Film review of Indignation

August 27, 2016

(This film review of “Indignation” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on August 18, 2016 in a shorter form.)

Directed and written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth

Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield, Pico Alexander, Philip Ettinger and Noah Robbins

This week’s release of the film “Indignation”, based on a 2008 autobiographical Philip Roth novel, calls our attention to this pre-eminent American-Jewish novelist of the late twentieth century.  Without exception, each of his more than 30 novels and collected stories exist in a Jewish world and Jewish framework of reference.

He also holds the record for more film adaptations than any other American-Jewish author.  Starting with “Goodbye Columbus” in 1969, seven other Roth novels have been turned into movies, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972), “The Ghost Writer” (TV, 1984), “The Human Stain” (2003), “Elegy” (2008, based on “The Dying Animal”) and “The Humbling” (2014).

“Indignation” the film closely follows the plot of the book and is based on Roth’s experiences studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.  Set in the early 1950s, 19 year-old Marcus Messner – the only son of a Newark kosher butcher – leaves home to study at “Winesburg College”, in itself a fascinating reference to Sherwood Anderson’s early twentieth century short story collection.

Jumping from Jewish New Jersey to Gentile Ohio is a shock for young Messner: of 1400 students on campus, only 80 of them are Jewish.  Upon his arrival, Messner finds himself rooming with two other Jewish students.  He rebuffs attempts by the only Jewish fraternity on campus (as did Roth in real life) to try and make his own way, quietly and calmly, skipping the opportunity to try out for the baseball team to focus on his studies.

But Messner (played by Jewish actor Logan Lerman) – who is haunted by excessively anxious parents back in Newark – does not count on meeting the wealthy, blond-haired and very beautiful WASP, Olivia Hutton.  Hutton is played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, who brings a sassy but delicate beauty to her “femme fatale” role that is reminiscent of the young Lauren Bacall.

After a sexual encounter with Olivia, Messner muses in a voice-over, “In Newark, it was inconceivable that girls like Olivia Hutton could do such a thing.  But in Newark, there were no girls like Olivia Hutton.”

These lines are indicative of Roth’s excellent original writing, nicely adapted for the screen and directed by James Schamus.  Although this is Schamus’ directorial debut, he has had a sterling film career as a producer, writer and film academic, frequently working with Ang Lee on projects such as “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust Caution” and “Taking Woodstock”.  Schamus – who is also Jewish – has assembled an extraordinary cast of unknown faces that bring a real freshness to this film.  In addition to Lerman and Gadon, Tracey Letts plays the antisemitic Dean of Students of Winesburg College, and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond play Marcus’ parents.  The two tense scenes between an increasingly stressed Marcus and a cool, calculating and dogged Dean Caudwell, are masterpieces of writing, acting and directing.

“Indignation” carries a certain old-fashioned quality, with its concerns for the 1950s American-Jewish experience and the genteel antisemitism faced by American Jews at the time, topics that were popular in the 1960s but have mostly faded from cultural consciousness.  This film’s closest cinematic relative is “School Ties”, an inferior and less intellectually complex 1992 movie about a Jewish football player at a very non-Jewish college who also faces antisemitism.  That film was also a “throw back” to the era of “Marjorie Morningstar” and other films that explored the American-Jewish post-war suburban experience of assimilation and suburbanisation.

Because “Indignation” is far from capturing our current Jewish “cultural moment” in the way that television series such as “Transparent” have done, it may not grab a large audience.  But that’s a pity, because it is one of the finest coming-of-age dramas released in cinemas in 2016, made with great care, attention and devotion to Roth’s excellent prose, all done from a thoroughly Jewish perspective.

If I were now – as I once was – an American-Jewish college student on campus now, “Indignation” could very well have become my favourite film of the year, in the way that “Goodbye Columbus” captured my attention so many years ago.  Yet I am thoroughly taken by the charms and emotional depth of “Indignation”, a major achievement by Schamus.

Logan Lerman Sarah Gadon2(photo above: Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in “Indignation”)

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

Notes on the passing of Werner Dannhauser

June 29, 2014

A couple of months ago, Cornell University issued a fascinating press release: Professor Emeritus Werner Dannhauser, a former professor of politics and political theory, had died at age 84.

I remember Werner Dannhauser, because I studied with him at Cornell in the 1970s. I just checked my transcript (yes, I still have a copy): the course was entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” (Government 161), and I received a C-, the lowest grade of my university career.

Dannhauser was even then very eminent. But he was also very sickly, and I am astonished that somehow he would have lived another forty years. We were led to believe that he was going to die any minute. His tutorial assistants would carry him in to the classroom for every lecture, sit him down, and strap a microphone around his chest. He would then painfully whisper out a lecture which everyone claimed to be brilliant. We would all try to copy everything verbatim. His tutors worshipped him; we students were in awe, even if we did not understand what he said.

Then came the first assignment. I had such a hard time writing the first term paper (what can you write for a barely living intellectual treasure?) that I procrastinated until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, rather than sitting down to write after dinner, I went to see Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” – for the first time. It was wonderful, as “Casablanca” always is. I cried when the French sang “La Marseillaise”.

I returned to my room and late that night wrote what I believed to be my most inspired piece of writing to date. I called it “Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, Nietzsche and the Machiavellian ideal”. The grade came back from my tutor the next week: Fail. I should have known.

So here I am almost forty years later, and Dannhauser has passed away, and I am left wondering why he was so sick – so apparently on his deathbed even then (and how he miraculously recovered; I can find no reference to that online).

And here are the things that I did not know about Dannhauser then:

– He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, arriving in the USA in 1938 at age nine. He studied for his PhD at the University of Chicago under Leo Strauss, worked for “Commentary” magazine and later came to Cornell. His wife died at a young age, and he raised his two children on his own.

– His essay “On Teaching Politics”, originally published in 1975, is still seen as a classic of the genre.

– Dannhauser was extremely close friends with Allan Bloom, and almost certainly the character of “Morris Herbst” in the novel “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow was based on Dannhauser. (Want to read the first chapter of “Ravelstein”? You can find it here.)  Bellow even sent Dannhauser a draft of the novel to review, and Dannhauser suggested playing down Ravelstein’s homosexuality, which Bellow did not do.  In May 2000, C-Span broadcast a session at the Hudson Institute, in which Dannhauser participated, discussing Bellow and Bloom.

All these things I did not know, until very recently.  Perhaps, had I known some of them then, I would have paid more attention.  But I did not.

I recovered from the Fail mark and pulled a C-, but for many decades I declared that I was not interested in “political theory” – all because of my bad experience in Dannhauser’s course, and the acolytes who followed him around. What a shame, and what a waste. Perhaps the lesson is that eminent professors do not always turn into inspiring teachers. Perhaps it was just my callow youthfulness, but in my case, my experience was just the opposite.

(More Dannhauser obituaries are available from “Commentary” and “The Weekly Standard”.)

Film review of Liberal Arts

December 21, 2012

(Note:  This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 December 2012.)

Directed and written by Josh Radnor

Starring Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron and John Magaro

“Liberal Arts” is a totally delightful and small romantic film about finding yourself, mentoring and growing up.  That the superbly handsome Josh Radnor (Ted in “How I Met Your Mother”) wrote, directed, starred in and co-produced this film is a bonus.  “Liberal Arts” is, at heart, a great “date” film.  I felt good watching it – knowing that I was “emotionally safe” (no nasty Hitchcockian twists here) – and the feeling remained for some days afterwards.

Radnor is a film-maker to watch.  He is thoroughly Jewish, the product of an Orthodox Jewish day school in Columbus, Ohio, and has a form of classical good looks that has already placed him in the next generation of Jewish writer-director-actor stars in the making:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Segel.  In “Liberal Arts”, he plays Jesse Fisher, a 35 year-old university (“college”) admissions officer living unhappily in New York City.  He is drifting and unhappy; his girlfriend has left him and even his laundry gets stolen.

Then comes an invitation to attend the retirement dinner of a former mentor, Peter Homburg, a college teacher of English at his old college in Ohio (played by the wonderful Richard Jenkins).  Jesse goes, unprepared for the revitalising experience that this visit will turn out to be.  Aside from Peter, he comes across another significant English teacher, Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney). (Did you ever wonder why almost every American college teacher on screen teaches English; it must have something to do with what screenwriters studied while in unie).

But it’s actually the students that Jesse meets who shift his life course. Revisiting his alma mater allows enables him to shed his depressive, unexpressive and failing adult self and be re-born as a wise and romantic being.

The desperately depressed and introspective Dean (John Magaro, another Jewish actor born in Ohio) gives Jesse the opportunity to become a helpful big brother (“stop reading David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’”, Jesse tells him).  By contrast, Nat (played by heart-throb Zac Efron), is a puck-like wispy free spirit who seems to understand just how to pull Jesse from his self-absorption. And there is Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen, best-known for her role as Martha in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”), the 19 year-old daughter of Peter’s friends, with whom Jesse, against his better judgment, falls in love.  The scenes between Radnor and Olsen, including a cute formal letter correspondence, all seem to work without any sense of sleaze, primarily because both actors seem so … wholesome is the best word.  And what is the fate of this May-September romance?  You will need to see the film to find out.

There is also the film’s Ohio setting:  an un-named historic and very pretty Midwestern college, complete with gothic stone buildings, set in a small town with a nice intellectual bookshop and a clean and well-lit coffeehouse.  The film was actually shot at Kenyon College, where Radnor received his undergraduate degree and where he was voted best actor in his year.  Stay through the final credit sequence to hear the witty a cappella song “I Want a Kenyon Man”.

Generations of Americans long for that lost and passionately felt world of ideas, literature and music that they experienced during their university years.  Radnor consciously set out to give his character Jesse the opportunity to re-connect with his creative and romantic self through his relationship with Zibby.  He has created a film in which the characters do something very unusual:  they talk about books that matter – as they reportedly also do for Radnor himself.

Ultimately, “Liberal Arts” is probably too small, too sweet and lacks sufficient fireworks to grab a large audience.  There are no “I’ll have what she’s having” scenes like the one in “When Harry Met Sally”, no transformations into a Chassidic character at the dinner table (Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”) and no desperately mis-matched mild Jews and tough WASPs (Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro in “Meet the Parents”).  It’s not that kind of film.  What Radnor gives us instead is a meditative and thoroughly pleasant romance where the main characters grow and the world seems that much nicer at the end.

Watch the trailer for the film here:


Interested in the “I Want a Kenyon Man” song which features at the end?  You can listen to it through this web page.

Below:  Radnor and Olsen walking on the Kenyon College campus:


(Final note:  “Liberal Arts” astonishingly only grossed $391,176 in the North American box office earlier this year.  This is in no way a representation of how lovely this film is.)

American College Football, New York Style

December 22, 2011

During my recent two month (northern) autumn stay in New York City, I was particularly keen to watch some American college football.  I grew up with it, first attending every Rutgers University game with my parents and then later my high school and my respective universities, including my first year at Dartmouth College when the “Big Green” went undefeated.

So try looking for college football in New York City; it’s astonishingly hard to find.  In fact, New York must be unique in American cities in this way.  Los Angeles has UCLA, University of Southern California and a host of smaller colleges and universities with active football programs.  San Francisco Bay area has powerhouses UC Berkeley and Stanford, as well as a number of others.  Boston has a number (think Boston College, Harvard), as does Chicago (Northwestern).

Certainly many of the powerhouse football colleges in the USA are not located in their states’ largest cities, as many are in state universities.  But New York is unique:  there are, in fact, thirteen different State University of New York campuses with inter-collegiate football programs:  Albany, Alfred State, Alfred University, Brockport, Buffalo State, Buffalo University, Cortland State, Erie Community, Hudson Valley Community, Maritime College, Morrisville State, Nassau Community and Stony Brook.  But unless I have my geography wildly wrong, none of these are in New York City – and only the University of Buffalo (which is almost in Canada, for goodness sake) actually has a football program of note.  Funny, that: think about the surrounding states (all with smaller populations):  New Jersey with Rutgers in the big leagues for some years now, Penn State in the “uber” big leagues and even University of Connecticut.

So clearly New York is not a college football state:  in fact (and I have not read any analysis of this, although it may exist), New York State’s public universities must surely be amongst the least visible state football programs in the USA (did you know that the University of Buffalo was actually a state school?) – although a number of private colleges (Syracuse particularly but also Cornell, Colgate and many others) are reasonably strong.

All of which makes watching live (as opposed to television) American college football in New York City a challenge.  There are only three NCAA “Division 1” college football teams in New York City:  Fordham University, Columbia University (see below) and Wagner College on Staten Island, none of them with football programs of note.  It was not always thus:  in 1870 Columbia played Rutgers in the second football game in history, and for many years provided high level competition to Rutgers and others.  The Fordham teams from the late 1920s through the 1940s were some of the best in the country, appearing in the 1941 Cotton Bowl and 1942 Sugar Bowl.  But Fordham dropped its football program in late 1954, only reinstituting it in 1970.  In some ways Columbia football sank even lower:  from 1983 to 1988 the Columbia football team lost 44 games in a row, still an NCAA record.

Other universities in New York City?  New York University? A great and growing university, but no football team (discontinued after the 1952 season; too Greenwich Village?).  City University of New York? – City College dropped its team in 1951Brooklyn College dropped its football program after the 1990 season due to lack of funds.   So what makes New York City so immune to the charms of college football?  According to Nate Silver in The New York Times (September 2011), New York indeed is the American metropolitan area LEAST interested in college football, with only fourteen percent of the population following that sport.  The following table (from Silver’s article) shows the “most popular college football teams in the New York City TV market”:

Makes for interesting reading, doesn’t it?  What’s missing?  Actually, New York City-based teams are missing.

But this city does love sport:  think of the most successful baseball team in history, the New York Yankees. And the Mets and the (former) Brooklyn Dodgers; the city has hosted fourteen World Series to date.  And professional football: the Giants and the Jets (even if both of them actually play in New Jersey), the Rangers and the Islanders ice hockey teams, the basketball Knicks, the “Red Bulls” soccer.  And in fact, New York is unique in the USA in that it has more than one team in each of the most popular professional sports – baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey.

But still, no college football of note.  So for that reason on a glorious warm and dry Saturday this autumn, I attended a Columbia University football game at Baker Field at the very top of Manhattan, just below the Bronx.  According to the Ivy League football website, there were 3003 attendees, including we three from Australia.  The distance from the main university campus (and its somewhat “down-market” location) certainly does not add to the audience appeal.  Just take the “1” train uptown – whoops, if it is running on weekends that far north (it wasn’t the day we went; sigh).  (Click here for Jake Novak’s hilarious analysis of how to get to Baker Field.)  But it only cost $10 to get in (by contrast, University of Michigan general admission prices ran from $70 to $85/ticket this year, and up to three times higher for premiere seats).

Columbia lost, although they played their heart out.  As football games go, it was low-key:  at half-time Columbia fielded a marching band of about 18 (just about as far as you can get from the Michigan or Ohio State hundreds), a band much more notable for its intellectual stunts and outrageous behaviour than anything else.  But the football team’s pale blue uniforms looked great against the green Astroturf field, with the Hudson River and the Henry Hudson Parkway toll bridge in the background, set against the steep rising green Palisades of New Jersey in the distance.

Columbia’s football team was not bad this year – in fact frequently held the lead in a number of games but somehow managed to lose every one until the season’s end.  Columbia had one win and nine losses – curiously beating Brown University, the Ivy League leader, in their final game (after giving up 61 points to Cornell the week before).  As they say, go figure.  Not surprising that the University changed its coach in late November.  So New York college football seems inevitably mired in low interest and low appeal.  The moral of this story:  as great as that city is, if you want a real American college football experience, go just about anywhere but New York City.

PS:  I am not the only person who has noted the absence of competitive college football in New York City.  Last year (2010) was the first game of the creatively named “Pinstripe Bowl” (don’t you love that name?), which takes place at the new Yankee Stadium.  And this year – December 30th – the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights (Big East) go up against the Iowa State University Cyclones (Big 12) at this event.  The Pinstripe Bowl website proclaims the unusual fact that last year’s game was “the first college football bowl game played in the Bronx” since 1962 (American sports statistics are rich, are they not?).

(PPS:  Note to Highland Park High School, NJ, football fans:  HP’s football team beat Metuchen this year, 28 to 21; I arrived at the field just as the team buses were leaving. Maybe next season I will see my team win.)

Dartmouth’s new President

May 5, 2009

Once upon a time we who lived in Australia did not get the news for some months.  Even films which opened could take six or more months to arrive.  The Internet and the globalised world changed all of that.  Things are pretty instantaneous now.

Except it took me two months to learn about Dartmouth College’s new President.  As other posts on this site attest, I attended Dartmouth for my freshman (first) year, and still harbour a soft spot for the place.  Hard to describe why, really.  My first year away from home, the romance of New Hampshire, who knows.

Dr. Jim Yong Kim will be Dartmouth’s new president, starting on 1 July 2009.  He is currently the Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Chief of the Division of Global Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health.  He also co-founded the organisation Partners in Health (PIH) with Paul Farmer, which is the subject of a popular book by Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains.  In 2006, Kim was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world“.

And there’s more:  he is the first Asian-American president of an ivy league school, he was class president and valedictorian of his high school senior class in Muscatine, Iowa, where he also was quarterback of the football team and played basketball.  He speaks fluent English, Korean and Spanish.  And he just had his second child – with wife Dr Younsook Lim – at age 50.  What can’t this man do?  For more details, go to the Dartmouth “President Elect” website or Dartmouth Life newsletter.