, Foroohar writes, this book:
– Proves, irrefutably and clearly, what we’ve all suspected for some time now—the rich ARE getting richer compared to everyone else, and their wealth isn’t trickling down. In fact, it’s trickling up.
– Is going to be remembered as the economic tome of our era.
– Has finally put to death, with data, the fallacies of trickle down economics and the Laffer curve, as well as the increasingly fantastical notion that we can all just bootstrap our way to the Forbes 400 list.

The thesis that Piketty shows is basically that indeed the rich are getting richer (everyone knew this, but Piketty has shown it definitively) and that debt is now flowing to the poorest. He does not use Australian data, and admittedly the situation in the USA is much worse that Australia (more on that another time; suffice to say we are more like Canada when it comes to income inequality, and less like the USA and the UK, which are both much worse), but there are enough parallels that many in Australia are taking note, starting to reference Piketty in public debates.  For a very detailed look with an Australian perspective, see Christopher Sheil’s review (May 2014) on the Evatt Foundation website:  “Astonishing but true, the biggest intellectual topic of conversation in the world today is social inequality”, he writes – although the Australian uptake has, to date, been slow.

Some helpful reading: This article in Salon relates Piketty’s thesis and Elizabeth Warren’s ideas directly to credit card debt. In this article in the New York Review of Books, economist Paul Krugman analyses where he think Piketty has it right and where he does not.

Want to start reading it now? Here is part of the Introduction of the book, on the publisher’s website.  And like the best of academics, Piketty has posted all of his data sets online so people can check them out themselves, as well as his presentation: have a look here.  Australia’s Evatt Foundation has produced a good page of links to reviews and articles about the book.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century book cover

Film review of Ida

May 18, 2014

(The Polish film “Ida” opened in North American cinemas on 2 May 2014 and opens here in Australia on 22 May 2014.)

Ida, the latest film from Polish-born, Paris-based director Pawel Pawlikowski presents an unremittingly bleak and austere portrait of Poland in the early 1960s, in the shadow of World War II.

The story is simple. Young Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) has been living in a convent for many years and is about to take her vows as a nun, when the Mother Superior comes with some unusual news: her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her late mother’s sister who is a lawyer and former public prosecutor for the Polish communist government, has made contact to meet her. Anna is to spend some time with Wanda before the finalisation of her vows.

When Anna arrives at Wanda’s flat, she discovers a chain-smoking, hard-drinking and depressed woman along with a family secret that shakes her sense of self: Anna is Jewish, and her parents and the rest of her family all killed in the Holocaust. Anna’s birth name was, in fact, Ida. She and Wanda then set off together to the village where her family had lived in order to determine the real facts of her parents’ deaths.

Along the way, Anna/Ida meets a young musician who falls in love with her, and Wanda continues her boozing and dissolute lifestyle, haunted by her own life decisions.

Critics love this film (it currently has an outstanding 98% “positive” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes film critic website), and has won numerous awards. It’s not hard to see why. It is beautifully shot in black in white, evoking a bare, emotionally – and physically – cold and dreary Poland that surely is as close to capturing the spirit of that time as any recent film has. The performances are subtle and powerful, particularly that of Trzebuchowska in the title role. She has few actual words to say, but is on-screen for a large part of the film, relying on an inner stillness and contained watchfulness to show her character’s emotions. In an age when film-makers think nothing of creating films of many hours’ duration, “Ida” is short and to the point: 80 minutes long.

There is also a fascinating cinematographic style, with the subjects in some scenes positioned at the bottom of the screen. I am not quite certain what director Pawlikowski is trying to say, but this film will give some years of film students something to talk about in class.

However, from a Jewish standpoint, I find “Ida” profoundly depressing and problematic. All of the film’s implicit conclusions about Jewish life in its aftermath of the Holocaust are negative. Yes, the film illustrates the tragedy that Ida never knew her parents (she was virtually a baby when given over to the convent). Similarly, the Polish family that at first shielded her family – and most Poles in general (excepting the nuns and a handful of others) – are not presented in a positive way. But – IMPLIED SPOILER HERE (please do not keep reading if you do not want to know more about the plot) – the life decisions of the two key characters (Ida and aunt Wanda) indicate that the Holocaust has so damaged both of their lives that their only options are to turn away from being Jewish, each irrevocably in their own way.

The fact is: THIS MAY BE A TRUE INDICATION of what could happen, and consistent with these characters and this story. But as they are the only two Jewish characters who appear on screen, we are left with a blankness and a nothingness that has no-where to go. This may have been the director’s intention. It is true that some 90% of Polish Jews were killed by the Nazis (about 3 million of 3.3 million living there at the start of the war), more than any other country (see the Jewish Virtual Library and Yad VaShem), so my argument is not with the facts of the destruction of Polish Jewry, but with the narrative conclusions. Were Wanda’s and Ida’s two choices the only ones? I think not.

“Ida” is in Polish with English subtitles.

(Note: The official website of “Ida”, complete with press notes, photos and posters, can be viewed here.)

Ida image(Photo above: Agata Trzebuchowska in “Ida”.)

How’s Noah doing now?

May 17, 2014

Back on April 3, 2014 I published my review of the film “Noah”, and observed privately that the film was under-appreciated by critics but would turn out to be popular.

So how’s “Noah” doing now?

As of 15 May 2014, the film had grossed just over US$100 million in North America, plus an additional US$239 million outside North America (“foreign”, in the Americo-centric view of the world). This is by no means an American “hit”, but the international box office – comprising some 70.5% of the total – will give much comfort to the studio (Paramount) and the director/co-writer (Darren Aronofsky). It’s fair to say that “Noah” has not “broken through” to the American Christian audience, especially the “high value” Evangelicals that supported “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. But almost $340 million (and counting) in the international box office is no small change.

Here in Australia, after seven weeks of release “Noah” has grossed Aus$12,433,000. The “rule of thumb” comparing film popularity in Australia versus North America is the “law of ten”: Australia expects about 10% of the North American box office, setting aside differences in exchange rates. At $12.4 million/$100 million, we are running just over 12%: proportionately a bit more popular than in the USA. The Russell Crowe factor (although born in New Zealand, he – mostly – lives here in Sydney, so we claim him; sorry Kiwis) may be part of it. Not a great hit here, but respectable, very much so.

However the Box Office Mojo figures from other countries tell an even more interesting story: $30 million in Brazil, almost $5 million in Colombia (Colombia?), about $11 million in each of France, Germany and Italy; a staggering $33 million in Russia (1/3 of North America, surely this may be some sort of record?); $14 million in South Korea; and more than $6 million in Turkey (all $US).

You can do the sums. Increasingly, “big” films are being supported by international box office takings, and that’s no small thing.

Review of Fading Gigolo

May 8, 2014

(This film review of “Fading Gigolo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 8, 2014 in a shortened form.)

Written and directed by John Turturro
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Liev Schrieber, Sofia Vergara and Vanessa Paradis
John Turturro has established himself as one of the strongest character movie actors of his generation, usually playing Italian or Jewish roles with such directors as the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. (Jewish blogger Nate Bloom claims that Turturro holds the record for the most Jewish screen roles by a non-Jewish actor.) In “Fading Gigolo”, Turturro attempts the “triple act” – directing, writing and starring. Unfortunately, the results are mixed at best, and this film will be a “must see” only for anyone who feel that they “must” see all Woody Allen films.

Turturro sets “Fading Gigolo” in current day New York City, and his character Fioravante is an Italian-American part-time florist whose close friend Murray Schwartz (Woody Allen) has recently closed his antiquarian bookshop (“M. Schwartz & Son”). Through odd circumstances, Murray’s dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone – okay, let’s accept that bit of miscasting) asks Murray if he knows any gigolo for her, and Murray convinces his friend Fioravante to play the role.

The premise is totally preposterous. At age 57, Turturro still looks good with his strong ethnic features, but with his role as a gigolo, the title says it all: yes, he’s fading. And even more so that Sharon Stone – one of the most notable screen sirens of the past two decades – would need to seek someone like him out. At age 56, she’s still beautiful, still stunning and has a screen presence that puts everyone else in her scenes in the background. Director Turturro can’t resist showing her in her undergarments and stretching her long lithe legs, a direct visual reference to her famous erotic crossing legs scene in “Basic Instinct” (1992).

There are other strong cast members: Sofia Vergara (the South American actress best known for “Modern Family”) plays a friend of Stone’s. But the real “find” of the film is French singer Vanessa Paradis, who gives a well-controlled performance as Avigal, a Chasidic widow with six children. Incongruously, Murray attempts to set her up with Fioravante, passing him off as a “healer” (really?), to the great dismay of Dovi (a heavily underwritten role for Liev Schrieber), a Chasidic community guard (“Shomrim Williamsburg Division”) who is secretly in love with her.

The introduction of the Chasidic subtheme is odd and very much “outside in”. At one point, Woody Allen’s character is unwillingly brought before a rabbinic court and is represented by his Jewish lawyer (the ubiquitous Bob Balaban), but Turturro can’t decide which tone to take: is it a Mel Brooks-style satire or – briefly veering towards a reality check – widow Avigal’s crisis of conscience? But this is no “Fill the Void” (last year’s Israeli film), just an incoherent ramble.

Opening with Woody Allen’s voice, “Fading Gigolo” looks, feels and sounds like a minor Woody Allen movie, complete with Woody Allen music (jazz heavily flavoured with Italian), and using Allen’s favoured colour palette of beiges, yellows and browns. At least Allen acts his age (he’s a spry 78), and gives some of the film’s best comic lines. Allen has starred in a small number of films that he has not written or directed, notably “The Front” with Zero Mostel (1976) and “Scenes From a Mall” with Bette Midler (1991).

While those two films had faults, at least both of them had strong and consistent themes. In “Fading Gigolo”, Turturro can’t decide if he wants a broad comedy, a drama or a “bromance” (the Murray- Fioravante friendship is the heart of the film, well sort of). The film never recovers from its badly conceived premise, and when the actors are given some real emotions to express in the final third act, it’s too late to save our interest.

(Fun fact: Sharon Stone’s first movie role was as an extra on a train in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”, released in 1980.)

Fading Gigolo poster

New Jersey suffers from de-centralisation syndrome but we love it still

May 3, 2014

One of my favourite subjects is grappling with my childhood identity of growing up in New Jersey in the USA.  What was it about that state at that time (the 1960s)?  What makes my former high school classmates (and yes, me) so nostalgic for our experiences, in what was, after all, a place of high pollution, few exciting natural resources (okay, let’s face it, “the shore”, but what else?) and constant living in the shadow of New York City to the northeast, and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia to the southwest?

Few people can explain New Jersey better (both to Jersey natives and non-Jersey residents) than Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University.  Here is a quote from Rockland’s essay “New Jersey’s Image”:

New Jersey’s identity problem is, in part, self-inflicted.  The state has not sufficiently fostered centralized political, cultural, and commercial institutions which would provide a focus or sense of community.  The governor’s mansion is located not in the state capitol, Trenton, but in Princeton; the Garden State Arts Center (now named for a bank) is not in a city but just off a major highway exit; and the state’s commerce and industry is spread out along its highways.  The number of New Jersey jokes with the punchline “Which exit?” suggest that key to the state’s uncertain identity is its extreme decentralization. The state still exemplifies, in no small measure, Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane’s 1846 lament: “We have well nigh forgotten that we have a history.  We have almost lost the very sense of our identity.  We jave had no center.”

For some years, Rockland has taught a course at Rutgers entitled “Jerseyana”, with a required reading/viewing list that includes books Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus (a classic for we New Jersey-types) and John McPhee’s Pine Barrens  along with the film’s Jersey Girl and Atlantic City.  The syllabus starts with a quote from Allen Ginsberg’s “Garden State” and and Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.

If you really would like to examine what makes New Jersey New Jersey, here’s a strongly recommended book:  What’s Your Exit?  A Literary Detour Through New Jersey, edited by Joe Vallese and Alicia A. Beale (Word Riot Press, Middletown, New Jersey, 2010).  (I found Rockland’s quote above in their introduction, page 17.  You can also read some excerpts through Amazon here.)  The book is organised, in classic New Jersey fashion, by “exits”, and includes fabulous writing (poetry, essay, fiction, drama) by a large number of authors, including well-known names like actor Jason Biggs, poet Alicia Ostriker, novelist Tom Perrotta,  Joyce Carol Oates and of course Michael Aaron Rockland – as well as many many writers you have not heard of yet, but will want to read.

And want a good short “potted history” of New Jersey?  Try this essay by Rockland, which appeared in New Jersey Monthly in January 2014, written in honour of the state’s 350 birthday.  One fun fact from that piece:  I bet you did not know that New Jersey’s voters voted against Abraham Lincoln not once but twice – in 1860 and 1864.

And another point by Rockland, in his entry on New Jersey’s image in The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press, 2004):  “Jersey is the only state that so overpowers its namesake, you can drop the ‘New’ when referring to it. Try that with Hampshire, York, or Mexico.”

Take that, you doubters.

What's Your Exit cover