Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Last night, Showtime’s The Big C aired its final episode. After three seasons of half-hour installments, this comedy returned for a shortened final season consisting of four hour-long episodes. Subtitled The Big C: Hereafter, this final round took a more dramatic approach as protagonist Cathy (Laura Linney) entered the more serious stages of her cancer. As expected, the finale was extremely emotional, and provided a fitting sendoff to Cathy and her television family.
About ten minutes into the episode, Cathy sits in hospice and notices a priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk in to the room. Acknowledging that this could well be the start to a punch line, Cathy seizes on the opportunity to talk to the three clergy members to ask them about death. The rabbi is overdressed for the occasion, understandably wearing a yarmulke to signify that she is in fact a rabbi but unnecessarily also wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) in case viewers were unclear. This excess wardrobe is, however, made up for by the quality of what she says to Cathy. Like another Showtime series that was paired with The Big C on several occasions, Weeds, this show has surprisingly deep Jewish thoughts.
The rabbi tells Cathy that Judaism focuses on “Olam Hazeh,” the here and now, and then quotes a famous midrash that describes souls in the afterlife sitting down to a huge buffet. Cathy’s adopted daughter Andrea chimes in at this point that she likes Jewish food, and the priest heartily agrees. The imam states that illness does not exist just to test the sick, but also to show the compassion and generosity of others. This notion is similar to the idea that the Misheberach, a prayer for those in need of healing, and the Mourner’s Kaddish, recited by those who have lost loved ones after their death, are both just as much about providing consolation to the person saying the blessing as the one for whom it is said. In addition to prayers from the priest and the imam, Cathy receives her own Misheberach before leaving hospice.
Cathy has always been a character who has greeted her illness in an unusual way, refusing to be bogged down by the certainty that she will succumb to the disease and instead choosing to embrace life. Throughout the show’s four seasons, she has prepared for the eventuality of her death, buying her son gifts for a number of birthdays in the future, and, more recently, planning the details of her own funeral. Her openness to the concept of religion and its healing power, however minor, is both surprising and affirming. Perhaps best looked at as a necessary step on the road to accepting her condition, it serves as a warm – and wonderfully inclusive – look at what religion can mean to those who are not religious in a time of need.
That doesn’t mean that Cathy takes her encounter with Judaism to heart, of course. When she returns to her home after her insurance no longer covers hospice, Cathy learns from her new nurse that lard is a crucial ingredient of any good pie crust. She confirms that the decidedly unkosher substance is a “dirty word,” yet still promises to bring Cathy a pie. Though I won’t spoil the details of the episode, I will confirm that Cathy has the opportunity to enjoy a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie, lard and all, before the end of the episode. Some people like Jewish food, and others aren’t that particular. For Cathy, she got to experience a meaningful moment of Judaism and eat her cake (pie) too.
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May 17, 2013 | 4:49 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Opening this weekend at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 is a very hot-button new documentary called State 194, which follows the recent history of Palestine. Many will approach this film with trepidation, since it is difficult to find any piece of journalism, be it in print or on film, which does not choose sides, demonizing either Israel or the Palestinian Authority for its lack of participation in the peace process. State 194 centers on the trajectory of the construction of the state of Palestine as a political entity and comes close to a balanced perspective in its imperfect portrayal of a complicated situation.
State 194 starts in 1947 and runs up until the present day. Salam Fayyad, who served as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority until last month, is the film’s protagonist. He stresses the importance of building institutions that can sustain a state before building the state itself, copying the successful Israeli model employed decades earlier. Fayyad travels throughout his land overseeing construction projects and championing the right of the Palestinians to have their own state. Palestinian bloggers appear, advocating for peaceful resistance, and the Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost children in the conflict, is seen frequently educating those on both sides about the vitality of a two-state solution.
Difficult subjects like settlement building and terrorist activity are acknowledged, if not fully covered. Israelis are interviewed and showcased, explaining their perspectives on what they see as obstacles to peace. Former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, last seen arguing vigilantly for the Palestinian cause in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, points out that terrorism does exist in Gaza. Tzipi Livni, a past candidate for the Israeli Prime Minister post, meets with residents of settlements to voice her feelings about continued building as problematic. The scathing and emotional critique of settlements, including a boycott on settler goods, dominates the film’s second half, while the reverberations of the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, portrayed so powerfully in the documentary Unsettled, which showed at film festivals in 2007, is touched on only lightly.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters the picture in the film’s third act, making a tour emphasizing that the peace process must involve the Israeli people because it cannot be achieved otherwise. The film almost achieves true neutrality when it includes a clip from the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2011, though its effectiveness is minimal since it merely serves to underscore Netanyahu’s commitment to a defense of current borders. J Street, on the other hand, gets a good deal of screen time, as executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami voices his opinions on what the Palestinians need. The film closes with the words “The time to act is now,” implying that this issue is far from resolved.
There are moments when it seems like State 194 truly does see the whole picture, but its trajectory ultimately implies that, much like the Palestinian bid for statehood to the United Nations, this is a process that need not be resolved through negotiation but through political action. Director Dan Setton’s previous films have examined Jewish participation in terror and concentration camps, among other things, and while a liberal-minded investigative Israeli journalist is a positive notion, it would be reassuring to see a project that is both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, equally applauding both sides for their efforts and sternly instructing them both on what each needs to bring to the table next.
April 28, 2013 | 10:29 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Today concludes the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, which marks the twelfth year of this New York-based cinema extravaganza. It’s no surprise that, among the over two hundred feature-length and short films showcased, a few of them deal with Jewish themes or come from Israel. One short, The Cup Reader, despite being listed as coming from the “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” avoids any sort of controversy or conflict in its subject matter, instead offering an amusing and entertaining take on cultural interpretations of romance and fate.
The three films attributed to Israel this year all embrace extremely intriguing topics. Big Bad Wolves, from directing duo Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, who premiered their previous film, Rabies, at Tribeca two years ago, once again delve into the horror genre to create a frightening film starring omnipresent Israeli superstar Lior Ashkenazi. Documentary Dancing in Jaffa explores ballroom dancing in the multicultural city and how it can bring people of different backgrounds together. Six Acts is a surprisingly explicit and unsettling portrait of teenage romance and the pitfalls of popularity and promiscuity. It’s an unexpected, inarguably diverse slate that demonstrates that, even with just a few films on the docket, Israel has plenty to say and to contribute to the movie world.
And then there’s a short subject documentary about one of the most filmed Jewish topics: the Holocaust. Reporting on the Times: The New York Times and the Holocaust runs eighteen minutes and was shown as part of the “History Lessons” shorts program, which also features shorts on guns, sports, and rock and roll. What this particular history lesson covers is the fact that the New York Times ran precious few stories during the Holocaust about what was happening to Jews throughout Europe and in the Nazi camps, and those that did make it to print were buried in the back pages.
This information may not be startling to some, but it is jarring to think that the world really didn’t know what was going on during the Holocaust, partly because the horrific stories submitted to and written by reporters for the Times were ultimately shelved. Those interviewed in the film acknowledge that we have no way of knowing if things would actually have turned out differently had the stories of murder and extermination been plastered on the front page, and that it’s much easier to look back now and analyze how things should or could have been.
One of the main reasons that the Times shied away from focusing too heavily on reporting about Jews is that its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, was Jewish. To compensate for his religious affiliation, which was hardly a secret, Sulzberger was nervous about over-relying on his heritage and turning off readers. It’s likely that, had the Times published stories about atrocities in Europe on a regular basis, it would have exposed the American readership to more but also been deemed a personal pulpit for Sulzberger to advocate for his people. The eternal question, once again, is whether it would have made a difference.
Reporting on the Times offers incredible statistics about the sparse nature of Holocaust coverage which prove mind-blogging in an age where information is so readily available and nothing goes unreported for long. While genocides in Rwanda, Sudan, and other places occurred without much direct interference from the world, watching as the U.S. now gives aid to rebels in Syria and steps up to its internally perceived role as world peacekeeper, it’s astonishing to think how much difference awareness makes. This documentary may be brief, but what it represents is thought-provoking and completely relevant to world happenings today.
April 7, 2013 | 6:55 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Sometimes, a mention of Judaism on television just comes from completely out of nowhere. When I sat down to watch the premiere episode of ABC’s new comedy How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) last Wednesday night, I wasn’t expecting to hear anything about Judaism. Perhaps I should have suspected something, given that Elizabeth Perkins was a series regular for years on Weeds, a show that actually managed to address Judaism in a coherent and detailed way, and Brad Garrett famously referenced his Judaism with a joke about Jews breaking into show business when he won one of his Emmys for his work on Everybody Loves Raymond (Perkins was a multiple-time Emmy nominee also). Yet this show’s intersection with Judaism had nothing to do with the grandparents played by Perkins and Garrett.
The show’s title sums up its focus, which finds Polly (Sarah Chalke) coming with her young daughter to live with her parents, portrayed by Perkins and Garrett, after separating from her kindhearted but irresponsible husband. The ex, Julian, is still in the picture, coming by very frequently to try to innocently assert his place in the family, but Polly isn’t opposed to the idea of dating. While she touts her skills as a juice bar employee and playfully interrupts her manager’s attempts to speak to her by turning on her blender, she is surprised to learn that a frequent customer of the juice bar is in fact interested in asking her out. That customer? Jewish Superman.
Why her prospective new boyfriend is called Jewish Superman is a mystery. Perhaps it’s meant to refer to his physical appearance or his money-related tendencies, but there’s nothing to illustrate either of those things. Instead, while out on his date, Jewish Superman suggests to Polly that he shouldn’t drink since he took medication which does not interact well with alcohol. Familiar with the medication after years of living with her alcoholic mother, Polly assures him that it will be fine. Several drinks later, Jewish Superman is completely out of commission, and after hi-jinks at Polly’s home result in Polly driving him home with Julian, he ends up left unconsciousness outside his house while the alarm goes off, triggered by Julian’s ill-advised attempt to break into his home and leave him inside.
That doesn’t exactly recommend the concept of Jewish Superman too well, unable to hold his liquor and relegated to a punch line after serving no practical purpose throughout the episode. This show just got started, and it’s a peculiar thing to feature in its first episode, mainly since there’s no point or relevance to it. Why this character had to be Jewish or to be referred to by that odd nickname is unknown, and I wouldn’t call it especially positive or creative. I’m not opposed to seeing how the show does in its second week, but this first airing left me with an odd taste in my mouth.
March 24, 2013 | 6:48 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
When I think about Passover on film, there are two different types of stories. The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt are two diverse examples of realizations of the Passover story, which each picked up one Oscar apiece, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song, respectively. Remembering the exodus is a crucial part of the Passover seder, but seeing the Passover seder on screen can be compelling too. It didn’t win any of its three Oscar bids, but Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors uses its Passover seder to excellent dramatic effect.
Woody Allen got his Oscar start in 1977 in a big way, winning Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Annie Hall and earning his one and only Best Actor nomination. His film also won Best Picture. Annie Hall already represented a departure from Allen’s sillier previous works, and the following year he netted Best Director and Best Original Screenplay bids for the even more serious Interiors. By the time Crimes and Misdemeanors was released, in 1989, Allen had picked up an additional seven nominations and one win, for penning the script to Hannah and Her Sisters.
Crimes and Misdemeanors, like all Allen films, presents a charismatic, conflicted individual at its center, one who is moderately successful but hardly happy enough to stay monogamous. The film splits its time between that thread and a far more comic one, which features Allen as a squirrely filmmaker and Alan Alda as his pretentious brother-in-law. In the primary plotline, Martin Landau, who scored a second consecutive Oscar nomination for this role, stars as Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist who has the typical Allen problem of being both married and in another committed relationship. When Anjelica Huston’s mistress informs Judah that she plans on telling his wife, he consults two future Law and Order stars, Sam Waterston’s rabbi and Jerry Orbach’s brother, and decides to have her killed.
This sharp and dramatic event prompts Judah to contemplate the severity and impact of his actions. The film’s best scene finds Judah wandering back to his childhood home and asking its new owner for a few moments to look around. After a minute, Judah conjures up a Passover seder he remembers, where his father struggles to lead a prayer-filled service, only to be interrupted constantly by the naysayers in his family. Judah listens as his father is accused of exhausting “mumbo-jumbo” and superstitions, and is told that he is afraid that, if he does not obey the rules, God will punish him. He replies that God punishes only the wicked, which prompts Judah to become a living character in his own memory, asking what happens if a man commits a crime, and if he kills. “One way or another, he’ll be punished,” his father tells him. When he is told that murder is murder, Judah responds in shock, “Who said anything about murder?” His aunt concludes, ultimately, that he will be fine if he can do it and get away with it and not be bothered by it. The scene ends as Judah’s father defends his convictions, saying that, even if all his faith is wrong, he’ll still have a better life than those who doubt.
This philosophical and religious discussion represents a sincere enhancement over the admittedly hilarious “D’Jew” obsession Allen’s character Alvy Singer has in Annie Hall. At another point in that classic film, Alvy has dinner with his Christian girlfriend’s family and imagines himself perceived in Hasidic garb by her anti-Semitic grandmother, while the tranquility of that meal is compared with a loud and boisterous Singer family dinner. What Crimes and Misdemeanors represents is a somber, important investigation into the Judaism that has helped to shape Judah’s life, and comes back to him only when he has done something truly immoral. Right before a holiday so centered around food, this particular meal is excellent food for thought.
March 11, 2013 | 5:24 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
FOX’s successful new comedy, The Mindy Project, which just got renewed for a second season, won’t air a new episode until next week, but its most recent installment contains a highly worthwhile encounter with Judaism. For those unfamiliar with the show, series creator Mindy Kaling portrays spunky young doctor Mindy Lahiri, who, among other peppy traits, has an immutable fondness for romantic comedies. Some previous episodes begin with her recounting the splendor of romance in the movies and how it doesn’t always play out in real life. Episode sixteen, “The One That Got Away,” starts somewhere different: Mindy’s childhood days at a Jewish summer camp.
Mindy begins by recalling that her parents would only send her to a sleepaway camp if it was in the “gentle hands of the Jews of the Berkshires.” Upon arrival, Mindy notices a definite difference in her appearance when compared with the rest of the campers, and, one day at lunch, she is interrogated about her religion. After explaining that Camp Takanac has been open to non-Jewish campers since a court case (Chan vs. Takanac) in 1989, Mindy is rescued by the curly-haired Sam, who tells his friend that she is Sephardic. When she questions him about the remark, he skips the explanation and assures her that the joke landed.
That subtle moment is the catalyst for the entire episode, and it’s interesting to see such a quick reference that many viewers won’t understand serve as the beginning of a great friendship. It’s especially notable when taken next to the subject of my previous post, Seth MacFarlane’s poorly-received Jewish joke at the Oscars, something which everyone watching definitely understood. Sam is Jewish because he is at Jewish summer camp, with only his typically Jewish appearance to help identify him further. Aside from a slight instance of intolerance from that other camper, Jews get a pretty good reputation in this episode, and it only helps that Sam has grown up into someone who happens to look a lot like Seth Rogen.
Rogen’s casting seems obvious, but it merits further examination. Rogen recently starred in the comedy The Guilt Trip opposite Barbra Streisand, as a budding entrepreneur who ill-advisedly asks his mother along on a business road trip. I spotted a challah on a Friday night dinner table, but otherwise Judaism is never mentioned, a puzzling move for a film with such prominent Jewish actors, both of whom have hardly kept their Jewish heritage secret. It’s particularly jarring considering an earlier Rogen role, one that he himself wrote, which was as Officer Michaels in Superbad. In one hilarious scene, dumb cop Michaels gets a description of a robbery suspect from a store clerk and concludes that he must be a Jewish African because he looks both like the African-American clerk and his character, who is, unsurprisingly, a Jew. Rogen milks his religion for all the comedy it’s worth.
As Sam, Rogen doesn’t reference his Judaism, leaving that to Kole Selznick Hoffman, who portrays the younger Sam at Camp Takanac. What Sam represents, however, is a missed opportunity for Mindy, who could have had this wonderful romance with her dream guy, funny, charming, and attractive. Sam’s enlistment in the military prohibits him from sticking around to pursue a relationship, and, after a short time of exploration and intimacy, he is gone, just another whirlwind adventure in Mindy’s story book. Objectively, there was no reason Sam needed to be Jewish, and it’s fun to see this positively-portrayed character pop up with a genuine and familiar back story.
February 26, 2013 | 10:36 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
Most of the winners were expected, and the speeches weren’t groundbreaking or over-the-top, especially since some of the lesser-known winners had their thank-yous unceremoniously cut off by the main theme from Jaws. Tributes to the James Bond franchise and recent musicals dominated a portion of the evening, and audience members gasped at the first tie in almost two decades, which happened in the Best Sound Editing race. Yet one of the evening’s briefest moments has been the talk of many blogs and articles since the show, and that was the appearance of Ted, voiced by host Seth MacFarlane.
After introducing the awards with the assistance of William Shatner’s Captain James Kirk, who warned MacFarlane about all of the offensive things he did in an alternate future during the show to merit an awful review, his most memorable potential misstep came when he wasn’t even seen on stage. The central character of his successful June comedy, foul-mouthed teddy bear Ted, came out to announce a category with Mark Wahlberg. Ted proceeded to recognize several actors present – Alan Arkin, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Joaquin Phoenix – noting that they all had Jewish heritage. He then asked Wahlberg if he was Jewish, and, after hearing that he was in fact Catholic, told him “wrong answer” and suggested that he should be Jewish and donate to Israel if he wants to continue working in Hollywood. Ted closed his speech with a mention of receiving a private plane at the next secret synagogue meeting.
It’s actually surprising that this was the sole Jewish moment of the Oscars this year. Other awards shows in the past have had equally humorous Jewish shout-outs, like Brad Garrett’s proclamation upon winning an Emmy for Everybody Loves Raymond that his victory could pave the way for Jews to finally break into Hollywood. What Ted said, however, has earned criticism from, among others, the Anti-Defamation League, which deemed it “offensive and not remotely funny.” Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman took the time to respond to that statement, explaining that this could be an opportunity for people to look at why Hollywood is so populated by Jews in a positive manner.
More interesting is the timing of Ted’s words. This ceremony was otherwise completely Judaism-free. While some of the winners, Day-Lewis being the most notable, have Jewish ancestry, almost none of the films nominated had Jewish content. Christoph Waltz won his first Oscar three years ago for playing a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, a film with much controversial Jewish content, and this year triumphed for Django Unchained, a film with wholly different themes. Helen Hunt’s role in The Sessions was the only overt instance of Judaism I found among this year’s nominees. Ted’s quip about donating to Israel was especially interesting considering two of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers both espouse opinions that run contrary to Israeli public policy. Calls for donations to Israel from Hollywood at this time seem unlikely at best.
Ted’s remark has troubled many, but it seems more representative of the fact that, with the percentage of Hollywood that is made up of Jews, that population is entitled to one joke over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour telecast. Ted didn’t specifically disparage anyone, and though the connotations of donating to Israel might suggest otherwise, being money-grubbing wasn’t a characteristic attributed to the Jews. MacFarlane didn’t come on to the Oscars purporting to be safe, and while some were also put off by his alleged sexism and racism, I think most people got what they expected from this boundary-pushing comedian who, to be frank, didn’t push the envelope all that far. Ricky Gervais closed one of his Golden Globes telecasts by thanking God for making him an atheist, and MacFarlane’s sins wee hardly more severe.
February 18, 2013 | 3:42 pm
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
While the excellent winner of the Ophir (Israel’s Oscars) for Best Picture, Sundance Film Festival entry Fill the Void, didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Film category, the Oscar nominee list still features an impressive slate from Israel. In fact, it’s doubly represented in the Best Documentary Feature race, by The Gatekeepers, from Israeli Dror Moreh, and 5 Broken Cameras from Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. These two films have been selected as the crowning achievements of nonfiction filmmaking, and it doesn’t provide anything close to a positive view of Israel.
The Gatekeepers has been widely praised as a groundbreaking exposé which brings to light the unexpected opinions of the six living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. All of Moreh’s interview subjects express a sincere lack of confidence in the attitude the Israeli government has held and currently holds towards the Palestinian people. When I spoke with Moreh, he said that this is an important film for the world to see, to comprehend that Israelis can be critical of their government’s policies. Yet it is an enormously destructive and dangerous film, one which provides no context for its preconceived notions. An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post breaks down the way in which Moreh’s film completely ignores the prevalence of terrorism. During our conversation, Moreh admitted that the Palestinians are also to blame for the lack of progress in the Middle East, yet his film irresponsibly fails to include anything to support that belief.
5 Broken Cameras, on the other hand, provides a narrow frame of focus, as Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat has five cameras destroyed while attempting to document the activities of Israeli settlers and the army’s response to the activism prompted by it. The context of the film is less problematic, but its message is equally troubling. Burnat creates his film to showcase his mission as akin to that of an oppressed people fighting up against its militant rulers, comparable to recent documentary subjects like Burma VJ (Burma), The Square (Egypt), and This Is Not a Film (Iran). Burnat’s story is disturbing most for the unfortunate trajectory of events that befalls him, which include the death of one of his good friends and a serious injury he sustains that leads to exorbitant medical bills. Regardless of the legitimacy of his cause, Burnat repeatedly defies explicit warnings to stop filming and uses the concept of nonviolent resistance as a catch-all defense for his revolutionary behavior. At one point in the film, Burnat’s wife asks her son how he felt when he came face-to-face with Israeli soldiers, repeatedly and belligerently suggesting that he must have been scared, a sentiment he eventually echoes after several moments of silence. It’s no surprise that achieving both peace and civility is difficult within a culture in which hatred is propagated for the other from a young age.
Both The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras are understandably tough films to watch for those passionate about Israel, wherever on the spectrum viewers may fall. As films, the former is manipulative in the construction of its argument, while the latter clearly stems more from a clear and visible personal passion that aligns with the filmmaker’s own life and pursuits. Taken together as two-fifths of the best in nonfiction film in 2012, it offers a worryingly negative perception of Israel that may be all too prevalent in Hollywood.