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”)

Trumbo


Walking on screen

August 13, 2015

Bill Bryson’s visit this week to Australia to promote the film “A Walk in the Woods” – based on his 1998 hit book about walking the Appalachian Trail – brings renewed attention to that oldest of human past-times, walking (what did you think I was going to say?). The film stars Robert Redford as Bryson, and Nick Nolte, playing Bryson’s dissolute walking mate and childhood friend, Stephen Katz. Emma Thompson provides support as Bryson’s British wife. Now that’s cool: Bryson never imagined that Redford would play him on screen. The film opens in North America and Australia the first week of September, following its premiere at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival early this year.

There’s a problem with this casting, as ABC Radio presenter Michael Cathcart pointed out on ABC Radio National “Books and Arts” program (click here to listen to the delightful interview): Bryson was just 44 when he “walked the woods”, and Redford was 78 when the film was shot in 2014. That casting changed the theme from a “reconnecting with America” theme – Bryson’s ostensible reason to undertake the walk – to two ageing men battling infirmity in their trek. (Click here to watch the “7.30 Report” interview with Bryson.)

But no matter. I am a great fan of Bryson’s work (like me, he is an expatriate American who has spent the majority of his life living overseas – in his case, the United Kingdom) and of Robert Redford. So the pairing, for me at least, will be irresistible.

Unlike most Australians, I have actually walked short parts of the Appalachian Trail: some bits in North Carolina (the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; my friend Dave lived nearby in Knoxville while studying at the University of Tennessee) and some in New Hampshire and Vermont, near Hanover, New Hampshire when I attended Dartmouth College in my undergraduate university days. Not much, mind you, but just enough to claim some personal knowledge of the Trail. Local Knoxville newspaper “The Daily Times” reported this week that the Great Smoky Park is gearing up for another invasion of walkers, following the release of the movie in a few weeks’ time.

Tales of walking are popular on screen, and are some of my favourite recent films. In “Wild”, based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed (love that name), Reese Witherspoon dramatises Strayed’s adventures walking the Pacific Crest Trail in western USA. “The Way” with Martin Sheen, follows a (fictional) pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (the Catholic Way of St. James) in France and Spain. In “Tracks” (one of my favourite Australian films of 2014), based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays the main character’s solitary walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in Western Australia.

Other books about walking – possibly less filmable – are on my “read soon” list: Rebecca Solnit’s essays in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” and Martin Fletcher’s “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation”, about walking the Mediterranean coast of Israel from Rosh Hanikra to the Gaza border.

(below an image of Bryon’s book)

A Walk in the Woods image


A writer’s purpose

July 22, 2014

Finding your purpose in life can be complicated. It is also, in my experience, a journey often without end. Just when you think you have it, the meaning eludes your grasp.

When I entered university (“college”) at age 18, I thought that I wanted to be a famous novelist.  That’s what many of us wanted back then.  (Later it was famous film directors; then great IT entrepreneurs.)

In my first semester at university, I took an English literature course entitled, “Youth and Age in Love and War”.  Big mistake.  It was the best way to turn me away from literature, which I had, to that point, so loved.  It was dense, analytical, and certainly not fun.  Not just that course, really, but often the academic study of literature – guaranteed to stifle creativity.

So I ended up taking a different path (the subject of a separate post, another time).

But what of life’s meaning for those who write fiction for a living?  Many novelists have attuned with their times, somehow capturing and giving meaning to our age through their writing.  Think of George Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or many books by Kurt Vonnegut on the futility of war.  (Yes, these are all male; forgive this time.)  It may be about tapping into the “collective unconscious”.

But writing, that most solitary of occupations, can also be the antithesis of a meaningful life.  Think of all of those hours spent alone, scratching your imagination.  Is the writer engaging with the world and helping it, or just hiding out, avoiding the rest of us?

One of the latest additions to a meaningful life through fiction is John Green, self-described “nerdfighter”, successful video blogger and – most notably, young adult novelist of books including Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, which has been adapted into a very popular movie (US$240+ million international box office).

It has two very appealing young stars in the lead roles:  Shailene Woodley is especially good as Hazel; her scenes with Ansel Elgort (Augustus – “Gus”) are both totally convincing and very effective.  The film may mostly appeal to young women, but the screening I was at seemed to be split 50-50 male/female.  And sure, almost all of the men in the film – save one – are sensitive, but it neatly balances the genders of the characters.

In the June 9, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, correspondent Margaret Talbot has written a fascinating profile of Green (“The Teen Whisperer”).  As Talbot writes, Green displays “a youthfully insatiable appetite for big questions:  What is an honorable life?  How do we wrest meaning from the unexpected death of someone close to us?  What do we do when we realize that we’re not as special as we thought we were?”

She quotes Green about teenagers:

I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived.  Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter.  And they’re dead right.  It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves.  We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.

Green has created connections with his fans in engaging ways that few contemporary writers do (actually, few in any age, now or in the past).  According to the Talbot article, when The Fault in Our Stars was first published, “Green did extra credit” in promotion:  he signed all 150,000 copies of the first (presumably American) edition of the book.  It “took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder”.  Is this a first for author devotion in American publishing?  Or publishing anywhere?

A number of times each month, Green talks on the phone with young people with cancer.  And every few months he holds a Skype videoconference with sick young people.  Talbot’s description of observing his Skype session with the teens was eerily and oddly reminiscent of Hazel and Gus going to Amsterdam to ask the “big questions” of Peter van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe in the film):  what about the distances between sick and well people; did he consider a different ending?  But unlike the character of van Houten, Green answered the questions thoughtfully, honestly and delicately.  This is a man who on the inside is pretty much the same as the outside.

No disconnection with the audience here (just the opposite), and lots of meaning.  If you were a young person who had survived – or was going through cancer or any other big illness – I fully believe that this book and the film adaptation could easily become your lodestar.  Green “gets it”.  According to Talbot, at the conclusion of Green’s videoconference with young people with cancer, Green put his head down on the table and wept.  This is not manufactured meaning, but a form of reader engagement almost unparalleled in our time.  Worthy of note.

The fault in our stars film poster


Making life add up – the functions of biography

December 28, 2013

Does your life add up to something whole, something coherent, something that appears to make sense of the bits of pieces of wide-ranging experience?

That’s the wonder and value of reading well-written biographies and autobiographies:  it’s not just the “story” that counts, but the themes, the decision-points and how the pieces fit together so that the whole, literally, becomes greater than the “sum of its individual parts”.

My favourite biography still is Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Crown, 1988).  It’s effectively a group autobiography about five early “Hollywood Jews”:  Carl Laemmle (founder of Universal Pictures), Adoph Zukor (Paramount Pictures), William Fox (Fox Film Corporation, and what we now know as 20th Century Fox), Louis B. Mayer (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and Benjamin Warner (Warner Brothers).  In his book, Gabler draws common themes from the stories of these five (and a bunch of other similar) men:  Eastern European Jewish origins; an “utter and absolute rejection of their pasts and their equally absolute devotion to their new country”, to assimilate and become “Americans”; a “patrimony of failure” (poor father figures, and in some cases virtually absent); and a freak coincidence of timing.  The timing was propitious:  the movie industry was a new one, and the old money, the Anglo money found it distasteful.  Thus, the Jewish entrepreneurs of the early 20th century had their way clear to enter it – unlike so many other industries and professions at the time.

The matter of timing and professional success has been explored at great length by Malcolm Gladwell (one of my favourite authors) in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2009).  As I wrote in my review at the time, he “attempts to deconstruct the essential prerequisites for extreme success – people like Bill Gates and the Beatles.   According to Gladwell, Bill Gates benefitted greatly from the time and the place that he grew up:  those elements plus hard work and brilliance added up to his becoming one of the most successful (and richest) businessmen of all time.

So it is the same with the new generation of digital entrepreneurs, of which Mark Zuckerberg is only one of the most famous.  In the October 21st 2013 issue of The New Yorker, journalist D.T. Max (who also wrote the biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace) penned an insightful article about Jack Dorsey – one of the founders of Twitter (note that the full article is available on The New Yorker website from a link earlier in this sentence).  I had never heard of Dorsey, but Max’s article brings it all together; he interweaves the strands and the themes of Dorsey’s disparate life that somehow add up to explain not only how Dorsey figured out Twitter, but why.  (I recently wrote a blog post about Nathan Heller and San Francisco’s tech cultureThe New Yorker has a 22’ Soundcloud podcast discussion between Heller and Max about this very topic.)

Biography, however, can be dull and seriously boring, so be warned.  For the record, here are seven biographies that are currently on my “to read” list (in no particular order):

– Roger Ebert, Life Itself: A Memoir (2011) – More than a film reviewer’s autobiography.

– Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011) – About the great film critic who influences all of us critics in ways we cannot explain.

– David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Making of the Man (2012) – My fascination with Obama never flags.

– Scott Anderson, The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life & Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny (1999) – I met and be-friended Fred Cuny in Israel in the 1970s, and followed his career until his untimely disappearance (and likely death) in Chechnya in 1995.  (Read an except here.)

– James Salter, Burning the Days: Recollection (1997) – I discovered this amazing writer relatively late in my life and am still wondering why it took so long.

– Clare Cooper Marcus, Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place – A Memoir (2010) – Clare Cooper Marcus was one of my life mentors; I studied a number of courses with her while doing my masters degree in planning at the University of California at Berkeley (where she taught landscape architecture).  In so many uncountable ways, meeting Clare has influenced my life.

– Michael Medved, Right Turns: From Liberal Activist to Conservative Champion in 35 Unconventional Lessons (2004) – Medved and I do not share the same political convictions, but when I read his comments on the film The Passion of the Christ (he was a fan of Mel Gibson) during the researching of my PhD thesis, his incongruities and depth of intellect fascinated me.

(Book cover of Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own below:)

Empire of Their Own book cover


BRW Australian Rich List released and the rich are still very rich

May 23, 2013

This is definitely my week for F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American author whose book “The Great Gatsby” is the source material for Baz Luhrmann’s film opening next week here in Australia.  (It’s also my week for observing how wealth is unequally distributed.)

Fitzgerald reportedly said to fellow writer Ernest Hemingway “The rich are different from us.”  To which Hemingway reportedly replied, “Yes, they have more money.”  (Some versions have Fitzgerald saying “the very rich”.)  For a full discussion of how and when this was said, go to Lionel Trilling’s essay on Fitzgerald, which was published in his classic book The Liberal Imagination.  You can find a copy of this essay at this very odd Russian website.

Well, this saying came back to me when I received the emailed press release yesterday with an announcement of the BRW “Rich List” for 2013, which will be formally released later today – Thursday 23 May 2013.  I reproduce part of the media release below.

  • Gina Rinehart remains the richest Australian – topping the 2013 BRW Rich 200.
  • # 2 is Frank Lowy, and # 3 James Packer.
  • Total wealth of the Rich 200 is down $4.4 billion to $176.8 billion but when Rinehart is excluded, total wealth rises by $2.7 billion to $154.8 billion.
  • The average wealth per person on the Rich 200 has fallen to $884 million, down from $906 million last year.
  • Cut-off rises $25 million to $235 million.
  • Chinese-based property developer Hui Wing Mau debuts at 7th spot on the list with a $4.82 billion fortune.
  • 14 women make the cut-off for 2013 BRW Rich 200. Therese Rein drops off after debuting last year.

The biggest fall has been felt by the richest Australian of all time: Gina Rinehart.  Rinehart retains her firm grip on the top spot despite the fall in her wealth to $22.02 billion from $29.17 billion last year.  All of the five biggest falls on the 2013 BRW Rich 200 (on both dollar value and proportional bases) are from the mining sector.  Among them are Fortescue Metals Group’s Andrew Forrest, who is down $2.23 billion to $3.66 billion and political aspirant Clive Palmer, down to $2.2 billion from $3.85 last year.

A former number one, Frank Lowy, moves from third last year to second on the 2013 BRW Rich 200 after gaining about $400 million. His $6.87 billion valuation is underpinned by some modest growth at his shopping centre business Westfield Group.  One of the big movers on this year’s BRW Rich 200 is James Packer. His wealth has risen to $6 billion from $5.21 billion on the back of strong growth in his gambling interests taking him to the #3 spot.  Anthony Pratt has had another good year at #4 on the BRW Rich 200. The family-owned flagship business Visy continues to achieve strong results here and Pratt’s US-based box making business Pratt Industries is growing quickly.

Top 5

Name WEALTH INDUSTRY
Gina Rinehart

$22.02 b

Resources
Frank Lowy

$7.40 b

Property
James Packer

$6.00 b

Gambling, investment
Anthony Pratt & family

$5.95 b

Manufacturing, investment
Ivan Glasenberg

$5.61 b

Resources

Although we are not as unequal as the USA, wealth is still very unevenly distributed in Australia.  As Australian economics journalist Peter Martin succinctly puts it:  we Australians “think the rich have too much – but we’ve no idea of how skewed the distribution really is.”

 


Joan Didion and the female imagination

March 4, 2012

Almost three years ago, I highlighted a great article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” books.

Well, Flanagan has surpassed herself in an article in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic about Joan Didion – entitled “The Autumn of Joan Didion”.  Unlike so many news and cultural outlets these days, The Atlantic appears to make all of its content free online – and thus I, for one, am keen to support them as much as possible.  So buy their magazine (and then throw out the paper copy once you have finished with it – or better yet, pass it on to a close friend – and keep looking at the online links if you need to go back to it, as I am now) and patronise their advertisers. Keep them in business, please, with writers like this one.

I am not in the core Didion demographic, not being of the female persuasion, but I have always enjoyed her work (although not the recent efforts – more on those, perhaps, another time), particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays.  Here is one description by Flanagan:

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures.

Or this:

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.

But what makes Flanagan’s writing so memorable and touching is her interweaving of the personal with the cultural and the historical.  She (Flanagan) grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of the Chair of the UC Berkeley English Department.  Her description of the dinner which Didion attended at Flanagan’s house (Flanagan was 14 at the time) and Didion’s major lecture on the campus during that visit, is one of the best in recent English-language essay writing.  This was Flanagan’s view at the time:

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall.

The personal, the political, the literary, the historical all combine here in an evocative and moving cultural memoir about female writers in America.