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”)

More on the moment of inequality: the wealth divide continues to fascinate us

July 6, 2014

Rather than decreasing in number, the flood of information on the “moment” of attention to inequality of wealth and the class divide seems to be growing.  As I write this, Thomas Piketty’s 696 page economics book Capital in the Twenty-First Century still maintains its #22 position in book sales on Amazon’s US website (along with an astonishing 799 user reviews), just ahead of Gone Girl.

Here in Australia, Oxfam has weighed in, with a webpage devoted to inequality issues and a new (June 2014) publication, entitled Still the Lucky Country? The Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor is a Gaping Hole in the G20 Agenda.  (Australia will be hosting the G-20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane on 15-16 November 2014.)

The Oxfam report’s key points:
– Extreme inequality poses a growing threat to global security and economic growth.
– Inequality is on the rise in Australia, with the richest 1% of Australians now owning the same wealth as the bottom 60% (you read that one correctly).
– The richest 85 people in the world own the same amount as half the world’s population – some 3.5 billion people.
– Australia’s richest person owns more than the bottom 10% of the population (2.27 million people), and the nine richest Australians own more than the bottom 20% (4.54 million people).
– Income inequality has been on the rise in Australia since the 1990s: in 1995, Australia had an average inequality level compared to other wealthy OECD countries. By 2010, Australia has become much less equal (based on the Gini co-efficient), even though we have had such a high-performing economy.  And this is not just left-wing assertion: it is based on the Australian Government’s Treasury report from 2013, entitled Economic Inequality in Australia by Michael Fletcher and Ben Guttman.

Clearly these trends have been evident for some time – the Treasury data covers the 15 year period to 2010.  So why now?  What is it about this point that appears to be capturing attention, not just in Australia but in the USA and in other places around the world?

In his article “Piketty v. Marx” (The New Republic, June 2014), UCLA history professor Russell Jacoby examines this phenomenon, and likens it to Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which also “unexpectedly capture(d) the zeitgeist”. In reviewing the book for The New York Times at the time, Roger Kimball described it as filled with “pathos, erudition and penetrating insight”.   (Bloom, as we recall, was a close friend of Werner Dannhauser, and Saul Bellow wrote the introduction to his book.)

But that’s not enough.

As Jacoby writes, “Few read all of Bloom’s volume – for the good reason that it was mainly turgid – but it spoke to a moment in which many felt that liberals and leftists were wrecking American education, if not American itself”. Jacoby feels that these two books come from the same “force field”, but that “the terrain has shifted from education to economics”.

But that would not be enough to explain the popularity of this issue outside of the USA, as Bloom’s book did not have near the same impact beyond American shores.  More to the point, Jacoby writes that Piketty speaks to “the palpable upset that … societies seem increasingly rigged; that inequality is worsening and darkening our future”.

From my own PhD research on what makes a “cultural moment” – in which I investigated the reasons behind the unexpected but profound success of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ – I concluded that a “moment” arises from a series of factors that come together at a certain point in time and build it up, almost like a wave can be exaggerated when two or more combine.  In the case of the Gibson film, the combination of the rise of political power of American evangelical Protestants (witness the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush); the concentrated, muscular and focussed influence of certain right-wing media and religious commentators; the unwillingness of the Catholic Church in the USA to criticise the film, in part a reaction to the child sex scandals that the church had been dealing with; an excellent and superbly targeted marketing campaign; and a clever publicity use of the antisemitism controversy (“see the film that the Jews don’t want you to watch”) all came together at a certain moment.  But that “moment”, as my thesis showed in depth, was primarily one in the USA, with much diminished effects outside its borders, even in Canada and certainly in Australia.

So what constitutes this “moment” of inequality? And why does this moment – unlike Bloom’s book and unlike Gibson’s film – seem to extend so fully outside of the USA? These are questions that we cannot yet answer fully.

The Closing of the American Mind book cover

San Francisco then and now – in California the future comes crashing towards us

November 10, 2013

San Francisco in the late 1970s was not a happy place.

I know.  I lived there then, although I did not realise it at the time.

Events that took place during this time included the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (February 1974) and bank robbery (April 1974); the Jonestown massacre (November 1978); assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White (also November 1978, a devastating spiritual and psychic “two punch”), events captured in both the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the feature Milk; and the trial result of White, with riots in the streets (May 1979). There was a whole lot more.

I had only lived in one big city before then (Boston), so I think I assumed that this was normal for cities.  But it wasn’t.  It was weird and bizarre.

I don’t think that anyone has truly figured out the connections between these terrible events – and the pall of doom that they cast over that beautiful city’s spirit.  I have looked for explanations, and uncovered few.

Kevin Starr, possibly the best contemporary chronicler of California history and the California State Librarian Emeritus, has written a multi-volume series of historical books about the state, under the title “Americans and the California Dream”.  His books cover the periods 1850-1915, the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the 1940s, 1950-1963 and 1990-2002.  Not the 1970s or 1980s.  Starr has not – at least not yet – grappled with this troubled time.

I was delighted to find two very different books that have.  In his 2012 book, The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (not the 2011 American fantasy film starring Nicolas Cage), David Talbot (founder of Salon), deals directly with this period – the best attempt of analysis I have read.  Season of the Witch book coverAnd Ellen Ullman, in her novel By Blood (also 2012), also deals with the time (set in 1974) through a fictional gothic style story of a therapist.  Ironically, Ullman reviewed Talbot’s book in The New York Times, thereby stimulating a response from Talbot, in which he pointed out that his “San Francisco was not hers”.

That’s part of the point.  Everybody’s San Francisco is different.  It’s what makes a great city great; each of us has a different experience that somehow adds up to a whole.

In so many ways, California represents the future – and it has done so for a very long time.  As Starr writes in his book California: A History, by the year 2000, 32.4 percent of the state’s population was Latino and almost 11 percent of Asian origin.  San Francisco was “on the verge of becoming the first prominent American city with an Asian American majority.”

And then it happened:  as of 1 July 2013, officially California no longer had a “white” majority, joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia as “majority minority” states.  This foreshadows the future of America, predicted to be a “non-white” majority country by 2043, the “first major post-industrial society in the world where minorities will be the majority,” says immigration expert Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The geography of California, of course, is also exciting – as anyone who has ever visited knows.  As Starr writes:

“Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator.

Did the demography or the geography of California contribute to what was, in effect, that unhappy moment in San Francisco’s history in the mid to late 1970s?  I doubt it.  California has always represented some sense of freedom to Americans.  The early Hollywood Jewish moguls left the east coast for Los Angeles seeking fewer strictures on their work (and better weather).  Later generations – me included – moved there for economic opportunities, the weather and the lifestyle.  Perhaps it was that sense of freedom that encouraged such bizarre and out of the norm behaviour.

Northern California has now moved to a different moment – one that is equally bizarre in its own way.  An early November 2013 widely reported speech by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has canvassed the possibility that Silicon Valley should become its own country, because the USA appears now to be “the Microsoft of nations” (apparently a bad thing).  The speech has caused a great deal of exclamations over arrogance and “naïve libertarianism” (Nicholas Carr).  Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times called the speech, “an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives” (italics are mine).

The tech industry apparently now threatens Boston as the centre for higher education (MOOCs – massive open online courses), New York for finance and media (Twitter and blogs) and Los Angeles for entertainment (Netflix and iTunes), reported The Australian newspaper.  All true.

So this is the future of America, one that is increasingly likely NOT to look like its past.

(Post script:  Looking for one of the best recent movies to portray the San Francisco area?Fruitvale Station film poster  Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in the USA a couple of months ago and opens here in Australia later this month.  It replays the accidental shooting of a 22 year old black man at the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – Fruitvale station.  Highly recommended.)

The cultural moment of Benedict Cumberbatch

October 23, 2013

In its cover article this week (October 28, 2013), Benedict Cumberbatch featured in Time magazine.  As readers of this blog may have noted, I am a fan of “cultural moments”, and Cumberbatch may well be the current man who captures the moment.

(In fact, my PhD thesis at Macquarie University, is entitled The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ Goes to the Movies.)

The Time article author Jesse Dorris has a neat paragraph capturing both Cumberbatch’s “moment” and defining the nature of what a “cultural moment” means in film:

Sometimes an actor captures a cultural moment in a film.  Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, for example, embodied the fever dreams of the feminist backlash in a single sociopath, a woman whose sexual power threatened to destroy all it touched.  and sometimes an actor’s body of work provides a kind of historical shorthand:  Dennis Hopper’s shift from Easy Rider‘s wide-eyed radical to the shell-shocked journalist in Apocalypse Now to the suburban, Reagan-era rot of Blue Velvet captures almost 20 years in under seven hours.

In a single year’s clutch of performances, Cumberbatch has channeled half a dozen shades of zeitgeist.

His latest is playing Julian Assange in the film The Fifth Estate… as well as Star Trek Into Darkness, August: Osage County (with Meryl Streep) and 12 Years a Slave. Can’t wait.

Benedict Cumberbatch Time cover


Taking Woodstock film review

August 27, 2009

This review of Taking Woodstock appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 27, 2009 in a shorter format.  The full review is below.

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by James Schamus, based on the book by Elliot Tiber

Starring Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Groff and Liev Schrieber

August 2009 marks the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock (see my August 10, 2009 post), the famed counter-cultural concert event in upstate New York.  As the baby boomer organisers and attendees are now in mostly in their sixties, there is a veritable flood of memoirs and accounts detailing this most unusual and defining moment in American cultural history.  One of these is Taking Woodstock:  A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life, by Elliot Tiber, a gay Jewish artist and writer who is widely acknowledged as having “saved” the concert and brought it to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, after the nearby town of Wallkill refused to host the event.  Tiber is the son of two Russian immigrants who ran a cheap motel in Bethel, and who served as the president of his local chamber of commerce.

Tiber’s story has now been turned into a major film by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution) entitled Taking Woodstock, which is a messy, uneven but hugely enjoyable film.  Taking Woodstock operates sort of the same way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Tom Stoppard’s play) relates to Hamlet:  it is the “back story” of the minor characters we only glimpse in the “main” play (the 1970 concert film Woodstock, due for DVD and Blu-ray re-release).  Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, The Greatful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Band and Crosby Stills Nash and Young (the list goes on) – none of them appear in this film, although their music is occasionally heard in the background.

Ang Lee does American historical periods well:  his Ice Storm effectively portrayed early 1970s suburbia.  For those who lived in the America in the 1960s (and I did), Taking Woodstock does nostalgia even better than the original concert film.  And Lee’s Woodstock is BIG:  he brought in what appears to be many thousands of extras, effectively recreating much of the event itself, which brought some 500,000 concert-goers to the Catskill Mountains location and reportedly created a 90 mile (145 kilometre) traffic jam, all the way back to New York City.

One of the problems with Lee’s film is that his main characters – Elliot (played by comedian Demetri Martin) and his Russian-born parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), whose surname is “Teichberg” in the film – are simply not that interesting, particularly compared to the scores of minor characters who drift in and out.  The four well-known organisers of the Woodstock festival all appear – Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld – in small supporting roles, but are given little to do.  Only Lang (played by Jonathan Groff, with an appropriately large “Jewfro”) spends any time on screen, mostly providing Zen-like comments to a befuddled Elliott.  Farmer Max Yasgur is played by well-known comic Jewish actor Eugene Levy, who also disappears quickly.

Demetri Martin’s Elliott appears to be strangely passive in the face of the momentous events swirling around him:  unlike his parents (shamefully over-acted by Goodman and Staunton:  these performances are as far from Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as you can get), he never rouses to any sense of interesting emotion, and his closeted gay identity is given little dramatic tension.  These three characters almost suffocate what could have been a profound commentary on American culture and innocence.  Taking Woodstock is also loaded with events and characters which contribute little to the film’s momentum:  Liev Schrieber plays a transvestite who helps out with security; there is an alternative drama group living in the Teichberg barn whose actors insists on taking their clothes off at every opportunity; and Elliott has an “acid” trip, the result of which is … nothing.  There is an important lesson here:  even though Elliott Tiber’s (Teichberg) memoir recounts lots of interesting events, we the viewer want to see them add up to something more than a few good stories.  Viewing the events through Elliott’s eyes gives us no additional insights.

Despite these serious flaws, Taking Woodstock is an interesting film, which had me smiling throughout.  It is partly the sense of “good fun” which Lee brings to the proceedings, but also his energy – including an interesting use of split screens to illustrate how many viewpoints going on in some scenes, his loving care to the details of the time and the sly humour in almost every scene (my favourite:  “It’s August, it’s not going to rain.”) 

The script also goes to great lengths to point out the completely Jewish background of Woodstock:  farmer Max Yasgur, the Teichbergs and three of the four concert organisers were Jewish, a fact noted by a number of angry non-Jewish locals of Bethel, who resort to antisemitic graffiti and one of whom shouts “We ought to run you Jews out of town”.  Woodstock – and the American counter-culture generally – were to their eyes a Jewish imposition on “clean” American society, a hint of the “culture wars” which bedevils American politics to this day.

Woodstock 40 Years On

August 10, 2009

In just under one week, we will come to the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, which took place from August 15 to 18, 1969 in the small upstate New York Catskills Mountains town of Bethel, New York. 

In anticipation of the event, there has been a great deal of reference to it in the media, including Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock, based on the book by Elliott Tiber, entitled Taking Woodstock:  A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life (reprinted 2009) – see my review of this film (published August 27, 2009) in the Australian Jewish News.

A nice article by Gail Collins entitled “Three Days in August” discusses two other books about Woodstock has just appeared in the New York Times Book Review on August 6, 2009.  Collins did in fact attend the event with her brother.

She writes (in part):

The Woodstock festival (“Three Days of Peace and Music”) has been celebrated for 40 years as a great moment in American cultural history, although we’ve never quite agreed about why.  Sometimes the argument seems to be that it was important because nothing terrible happened.

“It was unique in that there were a half-million people not stabbing each other to death at a concert, and that hadn’t been done before,” said Grace Slick, who sang there with Jefferson Airplane.

“Nobody killed anybody, nobody raped anybody, nobody shot anybody.  In the history of humankind, I think it’s probably the only group of people that size that didn’t do any of that,” said David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

We will pause for a moment to contemplate the dark opinion American musicians circa 1969 entertained about humankind in general and their fans in particular.

To really appreciate Woodstock, you have to understand that it was, in many ways, incredibly awful — the rock concert in the middle of nowhere that attracted so many young fans it became a nation unto itself, surrounded by a ring of stalled traffic.  The weather was terrible.  The lines at the concession stands were endless.  The smell from the Port-o-Sans was ferocious.  “It was the most horrific stench I have ever smelled in my life,” one woman said.  “And once I got done with what I had to do there, I literally had to walk around to clear my head a little bit because I thought I was going to fall down.”

Woodstock was unique not because 400,000 people — give or take a hundred thousand or so — refrained from murder, rape and robbery.  The point was that they treated one another very kindly under extreme circumstances.  They shared food — or drugs, which seemed to be in much more plentiful supply.  As they walked back to their campsites in the crowded dark, they refrained from pushing or shoving. And almost every adult they encountered said they were remarkably polite.

There was a lot of that revisionism going on.  The summer of 1969 was, of course, long before the age of the cellphone and laptop.  Except for a few extremely overworked pay phones, the kids at the concert were totally cut off from the outside world.  A nation of worried parents saw helicopters flying over miles of abandoned cars and listened to reports about doctors treating one drug-overdose case after another.  While the concert was under way, the rest of the country presumed the worst.  (My own mother, at 85, has wiped out practically every memory of anything unpleasant in our family history.  But she still has never forgiven me for taking my 19-year-old brother to Woodstock, while she spent the weekend waiting for a report of his grisly death.)  It was only after the music ended on Monday morning and the last of the youths made their trek home that a consensus began to form that the whole thing had been pretty neat after all.

On August 14th, Collins also wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled “To be old and in Woodstock”.  My favourite line from this piece:

The Woodstock-mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby-boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did, and that when they are old themselves there will probably still be some 108-year-old telling them how everybody slept in the mud but that it was worth it because Janis Joplin sounded so awesome and the people were all mellow.

Books on Woodstock:

Back to the Garden:  The Story of Woodstock by Pete Fornatale (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, US$24.99).  Book excerpt available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/books/excerpt-back-to-the-garden.html?ref=review

The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, US$29.99).  Excerpt available at http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061576553

Also see the Wikipedia entry on Woodstock.