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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

You Don't Understand How Much We Absorb Of Your American Culture

The other night I was watching Homeland and they continued to refer back to Langley without saying 'The CIA Headquarters' or 'CIA HQ'. You are just expected to know that Langley is in Virginia and it is where the 'George Bush Centre For Intelligence' is because you watch the Homeland series and because you saw the Bourne series too. But mostly because Americans know that they are the number one television and movie making show business in the world and that pretty much everyone subscribes to their culture through iTunes, Pirate Bay and cable television. It did make me laugh, because when I considered the alternative, that if Australians had an 'ASIO' television show (our equivalent CIA) then not even Australians would know what the equivalent 'Langley' was. In fact, I could not even tell you where ASIO is located in Canberra. Such is the power and nature of the American film and television industry, that I know more about your cities than I do about Adelaide, Perth or Brisbane. In fact, when the floods hit Brisbane a couple of years ago and a floating bar was dislodged and sent down the river I thought 'oh, that's right, there is a river running through Brisbane'.

Coming back to my original point. Take the masterpiece of Woody Allen, Annie Hall, and listen to the dialogue between Allison Porchnik and Alvy Singer.

Allison: I'm in the midst of doing my thesis. 
Alvy Singer: On what? 
Allison: Political commitment in twentieth century literature. 
Alvy Singer: You, you, you're like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y'know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself. 
Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype. 
Alvy Singer: Right, I'm a bigot, I know, but for the left. 

Now, if you didn't know anything about American culture, specifically the lives of New Yorkers, then this would seem absolutely left of field for you and you might switch off. Tonight, I unmasked one of the elements of this diatribe, the reference to Ben Shahn drawings. Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian born American artist. The theme of his work is described by Wikipedia below:

" Ben Shahn’s social-realist vision informed his approach to art. Shahn’s examination of the status quo inspired his creative process. Although he often explored polemic themes of modern urban life, organized labor, immigration and injustice, he did so while maintaining a compassionate tone. Shahn identified himself as a communicative artist. He challenged the esoteric pretensions of art, which he believed disconnect artists’ and their work from the public.As an alternative, he proposed an intimate and mutually beneficial relationship between artist and audience."

I am going to post some images below of Ben Shahn's work but I am putting an offer out to you since I am heading to New York shortly.

If you can explain the context of the reference to Central Park West, Brandeis University and why 'liberal' is followed by 'socialist summer camps' then I will send you a free bow tie for Christmas.

This would be a chance for me to understand what the hell you Americans are often saying in your films and television series which we humble Australians have to spend days if not years adjusting to.



It's a small world…  I was watching Annie Hall again on Sunday afternoon, and the part you mentioned, the Woody-Allison meeting, is one of my favorites.

The "Central Park West - Brandeis University - liberal - socialist summer camps" bit all have to do with the way that Jews who lived in New York City grew up. 

I don't know how old you are, but certainly from the 1930s through the 1970s (and perhaps later, 'though I don't know for sure), it was normal for white kids in large cities of the US north-east ("New England") to go to summer camp, for anywhere from 3-to-6 weeks.  In the early 1960s there was a big hit in the US called "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" which parodied this summer regime.  The song starts out, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada…" and goes on from there.  ("Muddah" and "Fadduh" would be New York-ese for mother and father.)

Jewish kids, of course, went to Jewish camp, and as the New York City Jewish community was, generally, left-of-centre politically, the summer camps were left-of-centre - hence, the socialist tag.

Brandeis University easily fits into this New York City Jewish arc.  Louis Brandeis was the first Justice of the Supreme Court who was Jewish.  Politically he would be considered clearly to be left-of-centre, and was an early supporter of Zionism.  Brandeis University, a private liberal-arts university located in the Boston metropolitan area, is named after him.

Woody Allen movies are windows to so many things, most of them windows onto Allen himself.  Whilst Annie Hall is, on the surface, a love story, a movie about the relationship between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall (that is, about Woody Allen and Diane Keaton - and as you know, Diane Keaton's real surname was Hall), it's also, I think, a movie about Woody Allen's relationship with himself...specifically, his Jewish self.

Throughout the movie Alvy/Woody is laser-focused on how Jews are treated - or mistreated.  Think about the long tracking shot early in the film, when Alvy and his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) are walking down the sidewalk, going to play tennis (when Alvy first meets Annie).  Alvy cites a long list of alleged anti-semitic remarks that colleagues say to him ("…he didn't say 'Did you eat?'; he said 'Jew? Jew eat'…" and so on).  In that regard, the film is one long riff on the classic Borscht Belt jokes, jokes that book-end the movie.

In fact, the Borscht Belt is a good place to end my post.  Do you know "the Borscht Belt"?  It was the name for the area in upstate New York which was a popular summer resort spot for Jews from New York City.  That just about brings the circle full-closed, I think.
Well, does this answer qualify?
Regardless, I hope that you have a wonderful holiday.
All the best,
PS: I also watched "September" this past weekend, which I completely forgot about.  I love Woody Allen's comedies, but his less-comedic movies I might love even more.=

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