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.

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New audio podcast series on corporate governance for not-for-profit Australian organisations

January 11, 2018

My organisation – Community Colleges Australia (CCA) – has just released an 8-part audio podcast series on corporate governance for Australian community education organisations.

The podcasts have been produced for community education Boards of Directors, CEOs, company secretaries and other senior staff involved in organisational governance. The programs are available for downloading or streaming through CCA’s website, or through iTunes. Transcripts of each program are also available.

The programs

The 8 episodes in the series are:

  1. Introduction and Roles: Why Board Governance is Important
  2. The CEO/Chair Relationship
  3. Purpose and Strategy: Defining Your Organisation’s Purpose
  4. Risk Management: Managing Different Types of Risk
  5. Board Effectiveness: What Does a Good Board Look Like?
  6. Transparency, Integrity and Accountability: How to Keep Your Board Out of Trouble
  7. Finance: Profit is Not a Dirty Word
  8. Engagement: Involving Stakeholders and Board Directors

The interviewees

Those interviewed in the series are:

  • Phil Butler, Not-for-Profit Sector Leader, Australian Institute of Company Directors
  • Patricia Carroll, CEO, St George & Sutherland Community College
  • Theresa Collignon, CEO, Macquarie Community College
  • Peter Johnston, former Chair, Tamworth Community College & Board Director, Greater Northern Skills Development Group Inc
  • David Knowles, Head of Philanthropic & Social Capital, Koda
  • David Martin, CEO, Western Riverina Community College
  • Michael Newton, Executive Director, WEA Sydney
  • Katherine Sainty, Principal, Sainty Law
  • Ty Wiggins, Partner, Converge Consulting

Producers were Ellen Leabeater and Miles Martignoni (Heaps Good Media), who did a great job. I was the project manager.

 


Getting Serious About Australian Unemployment

September 11, 2017

Is the Australian Government giving up on reducing unemployment

It’s time to get serious about reducing Australia’s unemployment rate. We need a national training policy that gets Australians to work.

Those were the words that came to me when I read Stephen Koukoulas’ article, “Australia has given up on solving unemployment”, (The New Daily, 17 August 2017).

“It is a sad state of affairs to realise that the current crop of Australian policy-makers have effectively given up on reducing unemployment. Treasury reckons that the lowest the unemployment rate can go without there being a wages and inflation breakout is around 5.25 per cent,” Koukoulas writes.

“The Reserve Bank of Australia notes something similar, forecasting that even when the economy is growing strongly at an above-trend pace, the unemployment rate will hover between 5 and 6 per cent,” he continues.

Australian unemployment remains persistently high

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) July 2017 figures show unemployment in Australia at 5.6%, an official figure of 728,100 people: “Enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground about seven times,” Koukoulas writes.

Koukoulas analyses Australian Treasury and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) reports, and concludes that, “Australia will never see fewer than about 700,000 people unemployed – no matter what kind of improvement we see.”

He’s not the only one outlining that prospect. Trading Economics, a New York City company that analyses 196 countries, including “official sources of historical data for more than 20 million economic indicators, exchange rates, stock market indexes, government bond yields and commodity prices”, also predicts that Australia’s unemployment rate in 2020 – 3 years from now – will be … 5.6%. That’s correct, no change at all.

Koukoulas compares Australia internationally: “It seems to be a peculiarly Australian issue. In the US, the unemployment rate is 4.3%, in the UK it is 4.5%, in Japan it is 2.8% while in Germany, the unemployment rate is 3.9%. It is clear the government has given up on reducing unemployment.”

Unemployment hits the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged in Australian society

What Koukoulas does not detail are the social, economic, regional and generational costs of persistent unemployment. This is how the Australian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Workplace Relations describes the consequences of unemployment:

Unemployment is a major life event. It can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. It affects not just the unemployed person but also family members and the wider community. The impact of unemployment can be long-lasting. As unemployment becomes more long-term, its impact becomes more far reaching, often affecting living standards in retirement. The loss of income by the parents can damage the prospects of the next generation.

Unemployment disproportionately impacts Australia’s most disadvantaged groups: young people, Indigenous Australians, rural and regional residents and people with disabilities.

Young people (generally ages 15 to 24) in Australia had an official unemployment rate (July 2017) of 12.9%, more than double the national rate of 5.6%. According to Dr Patrick Carvalho:

– The damaging effects of youth unemployment can persist into adulthood, with different intensity and longevity depending on the length of the unemployment period and on individual conditions such as education levels and socioeconomic background.

– There is no minimal or safe threshold regarding the length of early unemployment experience…. the longer a person is unemployed, the longer the perversive effects are likely to last.

– Such negative long-term consequences of early jobless spells are commonly referred to in the literature as the “scarring effects”. (p. 19, Youth Unemployment in Australia, Centre for Independent Studies, November 2015)

Youth unemployment impacts are not felt uniformly, with the national figure masking high concentrations in many locations, especially regional and rural Australia: unemployment rates of 28.4% in outback Queensland, 21.8% in NSW Hunter Valley (outside Newcastle), 20.5% in Cairns, 19.6% in southeast Tasmania, 19.5% in mid north coast New South Wales, 19.4% in mid north South Australia and 18.4% in south eastern New South Wales. (Source: “Australia’s Youth Unemployment Hotspots: Snapshot”, The Brotherhood of St Laurence, March 2016.)

The growing youth under-employment – those who wish to work more than they do – now at 18% (February 2017), “is the highest in the 40 years since the count officially began,” according to the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s “Generation Stalled” Report. Add the two figures together – unemployment and under-employment – and you get a staggering 31%, almost one-third, of young Australians who are “underutilised”. Surely this “underutilisation rate” will be much higher – possibly 50% or more – in many regional locations. Are we in danger of allowing a sub-generation of unemployed and underemployed young people to “fall through the cracks”, with long-term life consequences for them, their families, their communities and our country?

It’s not just young people:

It’s time for a national training policy that targets reducing unemployment

Australian unemployment should be below 5%, not drifting towards 6%. “In addition to the obvious social benefits of having a highly skilled population, maximising training and educational attainment should be an uncontroversial policy aim,” Koukoulas says.

Koukoulas believes that the Australian “unemployment rate is being skewed by a number of longer-run structural factors,”, including an “education and training system mean that those who are unemployed do not have the requisite skills for the modern Australia economy.” Australia is “heavily reliant on imported skilled workers who arrive here via the 457 visa program,” he writes.

“Yet the government imposes cuts to trades training, is underfunding school education, ramping up university fees and forcing those who get a degree to pay for it more quickly,” he continues.

It’s not too late to invest in Australian training. Australia is endowed with extraordinary natural resources, extensive wealth, dynamic and hardworking people. We have one of the most welcoming societies in the world and are the “most successful immigrant nation on Earth”, according to demographer Bernard Salt.

Despite years of vocational education and training (VET) policy chopping and changing by governments of all political stripes, we have still maintained the framework of an internationally recognised and admired training system.

We have the capacity. We have the skills to make it happen. What we need now is the will and the focus. The desire to place training at the TOP of the national policy agenda, not an “also ran” issue.

Australia’s Community VET sector

Australia’s community education VET sector can and will do its part to address unemployment. The year 2016 saw a rise of the community sector’s VET students to 9% of the national total.  The community education sector does very well at ensuring unemployed people can be lifted into employment: according to the NCVER, in 2016 community education providers topped all categories (TAFE, private for-profit, university), with almost half (48.9%) of graduates employed at the end of the training that had not been employed prior to commencing their study.

We address the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged people, and we over-perform in regional and rural Australia, where VET is most needed and valued.

(Note: This post was originally published by Community Colleges Australia on 11 September 2017. View the original version here.)


Jerry Lewis a great entertainer passes away

August 22, 2017

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents and one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century, has passed away at age 91. He combined his film career with a long commitment to community service, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he raised funds.

Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appeared in last year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All these films screened at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival – in retrospect, almost perfect timing memorialising a great man of American film: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Although mostly known as a comic and entertainer, Lewis also was an extraordinary film technician: he invented the “video assist”, a technology that enables filmmakers to view a video version of what they have shot.

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”, where the video assist was used for the first time. “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” – my personal favourite and Lewis’ debut as director – captured another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script. “The Bellboy” has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and starred – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night. For those of us who grew up in the northeast of the USA in the 1960s and visited Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau personifies that time and place. And Jerry Lewis in turn personifies the hotel. View it for a peek of what life was like there and then, more than 55 years ago.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackled the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis. Although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The world will be a much poorer place without Jerry Lewis in it, but we are all much richer for his having shared himself with us.

Jerry Lewis The Bellboy DVD cover

(Note: the post above is an updated and expanded version of my original article, which appeared in The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition on 28 July 2016.)


Paul Wellstone remembered

August 20, 2017

My tribute to the late Senator Paul Wellstone has been published on the official Wellstone website. This tribute is an updated version of what I wrote in 2002 in the Australian Jewish News, and re-printed on this blog in 2009.

On 20 July 2017 here in Sydney, I made a presentation at a Economics Society of Australia conference (“Economics for Better Lives”) on Australian inequality and vocational education and training. I dedicated my presentation to Paul Wellstone.

“We should never separate the lives we live from the words we speak. To me, the most important goal is to live a life consistent with the values I hold dear and to act on what I believe in.” – Paul Wellstone, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. ix

Two photos of Paul below: his official Senate photo, and teaching as a young man (roughly the time I met him):


Jewish themes and directors abound at Melbourne International Film Festival

July 30, 2017

(This article appeared in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News on 27 July 2017.)

Because there is no minimum “Jewish quota” at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF, 3-20 August), the selection of films reflecting Jewish subjects and characters provides an unusual insight into how the “current moment” of Jewish life is reflected in contemporary film.  This year there are lots of Jewish stories, with Jews both behind and in front of the camera in the USA, Russia, Poland, Israel – and Australia.

In a festival full of Jewish film riches, the “must see” is the opening night world premiere of “Jungle”, a fictional re-telling by Greg McLean (Australian director of “Wolf Creek”) of the real-life story of adventurer and entrepreneur Yossi Ghinsberg, played by Jewish actor Daniel Radcliffe. The 22-year-old Ghinsberg travelled with two friends into the uncharted Amazon, but the dream trip turned into a nightmare from which not all returned. The film has been described as a “stunningly shot, edge-of-your seat story of survival and self-discovery …. entertaining, terrifying and deeply moving.” The Festival also features an “In Conversation” session with the real Yossi Ghinsberg and director Greg McLean, moderated by journalist Sandy George.

A different Israeli story features in the documentary “Death in the Terminal” by co-directors Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh, providing a tense, minute-by-minute account of mistaken identity and mob justice by recreating the events of a 2015 terrorist attack in Beersheva. Using CCTV footage, mobile phone videos and witness testimonies, real events unfold from multiple angles. (Caution: contains archival footage of real killings.)

Three fascinating films come from Russia – a contemporary thriller, a meditative documentary on the Holocaust and an early classic sci fi. “Closeness”, the feature debut from Kantemir Balagov, based on a true story is set in a Jewish enclave within a mostly-Muslim region of the Caucasus. The story follows Ilana (Jewish actress Darya Zhovner), whose family is rocked when her younger brother David and his fiancée are abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a large ransom. The program cautions that the film “contains archival footage of real killings”.

“Austerlitz”, by Russian-born Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, draws on the “observational cinema” technique of Jewish film-maker Frederick Wiseman. Berlin-based Loznitsa frequently engages in Jewish topics and consciously named his film after the WG Sebald novel, “Austerlitz”, as it explores similar themes of memory and history. The film watches how tourists behave at two Nazi concentration camps: Dachau and Sachsenhausen. The black and white camera captures how sometimes intense, often distracted tourists act in these places. A true cultural commentary for our times. Loznitsa’s film “A Gentle Creature” – about the decay of modern Russia – also screens.

Many of the photographers and cinematographers in the Soviet Union until 1932 were Jews, including Jakov (Yakov) Protazanov, director of the ground-breaking 1924 silent “Aelita, Queen of Mars”. It was the first Soviet science fiction film ever made.

The rarely seen “The Man Who Cried” (2000) constitutes part of MIFF’s Sally Potter retrospective. Growing up in England, Russian Jewish refugee Suzie (Christina Ricci) befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett), gypsy horse-handler Cesar (Johnny Depp) and opera star Dante (John Turturro). The emotionally rich film follows Suzie through the Second World War to finding her father in America.

Two documentaries examine the experiences of Arab life on the West Bank. “Waiting for Giraffes”, looks at the only operating zoo on the West Bank. It’s a quixotic quest by zoo vet Dr Sami to build up the zoo and bring in new giraffes. In reaching out to his Israeli colleagues, the film posits hope for future friendly coexistence. Georgian-born Israeli film-maker Helen Yanovsky directs “The Boy from H2”, a 21 minute short about a 12-year-old Arab boy who lives in Hebron’s Area H2, a section of the city controlled by Israeli military; co-produced by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.

Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa” and “Angry Harvest”), born in Warsaw in 1948 as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who received a Yad Vashem Righteous Persons medal, won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear with the feminist ecological thriller “Spoor”. Also from Poland comes “Afterimage”, the final film from the late master Andrzej Wajda (“Katyń”, “Land of Promise”), which dramatises the final years of Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński, who observed the Holocaust unfolding first-hand living in Łódź in war-time Poland. Strzemiński’s 1947 piece, a 10 collage work entitled “To My Friends the Jews”, combined drawings and photographs from both the ghetto and death camps, to become one of the most significant “pro” Jewish works at a time of great antisemitism in that country.

Other Jewish directors abound. British-born Jewish comedian Ben Elton premieres his first Australian film, “Three Summers”, set in a fictional West Australian rural folk festival. New York Jewish indie directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (the “new Coen brothers”) return with “Good Time”, nominated for the Palme d’Or at the latest Cannes Film Festival. Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” stars Debra Winger and Tracey Letts; “The Lost City of Z” from James Gray’s (“The Immigrant”) tells an Amazon story not unlike Yossi Ghinsberg’s; and Marc Meyers’ “My Friend Dahmer” stars Ross Lynch as the notorious American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

American Jewish documentarians represented in the Festival include John Scheinfeld “Chasing Trane”, about musician John Coltrane; Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral: The VR Experience”; Matthew Heineman “City of Ghosts”, about journalists and ISIS in Iraq; and Amir Bar-Lev’s “Long Strange Trip” about The Grateful Dead. Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz’s (“Legally Blonde”) “Step” charts stories of African-American dancers, and New York-based Israeli-born Shaul Schwarz’s “Trophy” explores the world of big-game hunters and animal rights activists.

Closer to home, MIFF includes a preview of ABC TV season 2 of “Glitch”, directed by Australian Jewish director Tony Krawitz. And Melbourne Jewish director Gregory Erdstein again collaborates with his wife, writer/actress Alice Foulcher, in Australian comedy “That’s Not Me”.

Also worth catching: a reprise of the 1956 classic American frightener “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel; Chilean-Jewish director Alicia Scherson’s “Family Life”, a  “delightfully strange, heartfelt look at mid-30s ennui”; “Porto”, with the final performance by the late Jewish actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”); and “Manifesto” a 90-minute version of the German-Australian multi-screen co-production in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 roles, loosely based on the Karl Marx tract.


July 24, 2017

I have just published an article about the latest news coming from the for-profit vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia. You can read it on the Community Colleges Australia (CCA) website here.

And it’s not too late to sign up for the CCA conference, happening in Melbourne this week from Tuesday evening, 25 July through Thursday 27 July.