Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
For “The Fighter” director (and Oscar nominee) David O. Russell, the film isn’t just a docudrama about the rise of boxer Micky “Irish” Ward (nominee Mark Wahlberg), who won the Light Welterweight Championship in 2000 with the help of his ex-champ half-brother, Dicky (supporting actor nominee Christian Bale). It’s about fighting within the ring and without, in life and with loved ones, and the closely-knit but explosive relationships within the Ward clan. The film has received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture.
“I recognized the flavor of my own family members in the Bronx and in Brooklyn,” Russell, whose family is Jewish and Italian, told NPR. “The women, in particular, made the story very special to me, in combination with these brothers and their brothers’ dynamic. The seven sisters, the mother [supporting actress nominee Melissa Leo] – the women helped make the men what they were and were so pivotal to the family.”
One of the most explosive relationships exists between the tough-talking sisters and Ward’s equally tough girlfriend and wife-to-be, Charlene (supporting actress nominee Amy Adams), who doesn’t mince words about how the clan is affecting Ward’s career.
Here are some excerpts from a recent question-and-answer session, which included Russell and Adams, about dynamics between the actors and meeting the real people upon whom the film is based.
Adams: “Charlene is Charlene – she’s ‘What you see is what you get.’ It’s like in the film, the family is a bunch of big personalities and she comes in and says, ‘You guys are f———crazy.’ And they did not like that. She has a different experience with this story. I feel protective of her, because I know her story. I know why she is the way she is, but the film is Micky’s story, and the story about Micky’s family… [so]I don’t get to defend her in the making of this film or in the press.”
“But she was nice enough to let David sit down and videotape her; sometimes when you’re watching something, it’s what people don’t say—what they don’t give you—which tells you just as much as what they could tell you. So her brief answers, her way, was really the best information that she could have given us…But I can’t tell you why she is the way she is, that story is not mine to tell.”
“That being said, Charlene did not like my fishnet [stockings]. She said, ‘I would never wear fishnets to a fight!’”
Russell (to Adams): “Jack Nicholson once said you should always have a secret about your character that you don’t tell anybody. There’s a secret that you know about Charlene. But the key to her is that you and Mark [Wahlberg] played the quiet center of emotion in the film while the circus is going on around you. It’s like yin and yang. You need both things to make the dance work.”
Russell on his cast: “We were blessed with two levels of an ensemble film. The five extraordinary leads, who play as an ensemble and then you have this organism called the sisters, which really creates the environment.”
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January 28, 2011 | 11:57 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
The expert on this is Prof. Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Firestone has lived, worked and taught in Cairo. He speaks and reads Arabic and Classical Arabic fluently. Following 9/11 he wrote a series of columns for us on the future of Islam on the West. And he nailed the central question that is now on all our minds: If Mubarak falls, can Egypt be democratic? Is Islam allergic to democracy?
Bottom line: no. But read on:
Civilizations wax and wane but never stop evolving. Since this is so clearly the case, I can’t understand why so many self-appointed pundits of Islam are convinced that Islam and democracy don’t mix.
Who would have thought in 1945 that Japan would become one of the world’s most powerful, liberal democracies only two decades later? Centuries of militarism and despotic rule there were turned around in a generation. It is hard to conceive of a return to the collective mentality of imperial Japan in my children’s or their children’s generation.
It is true that Islam is not a “democratic” religion. But then, I know of no religion that is. Certainly not Christianity, with its divinely appointed hierarchy. And not Judaism, which derives its legal tradition from God—not from the Sanhedrin.
The bottom line of democracy is the freedom of every individual to vote one’s conscience, and that tenet is missing equally from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has been argued that democracy in the West required that people experience the repeated and violent failures of feudalism to prove its worth, and the subsequent catastrophes of fascism and communism to confirm its value.
I don’t believe it’s a stretch to point out that the Muslims of the Middle East know very well how feudalism, fascism, communism and theocracies have failed them miserably. So what is to prevent Arab Muslims from diving enthusiastically into democracy?
The answer is their taste of the bitter fruits of democracy itself. Democracy has worked best in tandem with capitalism, and capitalism has always required expanding markets, greater supplies of resources and cheap and dependable labor.
These requirements have convinced many in the business world to exploit less-developed areas for their resources, their labor and their purchase power. There is nothing wrong with exploitation—but there are two meanings to the term. One meaning is utilization, development and management. The other is abuse, mistreatment and manipulation.
In the search for a fast and easy buck, our capitalists have too often read exploitation the wrong way. The amazing thing about this is that we have managed to remain largely immune from the effects of our grand schemes.
Sept. 11 was our wake-up call. It hit us hard and it hit us where it really hurts. So as any nation would, we responded. With our superior technology and firepower, we managed to destroy two threats to our immediate security. First, it was the theocracy of Afghanistan, and now, the secular tyranny of Iraq.
We must now follow our display of military prowess with a responsible demonstration of our conviction that democracy works. We need to teach the Iraqis, as we did the Japanese, that we will accept nothing less than full capitulation and reversal from tyranny and violence.
But as any teacher knows, effective teaching fails when students can see the disconnect between teaching and personal example (and students can always see when there is a disconnect between teaching and example). This is the root failure of European colonialists. They educated indigenous elites on the principles of democracy and social justice, but set personal examples of racism, negative exploitation and autocracy.
Which message was the one that was learned?
We can teach effectively only by example. That means that America must demonstrate to the Iraqis and the entire Muslim world that our war was not a clash of civilizations or just another excuse for exploitation, but rather a demonstration of what American values are all about.
We need to prove that democracy can work for everybody; that it is not only a Christian or a Western experience. It may mean a slightly poorer bottom line for our businesses in the short term, but the long-term results will more than make up for it.
President Obama gave a speech in Cairo over a year ago which essentially promised American support for democracy in the Arab world. Now that it’ happening, he needs to embrace it. What he says in the next few hours will be his real Cairo speech.
Read all of Firestone’s essay here.
January 28, 2011 | 11:10 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
On Tuesday morning I blogged that the nascent protests seemed different from protests past. The change seemed to have true momentum behind it, and for the first time in our lifetimes, it looked like the glimmer of the beginning of the dream of a democratic Middle East.
Now that dawn is a bit brighter, but there iust a long way to go.
What is happening could be Egypt’s Passover. Just as the ancient Israelites were liberated from their Pharoah, the Egyptian people are on the cusp of crossing to freedom as well.
It could all go bad—remember, Pharoah changed his mind too—but as of now it looks like some elements in the army are even sympathetic to the protesters.
So here, as an American and a Jew, are my questions:
Where is Obama? This could be his Reagan moment. “Mr Mubarak, let your people go.” It’s not ideal, it’s messier than diplomats would like, but this may be the best chance we have as good as it gets. Obama stalled and maybe faltered in getting behind the Iranian protesters last June. Now it’s not too late for our President to stand on the right side of history. Tony Karon summarizes the bizarre response fro our government:
The language coming out of the Obama Administration has verged on the bizarre as Egypt lurched into another political showdown in the streets on Friday — the latest demonstration saw thousands of anti-government protesters clash with police in Cairo, who fired rubber bullets into the crowds and used tear gas and water cannons on them. President Hosni Mubarak is hailed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, as an “anchor of stability” providing vital assistance to U.S. regional goals, yet the protests demanding his ouster are soothingly described as “an opportunity” for the regime to demonstrate that it is able to respond to the demands of its citizenry by means other than guns, batons and prison cells.
Where is Israel? Did Prime Minister Netanyahu really say today that he has faith in Mubarak? Natan Sharansky, who has served in Bibi’s cabinet, has written clearly that true stability only comes with freedom and democracy. Yes, there is a fear of Islamist takeover, but our writers in Egypt tell us the people on the street, the leaders of this revolution, are fed up, secular young people. In other words, that Islamist revolution may indeed come, but this ain’t it. This is Israel’s best chance for a democratic neighbor, a democratic Middle East—if Israel wants one. I am blogging from a plane, but so curious to ask Israeli diplomats if in all their contingencies they ever planned for something like massive protests for democracy sweeping the Arab world. Who would have thought?
January 28, 2011 | 10:44 am
Posted by Rob EshmanCNN is reporting the protesters in Egypt are dancing with the military. "The army and people we are one!" they are singing. If true this is not good for Mubarak, but very good for freedom.
January 27, 2011 | 3:54 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
In this exciting conversation in the snowy Alps, where does a humble man with no arms or legs fit into this conversation about speed, power, innovation, wealth, and the global future?
Today, I had the great privilege of introducing Nick Vujicic, the founder of Life Without Limbs, at the World Economic Forum here at Davos and frame and moderate a conversation about human perseverance and possibility. Born limbless, this Evangelical minister challenges all human limitations and preaches the courage to seek actualization. Nick taught that when we are distraught, beset with challenges, we must recall three vital realities: “our value, purpose, and destiny.”
The Rabbis’ paradigmatic mighty and courageous individual is not the one with the most physical strength, wealth, or beauty; rather, it is one with complete self-control (Avot 4:1). Nick, more than any other global leader I met today, became my teacher of courage.
One major CEO explained to me after the presentation that he could not return to the normal sessions about the state of economy after his heart had been so touched and transformed by Nick’s story of survival and persistence. I personally left amazed and awed at Nick’s achievements to inspire millions around the world through his motivational speaking and even saving lives by motivating communities not to kill infants born with deformations or disabilities.
Access to technology can provide us with a façade of power and perfection, but the Torah teaches that man was intentionally made imperfect, incomplete. Moses struggled with a significant speech impediment, but he became the Rabbis’ model of courage and the greatest Jewish prophet of all. We are all limbless in one way or another, yet we are all also invited through teshuva to be partners in a constant process of spiritual renewal and re-creation of self, community, and world.
In the interconnected information age, what are the new limits to human potential? Further, in our chaotic, complex, and competitive times, how can we develop an authentic psychology of self-worth and dignity to fit with our new understanding of the human condition?
In search of an appropriate balance, when answering these difficult questions, between faith and reason, independence and reliance, and embrace of the physical and the spiritual, each faith will arrive at different solutions. Constructing theologies of interfaith cooperation will enable us to learn from, and work with, each other in the holy pursuit to preserve the dignity of every individual with globalization’s continuous march.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University.
January 27, 2011 | 1:22 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Writer-director Debra Granik is Jewish, upper-middle-class and a New Yorker. So it is all the more remarkable that her thriller, “Winter’s Bone,”(which has received four Oscar nominations, including best picture and adapted screenplay) is so accurate in its depiction of life in the Ozarks that, in the words of The Independent, “You can almost taste the fried squirrel.”
Actually the 47-year-old Granik labored to move beyond “hillbilly” stereotypes to tell the story of Ree (the Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old from a meth-cooking clan who in effect becomes the heroine of a dark fairy tale. As the sole caretaker of her two younger siblings and severely depressed mother, Ree is stunned to learn at the beginning of the film that her father has disappeared after putting up the family property for his bail bond.
She then embarks upon a dangerous quest to find him, dead or alive, lest she lose the house and land whose wildlife is often the source of her family’s meals. And she remains fiercely determined, even when her search puts her in grave danger at the hands of her secretive (and menacing) relatives.
As an urban Jew, Granik felt pressured to depict her protagonists’ hardscrabble lives without any “Deliverance”-style sensationalism. “It was severe and it was huge and it was daunting,” she said of that responsibility. “But I’m hoping that once audiences get to know Ree, they will move past their preconceived notions. Once they get to see her inside this [ramshackle] house they may have made judgments about, there should be an opening for an extension of compassion.”
“Winter’s Bone” is not Granik’s first movie about a strong young woman in trouble – a heroine living “close to the bone.” Her debut feature, “Down to the Bone,” (2005) spotlighted a working-class mother (Vera Farmiga in a career-making role), struggling to break out of cocaine addiction.
Granik traces her fascination with women who persevere, in part, to her own immigrant great-grandmother, Rebecca Deitch, who would have had a more personal understanding of Ree’s rustic poverty. Deitch was one of many siblings of a family in rural Lithuania before she arrived, virtually on her own, in the United States at age 12.
“You cannot underestimate your initial impressions of what a human being can be like,” Granik said of her great-grandmother’s influence on her work. “I came into the world meeting this woman who was truly autonomous, although not all options had been open to her in life. She was four feet tall, but there was nothing frail or dependent about this person.”
A photograph of Deitch taken atop a building on Rivington Street, in the Lower East Side, proved inspirational for Granik. “My great-grandmother was probably about 17; she was in her bloomers, and she looked like such a tomgirl,” the filmmaker said. “As I was looking at the picture, I had this intense desire to have known her when she was younger. I also understood that some women became quite emancipated far earlier than many people realize—not necessarily within their family context but within the immigrant experience. It was within their understanding of who they were and what it meant to come to New York City when you’re young and to have to navigate this big metropolis.”
Granik has taken her own 6-year-old daughter to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side and plans on many future visits: “It’s close to Rivington Street, and it’s a great, vivid kind of thing to see how they have reconstructed a tenement that is historically correct. You can see how the plumbing and shared spaces looked, and they have actresses who recreate tableaux of what life was like.”
Creating realistic tableaux of life in the Ozarks was an arduous yet exhilarating task for Granik; see updates on jewishjournal.com for much more on that story. And also for a write-up of our planned interview with best actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence, whose Kentucky upbringing helped the Jewish director gain even more insight into the world of the rural South.
January 26, 2011 | 12:09 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
When I was typing the above headline Tuesday morning, I almost wrote, “Is Egypt Falling?” I had been glued to live streams on my computer of protesters in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, as social unrest was sweeping through the Arab world’s largest and most influential country. Such is the long, sordid and seemingly irreversible nature of political oppression in the Middle East that it’s easy to lose a sense of reality. No, Egypt fell 30 years ago when Hosni Mubarak took over as a Western-supported dictator, plunging his country into three decades of stagnation and oppression. The chaos in the streets, the chanting mobs and the tear gas arcing through Cairo intersections — that’s not Egypt coming apart, that’s Egypt finally coming together. That’s Egypt rising.
I spent all Tuesday morning following Twitter feeds like an Ashton Kutcher fan, except they’re all #Egypt and @monaeltahawy and @Tharwacolamus and #Jan25.
“Jan25” refers to this past Tuesday, and as riots and protests spread through Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt, the fervent and long-oppressed dream of the men and women taking to the streets was that “Jan25” might become as historic as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia earlier this month.
The Tunisian revolution was set off when a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest government brutality and corruption. In the eight days prior to Jan. 25, at least 12 Egyptians set themselves on fire, as reported by our contributing columnist Mona Eltahawy, “out of desperation: unemployment, poverty, corruption.”
The rallying cry in Cairo is the torture and murder of 28-year-old businessman Khalid Said, who was pulled from an Internet café and publicly beaten to death by two Egyptian policemen last summer.
“The incident has woken up Egyptians to work against the systematic torture in Egypt and the 30 years running emergency law,” read one Tweet. “We need international supporters to help us stand against Police brutality in Egypt. We invite you to support our cause.”
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Tweets went out that restaurant owners in Cairo’s main square were giving free food to the protesters.
At 10: 04 a.m., Dalia Ziada, a 29-year-old Egyptian human rights activist in Cairo, Tweeted: “What we are seeing and witnessing today in #Egypt is history in the making. God bless Egyptians #Jan25.”
At 10:06 a.m., I latched on to a remarkable live video stream on Ustream.tv, courtesy of a brave soul in a Cairo apartment. I logged in and was able to text-chat with protesters in the street. They provided me with translations (“Mubarak, go home!”), crowd counts (20,000) and locations. The Tweets kept offering ways to get around the Egyptian officials’ attempts to impose Facebook and Twitter blocks. I was moved to reach out to the Twitterers and offer what moral support I could.
A 27-year-old engineer at the protest Tweeted me back: “thank you for this words plz tell everyon in ur country that the egyption need the freedom and tell him to pray for us and supported us.”
Despite a long history of American and Israeli support for Mubarak, it should be very clear that real freedom for Egyptians would be a positive game-changer in the Middle East and the world. The standard justification for propping up corrupt, repressive secular regimes in the Arab world has always been that were they to fall, radical Islamists would take their place. That fear has castrated United States’ policy, and as of Tuesday morning, it has turned out to be a phantasm. The Tweets and posts and faces in the streets are not of the Muslim Brotherhood, but of regular, fed-up Egyptians.
A few months ago, The Jewish Journal hosted a noted Egyptian journalist as part of the Daniel Pearl Fellowship. Nasry Ahmed Esmat, 29, is an award-winning reporter and editor for Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. I tried reaching him Tuesday, to no avail.
But when he was here last summer, I asked Esmat about the fear-of-fundamentalists argument.
“Just have free elections,” he said. “That’s all we care about. I don’t care if you elect the devil, just so I can vote him out. I’m for democracy. We support our country, no matter who’s ruining it.”
The people who stand to benefit most from the Jan. 25 protests are the people putting their lives on the line, the young men and women who want a shot at a better life for themselves and their children.
These people are brave. They are facing an entrenched police state, a dictatorial president whose governance has been propped up by billions in American taxpayer money.
Sadly, the initial reaction from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was pitch perfect in its tone-deafness.
“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” she said.
Yes, and O.J. is still looking for Nicole’s murderer.
Many champions of democracy felt President Barack Obama fumbled badly in not voicing strong public support for the nascent Iranian democracy protesters in the wake of the June 2010 elections. Natan Sharansky told me at a breakfast meeting not long afterward that Obama’s initial strong support would have made the difference between regime change and suppression. OK, so there was a learning curve. Now our president has the opportunity for a do-ever.
Our columnist Eltahawy has been writing — praying, really — about this moment for years.
“Egypt has lived under emergency rule for each and every one of Mubarak’s four terms in power straddling 26 years,” she wrote in 2008, at the time when Pakistan’s judiciary rose up against its dictator. “ ‘Let’s hope we can learn from this in Egypt,’ my dad told me as we discussed Musharraf’s resignation. ‘It will tell our dictators, “You are not more powerful than the people.” ’ ”
Mona all but predicted the inevitability of a day like this back in February 2010, in a column that looked at the fundamental changes that social media was bringing to the Arab world.
“Like everybody else who uses the Internet, Muslims shop online and post embarrassing pictures of themselves on Facebook,” she wrote. “Undoubtedly, violent radical groups such as al-Qaeda and others have used the Internet to their advantage. That is not new, as U.S.-based monitoring groups who follow such sites will tell you. But what is new is how young people have been using the Internet to challenge authority (political, social as well as religious) in Muslim-majority countries or where Muslims live as minorities.”
The tipping point in Tunisia was when police opened fire and killed protesters. As of Tuesday morning, press time for The Journal, there were no reports of fatalities, but the situation remained raw and fluid. To all appearances, the genie looked to be well out of the bottle. Mubarak and his police state can stuff it back in for a while — and maybe by the time you read this, they will have succeeded in doing so. But freedom will out. To paraphrase Hillel, “If not now, later.”
For those of us who see a free Egypt as the key to a democratic Middle East, all we could do Tuesday is watch and wait and hope. We can add hash-mark tags to our Twitters, check in compulsively on CNN, “Like” the brave activists on Facebook. We can send letters to our president and representatives to make sure they step up and support the people of Egypt, not Mubarak.
But, really, the future is in the hands of the Egyptian people. Where, by the way, it belongs.
January 24, 2011 | 3:05 pm
Posted Naomi Pfefferman (Video by Jay Firestone)
At the recent opening of her exhibition, “Drown the Dolls,” at Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Culver City, Daena Title described the impetus for her paintings of sunken Barbies– who float in shimmering pools with their gold-manes streaming and vacant sex goddess faces unperturbed. “I’ve always been interested in images of women and how society reflects those images back at us,” Title said. “That’s what I’m doing in these swimming pools. I’ve taken the dolls and submerged them, so what I’ve painted are grotesquely distorted, faulty images. It’s a metaphor for the faulty mirror society presents to women – images that aren’t any more real or attainable than living under water.
“I have nothing against Mattel; they just made a doll,” Title continued. “I’m against women spending all their creative energy trying to weigh the right weight and to look a certain way.”
Cheryl Hines (Cheryl David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) Rena Sofer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and others speak about their Barbie experiences on a videotape monitor in the gallery, as well as on a Facebook page on the exhibition. Some recall how disappointed they were when their breasts did not “come in” like the amply-bosomed Barbie.
In some of the paintings, a docile Barbie is held underwater by a giant hand – the hand of a little girl. “Because these images are foisted on our girls, there’s a lot of submerged desire and anger we grow up with as women,” Title said.
Proudly looking on was Title’s husband, actor Jason Alexander (George on “Seinfeld,”) who said he was amazed by his wife’s talent when she began painting 15 years into their marriage.
I couldn’t resist asking Alexander what his iconic character of George would say to the iconic Barbie, if given the chance. Alexander’s eyes took on a George-like glint as he said in character: “Where do I meet her?”
Video by Jay Firestone