Jewish Journal


August 31, 2010

Sex, lies and social networking: A season of new films


James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in “Howl” (Photo by Jo Jo Whilden)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in “Howl” (Photo by Jo Jo Whilden)

Jewish “bad boys,” an alleged cover-up by our government and the outing of an American female spy are among the themes highlighted in this autumn’s releases, which include a number of provocative documentaries as well as some dramatic films based on highly charged, real-life events.

“The Tillman Story” is a documentary already in release, but the Oscar buzz surrounding this work by Amir Bar-Lev renders it worthy of inclusion here.

Following the attack of 9/11, NFL legend Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative football career in 2002 to enlist in the U.S. Army Rangers. His decision was a private one, and he refused to discuss his enlistment publicly. In April 2004, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. At first, the military described his death as having occurred at the hands of the Taliban while he, in John Wayne fashion, heroically saved the lives of his comrades during an ambush. The story spearheaded a national grieving process, as Tillman became a symbol of patriotism and bravery.

Five weeks later, military leaders revealed that Tillman had actually been killed by American forces in an act of fratricide, or “friendly fire,” but his status as a hero and recipient of the Silver Star remained unchanged.

According to Bar-Lev, the military said, in essence, “Everything we told you that first time about this action is still true, but we just happen to have recently completed an internal investigation that showed that, while he still acted heroically, there was a chaotic fog of war, and he was caught by an errant U.S. bullet.” 

The director added, “That’s where the public understanding lies today, and it’s actually very, very far from the truth. In fact, that’s the moment that Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mom, began to suspect that there was some deliberate deception at work, and she began her quest at that friendly first announcement.

“She didn’t end it there. At that moment they very arrogantly handed over these documents. She said, ‘OK, you guys have been doing an investigation. I’d like to see this investigation.’ And basically thinking that they were going to drown her, they handed over all of the documents connected to Pat’s death. Of course, they were all completely redacted, and from her home she painstakingly un-redacted them all.”

Bar-Lev stressed that there was not one shred of evidence indicating that the killing of Tillman was a deliberate act. But there was also no evidence supporting the “fog of war” story. The documents did indicate that the American soldiers were out of control.

“They were saying things like, ‘I wanted to stay in the firefight. I was excited,’ Bar-Lev said. “They admitted seeing waving hands and people who were shouting , ‘We’re friendly. Quit shooting at us.’ ”

But, beyond the circumstances of Tillman’s death, the family and the filmmaker were focused on the cover-up, which seemed to extend to the highest levels of government.

“In those documents, there are e-mails from the White House that have the subject heading ‘The Tillman Game Plan.’ That’s not a mistake. It’s not a blunder. It’s not a misstep. That’s an act of deliberate deception against the American public. The family’s always been very clear, and they say in the film that this isn’t about Pat. This is about whether or not we should allow people to get away with lying to us at the highest levels of government,” Bar-Lev said.

Another example of alleged government misconduct is depicted in “Fair Game,” based on the autobiography of CIA operative Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts), whose cover was blown by a White House press leak during the George W. Bush administration.

Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), was sent to Africa by the administration to look into a suspected sale of enriched uranium to Iraq. He learned that there was no sale and wrote an article for The New York Times suggesting that the Bush administration “manipulate[d] intelligence” about Iraq’s nuclear weapons to justify invading the country. Not long after that, Plame’s top-secret status was leaked to well-known journalists, and the Bush White House was accused of having instigated the leak as an act of retaliation against her husband.

According to statements in the notes by the production team, the film centers around the upheaval suffered by the family more than it does on the political circumstances involved in the events.

A side note of interest that was revealed in her book, and reported in a previous issue of The Jewish Journal: Plame, who was raised as a Protestant, is one-quarter Jewish, and her paternal great-grandfather was a rabbi from Ukraine.

From a partly Jewish heroine, we move to some Jewish “bad boys,” who are examined in such films as “Howl,” in theaters Oct. 1, about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” a documentary exploring the career of this once-promising politician that will be released Nov. 5.

“Howl” was Ginsberg’s signature poem and had a profound effect on an entire generation with its call for individual expression, rebellion and personal liberation in the face of a conformist society. It was replete with references to sex, drugs and gay love (Ginsberg lived an openly gay lifestyle at a time when such activity was a crime). It also gave rise to a precedent-setting obscenity trial.

“We were attracted to the idea of attempting a cinematic interpretation of some of the themes evoked in the poem, ‘Howl,’ ” said Rob Epstein, who co-directed the movie with Jeffrey Friedman, “and to the story of what went into its creation, and how society reacted to the poem at the time it was thrust into the world. Many of its themes are relevant today because Ginsberg’s words were both prescient and evergreen.”

Epstein went on to explain the main threads that run through the film, which begins with the first public reading of the poem by Ginsberg (James Franco) at a small gathering in 1955. “Then we see Allen, two years later, telling his story to a reporter in New York, while at the same time the publisher of the poem, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is on trial for selling ‘obscene materials.’ These three story threads are interwoven with an animated presentation of the poem. So the poem lives within the film as spoken word and as an animated, hallucinogenic visual imagination; Ginsberg tells his own story; and the trial plays as a drama, with a debate about the nature of art and the First Amendment.”

While Ginsberg’s Jewish identity is not a major factor in the film, Friedman said that “Allen’s poetry is imbued with echoes of a biblical prophetic voice.”

Friedman enumerated some of the other issues with which the film is concerned: “It deals with the role of the artist in society. It also examines what limits, if any, should be placed on free speech. And it explores the human impulse to suppress beliefs that are outside our normal understanding of how things are supposed to be, and the courage to look at things as they really are.”

One might say that, after his fall from grace, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer displayed the ability to look at circumstances as they really are — at least that’s how it seems from his appearance in the documentary “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” which covers the ill-fated career of this once-promising political figure who was expected by many people to become the nation’s first Jewish president. Dubbed “The Sheriff of Wall Street” for his aggressive prosecution of corporate criminals, including the heads of some of our most powerful financial entities, when he was New York’s Attorney General, Spitzer continued his crusading ways after becoming that state’s governor in a landslide election. But he was forced to resign his office and retire from public life when it was revealed that this paragon of virtue regularly used an “escort service” to hook up with prostitutes. The spectacle of Spitzer’s downfall was hailed with relish by his prominent enemies, particularly those on Wall Street.

“I was intrigued by the spectacular and unexpected manner of his fall,” said filmmaker Alex Gibney. “Also, the timing — no sooner did the Sheriff of Wall Street resign than the financial markets melted down.”

Gibney, an Academy Award winner, seemed to enjoy virtually unfettered access to Spitzer, who openly answered probing questions on film and even stated that, whatever his opponents may have done to help engineer his fate, ultimately he was responsible for his own undoing.

“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)

According to Gibney, the major themes that emerge from the documentary include “the intersection between sex and state, scandal, and the blood sport of contemporary politics.”

As for what he would like audiences to come away with after watching his film: “I would like them to embrace the contradictions of everyday life. There is no doubt that Spitzer was a hypocrite. But are we better off without him in office? How do we judge our public officials? By what they do in private or what they do on the job? For centuries we have struggled with the issue of infidelity. By watching Spitzer’s fall, we explore those issues vicariously.”

A moviemaker that many view as another Jewish “bad boy” is Woody Allen. His latest effort, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” is a whimsical tale, set in England, about a group of people whose illusory quests for love and success lead them astray.

The story centers on two couples. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) is an aging man seeking his lost youth. He divorces his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), and takes up with a sexy young call girl (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, Helena starts going to a psychic who predicts that she will meet a handsome stranger. The divorced couple’s daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a novelist whose promising first book has been followed by a series of rejections. The strain between the two prompts Sally to fall for her boss (Antonio Banderas), who is more interested in Sally’s friend, while Roy becomes involved with Dia (Freida Pinto) and ultimately causes her to cancel her plans to marry another man. In his hunger for another hit novel, Roy commits an act of desperation that is destined to backfire.

You can see this one as of Sept. 22.

A few days earlier, on Sept. 17, the documentary “Catfish,” which examines the vicissitudes of social networking on the Internet, will be released.

Nev Schulman, a young New York photographer, is given to posting his pictures on the Web. One day, an 8-year-old girl named Abby contacts him, asking permission to make a painting of one of his photos. Soon, Nev begins a Facebook relationship with the girl and her family. He also speaks by phone to Abby; her mother, Angela; and her older sister, Megan, who looked particularly appealing in pictures she posted online. Megan and Nev begin an erotic, long-distance electronic relationship, as the proceedings are filmed by Nev’s brother, Ariel, and Ariel’s filmmaking partner, Henry Joost.

When the three men decide to pay a surprise visit to the family in Michigan, some questions are answered, while others arise, and it becomes clear that everything is not as it first appears.

The most moving, most involving moments of this unusual film are supplied by Angela, and her revelations, as secrets slowly emerge.

Although this project may not appeal to everyone, it has earned raves from several critics, and it seems to be the kind of fare that will be especially engaging to audiences who also like reality TV. The documentary is certainly an education in the pitfalls of relationships that are established without truly personal encounters.

And, speaking of education, an important value in Jewish culture, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” promises to provoke and inform as it aims to tell the truth about today’s public school system.

According to the press material, Guggenheim — of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame — who has three children, found the test scores of his neighborhood school in Venice so bad that, against his principles, he sent his children to a private school.

Through his research for this film, Guggenheim learned that there are successful reforms being implemented, even in disadvantaged areas, yet, despite the reforms, many schools are still failing. In addition, there aren’t enough places in the good schools for the number of students who apply,  so several schools use a lottery system for their admission process. The director followed five families from diverse backgrounds who were participating in lotteries.

Guggenheim also took on some of what appeared to be public education’s inconvenient truths by delving into issues surrounding the power of teachers’ unions and of educational bureaucracies as he sought to reveal hidden forces that he believes stand in the way of real reform.

“Waiting for Superman” arrives Sept. 24.

There are three small gems with decidedly Jewish themes that also warrant some mention here.

In the Mexican movie “Nora’s Will,” the woman of the title (Silvia Mariscal) has finally committed suicide after numerous unsuccessful attempts over the course of her life. Before swallowing three bottles of pills, she has arranged to maneuver events so that her ex-husband, José (Fernando Luján), who lives across the street, will be responsible for burying her corpse. She has also stored food in the refrigerator for the upcoming Passover seder.

Filmmaker Mariana Chenillo injects a form of black comedy into this story of family, love, celebrations, losses and life’s poignancies. José encounters numerous stumbling blocks in his attempts to have Nora buried. According to the family rabbi, she will have to be interred before 3 p.m. that day or her burial will have to wait five days, until the main part of the holiday has passed

Then, because she is a suicide, it becomes all but impossible to find a Jewish cemetery that will bury her. 

When José finally locates a willing rabbi and cemetery, he gets in touch with the love he has always had for Nora. The film ends with the whole family gathered at the Passover table, enjoying the meal that Nora had planned.

Look for “Nora’s Will” on Oct. 8.

The cinematographer on “An Inconvenient Truth,” Bob Richman, makes his directorial debut with the documentary “Ahead of Time,” about the life of 98-year-old Ruth Gruber — she turns 99 on Sept. 30 — who, at age 20, became the world’s youngest Ph.D. Brooklyn-born Gruber was a journalist and the first reporter to enter the Soviet Arctic. She also led 1,000 refugees fleeing the Holocaust from Naples to New York. Gruber covered the Nuremberg trials and took photographs of refugees onboard the ship Exodus that would be widely distributed. Opening date is Sept. 24.

Finally, “The Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” is an uplifting movie that traces the careers of Major League Baseball players who were Jewish and who broke down barriers, obliterating stereotypes in the process. These include Andy Cohen, who played second base and was hired by the New York Giants to encourage attendance by Jewish fans; the famous Hank Greenberg, a powerhouse at bat; the mysterious catcher Moe Berg, who became a spy during World War II; and the legendary Sandy Koufax, arguably the best left-handed pitcher baseball has ever seen, among several other past and present notables.

Because baseball is considered the national pastime and a uniquely American sport, the prominence of Jewish players signaled a quintessential form of assimilation. The film sets the lives of these players against the historical events through which they lived.

The film is narrated by Dustin Hoffman, directed by Peter Miller and written by retired New York Times columnist Ira Berkow, a Pulitzer Prize recipient. “The Jews and Baseball” begins its Los Angeles run Nov. 19.

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