Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I met Mark Boal, the screenwriter and producer of “The Hurt Locker,” the day the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determined that he would be one of four producers to receive a statuette should the movie win best picture on March 7. (Check out our full profile of Boal and the film in the Journal’s Oscar issue on March 5.) The film is certainly one of the best movies of the year, with nine Oscar nominations, tied with James Cameron’s “Avatar.” The white-knuckle action thriller is the story of members of a bomb squad battling Iraqi insurgents and each other during some of the most dangerous days of the war in 2004.
Boal, who is Jewish, joked that the Journal story “is the single interview that will make my mother the happiest.” He didn’t tell his mother where he was going, however, when he became the first reporter ever embedded with the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (a.k.a., the bomb squad), while working for Playboy in 2004.
There was more to worry about than being blown to bits by homemade devices cleverly hidden in a dead dog or a pile of detritus: “When I got off the plane, [officials] asked me my blood type and my religious affiliation,” the 37-year-old writer-producer said. “When I asked why, they said, ‘In case we have a funeral for you.’ And then they said, ‘Since you’re Jewish, you should really keep that under your hat because they behead Jews over here.’ And Daniel Pearl had just gone missing.”
So Boal didn’t advertise his Jewish background (in a “leftie, counterculture-y, sandals-wearing, granola-crunching” home in Greenwich Village) as he trekked about with the expert technicians who sometimes had to disarm explosives with just a pair of pliers.
His script incorporates the fear he himself felt during those harrowing weeks, and the psychology of the men he observed who had volunteered for the most dangerous job in the military. The screenplay also realistically depicts what the soldiers called “The Lonely Walk:” The steps taken toward a roadside bomb. “They were literally walking toward the device that’s designed to kill you, and at a certain point it’s just you and the device; there’s nobody who can intervene,” Boal recalled. “I think that really gets to the heart of the job. It’s a very small club of people who have done it and only they can know what it feels like. But to a man they talk about it being this experience of a lifetime, and something you just never forget, if you’ve done it once. And to do it five or ten times a day is staggering.”
One tech told him about his mindset during The Walk: “You kind of review people close to you, but the closer you get to the bomb, the more it becomes just this almost animal, existential kind of confrontation.”
Shooting the film, Boal’s solo screenwriting debut, in Jordan was safer than Iraq –Amman isn’t a war zone – although there were dangers about. “I remember waking up in the morning and reading on the front page of the Times about how anti-American sentiment was really strong in this particular town,” he said. Apparently an Al Qaeda bigwig was born there. “And the interview was, the reporter sitting and having coffee with two guys who were just waxing with so much enthusiasm about how they wanted to kill some Americans, and I’m like, reading this and spitting out my coffee, because I had been in that neighborhood a couple of days before, scouting locations. And so I thought, ‘OK, we have to be really careful here,’ and we were careful. We tried to be very respectful of the local religion, and we shot during Ramadan, which is their holiest time, and that was complicated for the crew (a number of them were observant).
“But I found the Jordanians to be extremely professional and welcoming,” Boal added. “I would shoot another movie there in a second.”
At times, the set seemed as chaotic as the film’s setting. “We had cameras everywhere,” actor Jeremy Renner (who is nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the cocky but brilliant tech Sgt. William James) said in the movie’s production notes. “We called them Ninja cameras, just hiding all over the place. We never knew where anything was. Barry (Ackroyd, the director of photography) was out there himself running around. It was absolutely amazing seeing him run as fast as we did, carrying his camera down these dirty alleys full of syringes and kids throwing rocks and he always had a big smile on his face. That inspired me.”
During some scenes, Renner wore the real, 90-pound Kevlar body suit techs don to disarm bombs. “That sweat is real sweat. Those tears are real tears of pain,” he said of his performance. “[The suit is] heavy, it’s hot, it’s hard to move in, but it put me right in the moment. Just the idea of getting into it – I wanted to dry heave whenever they said to suit up.”
“The Hurt Locker” includes cameos by Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse, and is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who will compete for the Oscar against her ex-husband, James Cameron.
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February 24, 2010 | 8:57 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
As Jews, we learn early on the importance of the grieving process and we respect it. Which is why it’s such an outrage that some unscrupulous opportunist photographed David Beckham mourning at his grandfather’s funeral. So it is in absolute protest of this kind of exploitation that I post this adorable photo of David Beckham wearing a kippa.
This, of course, isn’t the first Jewy thing Beckham has done. In the past, he has said that he’s “half Jewish” from his mother’s side, but never observed a religious practice. He does, however, seem to care about Jewish education; at least one of his children is enrolled in school at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
February 24, 2010 | 2:51 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
My upcoming cover story in The Jewish Journal will examine the cultural impact of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” on the Jews. It will be posted online this week, and appear in the print edition next Thursday. I spoke with Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Rabbis David Wolpe and Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dr. Michael Berenbaum and other scholars.
Why shine a light on “Inglourious?” The movie marks a strikingly new depiction of Jews on screen. Off screen, Jews seem to have a cultural aversion to violence. They think of themselves as a people of the book, not the sword. But Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar nominated film “Inglourious Basterds” depicts a very different kind of Jew; a violent, vengeful and aggressive one. You might say, a Jew without a conflicted conscience.
Tied into an American Jewish identity as empowered and strong, buttressed by the image (and reality) of Israel, the Jew in “Basterds” is clearly a new kind of Jew.
Tarantino himself acknowledged to me that his conception of the post-Israel Jew might have informed characters that otherwise sprung from his imagination. I asked Tarantino what came to his mind when he thought of the word, “Israel,” and he shot back: “Jewish homeland. Kick ass army.”
Israel or not, the movie taps into another buried truth about Jewish consciousness: seriously, what Jew in their right mind is going to feel bad about killing Nazis? And Hitler? It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy fulfilled. Indeed, for many Jewish audiences, the experience of Tarantino’s film has tapped into a deep-seated Jewish rage, allowing Jews to act out violent impulses—even in fantasy—that they’ve been collectively repressing since the Holocaust.
“Every Jew I know has a tremendous sense of ‘if only I could have killed that basterd,’” Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said about Hitler’s cinematic offing. “Wouldn’t any Jew love to be engaged in battle and be able to bring World War II to an end and Hitler to his demise? The fact that Hitler was able to kill himself was too good for the basterd.”
And yet, a morally unconflicted Jew (which, let’s face it, is highly unlikely) challenges Jewish self conception. That’s why the movie provoked long and fascinating discussions in special screenings before audiences of rabbis and other Jewish leaders in New York and LA. At a screening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier deemed it “quite exciting” and “ingenious.”
But others found it more problematic. Because, well, it isn’t traditionally Jewish: Jews are supposed to be uber-moral—God’s chosen—and God’s partners in the redemption of the world. So what happens when a big Hollywood movie makes obvious parallels between Jews and their killers, between Jews and terrorists? As Tarantino told me, “That’s exactly what they were. They were prepared to bring the building down as suicide bombers.”
The questions here pose the kind of moral challenge Jews revel in. Is the Jew of Inglourious Basterds troubling, or ideal?
According to Gavriel Rosenfeld, author of “The World Hitler Never Made,” portraying Jews as violent and powerful could have consequences—mostly for Israel.
“If Jews are not going to be pristine, morally, ethically upright people and are instead, willing to use sadism and violence, that changes the moral calculus a little bit,” Rosenfeld, who is also an Associate Professor of History at Fairfield University said. “Maybe that changes the equation of how people perceive victims and perpetrators in the Middle East.”
If Jews get their revenge, then they have less claim to victimhood. Which means less sympathy for the many existential threats facing Israel. The way Rosenfeld puts it, “Jews have historically been accused of using the Holocaust to defend anything Israel does and making the world feel guilty for their inaction during Holocaust; but that guilt is dependent on Jews being in role of victims.”
Maybe so, but there are also benefits to the new, empowered Jew.
For one, the film puffed up the image of Jewish men. Before ‘Basterds’ a Jewish man was Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld—funny, nebbishy, but the antithesis of masculinity.
Eli Roth, who plays The Bear Jew in the film, said, “It was time to redefine Jewish masculinity on film. That’s one of the reasons I hit the weights so hard; I wanted people to go, ‘Wow, Jews are tough!’”
To read the full story check back later this week and don’t miss our special Oscar issue, available in print March 5. To read more of my interview with Tarantino, click here.
February 23, 2010 | 4:41 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Just when you thought you were safe from Jewish content in a Marty Scorsese thriller starring Leonard DiCaprio, “Shutter Island” takes you to Dachau.
Now, unless you read the Dennis Lehane novel upon which the film is based, it may have come as a shock that the weekend’s $40.2 million hit was fueled by Holocaust imagery and narrative. Turns out, DiCaprio’s character is haunted by memories of liberating a concentration camp. And throughout the film, Scorsese drives forward his plot with vivid flashbacks of death camp carnage, where thousands of bodies lay frozen in piles.
As an American soldier during WWII, DiCaprio’s character is forced into some horrific scenes. These eventually lead to the accidental slaughter of a hundred SS officers. The unintended massacre plagues DiCaprio with guilt; but not too much: he still stands idly by while a Nazi commander botches a suicide attempt and bleeds to death, fully conscious.
The trauma of the death camp experience sends DiCaprio on a psychological spiral. Back home, he starts drinking. Then he marries a woman (Michelle Williams) who turns out to be clinically insane; they have three children together, who drown. DiCaprio sees his dead children in nightmares that take place at Dachau. His wife and children lay with the other dead bodies and call out to him.
“Why didn’t you save me?” his daughter asks.
“I couldn’t get there in time,” he answers, an easy metaphor for Americans arriving at the camps way too late to save the Jews.
As DiCaprio’s character descends into madness, the imagery continues. When he shows up at Shutter Island, he is a Federal Marshal, but soon he is wearing the garb of the inmates. At one point, DiCaprio opens the door to a vast room that looks a lot like a gas chamber. And he stands alone beneath the shower heads.
Scorsese’s parallels are obvious: The scenery and the prisoner dress seem to put DiCaprio in the position of the Jewish victim. The difference is that the Jews suffered from external forces and DiCaprio suffers from his own inner demons.
February 19, 2010 | 2:09 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Some people think technology disables art, while others think it can create art. After completing his latest project, the internationally bestselling graphic novel “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” director Steven Spielberg has fallen into the latter camp.
In a rare interview with L.A. Times reporter Rachel Abramowitz, Spielberg talks about the pleasures of using performance-capture technology, the same technique James Cameron used in “Avatar.” The new rage in Hollywood, motion-capture technology is a way for cameras to model the emotional and physical expressions of actors and transfer them to a digital character.
After directing films like “Indiana Jones,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Jurassic Park” the old fashioned way, Spielberg is relishing the experience of the new medium.
“I just adored it,“ he told Abramowitz. “It made me more like a painter than ever before. I got a chance to do so many jobs that I don’t often do as a director. You get to paint with this device that puts you into a virtual world, and allows you to make your shots and block all the actors with a small hand-held device only three times as large as an Xbox game controller.”
While some actors worry the technology may replace them, this particular method needs actors. In order for it to work, there must be a performance to “capture”—though it doesn’t require an actor’s real physical presence on screen, but rather a computer generated animation.
Spielberg tells the Times why he was inspired to make the film:
“It was based on my respect for the art of Hergé and wanting to get as close to that art as I could,” says the director, referring to Tintin’s author-illustrator, who created the international blockbuster graphic novel series (200 million copies in print) starring intrepid cub reporter Tintin, and his irrepressible canine companion, Snowy, as they venture through the pre-WWII world.
“Hergé wrote about fictional people in a real world, not in a fantasy universe,” Spielberg said. “It was the real universe he was working with, and he used National Geographic to research his adventure stories. It just seemed that live action would be too stylized for an audience to relate to. You’d have to have costumes that are a little outrageous when you see actors wearing them. The costumes seem to fit better when the medium chosen is a digital one.”
Read more at the L.A. Times
February 17, 2010 | 5:39 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The word on the street is that Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” could upset Oscar frontrunners “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” for Best Picture.
According to The Wrap, “Tarantino has been making constant public and private appearances” doing press, parties and promotional events in order to boost the film. And it comes as no surprise that the mad scientist behind the plot is Harvey Weinstein, who is famous for the 11th hour campaign blitz. It certainly worked for “Shakespeare in Love.”
Last week, I asked Tarantino how badly he wanted the Oscar. “I think I deserve it for screenplay,” he said. “By sheer definition of the category I deserve it.” Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get it. The Wrap’s Steve Pond writes, “I’m not buying it. [Basterds is] too sprawling, too audacious, too violent and too brazenly, defiantly revisionist to be an everybody’s-top-five kind of movie.”
I plan to argue a counterpoint in our March 5th Oscar issue that investigates the impact ‘Basterds’ has had on the Jewish psyche. The story features interviews with Quentin Tarantino, actor Eli Roth, Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, Rabbis David Wolpe and Marvin Hier and film expert and author Lester Friedman. Stay tuned.
February 16, 2010 | 10:48 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last week I blogged about a Purim sketch show in New York created by a bunch of Hollywood comedy writers known as The Shushan Channel.
Every year, this group of self-deprecating and comedic Jews uses the holiday as an excuse to poke fun at Jewish neuroses and gentile behaviors. The main event, of course, is a big bash thrown at the 92nd Street Y, so if you don’t live in New York, you can’t join in the fun. But for those of us who live on the West Coast, like one of its creators and former “Tonight Show” writer Rob Kutner, or even elsewhere in America, you can enjoy their annual video spoof, which circulates widely via youtube.
“Wolfman DDS” is about a Jewish dentist who is part werewolf and disturbs his family by eating uncooked meat and not paying taxes on time. It’s not quite as funny as last year’s “Meshugene Men”—a Jewish version of “Mad Men”—which could have won a youtube Oscar had such a thing existed. “Wolfman” is a valiant effort, but it doesn’t quite tap into the zeitgeist the way “Meshugene Men” did.
Watch it nonetheless and judge for yourself:
February 11, 2010 | 10:12 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Melissa Rosenberg just got another big break. The screenwriter of “The Twilight Saga” is reportedly working on the two-part finale of “Breaking Dawn,” the final installment in the four part franchise.
Because the final novel is more complex than the other books—and includes more R-rated material like sex, pregnancy and violence—it is being broken up into two movies that will film back-to-back beginning next October, according to Nikki Finke.
Rosenberg, who is Jewish, kept mum about all this during our interview last November (in order to preserve her negotiating advantage, perhaps?). After the success of the first two films, and considering her simpatico relationship with novelist Stephanie Meyer, it was smart to keep her. Not that the same consideration is being given to “New Moon” director Chris Weitz. According to Finke, Summit announced they’re looking for “high-end” directors. Wonder if Brett Ratner is busy?
More on Melissa Rosenberg on Hollywood Jew:
Jewish screenwriter pens ‘kosher’ vampires for ‘Twilight’