ABC the most trusted institution in Australia

January 27, 2015

A January 20th report from Crikey notes that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is Australia’s “most trusted major institution” – and this is despite “an ongoing campaign by the Coalition and News Corporation to undermine it”.

The numbers according to Crikey:

  • 53% say that they “have some or a lot of trust in the ABC”.
  • This is the “same level of trust as the High Court” of Australia, although the ABC slightly betters the High Count, because 20% “have a lot of trust in the ABC”, which compares to 17% “a lot” for the High Court. In other words, the ABC’s trust is marginally stronger in feeling.
  • The previous figures: in July 2013, 54% trusted the ABC and 57% the High Court.
  • “The Reserve Bank continues to be the third most trusted institution”, at 49%.
  • At the bottom of the scale: the least trusted Australian “institutions are political parties (14%), religious organisations (22%), business groups and trade unions (23%)”.

A fascinating insight as to what the Australian public really things, and not just the editorial writers of major newspapers.

Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut and being Jewish

January 23, 2015

(I originally wrote this article back when Kubrick’s film “Eyes Wide Shut” opened in 1999.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film “Eyes Wide Shut” is how a film which is directed by a Jew (Stanley Kubrick), co-written by two Jews (Kubrick and Frederic Raphael), based on a story (“Traumnovelle”) written by a Jew (Arthur Schnitzler, a close friend of Theodore Herzl) where the original character (Fridolin) is a Viennese Jewish doctor – can turn into a film about a definitely non-Jewish New York doctor played by Tom Cruise. American-born (and British-educated) Raphael’s book about working with Stanley Kubrick – entitled “Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick” (1999) – gives us more than a few hints.

The original story had Fridolin suffering alienation “like every Middle European Jew”. Raphael reported that he was keen to keep the Jewish aspect of the story, particularly in its (new) New York setting. But Kubrick was firmly opposed to this: he specifically wanted the Fridolin character to be a “Harrison Fordish goy and forbade any reference to Jews”.

Raphael spends some pages in his book speculating on the effect which Kubrick’s Jewishness has had on him and his work, arguing that it was a fundamental aspect of his mentality. He notes that few of the obituaries mentioned that he was Jewish, and that Kubrick himself “was known to have said he was not really Jewish, he just happened to have two Jewish parents; he seemed to expose, or at least to dwell on, many ugly aspects of human behaviour, but he never confronted anti-Semitism.”

Despite Kubrick’s public distancing himself from his Jewish background, in conversation he reportedly brought it up with Raphael again and again, as when they were discussing how Tom Cruise’s character would talk, Raphael quoting Kubrick as saying “Coupla Jews, what do we know about what those people talk about when they’re by themselves?”

Raphael recalls that Kubrick “did try, for some time, to develop a (Holocaust) novel by Louis Begley, “Wartime Lies”, into a movie, but he never ‘licked it'”. Kubrick also discussed his interest in Holocaust films with Raphael, commenting on “Schindler’s List”: “It was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ was about six hundred people who don’t.” Raphael’s analysis of Kubrick: he was “concealing – even as he displays – the sense of alienation which came of the Holocaust.”

Film review of St Vincent

January 15, 2015

(This review of “St. Vincent” appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 15 January 2015, under the title “Sobering lessons of life”.)

Directed and written by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher

There are a number of certainties about the new Bill Murray film “St. Vincent”. The film is way better than its promotional trailer, unlike some where the trailer is the only thing worth watching. It’s a genuine starring vehicle and a virtually certain Oscar nomination for Murray, who has already received a Golden Globe nomination. He plays Vincent McKenna, an alcoholic down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran who accidentally ends up looking after his new neighbour’s child, Oliver Bronstein (12 year-old Jaeden Lieberher).

Oliver is the son of a single mom, x-ray technician Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), who has recently had an unhappy split from her husband and moved to the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn for her new hospital job. Maggie enrolls Oliver in a Catholic school, despite the fact that he is Jewish (“I think”), revealed in his first scene with his lovable teacher Brother Geraghty, played by Chris O’Dowd (“The Sapphires”), when Oliver is asked to lead the class in prayer. Oliver’s lack of Catholic prayer knowledge, rather than an embarrassing disaster, becomes a time when most of his class offers their religious beliefs (“I’m a Buddhist”, “I’m an atheist”, etc) – shades of an early scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. Brother Geraghty then has one of film’s funniest speeches, in which he talks about how good it is to be a Catholic, “because we have the best clothes and the most rules”.

Although religion plays only a minor role, “St. Vincent” is ultimately a film about redemption, giving and growing, all done in a mostly non-ecumenical manner: the title is a giveaway. There are no prizes for guessing the plot. Grumpy ageing and angry man gets humanised, nerdy picked-on kid gets more confident and his stressed out mom gets more settled. “St. Vincent” is not a surprising film, but a charming one.

Part of its charm is in the performances. Bill Murray shows that he can, indeed, act, although his performance is less about subtlety and more about fully inhabiting a very flawed character. Melissa McCarthy convinces, and Naomi Watts appears in a cute but predictable role as a Russian prostitute with a heart of gold.

There are some odd real-life resonances in “St. Vincent”, which make the film a bit more poignant for those “in the know”. Young Jaeden Lieberher, like his character Oliver, is Jewish. Like Oliver again, he moved with his mother from one city to another – from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to act in films. Numerous people have commented that “Bill Murray must be just like that in real life”. I am not so sure that the crotchety character we see on-screen is anything other than good acting. Murray puts his ability for understatement to good use (think “Groundhog Day” and “Lost in Translation”), giving us a performance of surprising depth in what appears at first to be a broad comedy but ultimately becomes much more than that.

There is at least one unexplored theme in “St. Vincent”, having to do with a bank account opened for Oliver, setting up a deep disappointment that is never realised. That led me to believe that the film-makers did some very judicious editing to make the film flow better. They have succeeded.

St Vincent poster

The Water Diviner a great success despite too many themes

January 11, 2015

Australian actor and screen hero Russell Crowe’s first film as a director, “The Water Diviner”, has become the most successful film of last year (2014): in just five days of release. Opening on Boxing Day (26 December), the film grossed $5.68 million in just six days – through New Year’s Eve, 31 December – to top all other Australian films in 2014. As of a week ago on Sunday (4 January 2015), the film had grossed $8.4 million in Australian cinemas, and was still pulling big audiences.

Last week (5 January 2015) The Sydney Morning Herald (Karl Quinn) also reported that “The Water Diviner” had also become the biggest box office draw in Turkey (where the film is partly set), with more than half a million viewers in its first week, and grossing more than $3,000,000 (Australian) – even reaching the number one theatrical spot in that country.

“The Water Diviner” is a very enjoyable film, but Russell Crowe seems to have been taking lessons from the Baz Luhrmann school of film making: like Luhrmann’s film “Australia”, Crowe decided to throw a number of movies in one in “Diviner”, but I liked it anyway. Karl Quinn in The Sydney Morning Herald describes it as three or four movies: “outback-struggler tale, war movie, history pic, father-son drama, romance, a bit of “Zorba the Greek” tossed in with Lawrence of Arabia and seasoned with a dash of magical realism.”

There are a lot of themes, yes, but there’s only one point where the screenwriters go too far: a moment when the Russell Crowe character seems to have stepped into another movie, one about Turkish nationalism. Look for that point, and see if you can agree.

But these are quibbles. “The Water Diviner” is hugely enjoyable, Rural South Australia “stands in” for Gallipoli (as it did for Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” in the early 1980s). The best dust storm (northeast Victoria) in Australian film history takes place, there’s loads of tragedy, a nice romance and a good child performance – as well as some excellent Turkish actors, Russell gets to fight again (didn’t we all love him in “Gladiator”, a much better film than “Exodus”, by the way, by Ridley Scott, the Exodus director) and coincidences like you wouldn’t believe (including one notably embarrassing one that I won’t repeat as others have already). Shoot the screenwriters, I say, but enjoy the film anyway – the biggest Australian film in a year or more.

Water Diviner

Art shots, Bali December 2014

January 5, 2015

mineral water Seminyakmineral water, Seminyak

lilypads Ubudlilypads, Ubud

 Bali door Dec2015door, Seminyak

rice fields Bali Dec2015rice fields