Has My PhD Thesis Become Relevant Again in the Age of Trump?

January 21, 2018

One year into the Trump Administration, I am starting to conclude that my PhD thesis – entitled The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s “Passion” Goes to the Movies – is becoming relevant again.

Part of my thesis dealt with how movies can reflect our cultural, political, economic and social obsessions – although not always directly, and not exactly in the ways we expect. The most interesting films are those that coincide with our immediate fascinations, meaning that a film – often years in the making – has had some “clue” as to what else was “burbling” along in the collective unconscious and our body politic, a long time before it became apparent to the rest of us.

Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was such a film, coinciding – and helping to create – a “cultural moment”.

And what is our current “moment”? Or, rather the question is, what are contemporary films telling us about our current moment?

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is an obvious one. Some selections:

  • “When a film is bang on the moment, as “The Post” is determined to be, what will remain of its impact when the moment is past? Maybe Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks are possessed, like many of their compatriots, by a deeper dread. Maybe they think that the moment is here to stay.” – Anthony Lane in The New Yorker
  • “At a pivotal time in American history, the government was preventing the press from getting the news out, on the grounds that it would do injury to national security.” – Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
  • The Post is the story of a legacy, but it’s also a rallying cry.” – Stephanie Zacharek in Time magazine
  • The Post examines a crucial moment in American journalism from more than 45 years ago, although the film clearly invites viewers to see the material’s gripping contemporary relevance.” – Tim Grierson in Screen Daily

And what do the other recent Golden Globe nominees (and possible Oscar winners) tells us about our moment?

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (women’s empowerment, #metoo, Black Lives Matter)
  • The Shape of Water (immigration controls and fear of the other)
  • Get Out (Black Lives Matter and fear of the other)
  • I, Tonya (women’s empowerment)
  • Lady Bird (women’s empowerment)
  • The Greatest Showman (a metaphor for the current President?)
  • Dunkirk (are we strategically withdrawing? if so, from what?)
  • Call Me By Your Name (gay marriage, gender diversity)

Another connector between movies and life – at least life, political-style as experienced in the USA – is the well-known figure of Stephen K. Bannon, who seems to court controversy wherever he goes. In a telling New York Times article dated June 26, 2005 (“On the Right Side of the Theater Aisle”), journalist James Ulmer starts this way, quoting Bannon:

The film producer Stephen K. Bannon isn’t just on a crusade. He’s on a roll.

“Look at Feb. 25, 2004 — a watershed week for the Hollywood right,” he said in his Santa Monica office while scribbling a circle around the word “Lord” on his whiteboard. “On Ash Wednesday, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is released theatrically, and on Sunday, ‘Lord of the Rings’ — a great Christian allegory — wins 11 Academy Awards. So here you have Sodom and Gomorrah bowing to the great Christian God, and did you guys notice? No, because 99 per cent of the content in the media’s sewage pipes is the culture of death, not life.”

Bannon – one of America’s greatest recent practitioners of the art of reinvention – understood back in 2005 the strong connection between American popular culture and American political life – an important theme in my thesis – and honed his skills in subsequent years. So much so that he rose just about as high as you can in political life (White House Chief Strategist to the President) before a spectacular fall. A great podcast from NPR’s Embedded program (“How Steve Bannon’s Time In Hollywood Changed Him”) from October 2017 illustrates how well Bannon was schooled in US movies before his move to politics.

The truth about the “current moment” is that it is awfully hard to know what is until it has passed, making the notion of “current” difficult to discern.

But it’s worth trying, and our movies are a great place to start.

Return to Zabriskie Point

April 25, 2016

For reasons that are not at all clear, there has been a distinct revival in the film “Zabriskie Point” in recent years.  Directed by Italian Michelangelo Antonioni – his only US film – this film was widely regarded as a major commercial and critical failure upon its theatrical release in February 1970.  This was the man who made the haunting “Blowup” (1966).  After spending some $7 million (US) on the production, filming in the California and Arizona desert, the film only returned some $1 million in its theatrical box office.  My $2.50 was part of that $1 million, and the film has haunted me to this day.

Not because the film is great;  I never thought it was.  But because the film captures a certain sense, a resonance of that period, that time of student protests (think Kent State University) and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.  The plot:  “Mark” (Mark Frechette) is arrested after a student demonstration and later goes “on the run”, stealing a small plane and flying to the desert.  He meets up with “Daria” (Daria Halprin, daughter of the San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and the dancer Anna Halprin), “a sweet, pot-smoking post-teenybopper of decent inclinations” who is driving through the desert.

It’s a convoluted plot, fantastical in many places, and ends with one of the more memorable screen images, the blowing up (real or imagined) of a lonely wealthy desert house in the Arizona desert.  Symbolic?  Deeply. A commentary of American materialism?  Definitely.  And what else?  Who knows.

“Zabriskie Point” made a big impact on me; it was that time of life when you’re young and things make a difference.  So then, so seven years later, I was thrilled to do an environmental planning workshop at Sea Ranch, on the northern Sonoma Coast of California, led by Lawrence Halprin along with Daria Halprin.  My first real “movie star” contact (in retrospect, not true:  see my reflections on Meryl Streep), a magical ten days of 1970s San Francisco-style creativity.

Want to know more?  Quinn Martin’s May 2010 blog post tells you everything you ever wanted to know about “Zabriskie Point”, including the eventual life outcomes of its stars:  Daria and Mark lived together for a time in a “hippie commune”, and Daria now runs a dance workshop in San Francisco.  Mark was killed in jail in 1975 after robbing a bank.  Life turns in very strange ways.

Other resources: The Rolling Stone 1985 article entitled “Where Are They Now: Daria Halprin” by Ira Robbins, and Emma Hope Allwood’s “Three Things You Didn’t Know About Zabriskie Point” (2015).

(image below: a still from the final scene of the movie)

Zabriskie Point

Film review of Hail Caesar

March 6, 2016

(This film review of “Hail Caesar” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 3 March 2016.)

Directed and written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum
Most film directors love the movies, and the Jewish film-making duo of Joel and Ethan Coen is no exception. While only one previous film, “Barton Fink”, was set in “movieland”, their latest comedy, “Hail Caesar”, is takes place totally in and around an early 1950s mythical film studio called “Capitol Pictures”.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) runs production at Capitol, with responsibilities ranging from saving young starlets from exploitation by sleazy photographers to fixing up stars’ pregnancies to supervising edits to daily 8.00am telephone calls with the New York boss. He also runs external relations, convening a meeting of four religious leaders (including a rabbi) to review the script of the studio’s big Roman religious “swords and sandals” epic, “Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ” (the major “film within a film” of “Hail Caesar”), which in turn is a combination of (the real films) “The Robe”, “Quo Vadis” and “Ben Hur”.

The plot of “Hail Caesar” revolves around the kidnapping for ransom of the star of “Hail Caesar”, Baird Whitlock, a Kirk Douglas/Charlton Heston type (played by George Clooney), by a group of Communist (and mostly Jewish) screenwriters. They meet in a “study group” with the Marxist Jewish philosopher Herbert Marcuse (played by Australian-British actor John Bluthal).

In an odd way, the themes of “Hail Caesar” reflect two films currently playing in Australian cinemas: “Risen”, about a Roman tribune in the time of Jesus who decides to become his follower; and “Trumbo”, about blacklisted writers in the 1950s who were Communist sympathisers.

It feels rude to criticise “Hail Caesar”, given that it has been made with such love, adoration and affection for movies and movie history, and does such a delightful job of re-creating Hollywood circa 1951. The Coen brothers show off their film-making skill by creating scenes from a classic western, a group of tap dancing sailors (think “Follow the Fleet”), synchronised swimming (think “Million Dollar Mermaid”) and a British drawing room drama. As wonderful as each of these scenes are, they don’t add up: the whole of this film is less than the sum of its very good parts. The major plotline – the kidnapping – is weak and underdeveloped, and there is little character interaction, tension or emotional growth.

A number of star actors have small – virtually cameo – roles in “Hail Caesar”, including Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams type, Ralph Fiennes as an expatriate European director, Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) as a chain-smoking film editor, Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing actor, Tilda Swinton in two roles as competing twin gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper style), and Jonah Hill as a Jewish lawyer the studio goes to when they need a paid “fall guy”.

The real find – and by far the best performance in “Hail Caesar” – is Jewish actor Alden Ehrenreich, who convincingly plays singing cowboy star “Hobie Doyle”, a cowboy star who has great difficulty in making the transition from the prairies to talky dramas. At age 26, Ehrenreich previously played Cate Blanchett’s anguished stepson in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”. In movie-like fashion, he was first “discovered” by Steven Spielberg, while performing a comedy sketch at a friend’s bar mitzvah in Los Angeles. In “Hail Caesar”, Ehrenreich’s Doyle performs great feats of physical comedy, leaping on and off horses, using a cowboy lasso and then even turning a strand of spaghetti into a miniature lasso. Along with Brolin’s Mannix, he is one of only two characters who have any dimensionality in the whole film. He’s an actor with great potential.

In the Coen brothers’ tradition, the majority of minor characters and actors are Jewish, including recognisable Coen favourites David Krumholtz, Fred Melamed and Alex Karpovsky.

(photo below:  Alden Ehrenreich in “Hail Caesar”, playing one of his cowboy roles)

Hail Caesar Alden E

Film review of Trumbo

February 21, 2016

(This film review of “Trumbo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 February 2016.)

Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara, based on the book “Dalton Trumbo” by Bruce Cook
Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg

Although the “Hollywood blacklist” increasingly seems to be an artefact of history, the events of that time – from 1947 to the early 1960s – remain some of the most significant intersections between two objects of world-wide fascination: American film and American politics. During a time of domestic political upheaval and external Soviet expansion, American politics turned rightwards. A “witch-hunt” for American Communists resulted in the “blacklisting” of a number of people in the film industry, under pressure from the US Congress “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC).

That’s the background to the new biopic, “Trumbo”, which focuses on the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the best-known of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”. Starring Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) in the title role, the film charts Trumbo’s experiences as a left-wing organiser through to the blacklisting process, his time in prison for “contempt of Congress”, his subsequent of writing uncredited scripts in order to make a living, and his triumphant return.

Remarkably, the “blacklist” has only appeared a handful of feature films, notably “The Front” (1976, with Woody Allen), “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991, with Robert De Niro), “The Majestic” (2001, with Jim Carrey), and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, George Clooney), and briefly in “The Way We Were” (1973, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) and the subject of a few documentaries.

The story is a powerful one, and Cranston – nominated for an Oscar for his role – provides one of the best performances of the year. Cranston reflects the complicated nature of this progressive and hard-working genius, who remained loyal to his principles, his family and his friends – and who produced some of the best 20th century American film writing. Helen Mirren gives the film’s other outstanding performance, as right-wing newspaper gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. With such a great actress, it’s not surprising that director Jay Roach (who converted to Judaism to marry his wife, musician Susanna Hoffs) and writer John McNamara give her lots of screen time, significantly over-stating the importance of her role in the blacklist. One scene – surely fictional – sees Hopper threatening MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) to bow to the blacklist, calling him various antisemitic epithets. Did this happen? Not likely. Mayer – a businessman like all of the film moguls – reluctantly acceded to the blacklist under political pressure far greater than what Hopper’s newspaper column could bring.

For fans of Jewish film history, there is much to savour in “Trumbo”. In addition to Mayer, other important Jewish characters include “Arlen Hird” (Louis C.K.), a “composite” character representing a number of the Jewish “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters; Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg, the new “go to” Jewish actor for Jewish roles in “Steve Jobs”, “Blue Jasmine” , “A Serious Man” and “Boardwalk Empire”); John Goodman as Frank King (“Kozinsky”), the Jewish schlock movie producer who secretly hired Trumbo and other blacklisted writers; Kirk Douglas (Dean O‘Gorman), who openly hired Trumbo to write the script of “Spartacus”, which Douglas both produced and starred in; and Otto Preminger, the Austrian-Jewish director of “Exodus”, who hired Trumbo to adapt Leon Uris’ novel to the screen.

If there are any heroes in “Trumbo”, King, Douglas and Preminger – all of them Jewish – are the ones, for resisting pressure not to deal with Trumbo. Douglas and Preminger are both widely credited with finally breaking the blacklist, a combination of their personal power and an indication that the political times had changed, particularly under President John F. Kennedy. (Douglas has also stated that the proudest moment of his career was “breaking the blacklist”.)

“Trumbo” has been made with great love of American film, and includes some lovely recreations of famous film scenes, such as Douglas in “Spartacus”, and other notable characters including John Wayne (David James Elliott), and Diane Lane playing Trumbo’s wife Cleo. Despite the great story and some delightful performances, “Trumbo” the film falls down with an often pedestrian script by McNamara; the first third of the film plays like a telemovie rather than a proper feature. My critique of the script goes far deeper, however, in that the focus on Trumbo’s life results in lack of recognition of the role of Jews as the primary victims of the blacklist, and its antisemitic nature.

All of the original “Hollywood Ten” served time in prison for refusing to testify in front of the Congressional Committee, and not just Trumbo (the film does not make this clear). Many film historians point out that antisemitism and attacks on Jews formed a crucial undercurrent of the Congressional investigations and the blacklist. Among the “Ten”, six were Jewish: Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz and Sam Ornitz. Of the four non-Jews, three were closely involved with films that dealt with antisemitism: Edward Dymtryk and Adrian Scott (director and producer of “Crossfire”) and Ring Lardner, Jr. (writer of “Earth and High Heaven”, similar to “Gentleman’s Agreement”). Thus of the ten, only Trumbo was neither Jewish nor had worked on an antisemitism project, although “Exodus” came later. The overwhelming majority of HUAC “witnesses”, both friendly and unfriendly, were Jewish.

The film ends, appropriately enough, with Dalton Trumbo’s emotional 1970 speech to the American Screenwriters Guild, when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and appeared to forgive those who “named names”, when he famously said, “The blacklist was a time of evil, and no one … who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals…. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

(photo below:  Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird and Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo”)


Film review of The Interview

February 12, 2015

(This film review of “The Interview” appeared in print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 12 February 2015 and online on 18 February 2015 with the title “Interview with a comic twist”.)

Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Written by Dan Sterling; Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang

In case you missed the news, “The Interview” is the film that may (or may not) have brought the major film production and distribution company Sony Pictures to its knees. This did not occur, like disasters of yore, because it cost heaps of money and flopped (“Heaven’s Gate”, “John Carter”), but for another reason entirely. Many experts (including the United States Government) allege that this fictional comedy about the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, resulted in a massive and unprecedented cyber-hacking of Sony’s computer systems by North Korean agents, revealing corporate secrets on an unprecedented scale.

In the movie, James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of sensationalist and low-rent television current affairs show called “Skylark Tonight”, with Seth Rogen playing his producer, Aaron Rapoport. When they realise that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un enjoys watching their show, they propose to the North Koreans that they interview him. After Kim Jong-un surprisingly accepts, the CIA approaches the television duo with a plan that they assassinate the dictator. After some hesitation, they agree, in part because they are “honey potted” (seduced, in a way) by sexy CIA handler Lacey (Lizzy Caplan). Upon arrival in Pyongyang, however, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) shows a warm and charming personality, successfully be-friending Dave Skylark, who in turn has second thoughts about the planned assassination. What follows is a fair bit of mayhem that even includes a possible nuclear war.

At its heart, “The Interview” is a B-grade film masquerading as a political satire of the American obsession with North Korea – or perhaps it is a political satire masquerading as a B-grade film: the result may be the same. Do not discount the schlocky, broadly comedic elements of “The Interview”: Seth Rogen – now widely recognised as one of America’s top comics – and his co-director Evan Goldberg are as close as we can get to this generation’s Mel Brooks: what was “Blazing Saddles” other than a broad satire on American race relations, under the guise of broad comedy?

Like so much of American political satire (and its intertwined cousin, American comedy), “The Interview” stems from a Jewish sensibility and outlook. Almost all of the major film-makers and actors (Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, Caplan) are Jewish, with Seth Rogen’s character clearly identified Jewish. In “The Interview”, Rogen further develops his on-screen Jewish persona: an intellectual (naturally), slightly overweight and highly sexed neurotic who over-thinks. His dalliance with a female member of the North Korean military elite (Diana Bang) is one of the cuter parts of the film. He is anything but an action hero, but is adept with physical comedy, which he performs here – at times with B-grade “gross-out” elements (be forewarned).

A particular delight is Korean-American actor Randall Park’s performance as the North Korean dictator, giving a wonderfully modulated and hilarious performance. There are also lots of fun cameos, with Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appearing.

Structurally “The Interview” is way less than perfect. There is at least major one device – the use of a killer poisonous bandaid-like strip – that is just left hanging (as it were). It’s a great set-up (one of the film’s best) that sadly lacks a punchline (or did I blink and miss it?). No matter, “The Interview” is good-humoured and very funny in parts, as well as a must-see for Seth Rogen fans.


(The following is the original poster for the film, prepared prior to its postponed release.  According to Wikipedia, the Korean text reads: “The war will begin”, “Do not trust these ignorant Americans!” and “Awful work by the ‘pigs’ that created Neighbors and This Is the End“.)

The Interview original poster

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.”

Biblical films in perspective – the new Exodus arrives in cinemas

November 30, 2014

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 November 2014 in a shorter form, under the title “Biblical blockbusters”.)

The biblical blockbuster film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” opens in Australian next week and in most of the rest of the world one week later. It’s likely to be the biggest biblical film in a decade – since 2004’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ”. “Exodus” (as it’s called, for short) comes from the hand of Ridley Scott, the great sci-fi and action director who has brought us “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Black Hawk Down” and “Robin Hood”. From the evidence of its promotional trailers, it seems likely to be what we expect: a biblical action movie with Moses (played by Christian Bale) as the new action hero.

Joining Bale (last seen on screen in the black comedy “American Hustle”) is Australia’s Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby”) as Rameses, along with John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass and Australia’s own Ben Mendelsohn as Hegep.

There’s no coincidence that Ridley Scott (who turns 77 on 30 November – clearly duelling with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood for the “oldest working director” award) directed “Exodus”. He also directed the Oscar-winning “Gladiator”, starring Russell Crowe, the most popular movie in Australian cinemas in 2000 and Scott’s most financially successful. Although not based on any biblical story, “Gladiator” is commonly agreed to have reinvented the modern “swords and sandals” epics, once so popular on the big screen. With “Gladiator”, Scott showed us that audiences were still hungry for “Roman fantasy”.

Unlike Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” – about the final hours of Jesus – “Exodus” tells a story from the Tanach (the “Old Testament”), and does not seem to have been given active marketing to Christian groups. This may be because Scott has said that he would be “looking to natural causes” to explain the miracles – such as “tsunami drainage” for the Red Sea parting, and star Bale has been quoted as calling Moses “schizophrenic and barbaric”.

“Exodus” arrives hot on the heels of this year’s “Noah”, the darkly entertaining epic with Russell Crowe in the title role. Director Darren Aronofsky freely re-wrote the story of the biblical Noah, expanding it in a variety of ways to make a number of ecological and philosophical points that very few of us had seen in the original.

This year’s “Exodus” has a long series of movie predecessors. The most popular book in the world (the Bible) has arguably produced the most film adaptations, extending back to the early silent years of film, traceable back to 1897. But it was really Cecil B. DeMille who helped define biblical films, with work spanning both the silent and sound eras. His 1923 silent version of “The Ten Commandments” included notable special effects of the Red Sea parting and was followed by his life of Christ film “King of Kings” in 1927.

DeMille’s 1949 success with “Samson and Delilah” is credited with kicking off the 1950s “golden age” of films based on the Bible. This included DeMille’s most memorable film, his 3 hour and 39 minute 1956 re-make of “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston in the role of Moses, which DeMille also narrated. Filmed in Egypt and the Sinai Desert, its scale, scope and sets impressed the audience greatly. Heston played opposite Yul Brenner (as Rameses), in a competition for power that became a central organising theme for the first third of the film – and appears to be replicated in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus”. Heston also starred in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” (1959), a much less didactic film than “The Ten Commandments”. Although not based on a biblical story, its setting (Roman-occupied Palestine) and themes – slavery and Jewish nationalism – place it in the same genre. It also provided a clear forerunner to Scott’s “Gladiator”, with numerous plot similarities. Audiences loved these films: “The Ten Commandments” is still the sixth most popular (inflation-adjusted) film ever released in North America (just behind “Titanic”), and “Ben-Hur” the thirteenth.

Other notable biblical films of this period included “David and Bathsheba” (1951), “The Robe” (1953), “Solomon and Sheba” (1959), “The Story of Ruth” (1960), “Esther and the King” (1960), “David and Goliath” (1961) and “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1963). In 1966, John Huston directed a financially successful three-hour version of “The Bible … In the Beginning” using the King James version wording; he also narrated Genesis 1 word for word and played the character of Noah.

Jewish film scholars disagree in part about the significance of these 1950s and early 1960s biblical films. Lester D. Friedman laments the “superficial ideas, cardboard characterization, and weak dramatic development” that were only barely hidden by “sprawling spectacles, luxuriant sets and expensive costumes”. By contrast, Patricia Erens believes that the biblical epics enabled film-makers to make covert comments on the Holocaust, Jewish suffering, Jewish survival and “reconstitution in the new State of Israel” – all of this undertaken in a time of cultural and political conservatism.

There have been numerous artistic re-imaginings of the story of Jesus: “The Gospel According to Matthew” (1966), “Godspell” (1973), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), the comic “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). None of these strained for the “epic” label, however. That was left to Bruce Beresford’s “King David” (1985) with Richard Gere in the title role; it was universally panned and flopped unreservedly. Since then – until relatively recently – producers have avoided the biblical epics pretty much (forgive the pun) “like the plague”.

There were a few exceptions. In 1998, DreamWorks Pictures produced a successful animated musical of the Exodus story, entitled “The Prince of Egypt”, with Val Kilmer as the voice of Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, along with Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Steve Martin. It follows the Cecil B. DeMille “Ten Commandments” story closely and openly acknowledges that it has freely adapted the Bible.

Why does the biblical genre seem to be returning now? The answer to this question is a long socio-cultural and historical analysis of our present moment that will only become apparent in a few years’ time. So when “Exodus” opens next month, we Jews will watch it avidly with many questions in mind. How Jewish is Moses and his people? How true to the biblical story has Scott and his screenwriters been? And what does it tell us about how we Jews live now?

(and posters from “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben Hur” below)

ten commandments posterBen Hur poster

Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.


Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.

What I learned about life from the movies in 2013

February 10, 2014

I am sometimes accused of seeing life through the prism of the movies.  But don’t we all see it that way?

Well, I have seen a lot of movies in 2013 and learned a whole lot about life.  Here, in short, is what I learned from going to the movies in 2013:

In outer space, no one can hear you scream.

Heterosexuals get AIDS too.

Tom Hanks is a mensch.

Hobbits are native to New Zealand.

Kevin Costner is a mensch.

Athletic women shooting arrows are sexy and spark revolutions.

The next war will be fought by 12 year old videogamers.

Magicians make the best bank robbers.

There is no colour in the state of Nebraska.

The White House and Capitol buildings in Washington DC are very vulnerable to attack.

Older uneducated white guys who are salesmen know more than young tech heads about life and business.

San Francisco and New York at nice places to live if you’re rich.

Chasing volcanoes is next cool thing.

Love conquers all.

Richard Nixon was a bigot.

The American political system in the 20th century was built on the backs of uncomplaining black men.

It’s hard to kill a zombie.

The intellectual centre of the universe is Brooklyn.

Mary Poppins was Australian.

Jews were persecuted by the Nazis, but life was tough for little German girls too.

Walt Disney had extraordinary emotional intelligence and counselling skills.

Slavery was hell.

The Japanese mistreated Allied prisoners of war during World War II.

Cocaine users make lots of money and have loads of fun.

Some of the best music comes from dreary and depressing movies.

Complicated comb-overs are sexy.

The Catholic Church mistreated young mothers.

Some of the best American actors aren’t actually American at all.

All romantic relationships, no matter how amazing they are at the beginning, devolve into petty bickering.

I am not the only person in the world who loves my computer’s operating system.

When driving from Long Island to New York City, you pass through an industrial part of Rozelle, in Sydney’s Inner West.

Sound Stage 2, Warner Brothers studio

Bowral’s Empire Cinema

January 1, 2013

Film-going in Australia from December 26 (Boxing Day) happens like a gun going off at the start of a race:  all of a sudden everyone goes.  This year, reportedly cinema admissions in Australia were up three percent on the previous Boxing Day:  good news for film distributors and for the cinemas.

I celebrated Boxing Day by going to see Les Miserables at Bowral’s Empire Cinema.  If you don’t know Bowral, it’s a country town about 100 kilometers southwest of Sydney on the way to Canberra in the NSW “Southern Highlands”.  Bowral is, by all accounts, a “classy” town – lots of wealthy people, nice shops.  And the Empire Cinema is a real survivor.

Every session of Les Miserables was sold out at the Empire Cinema that day.  Empire is a four-plex, and the cinema we were in held about 150 people, the second largest (I believe):  I suspect The Hobbit grabbed the largest cinema.

Empire has been operating pretty much continuously since the 1920s.  As the historical sign (see below) indicates, it showed its first “talkie” on 15 October 1930.  The film The Jazz Singer (the original with Al Jolson) is pretty much recognised to be the first talkie, and opened in the USA in October 1927, then had its Australia premiere in December 1928.  In other words, The Jazz Singer took fourteen months to make it from the USA to Australia … and then appeared to take another 22 months (almost two years) to make it the 100 kilometers down to Bowral.  Part of it was the sound equipment, of course.   But still, that does mean that The Jazz Singer kept playing in Australian cinemas for two years or more.  A big difference from the “fast in, fast out” cinema releases we see these days.

As for Les Miserables, very enjoyable.  Hugh Jackman does a great job, although I don’t see his getting the Oscar this year (nominated, probably, but not winning).  Anne Hathaway has a much better chance and surely it was a “supporting” role.  Fabulous fun provided by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, in slapstick style roles.  The oddest thing about the film:  it is supposedly set in France, but feels like it was really set in the East End of London.  Purposeful to be certain, but I must check to see if the original stage musical also presented that way.

Empire Cinema Bowral History Dec2012