Film review of Denial

April 13, 2017

This film review of “Denial” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in a shorter form on 13 April 2017.

Directed by Mick Jackson; written by David Hare, based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt; starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall and Andrew Scott

*****

Not long after American history professor Deborah Lipstadt published her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, she and her publisher Penguin Books was sued by British author – and noted Holocaust denier – David Irving for libel. The story of this court case becomes the film “Denial”, opening in Australian cinemas this week.

British libel laws operate differently than other countries: the defendant is presumed guilty unless they can be proven innocent and the burden of proof is much higher. Not only was Lipstadt’s credibility on trial, but also that of Holocaust scholarship, with Irving using the opportunity to promote his denial ideology by focussing on small “unproven” items that could cast doubts on the Nazi genocide.

This docu-drama illustrates real events over the period 1994 to 2000, based on Lipstadt’s memoir, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” (previously “History on Trial”). The film opens with a confrontation where Irving disrupted a lecture of Lipstadt, and then recounts the court case itself, almost solely through Lipstadt’s eyes. We see her meetings with her legal team, with British Jewish community leaders and with an un-named survivor. Lipstadt is forced to watch the trial unfold without speaking out because her legal advisers focussed on making the case about Irving (who conducted his own defence) rather than about her.

“Denial” gathers a great cast of British actors, with Rachel Weisz – originally tipped for an Oscar nomination for the role – neatly capturing Lipstadt’s nasal New York (Queens) accent. Tom Wilkinson – one of the best character actors working in film today – plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, and Timothy Spall (the artist Turner in “Mr Turner”) inhabits the persona of David Irving in a form likely to burn itself in public consciousness as the definitive Irving. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in “Sherlock”) plays lead solicitor Anthony Julius, who in real life is one of Britain’s leading campaigners against antisemitism. Many important historians appear, including Cambridge academic Richard J. Evans (played by John Sessions) and Dutch scholar Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss).

The characters are delightfully drawn, the settings create a strong sense of place, particularly London and Auschwitz, which the defence team visits on an eerie, snow-covered and foggy day.

Courtroom dramas are a staple of modern feature films. From “Witness for the Prosecution” to “Judgment at Nuremberg” to “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Evil Angels” to “A Few Good Men”, the courtroom is ready-made for what the screen does well: illustrate conflict between adversaries, albeit without physical violence. Along with its wider themes of historical truth and the Holocaust, “Denial” sits within this genre, but the film never hits the “aha” moments that the best legal dramas require. This may be because of the known ending or the film’s requirement to stick closely to a trial that revolved around arcane historical research. Because Irving and Lipstadt have only one actual verbal encounter early in the film, the dramatic challenges of the film revolve around keeping Deborah Lipstadt from speaking out, not the most compelling drama.

“Denial” is a film about history and the nature of historical research.  History matters, this film tells us, because it tells us who we are and how we lived then.  But the law also matters, because it can confirm – or deny – one historian’s views in the official view of society.

(image below: Rachel Weisz in “Denial”)

(Note: “Denial” originally opened in North American cinemas on September 30, 2016.)


A Companion to Australian Media now in print

December 30, 2014

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

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

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

A photo of the book cover is below.

Companion to Aust Media cover


Companion to the Australian Media coming soon

June 4, 2014

I am proud to be a contributing author to the upcoming “A Companion to the Australian Media”, to be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing and released in September 2014.  It’s edited by Professor Bridget Griffin-Foley (Macquarie University), and has an eminent editorial board.

It also has a whopping 479 entries totalling more than 415,000 words written by 300 contributors, including Quentin Dempster, David Salter, Eric Beecher, Tim Bowden, Mark Day, Gerald Stone, John Faulkner, Graham Freudenberg, Ross Gittins, Gideon Haigh, Sandra Hall, Jacqueline Kent, Valerie Lawson, Sylvia Lawson, Peter Manning, Bill Peach, Nicolas Rothwell, Julianne Schultz, Margaret Simons, Graeme Turner and Richard Walsh.  I wrote the entries on “film reviewing in Australia” and “educational media in Australia”.

An article by Peter Coleman about the “Companion” appeared in the May 31, 2014 edition of The Spectator.

Here are extracts from the official first “blurb”:

At this time of rapid and revolutionary change in modes of communication, A Companion to the Australian Media provides the first comprehensive, up-to-date historical account of Australia’s press, broadcasting and new media sectors.

Arranged in an accessible A–Z format are nearly 500 articles focussing on both the history and contemporary practice of media corporations, individuals, industries, audiences, policy and regulation since the launch of Australia’s first newspaper in 1803.


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 uses and mis-uses of history

October 29, 2013

I have long held a strong interest in the uses of history.  Historians have made a whole field of it, called historiography, or the study of history.

One of the latest examples of an insightful historical perspective comes from Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut history professor, who has written passionately about gun rights and African-Americans in the July 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Cobb uses a new – and quite evocative term – “historical malpractice” – to describe how some American (National Rifle Association – NRA) gun rights advocates are attempting to co-opt African American support, by appealing to their sense of disenfranchisement.  Cobb goes on to write:

As with the recent anti-abortion billboards that targeted African-Americans by alluding to racist roots in the birth-control movement, the error lies in importing the past wholesale into the present. The point of history is to learn from it, not to proceed as if we were still living in it.

Great lessons here for the uses and mis-uses of history.  “Importing the past” without context is wrong, as is the assumption that we are living in a different historical era.  Wise words.


Macquarie University graduate address by Don Perlgut

April 20, 2012

Graduate Address – Macquarie University – Wednesday 18 April 2012, 9.30am – to the graduates in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts

Dr Don Perlgut, PhD

(Note: on Wednesday 18 April 2012, I received my Doctor of Philosophy – PhD – from Macquarie University.  I was invited to give the graduate address to my graduating group.  The text of my address is below.)

Chancellor, members of the university, fellow graduates, parents and friends, I am deeply honoured to have been asked to speak this morning on behalf of this graduating class.   I too honour the Daruk people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I acknowledge their elders, past and present.

Congratulations to you, my fellow students for your notable achievements:  you will always remember this graduation, and I can guarantee that your degree will sit prominently both on your mantelpiece and at the top of your resume.

For each of us, attaining this degree has also been the result of a team effort:  the support of family members, friends, advisors, teachers and fellow students.  Please take a moment later today to thank your supporters for their guidance and assistance.

I have a long history with Macquarie University:  I first encountered this august institution in late 1981, when I enrolled for a PhD in urban studies.  I never completed that degree, but the university remembered me.  Eight years ago when I commenced my PhD part-time in what was then known as the Media department, I was issued with the same student number – a number which commences, I am proud to say, with “81”.

At least a few people graduating with us today have student numbers older than mine – and to you I say, aren’t we lucky!  Lucky, because this institution has welcomed and re-welcomed us into its fold, believing in us and encouraging our academic accomplishments with a breath-taking idealism that has lasted decades.

In the 31 years since I first encountered Macquarie, I have met and married the love of my life, had two children, owned three houses and become an Australian citizen.  I have had three different careers and eleven different employers, which include three universities, two non-profit organisations, the ABC, ASIC and two start-up technology companies, neither of which exist today.

I have been a lecturer, film critic, consultant, publisher, business development manager, education officer, project manager, executive director and CEO.  Without exception, I did not and could not have predicted any of those jobs more than a couple of months before they commenced.

Given my own life history, I think back to my early university experiences and I ponder what advice I could have received upon graduation that would have helped me to navigate the uncommon twists and turns which life threw my way.

I undertook my PhD here because I wanted to spend time making sense of the world of media and film.  And that’s exactly what Macquarie University has given me:  the intellectual, professional and personal space, encouragement and support to do just that, within my study of film distribution, exhibition, marketing, cultural studies and religion.

The headline of my dissertation is “The Making of a Cultural Moment”, and I investigated the controversies surrounding the marketing, release and reception of the film The Passion of the Christ, which opened on 25 February 2004 – almost the exact same day I commenced this PhD degree.

From my research into media history, I draw two important conclusions relevant to you, my fellow graduates, particularly those who are at or near the beginning of your careers and life journeys.

The first of these is that history matters.  It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who most famously said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Historians as diverse as Montesquieu, Bernard Lewis and our recently appointed Foreign Minister Bob Carr all concur.  So I exhort you to study the history of both your time and your place in order to help work out where you fit within it.

My second conclusion is that we all have a part in creating our history, even if it does not always feel that way.  As graduates of this important institution, we all have choices. And our respective degrees will enhance both the number and the quality of those choices and opportunities. Some choices are small:  What will I have for lunch today?  But some are large:  Who will I choose for my romantic partner?  Where will I work?  Where will I live?  What is my life goal?

I spent a good part of the last eight years thinking about a certain moment in film history.  What I can tell you now is that this is your historical moment.  For some, it is just a beginning, and for many of us a continuation.  However for all of us, it is a moment of deep and abiding significance.  Thank you,  and I congratulate you again on your achievements.