Summer reading for the Australian Prime Minister

December 30, 2014

Back in mid-December, The Grattan Institute – a Melbourne-based Australian “think tank” – launched it’s annual “Summer Reading List for the Prime Minister”, which for those of you unfamiliar with Australia is Tony Abbott.

It’s a cute concept, and is based on the rationale that:

Summer is a great time to relax with friends and family, to take a holiday, to reflect on the year past – and to read. During the year it can be hard to find time for reading. Our ministers and MPs have less free time than the rest of us…. The list contains books and articles that we believe the Prime Minister – or indeed any Australian – will find stimulating over the break. They’re all good reads that say something interesting about Australia, the world and the future.

This year’s list includes five books and one article:

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff, Harvard political scientist and historian, and “failed” Canadian politician – a fascinating read for those of us who have ever entertained the thought of entering politics, with the pitfalls painfully detailed.
Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, by James Brown, a defense analyst and former army officer who is critical of the ANZAC legend.
A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a More Complete Commonwealth, by Noel Pearson, national Indigenous leader.
The Golden Age, by Joan London, a love story set in a Perth polio clinic – a new novel.
The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives, by Annabel Crabb, one of Australia’s top political reporters and broadcasters, who has marked herself out as both incisive but and yet good-humoured.  The title pretty much says it all.
– “The Inequality Puzzle”, a short journal article by Lawrence H. Summers, former President of Harvard University, his review of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, published in Democracy Journal; see full article here.

I am critical of this last choice, not because I disagree with Summers, but why not recommend the whole book?  If we are going to recommend essays for our Prime Minister to read, there are many better contemporary essays than this one.  I have described this concern with inequality as a “zeitgeist moment”, with lots of attention here in Australia.  Every couple of weeks there are additional analyses.  Not long ago, Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) wrote a review of the book.  In May, The Economist summarised Piketty’s thesis in a pithy (four paragraph) article.  Also in May, The Economist explained (“Le French Touch”) why Piketty’s book is more popular in the USA and places like Australian than in his native France:  some believe that it is not sufficiently left-wing to appeal to French intellectuals.  So the last is truly an odd and misleading choice.  Isn’t the whole idea of reading books during the summer (for those too busy during the year) actually to read the whole (or most of) the book?

Enough criticism.  What would you include on your list?  And what would you nominate for your national leader’s summer list, if you live in the USA, Canada, the UK, New Zealand or elsewhere?  (Okay, it’s only summer in New Zealand at the moment, but the idea is the same.)

A Companion to Australian Media now in print

December 30, 2014

The long-awaited book, A Companion to Australian Media, is now in print and available.  Edited by Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley, it is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing (North Melbourne).  I am one of more than 300 contributors to the “Companion“, and wrote the entries on film reviewing and educational media.  I joined an august group in this massive project, which is the result of many years of work by Professor Griffen-Foley, as the result of an Australian Research Council Discovery grant.

The book retails for $88.00 (Aust):  with about 415,000 words and 543 closely packed pages (including an impressive 37 page index), it’s great value.  First entry:  “A Current Affair”; second entry is “Phillip Adams”; and the last entry is “Zines”.

You can listen to Bridget Griffen-Foley discussing the Companion, on the podcast of ABC Radio National’s “Media Report” program, broadcast on 9 October 2014.

A photo of the book cover is below.

Companion to Aust Media cover

The geography of digital

December 29, 2014

Here’s more proof that despite the digital world appearing to be sitting solely in cyberspace, geography matters for digital businesses – perhaps even more than ever.

In his article “When G,M. Was Google” in The New Yorker of 1 December 2014, Nicholas Lemann writes:

One of the ironies of the tech economy, duly noted by Schmidt and Rosenberg, is that while the products and the users are geographically untethered, the businesses that supply them are increasingly clustered in one physical location, Silicon Valley. That’s because of the unusual, and apparently non-replicable, infrastructure of support there: the Stanford engineering school, the Sand Hill Road venture-capital firms, the angel investors, the talent pool of coders and engineers, the technical-infrastructure providers.

Did you get that phrase – “increasingly clustered”?

So much for the work from anywhere, do all work from home concept. People still need – and indeed want – to be physically proximate to each other.

The reference to “Schmidt and Rosenberg” above comes from the book How Google Works, by Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO) and Jonathan Rosenberg (former Head of Product Development).

Film review of Exodus – Gods and Kings

December 11, 2014

This film review of “Exodus – Gods and Kings” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 December 2014, with the title “Bible story on a grand scale”.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley

Biblical movies fall into two broad categories: those that stay close to the story and claim, “this is the way it was”, and those that adapt and take creative license. The new blockbuster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes the adaptation approach but tries not to stray far from the basic narrative.

Directed by Ridley Scott, whose credits range from “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to “The Good Wife” TV series, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is a big picture, straining for epic greatness and to out-do its antecedents, particularly Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments”. The sets are lavish, the cast is large, the costumes are expensive and the action – when it comes (and there’s plenty) – is big, noisy and compelling: it’s a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. Although not a great film – there are a number of flat parts and the depth of characterisation pales considerably in comparison to Scott’s “Gladiator” – most fans of the biblical narrative should be satisfied. As to whether or not the world now needs another big film re-telling of the story of the freeing of the Jews and the flight from Egypt, that’s a separate question. Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”, which reinterpreted that the flood as a parable for global warming, this new “Exodus” has little new to say about our modern world of belief.

As Moses, Christian Bale’s extraordinary performance anchors the film. While he’s an Anglo guy with light brown hair well-suited for middle American Christian audiences who like to see biblical heroes who look like them (think Charlton Heston), he’s also an actor who completely inhabits his roles. It’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who played “Irving Rosenfeld” with a “comb-over” in “American Hustle”, three Bruce Wayne/Batmans and the young boy in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”. From anguished emotion to warrior to impassioned leader, Bale carries the role with aplomb – and thus carries the film: a true 21st century Moses.

Australia’s own Joel Edgerton plays Ramses, who is rarely seen on-screen wearing anything other than yellow and gold clothing. It’s a strong performance, but in the match-up against Yul Brenner (DeMille’s 1956 Ramses), I go with Yul. Here there is also an odd throwback to “Gladiator”: Ramses frequently speaks of how he felt unloved by his father – possibly a clue to his brutality – and celebrates how his son can sleep well because he is loved. Remember Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator”? He’s as psychologically messed up as they come, and he reflects that his nephew can sleep well because he is loved. At this point, you wonder what issues director Scott is working on, or if he is simply saying that all powerful tyrants were unloved as children.

There are some jarring casting choices, proof that once actors develop an on-screen “persona”, it’s hard to escape. As the older Pharaoh (Seti I), John Turturro certainly looks the part (his Italian features easily “go Mediterranean”), but I had a hard time forgetting that it was Turturro, star of many urban American films. Similarly it’s hard to forget that it’s actually Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”, “Dave”) playing Tuya, although it seems that her scenes were cut and she is more heavily made up. A smirking Ben Mendelsohn (the nasty viceroy Hegep) comes off better, inhabiting the character with slimy ease.

The ten plagues are suitably impressive, as awe-inspiring as any on screen to date. I found myself saying the Hebrew name of each plague as it appeared: dam, tzefardaya, kinim, arove, dever, schin, barad … you get the idea. It’s a genuinely thrilling part of the film. Strangely, however, the film does not include any scene where Moses pleads with Pharaoh to let his people go, instead presenting the plagues as solely divinely inspired in which Moses had no say and therefore unable to use in negotiation.

I also missed the unleavened bread: when the Jews left Egypt quickly, wasn’t matza a big thing? You can tell that director Ridley Scott did not grow up with annual Passover seders, eating matza for eight days every year. If he did, surely he wouldn’t have been able to resist a short matza-baking scene.

“Exodus” handles the language well, always a great challenge with biblical films. The dialogue is rarely stilted, using a modern vernacular English that avoids slipping into 21st century idioms. There’s little didacticism, and almost no unnecessary speechifying, however those looking for direct biblical quotes – unlike the recent “Noah” – may be disappointed.

Director Scott solves the issue of accents (and it sure can be one) by having everyone speak with a mild British accent. It seems to work, giving a sense of formalism and “remove” to the language that American English never does. Strangely, the only actor who does not speak with a British accent is the one who most looks the part: Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Bithiah with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent; it’s a good sound, but as she’s the only one, it comes across as odd.

There are some fascinating interpretations: the Red Sea does not so much as “part” in two as it does “recede” to one side, as if prior to a tsunami. Most troubling, however, is the appearance of a small boy with a strong English accent (most accents are quite mild) as the “messenger” of God: how the Almighty speaks to Moses. This is a high degree of adaptation and interpretation, one that Christian audiences will probably be comfortable with, but very few Jews.

The film ends (only a minor spoiler here: we all know the plot, right?) with a loud whimper. Following a short scene where Moses chisels the Ten Commandments, we see him with long gray hair travelling in a cart. The implication is … what exactly? What about ending with the successful crossing of the Red Sea and drowning of the Egyptian armies? It’s more triumphant.


Film review of Gladiator

December 7, 2014

(This film review of Gladiator was originally published in the Australian Jewish News on 5 May 2000.  I am reprinting it now in “honour” of Scott’s new film Exodus: Gods and Kings – my review coming soon – and Russell Crowe’s upcoming The Water Diviner, due for release on 26 December 2014.)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Richard Harris

In movies, there is little need to invent new stories; re-use and adaptation are the name of the game. Back in 1880, Lew Wallace wrote a novel called Ben-Hur about a Jewish nobleman named Judah in Roman-occupied Israel around the time of Jesus. Unjustly accused of treason, he was sentenced to slavery in the galleys, and later made his way up to nobility again through his star chariot-racing in Rome. It was made into a blockbuster silent film in 1926 (with Ramon Navarro in the lead role), and re-made again in 1959 by William Wyler with Charlton Heston as Judah. Ben-Hur resonated strongly with Jewish audiences because the major theme was dual allegiances, one of the perennial issues facing Jews in foreign lands.

Ben-Hur, along with Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) were the obvious forerunners to the Roman epic Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Alien). Gladiator is based on an original story by writer David Franzoni (who wrote Spielberg’s Amistad), but all of the familiar elements are there: the outsider (in this case Russell Crowe playing Spanish-born Roman general Maximus) falls from grace through the political manipulations of the wily son (Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus) of emperor Marcus Aurelius (classic British actor Richard Harris). In doing so, his family is decimated, and he falls into slavery: in this case, becoming an arena gladiator for entrepreneur Proximo (the late Oliver Reed). Along the way, there is the hint of a past romance with Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). With the assistance of his loyal fellow gladiators – including Juba (Djimon Hounsou, who played the lead black character Cinque in Amistad) and maverick senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi), Maximus attempts his vengeance.

It may sound a bit like I, Claudius, but in reality this is an action film with hyper-realistic battles (think Braveheart) and some truly astonishing arena fighting, with some of the most thrilling choreographed violence you will see this year. There is a cast of thousands, and the re-creation of Rome circa 180 CE has never been better; in other words, Gladiator is a major spectacle – don’t wait for the video release if you like seeing your heroic action big and loud.

Some of the performances are outstanding, notably Crowe (in his follow-up to his wimpy Insider character) as the brawny but smart hero and the classic supporting actors (Harris, Reed, Jacobi), but they are given pretty weak dialogue to work with. The film opens with an amazingly staged, bloody, dirty – and seemingly unending – battle scene, which is then followed by a lot of talky political intrigue. It’s an awfully long set-up, so emotionally the film only gets going about one-third of the way through when we really start to “feel” Maximus’ pain.

Part of the difficulty may be that Maximus the outsider is never given the same mythical and spiritual sense that the Jewish Judah had in Ben-Hur. Unlike the Jews under the Romans, he has no political objective other than simple survival. But as a (literally) bone-crunching story of survival, Gladiator – despite its faults – succeeds very well. Interesting to note that Gladiator came from DreamWorks, and was co-produced by Holocaust survivor Branko Lustig, who also co-produced Schindler’s List.

Gladiator poster