While We’re Young film review

April 16, 2015

(This review of the film “While We’re Young” appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 16 April 2015.)

Written and directed by Noam Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin, Adam Horowitz and Maria Dizzia

The debate about which American-Jewish film-maker has inherited the mantle of Woody Allen is now closed: it’s Noah Baumbach. With his latest film “While We’re Young”, Baumbach has captured a cultural moment of contemporary upper-middle class American-Jewish angst, at least for the twenty- to fortysomethings who he portrays with incisive wit and intelligence.

For those in the “know”, Brooklyn is now the centre of American urban intellectual and artistic achievement. It’s where Baumbach (and Allen) grew up, and where most of “While We’re Young” is set.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Srebnick, a socially aware documentary director with the film-maker’s version of writer’s block: he has struggled for seven years to finish editing his latest film, a convoluted investigation into political and social issues. Josh’s life is in simmering mini-crisis: at age 44 (the same age as Baumbach when he made the film), he and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) have no children and are uncertain of what next to do in life. Cornelia is the daughter of Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), an eminent documentary maker (likened to Frederick Wiseman) who mentored Josh in his early career but from whom he now estranged.

Josh and Cornelia’s dilemma is highlighted by their strained friendship with their close friends Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Beastie Boys singer Adam Horovitz), who are in the throes of new parenthood with all of the lifestyle changes that brings. Josh teaches a continuing education course on film, which is where he first meets Jamie (Adam Driver, enthusiastically playing a version of his familiar screen persona) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple who define the new “hip” with their retro vinyl record and VHS collections. The young couple’s take on life engages and delights Josh and Cornelia, with Josh soon mentoring Jamie’s own film development.

In less than 100 minutes, “While We’re Young” deftly touches on many of life’s big issues: mentorship, fame, achievement, professional and personal disappointments, middle age angst, the passing of the flame, and what is truth and justice. It’s funny and clever, with lines such as, “before we met, the only feelings I had were wistful and disdainful”.

“When We’re Young” plays homage to Woody Allen’s 1989 film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, an existential comedy-drama and meditation on the existence of evil. Like Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes”, Ben Stiller’s character’s unfinished film focuses on an ageing Jewish intellectual, a “Dr Ira Mandelstam”, a Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.

“While We’re Young” is also a considered and nuanced portrayal of modern intellectual Jewish life. Although the word “Jew” is never mentioned, the choice of the obviously Jewish names “Srebnick”, “Breitbart” and “Mandelstam” makes it clear that this world is a thoroughly Jewish one – at least the men. The matching of Stiller and Grodin is also a fascinating and clever in-joke. Both are strongly Jewish-identified actors who acted in same lead role as Lenny/Eddie Cantrow in the two film versions (1972 and 2007) of “The Heartbreak Kid”, a classic story of Jewish assimilation.

From the opening moments – white Times New Roman print on a black screen (recognise the Woody Allen format?) of lines from an Ibsen play – to its emotionally satisfying ending, “While We’re Young” is an intellectual comedy of manners that does not ignore the heart. Filled with strong performances playing warm and appealing characters, this film is much like the world it portrays: smart, hip, incisive, intelligent and with just enough flaws to make it real.

Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in While We're Young(photo above:  Ben Stiller and Charles Grodin in “While We’re Young”)

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Holocaust films and the Oscars

April 10, 2015

A conversation with two close friends a few weeks ago – just after the Academy Awards presentation this past February – made me realise yet again how often we miss the real characterisations in films.  Some years ago I loved the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice, conveniently ignoring (or at least somehow not noticing) that the characterisations of Jews in that film were all, somehow, slanted and skewed.  The two major characters – one played by Kevin Kline (an actor who is a personal favourite of mine) and a young woman who dates the young writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) – both become victimisers, and the symbol of the Holocaust becomes Sophie (Meryl Streep, another favourite of mine), a non-Jewish Polish woman whose father was a fascist.

The Holocaust, for those who have not been counting, is a popular topic on film.  With the success of the Polish film Ida, the numbers are now in.  As J. Hoberman reports in Tablet magazine:

Beginning with the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank, there have been 22 Oscar nominees that, in one way or another represented the Holocaust, and since Shelley Winters won for Best Supporting Actress in 1959, 20 of these movies garnered at least one Academy Award.

The all-time winner of Academy Awards was 1993’s Schindler’s List, with nine Oscars, including Best Picture.  Other big winners:  Cabaret (six in 1972), The Pianist (three in 2002) and Judgment at Nuremberg (two in 1961).  Meryl Streep won her second Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, and “Adrian Brody and Shelley Winters are the only actors to have won Academy Awards for playing a Jewish character in a Holocaust-themed movie”.

So this year the much-cheered Ida won the best foreign film award, beating out the (in my opinion) much superior Leviathan, a contemporary Russian film that has captured the “moment” of a corrupt but empowered Russia that has seen an undeclared civil war in the Ukraine and a heightening of tensions throughout Europe.

In my review of Ida, I was highly critical, writing that I found the film “profoundly depressing and problematic” because “all of the film’s implicit conclusions about Jewish life in its aftermath of the Holocaust are negative.” I concluded that “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.”

Writing in The New Yorker in May of last year, Richard Brody goes further, entitling his review “The Distasteful Vagueness of Ida”.  Brody declares that Ida is a “pernicious fraud—an aesthetic one and a historical one.”  Brody writes:

He is making a declaration: there were Jewish victims of the war in Poland—Jews who were killed by Nazis and, yes, even by Poles—but that Jews weren’t solely victims. Jews, too, were killers, including those who got their revenge on Poland by propelling themselves to power with the rise of Communism….  The evenhandedly editorializing accusations that Pawlikowski builds stealthily into the movie are repellent. Even as he nourishes the notion of collective or national guilt—and seeks to expiate it—with the movie’s ceremonial tone, Pawlikowski also insinuates that the victims were no angels, either, and that maybe some of them have something to atone for as well. “Ida” is, in effect, “12 Years a Slave” in which Solomon Northup shows up in the South, after the Civil War, as a carpetbagger. Ultimately, the movie legitimizes resentment of the very Jews who were murdered on Polish soil—even at the hands of Poles.

I have a hard time disagreeing with Brody.  So here again is a Holocaust film lauded by “the Academy” – and presumably voted for many of the Jewish voters who are members.  Did they really know what they were voting for?  Or were they, like many others, taken in by the pseudo-historical black and white photography, and lulled into believing that Ida was a true representation of Polish-Jewish life in the early 1960s?

 

 

 

 


Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration

April 2, 2015

(The following post was originally published on 12 March 2015 on Open Forum.  I am taking the liberty of re-printing it here, and adding an addendum at the end of this post.)

In mid-February of this year, the Australian Prime Minister presented the annual “Closing the Gap” report to Parliament. Although some indicators saw improvement (health), in others – especially in education and employment – there was almost no improvement at all.

Of great concern is the statement on page 28 – of which little fanfare was made at the time – that, “the rate of imprisonment is higher than at any time during the decade”. The decade? In other words, Indigenous imprisonment has been steadily rising and is worse than any time in recent memory. That’s not just “no improvement”; it is a serious step backwards.

For anyone paying attention to the statistics on Indigenous disadvantage, this comes as no surprise. In December of last year, the Productivity Commission’s report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014, made this point clearly (pp. 4.102-4.104):

  • Nationally at 30 June 2013, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was 2039.5 per 100,000 adult population, an increase of around one‑third from the rate in 2000 (1433.5 per 100,000 adult population).
  • Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up only 2.3 percent of the Australian adult population, they accounted for 27.4 per cent of all prisoners. (Note: the Indigenous population is heavily skewed to younger ages, with the national percentage of population about 3 percent.)
  • After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults was 13 times the rate for non‑Indigenous adults.

Let’s be clear about what these figures say: more than one-quarter of people in Australian prisons are Indigenous, a rate more than ten times (1000%) their population percentage. When age is adjusted (thus comparing “like with like”), the figures are even worse: thirteen times (1300%). But it gets worse.  The report also states that:

  • Between 2000 and 2013, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent while the non-Indigenous rate remained fairly constant, leading to a widening of the gap (from 8.5 to 13.0 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults).

What this means is that Indigenous imprisonment rates have GONE UP by 50% in the last 13 years, while non-Indigenous rates have REMAINED THE SAME throughout the same period. In other words, the figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have gotten worse and not just a little – A LOT worse. You can track the inexorable year by year growth of Indigenous imprisonment through the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Although there are some state variations (Tasmania is the best, Western Australia is the worst), this is a systemic national problem which demands a national solution.

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, calls these figures a “catastrophe in anyone’s language”, pointing out in December 2014 that “we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school”. He also noted that almost half of Australians in juvenile detention are Indigenous – so the trend does not look like reversing any time soon.

The Creative Spirits website summarises a number of inter-related factors for these high rates: stolen generations, disconnection from land, police behaviour, offence criminalisation, poverty and unemployment, language difficulties, foetal alcohol syndrome and poor housing. A significant number of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated for trivial offenses that rarely impact non-Indigenous people, including unpaid fines, unlicensed driving, not receiving court mail, not attending court and “disorderly conduct”. One common theme in these offenses is poverty: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to avoid jail for small offences.

These results are terrible in themselves, but three factors arise that underline their significance:

First, this increase in Indigenous imprisonment could have been avoided through a careful analysis of why, where and how Indigenous people are put in prison or into the juvenile justice system (where they now represent up to one-half of participants), and crafting appropriate responses.

Secondly, as the Productivity Commission report drily states (page 4.102), “Imprisonment has a heavy social and economic impact. High rates of imprisonment remove adults from their important roles caring for the next generation and can lead to the ‘normalisation’ of incarceration among community members.”

Thirdly – and most insidious of all – the high rate of imprisonment affects how we non-Indigenous Australians view Indigenous people. Although the comparison is not complete, rates of imprisonment of African-Americans in the USA run six times those of whites in that country. The result there means that, as Professor Heather Thompson (Temple University) points out, there is a “disproportionate policing” of young black men and women, and that in turn “sends a signal to the broader society that there is something inherently criminalistic about black people”. She calls the American rates of imprisonment a “mass incarceration” with unknown outcomes; surely the same applies to Indigenous Australians.

We can do better and improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of imprisonment. For the sake of creating an equal and just Australia, we must.

*****

Addendum:  In order to change the situation of mass incarceration of racial minorities, “we must change the narrative”.  So says, lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson, who gives a stirring 53 minute talk about American racial justice and imprisonment, which you can listen to on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program podcast (originally broadcast on 19th March 2015).  Stevenson points out that great literature helps to change the narrative of issues so that we can see them in new ways.  We need to “understand how the world is being sustained by things (narratives) that make us indifferent to inequality” and mass incarceration.  He points out that in the USA, this is “the function of 40 years of the politics of fear and anger.  When people are afraid and angry, they will tolerate abuse and violations of rights.”  Deep and insightful words that have a strong resonance here in Australia.

Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (published 2014), is also available here in Australia.

Martin Luther King’s frequently quoted statement that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (from his “God is marching on” speech) may give us some hope.  But complacency has no place in the lack of progress on incarceration of Indigenous Australians.  For, as King also said, ““We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”  (from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech)


Ruth Marcus Patt

April 1, 2015

“Ruth Marcus Patt – Author, Historian, Philanthropist, and Woman of Valor”. That’s the title of the most recent bulletin of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey, devoted to celebrating her life.

Ruth was a great New Jersey Jewish leader who has just passed away at age 95. She was also my aunt, having married my mother’s brother Milton.

Ruth’s achievements have been detailed in a number of places. Aside from the Jewish Historical Society, you can read her official obituaries from the Home News Tribune (published on 25 February 2015) and the New Jersey Jewish News. Her life has also been detailed in the book Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Jewish Women.

In brief: Ruth graduated Douglass College (now part of Rutgers University) in 1940, with a BA in Sociology and a minor in Psychology. The then worked as a psychiatric social worker at Marlboro Psychiatric State Hospital before getting married to her husband Milton (my uncle) and travelling with him during the Second World War. She lived a life devoted to community service, including the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where she served as the President of the Sisterhood, a Board member and a 15 year period of editing the Temple newsletter. I know her writing well: for many years she wrote a family newsletter, entitled “The Colony House Observer”, named after the New Brunswick apartment building that she lived in.

Ruth devoted much of her energy to Jewish history, as the founder and leading light of the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey. She wrote four books and numerous other articles on Jewish life in New Jersey, including The Jewish Scene in New Jersey’s Raritan Valley, The Jewish Experience at Rutgers and Uncommon Lives: 18 Extraordinary Jews from New Jersey.

In addition to her Jewish communal achievements, she served the City of New Brunswick – where she was born, raised and educated – with distinction. She chaired the City’s 300th year (“tercentennial”) celebration in 1980, which involved more than 130 events involved a wide range of ethnic, religious and racial groups. She was later recognised for her achievements with the Citizen of the Year award from the City. Other awards included the New Jersey Historical Commission’s Award of Recognition, the Douglass Society Award for Distinction in Public Service and the Rutgers University Medal. She and her husband Milton both received the Lehman Award for Service to the Jewish People.

As a person and a public figure, Ruth was “larger than life.” She commanded respect, not by “commanding” but by her personality and her leadership ability. She asserted authority, not because she necessarily wanted to be authoritative, but because that’s who she was, a person who could do things, and who would make things happen. She was gracious, articulate and expressive.

As I have travelled in the Jewish world in the USA and here in Australia, meeting travelling Jewish leaders in different settings, it is astonishing how many of them knew Ruth. It opened doors and added to my credibility to be able to introduce myself as “Ruth Patt’s nephew.”

Ruth is survived by her sons (my first cousins) and their wives, Dr Richard and Althea Patt and Dr Steven Patt and Deborah Jamison, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Along with my cousins and their families and the Jewish community of Central New Jersey, I celebrate Ruth’s life achievements and I mourn her passing.

Ruth Patt