Do all American history professors really want to be the Secretary of State?

November 5, 2014

A few weeks ago, the American television series “Madam Secretary” premiered here in Australia. It’s being billed as a contender for the “The Good Wife” audience mixing it up with “West Wing”, with a strong and attractive female central character played by Tea Leoni. I am a great fan of Leoni, despite the fact that she has never really had a “great” screen role: my favourite films of hers are “Family Man”, “Fun With Dick and Jane” and “Ghost Town”, none of which qualify as truly memorable, despite their warm hearts and Leoni’s warm performances.

In “Madam Secretary” (which she also co-produces), Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent turned history academic who gets tapped to become the Secretary of State. It’s a great set-up, with endless possibilities around the conflict between academia and governmental service, the former CIA connections and the nature of women in the halls of power. Sadly, despite the attractiveness of the cast, I am left underwhelmed. Sadly, I should say. McCord has a wonderful husband, a religion and ethics professor (played by Tim Daly); wouldn’t all professional women want a man like that – he cooks, looks after the three handsome children during her inevitable long days and nights in the office, AND holds a full-time full professorship.

The show is popular, but it plot lines are simplistic and often unrealistic, the supporting cast mostly uninspiring, and – as Woody Allen would say – there are so few of them. Where is the rich panoply of supporting (and one-off) characters that we find in “The Good Wife”? Even the President (played by Keith Carradine) comes across as bland. Where indeed are her under-secretaries, the ambassador to the United Nations, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor?

There is also a basic issue with Leoni in this role: at age 48 (and a youthful-looking one at that), she is too young to be a Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton made it there at age 62. The current one, John Kerry, is almost 71. Sure, Condoleeza Rice was 51 when she took on the role, but at least she had been the National Security Advisor first. And that’s the natural role for Elizabeth McCord – with a possible elevation later on. But the producers were impatient, and the show is all the poorer for it.

A number of academics have risen to become Secretary of State. Aside from Rice (Stanford University), we have had Madeline Albright (Georgetown University) and Henry Kissinger (Harvard). When I studied at Cornell University in the 1970s, we even thought that my American history foreign policy professor, Walter LaFeber – now 81 years old and still going strong – was aiming at that office. I studied with him for two semesters, three lectures per week, which he did with no notes and a simple chalked outline that he wrote behind him. The third lecture was on Saturday mornings. And here’s the thing – in this day and age you might expect that few students would attend the Saturday lecture (or any, for that matter) – they were the best-attended. Why? Because people brought their friends and visitors. That was how well-respected and impressive LaFeber was on the Cornell campus at that time.

Was it just a rumour that LaFeber was interested in the role? Who knows. But “Madam Secretary” shows that this interest does not fade.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary

Joshua Marks doco on grandparents Australian broadcast premiere

October 26, 2013

Not many people make a documentary film about their grandparents, especially if they are not famous.

Well, Sydney-based Joshua Marks has.  He calls it, simply, My Grandparents.   There’s a “tag line” that goes “A young film-maker rediscovers his ancestors – and they’re still alive!”

My Grandparents will be broadcast nationally here in Australia this Sunday, 27th October 2013 at 8.30pm on the Aurora Community Television channel, on Foxtel.

The documentary is a group biography, described as a “cross-generational documentary in which filmmaker Joshua Marks sets out to find out more about his grandparents – what drives them, what fears and hopes they have.”

Marks worked on his film over two years and incorporated lots of humour. In just 26 minutes (how did he ever edit it down?), he creates “a journey of awareness”.  As with all good semi-autobiographical films (think of Sarah Polley’s recent Stories We Tell), the film becomes both a journey of discovery as well as an elucidation of his subjects.

Declaration here:  I am related to Joshua Marks through marriage, and I know two of his three living grandparents quite well.  I am also the Chair of the Board of Aurora.  So I am anything but objective in these matters.  But still – it’s a delightful film worth watching.  And Aurora is a charming, quirky and fascinating community channel – to the best of my knowledge, the only television channel in Australia that broadcasts 100% Australian content.

Missed the broadcast on Aurora?  You can purchase the DVD from Ronin Films – the DVD has extra features, including an interview with Marks.  (Pricing depends on who you are and where you live.)

Photos below – top one the promotional flyer; bottom one the film-maker with his three grandparents.

My Grandparents_Key Art My Grandparents_production still cropped


California’s Lock on Our Popular Imagination

June 30, 2013

I grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s, well before that state entered the popular imagination through Bruce Springsteen, The Sopranos, Jersey Shore and you name it.

California, that’s where my imagination lay – settled somewhere in the hills above Los Angeles, captivated by American episodic network television.  Or watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate, from the town of Tiburon, in Marin County north of San Francisco.  From my earliest memory, I wanted to live there.  I achieved that goal, although not until I was 24.  And part of me lives there still, my official state residence in the USA despite my long-term residency (or is it voluntary exile?) in Australia.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years and am a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (Masters of City Planning – known as an “MCP”), and many of my most treasured life memories have to do with that great state.  I have flown into San Francisco or Los Angeles airports from Sydney or Melbourne more than 30 times, and each time my excitement builds.  Writing at this desk in Sydney, I can easily call to mind the smells of arrival outside the San Francisco airport terminals – Eucalyptus leaves mixed with diesel, with a dash of San Francisco Bay fog.  Never mind that Eucalyptus is in fact an Australian tree; like so much else, those trees smell much stronger in California.

Nathan Heller in The New Yorker (July 9 & 16, 2012) wrote about the “TED Talks” phenomenon and accurately captured a certain California, a “west coast mood” that:

Becomes palpable down near Big Sur, where the light changes from the buttery subtropical glaze of Southern California to something cooler and more filtered, where people start calling the Pacific Coast Highway by the simpler name of Highway 1.  It is the mood of professionals who wear Converse to work, own multimillion-dollar homes at thirty-two, eat local, donate profits to charity, learn Mandarin, and rock-climb in the Pinnacles on Sundays.

Yes, Nathan, except it’s not subtropical, it’s the Mediterranean.  But let’s not digress.

There are, in fact, two Californias of the imagination – the Los Angeles of film and television and the San Francisco and northern California, now of Silicon Valley and information technology.  Heller writes about how they mesh together, meeting somehow at Big Sur (and presumably Monterey, where people actually live).

The Warner Brothers studio water tower and a view of Los Angeles:

Warner Brothers studio water tower Los Angeles

For more than a century now – since the early years of Hollywood film in the early 20th century, California has often foreshadowed the future of America.  These two Californias now stand in for the two competing ideologies of the digital age:  scarcity and abundance.  The traditional media, represented by Hollywood and the entertainment culture, wishes to withhold content and thereby keep prices high through a “scarcity” approach.  That’s Los Angeles.  By contrast, the new media, represented by Silicon Valley and the San Francisco, promotes an “information” culture that wants to give (or shall we say, “sell”) people the tools to access the free bits of information that are out there.  Sound familiar?  Google, anyone?  Or perhaps Apple?

San Francisco: at the foot of Columbus Avenue and the view from Lombard Street looking east towards Berkeley:

SF Street view SF view Lombard Street

These are not my original ideas, but they do provide a useful way to understand both the challenges that the new digital age presents us with.

Along with the rest of the world, here in Sydney we watch Hollywood films (and are about the sixth biggest world market for them), we “google” for information, and our teenagers spend their days on social media networks created in the image of American colleges and universities (Facebook).  And that’s why California is worth watching closely.

These concepts illustrate how California has been able to reinvent itself and take command of the new 21st century business models.  Along the way, California also maintains its lock on how we think and imagine the past, the present and the future.

The USA on Australian Television: Two must-see shows on SBS

November 22, 2012

If you live in Australia, it’s not too late to start watching the best two hours of weekly quality American television documentary we have going right now.  Appearing each Tuesday evening on SBS One are two outstanding (and astonishingly relevant) four-part series: America in Prime Time (about American television) at 8.30pm and Clinton (part of the “American Experience” series, about Bill and Hillary Clinton) at 9.30pm.

These two series (we have had the first two hour-long episodes of the four already) go well beyond the breathless reporting on American media/culture (the former series) and politics (the latter series) that usually passes for “informed” analysis.  Both were produced originally for the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network (yes, the one that Mitt Romney wanted to “de-fund”).

The Clinton series also has extraordinary timing:  Hillary Clinton just visited Australia, in Perth for a series of meetings with senior Australian politicians for “AUSMIN” talks.  The difference between the Hillary Clinton we saw this past week on the SBS (the early, naive, years of the Clinton Administration in 1993) and the Hillary of now – November 2012 – is amazing. The poised, confident and experienced politician Hillary has moved a long way in the last 19 years.  She is also a political survivor, and able to reinvent herself successfully – first as a very successful Senator from the State of New York and then as a very successful Secretary of State (and hey, didn’t she just help broker the Israel-Gaza cease fire?).  She tried for the Presidency three years ago, losing the nomination to Barack Obama, and she may yet try again in 2016. Somehow I doubt it, but that still does not diminish the oustandingly successful  journey she has been on during the last eight to ten years.

Interested in reading more about the Clintons?  The US PBS network has helpfully put together an online bibliography.

YouTube and the streaming of America

March 4, 2012

It’s not just America, of course, but since YouTube is now owned by Google and is an American company, let’s leave this title as is for now.

A January 16, 2012 article (“Streaming Dreams: YouTube Turns Pro”) in The New Yorker by John Seabrook updates us about where YouTube is fitting in the world.  For the sake of brevity, here are his key points.  I encourage you to read the full article if you have any interest (and you should) in the impact of the online world.  Because where YouTube is today, the rest of the world will be tomorrow.

– By 2016, one half of all US households will have Wi-Fi enabled devices on their TVs.  The impact of this will be profound, because all of that web video will come to us in our lounge (living) rooms, in glorious widescreen.  Home entertainment, as we know, will change even more.

– YouTube went live in May 2005, created by three former PayPal employees in … a Silicon Valley garage (but of course).

– YouTube is now the second most popular search engine in the world (after Google).

– YouTube has 800,000,000 million unique users a month, generates more than three billion views per day and 48 hours of new video are uploaded to the site every minute.

– YouTube has some 30,000 “partners”, and the top 500 earn more than US$100,000/year from their videos on the service.

– Advertisers spend some US$60 billion annually on television, but only $3 billion on online video (not certain if this is just in US or not).

– One reason for this lack of video advertising is that for a long time, YouTube was not seen as “brand safe” because its streets “were not clean and well lit”, according to David Cohen, a Universal McCann executive vice president.

And finally, Seabrook makes a good description of the dichotomy between the “Hollywood” mind set and the “Silicon Valley” mindset.  Hollywood is founded on “scarcity” (in TV, airtime is a scarce resource, and expensive to create) so “entertainment works by withholding  content with the purpose of increasing its value”.  By contrast, Silicon Valley is founded on an “abundance” mentality (information, rather than entertainment), and spends its time “writing great programs to process it” and “giving people useful tools to use it”.

Number of TV sets falls in USA

May 15, 2011

On May 3rd of this year, Brian Stelter reported in The New York Times that the number of homes in the USA with television sets has dropped – for the first time in 20 years.  Using figures supplied by the Nielsen Company, it was reported that 96.7 percent of American households now have TV sets, compared to 98.9 percent previously.  Nielsen gives two reasons for this decline: some low-income households cannot afford the new digital TVs, and some young people “who have grown up with laptops in their hands instead of remote controls are opting not to buy TV sets when they graduate from college or enter the workforce.”

The latest Australian figures (from Screen Australia) are that “more than 99 percent of Australian metropolitan households had one or more television sets, 68 per cent had two or more, and 31 per cent had three or more.”  But it will be interesting to see whether or not this phenomenon is replicated here.  I suspect that eventually it will, although it will probably be the latter reason (the young) and almost certainly not the former – and may take a few years to manifest, as our broadband speeds (and costs) are not simply what people can use to replace TV with … yet.  The Australian Government’s recent announcement (in the context of the Budget earlier this month) that it will provide digital set top boxes for the elderly to transfer over to digital TV will certainly ease the less technologically proficient – many of them not very well off – into the new digital TV age.  This certainly does not happen in the USA.  Click here for a recent (May 18th) Sydney Morning Herald article defending the Government’s decision.

FlashForward mark1

November 14, 2009

I have rarely been so taken by a new television series as I am by FlashForward, the science fiction-style series which appears on Australia’s Channel 7 each Monday at 8.30pm.  Click here to view the episodes in Australia; click here to view the episodes if you are in the USA.  The USA appears to be running about five or six days ahead of Australia – so last Thursday’s episode in the USA (November 12) will appear in Australia on Monday November 16.

The series appears to unfold in “real time” – that is, what we are watching each week supposedly is taking place during that time (Hallowe’en on that holiday, etc), all leading up to the April 2010 climax – the two-plus minutes of everyone’s future which everyone viewed in the first episode.

The series is wonderfully written, setting up not only some great science fiction questions, but also some important ones about the nature of time:  do we have free will?  (the series appears to be saying “maybe yes”, but the word is not yet in) is the future ordained? (the BIG question, to be sure) are all of those people who did not have “flash forwards” really going to die before April 2010? (we are hoping not, as our Korean-American FBI agent – played by John Cho – will be among them).

The premise, if you have missed this interesting event to date, is that everyone in the whole world lost consciousness at the same moments (causing all sorts of mayhem – planes and cars crashing, millions dead, etc) and glimpsed a vision of their future – all simultaneously.  This in turn drives many people almost crazy, including one of our heroes, FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), who is rather unhappily married and whose wife Olivia has seen a guy in her living room who she calls “darling” (the same guy who is the father of a young autistic boy she is treating).  Fiennes, disappointingly, is not great in this role, and his marital strains are one of the least effective parts of the story (he and his wife’s flash forwards indicate rough times ahead).

In a world where some 20+ million people have died in one moment, I think there would probably be more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) going on, but my only real complaint about the writing is about their time zones.  These writers – who get so many things absolutely right – have got one thing totally wrong:  The mass consciousness loss took place about 10.00pm in Los Angeles, which would make it about 1.00am in Washington, DC – great, that one is right (showing the President being woken up in the middle of the night), but they got two wrong:  there is a sideline story (episode 2?) in which they discuss and show a baseball stadium in what I am sure they said was Detroit, Michigan where there is one mysterious figure (and it’s a pretty creepy moment, which they show a number of times) moving through the huddled unconscious people – except it’s daytime.  Duh (as they say).  10.00pm in LA makes it 1.00am in Detroit – thus no baseball game, no daylight.  Oh boy.  And then there is a long discussion about how very few Chinese died during the “flash forward” (and maybe they were therefore responsible), but then one character says “but it was the middle of the night there”.  Well, no, it was not:  10.00pm in Los Angeles makes it 2.00pm (not am!) in Beijing – anything but the middle of the night.

Despite these faults (wish they had not made the mistakes), one hell of a great series.

(Postscript:  a good academic “fan” discussion by Julia Lesage, University of Oregon, and entitled “FlashForward: Pacing and Script” has just been published on “FlowTV”, a media analysis site which comes from the University of Texas at Austin.)