Posted by Danielle Berrin
As a storyteller, I think often about perspective. It is the lens through which we see the world. As a journalist, the ultimate aim is ‘truth’ but the trouble is, the way one person perceives reality is never exactly the same as the way another perceives it. As the writer Janet Malcolm said: “We go through life mishearing and mis-seeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up.”
Follow Hollywood Jew on Facebook for more daily tidings.
Recommended reading: Trials: On Janet Malcolm, by Miriam Markowitz, The Nation, May 18, 2011.
6.12.13 at 4:30 pm | Of the many upbeat ways to describe the dance. . .
5.29.13 at 3:24 pm | The Dreamworks Animation CEO borrows a lesson. . .
5.29.13 at 12:30 pm | Ratner's contribution is especially significant,. . .
5.23.13 at 5:48 pm | Was there no way to portray Fitzgerald’s Jew as. . .
5.21.13 at 9:43 am | Tribal affiliation notwithstanding, Apatow, 45,. . .
5.20.13 at 12:02 pm |
5.18.12 at 2:38 pm | Now in it's fifth season, Jewishness on "Mad Men". . . (1531)
6.12.13 at 4:30 pm | Of the many upbeat ways to describe the dance. . . (374)
5.22.12 at 10:21 pm | It took Daniel Mendelsohn's discursive and. . . (270)
July 28, 2011 | 12:14 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I’m reading this great book called Snobbery: The American Version by essayist Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a frequent contributor to The New Criterion, both erudite publications that render “Snobbery” all the more enjoyable because it is playful and humorous. I like this book for many reasons, the least of which is that it includes chapters like “Names Away!” about the snobbishness of name dropping, and “The Celebrity Iceberg” about the superficial power of being a celebrity (which Epstein distinguishes from being ‘famous’ by pointing out, “celebrity is usually more detached from pure achievement”)—both apropos of a Hollywood paradigm. Also, the book is a nice counterpoint (or perhaps a complement) to Portrait of a Lady; one can only be so civilised before craving some snark.
The book teaches three main things: There’s a little bit of snob in all of us, snobbery is not at all attractive, but not everything considered elitist, extravagant or highbrow is snobbish: “Something can have all the earmarks of snobbery and turn out to be… absolutely worth it.” Like a good meal, for example, or a very fine bottle of wine.
When William F. Buckley Jr. reviewed the book for The New Criterion in 2002, he [snobbishly] called Epstein “the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive.” I say snobbishly because of the parenthetical, a snob being someone who feels “superiority to his subject”. But anyhow it seems to be true. Though I suppose it’s impossible to make such a statement without significant breadth of knowledge in the work of all living writers, but let’s pretend…
Though it learns much from its ways, the book is not particularly nice to Hollywood: “Can a nation remain healthy, can all nations draw together, in a world whose brightest stars are film stars?” Epstein quotes from a 1930 essay by Winston Churchill.
“Fame has long been separating itself from real achievement, but for the celebrity snob achievement hasn’t much to do with anything. The celebrity’s most serious achievement is in keeping his or her name before the public; and perhaps the greatest achievement of all, as the public understands it, is a talent for celebrity itself.”
Snobbery emerges from various arrangements, Epstein writes: “social class, money, taste, religion, admired attainments, status of all kinds.” But it is ultimately shallow, corrupting and worst of all, confining. “No easy job, that of the snob; the pay is entirely psychic and the hours are endless.”
“Life,” wrote William Hazlitt, “is a struggle to be what we are not and to do what we cannot.” If Hazlitt is to be believed, we are, as he goes on to say, “very much what others thinks of us.” At the heart of snobbery is the snob’s hope that others will take him at his own (doubtless) extravagant self-valuation. It is his high if shaky opinion of himself that he needs to have confirmed, and at frequent intervals. Since the world often does not concur in this valuation, the snob is usually left feeling raw, resentful, agitated.
There is something deeply antisocial about the snob. He is, in a profound sense, in business for himself…the snob can be the loneliest man in town.
Snobs are more concerned with the way things appear than the way things actually are. In this vein, Epstein illustrates with a quote:
We will drink a little
and philosophize a little
and perhaps we both
who are made of blood and illusion
will finally free ourselves
from the oppressive levity of appearance.
-Zbigniew Herbert, “A Parable of King Midas”
Being a slave to nobility is still being a slave.
“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn one’s self esteem.” - Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
July 25, 2011 | 5:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“I think I’m in love with you,” Howard Stern appropriately gushed when Lady Gaga finished a solo performance on his Sirius XM radio show this morning.
“I want to marry you.”
Hard not to want to get close to a woman who delivers an astoundingly powerful performance vocally and musically—just Gaga on the piano; no pyrotechnics, no lavish dance numbers, no crazy costumes (‘cept for the leather and fishnets but who’s counting?).
Lady Gaga is the best thing to happen to pop culture since (fill in the blank; for me it would be Madonna but I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a musically deprived, or depraved, age, depending on your vantage point). The leather-clad lady could duet with Streisand if you ask me. Before you scoff, watch!
The Edge of Glory
July 25, 2011 | 3:25 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
After coming across the recent headline announcing actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s decision to raise her kids as Jews, many probably thought, ‘Who cares?’
That was probably followed by, ‘Hmm, I didn’t know Gwyneth Paltrow was Jewish’ (she’s half, actually; father Bruce Paltrow was Jewish, mother Blythe Danner is Christian, as is hubby and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin). But once you get past that, and what was at best a mixed-religious upbringing or worse (if we’re going to judge), a secular one, the next natural question is: ‘What does Gwyneth Paltrow know about raising Jewish kids? Come to think of it, what do any of us know about raising Jewish kids?’
According to Marcia Alesan Dawkins, a USC visiting scholar in Ethnic Studies from Brown University and columnist for the Huffington Post, the Paltrow proclamation is an important one because it highlights some of the complexities and nuances of engaging in religious life in the modern age.
“Paltrow may be making a statement that’s more about spiritual and cultural uplift and less about religious commitment or intensity,” Dawkins wrote on USC’s media and religion blog, The Scoop.
In a comprehensive post that covers media responses to everything from Paltrow’s Jewish authenticity (“Many argued that although Paltrow was raised with a Jewish sensitivity and intends to share similar values with her family, neither she nor her children qualify as Jewish according to Jewish law.”) to speculation about how her husband feels about having Jewish kids (the Christian Post sniffed that Paltrow’s husband, ‘Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin, is known as a devout Christian, and there has been no news or comments from the singer on how he feels about this radical change in faith for his children’), Dawkins challenges the notion that this is just another headline in celebrity gossip.
“Coverage of Paltrow’s announcement generally shares one important quality: confusion over what Jewish identity is and means. Is it a matter of ancestry or a religion? Is it an ethnicity or nationality? Is it a culture or a parenting-decision? Is it a physical phenomenon like circumcision? Or is it an aura that can be manufactured and sold in popular culture?” Dawkins writes.
“While a glamorous Hollywood star’s religiosity may seem like soft news, these questions get at the heart of some of the most important issues of our time.”
Where religious identity meets ritual practice is a gray area for most American Jews, since the majority are assimilated, unaffiliated with organized Jewish institutions and consider themselves to be what is known as “cultural Jews” (i.e., they eat lox and bagels, partake in Chinese take-out on Christmas, maybe check out a synagogue on the high holidays and other such Seinfeldian rituals—but they do not, for the most part, consider themselves “religious”—oy, the word! the horror!).
That Paltrow intends to grapple with some of the major issues facing Jewish identity, either with or on behalf of her kids is commendable, if only because she is adding rich layers of inner and outer life to her children’s orientation in the world. Especially since Apple (infamous biblical object) and Moses (famous biblical character) will predictably grow up in a world of immense privilege, where the search for morality and meaning can be amplified.
Read more at USC’s The Scoop
July 23, 2011 | 12:26 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Amy Winehouse, the talented but troubled chanteuse was found dead in her north London flat on Saturday. She was 27.
The results of her autopsy will not be released until Tuesday, but there is widespread speculation that Winehouse died from a drug overdose. British tabloids, though suspect in their veracity, claim Winehouse went on a wild drinking and drug binge over the past few weeks, reportedly buying narcotics such as ecstasy and cocaine shortly before her death.
According to a statement made by London’s Metropolitan police, Winehouse was found dead at the scene, the cause “unexplained.”
But for those who followed Winehouse in the press, her public decline augured disaster. Just last month, Winehouse was forced to cancel the remainder of her European tour after bumbling her way through a performance in Belgrade. In civilian videos taken of the concert, Winehouse appeared sozzled, barely able to belt a lyric.
The New York Times obituary took note of Winehouse’s consistently destructive habits:
...[F]rom the moment she arrived on the international pop scene in early 2007, Ms. Winehouse appeared to flirt with self-destruction. She sang of an alcohol-soaked demimonde in songs like “Rehab” — whose refrain, “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” crystallized Ms. Winehouse’s persona — and before long it seemed to spill over into her personal life and fuel lurid headlines.
The interplay between Ms. Winehouse’s life and art made her one of the most fascinating figures in pop music since Kurt Cobain, whose demise in 1994 — also at age 27 — was preceded by drug abuse and a frustration with fame as something that could never be escaped. Yet in time, the notoriety from Ms. Winehouse’s various drug arrests, public meltdowns and ruined concerts overshadowed her talent as a musician, and her career never recovered.
Winehouse was born on Sept. 14 1983 to a Jewish family who claims several jazz musicians in their lineage, according to The Edmonton Journal. Her mother Janis, a pharmacist, saw Winehouse days before her demise and told the UK’s Daily Mirror: “Her passing was so sudden it still hasn’t hit me.” Winehouse’s father, Mitch, a cab driver and musician was in New York to perform a concert off of his recently released album when he received the news of his daughter’s death. “This isn’t real. I’m completely devastated,” he told The Daily Mirror. In addition to her parents, Winehouse is survived by a brother, Alex.
The crowning moment of her short-lived career came in 2008 with the release of her breakout album “Back to Black.” The album included the notorious single “Rehab,” which became a kind of anthem for bad celebrity behavior and Winehouse went on to win five Grammy Awards that year, including Best New Artist.
Soulful and irreverent, admired as much for the self-styled obsidian-haired beehive that became her trademark as for her retro-soul sound, Winehouse was a singular star. She proved incredibly resistant to the music industry machine, retaining her distinct style as a lyricist and singer, never allowing herself to become a mass-marketed music product churned out by a record label. Jon Pareles of The NY Times noted, “Ms. Winehouse was no manufactured pop commodity. She was a genuine musician, among the very small handful of British singers whose version of American soul music had a gutsiness and flair far beyond what could be studied.”
Her most popular singles, “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” are both deeply personal ballads, which hint at the demons Winehouse wrestled within. A close read of her lyrics tell stories of love and liquor, and often include admonitions to the men in her life about her personal struggles.
In “You Know I’m No Good” she wrote:
I cheated myself
Like I knew I would
I told you, I was trouble
You know I’m no good
In the irreverent “Rehab,” Winehouse notoriously—and proudly—refused to treat her addictions. The lyrics suggest she turned to substance abuse to numb the pain of heartbreak or abandonment:
The man said, “Why do you think you’re here?”
I said, “I got no idea
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near.”
I don’t ever wanna drink again
I just, ooh, I just need a friend
I’m not gonna spend ten weeks
Have everyone think I’m on the mend
The sadly prophetic lyrics offered an image of a messy life, one held hostage by an illness Winehouse could not bring herself to treat. Instead, she indulged in the darkness, engaging in bizarre and eccentric behavior, and at times, even became violent, lashing out at paparazzi and onlookers who waited street-side to catch a glimpse of her.
The Times’ Pareles wrote:
The years after “Back to Black” brought a very public decline. Her performances were erratic or much worse. She planned and canceled tours, went in and out of hospitals. Photos and videos showed her stumbling, bleeding and apparently taking drugs. With her boyfriend and then husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who served jail time for attacking a pub owner, Ms. Winehouse shared drug benders and never made it through rehab. The long, pathetic spectacle brought joy only to the jackals of the British tabloids, which sneered in big headlines at each new downturn.
Months shy of her 28th birthday, Winehouse’s youth and emotional instability had not permitted the full realization of her potential. Succumbing to her fate at age 27, she joins a cohort of legendary musicians including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin who reached their often drug-fueled ends too soon. Winehouse’s stunted career and tragic end are both lessons and laments on the perils of loneliness and longing.
Amy Winehouse “Rehab” music video:
Related Amy Winehouse stories on Hollywood Jew:
Amy Winehouse bumbles her way through Belgrade; tour in peril 6/20/2011
Amy Winehouse terrorizes first class cabin 3/2/2009
Amy Winehouse’s ideal rehab: Vacation 4/6/2009
July 21, 2011 | 4:21 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Exactly 69 years to the day since the Vel d’hiv roundup, when French police arrested 13,000 Jews and sent them off to Auschwitz, I moderated a Q-and-A with “Sarah’s Key” director Gilles Paquet-Brenner at the Museum of Tolerance. The film, based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel (which sold 5 million copies in 38 countries) tells the story of the Vel d’hiv roundup, the ultimate in French collaboration with the Nazis.
The film could be counted as one of the most powerful Holocaust films to date. The Hollywood Reporter called it “transfixing.” Writer Kirk Honeycutt wrote, “Cinema can sometimes rival the novel in compulsive intensity and Sarah’s Key is one such example.”
There are haunting, wrenching scenes in this film that can hold up to the best of those in “Schindler’s List”, “Shoah” and “Night and Fog”. With this, the 36-year-old Paquet-Brenner proves himself a significant talent (he’s sort of like a French Jason Reitman, only with a penchant for high drama).
In person, the French filmmaker was thoughtful and clever, occasionally feisty and incredibly gracious with audience members who lined after the screening up to share their survival stories with him.
During the Q-and-A, Paquet-Brenner discusses his personal connections to the story and the Holocaust, his opinion on Hollywood’s ‘Holocaust fatigue’ and the atmosphere on set when filming the most harrowing scenes.
“Sarah’s Key” opens in Los Angeles on July 22.
**Note: Apologies for the poor quality of the video as Carmageddon kept our very valuable VideoJew Jay Firestone from recording the event (sound is good, though!). In Part 1, my opening question for Paquet-Brenner was how he convinced Tatiana de Rosnay, the book’s author, to let him direct the film. She reportedly met him and exclaimed, “You’re 12!” doubting he could handle the serious subject matter.
In Part 2, I opened by asking about the formal techniques he used to evoke the horrifyingly visceral scenes of the roundup and at the camps.
More on the film’s background at The Ticket, where you can read Naomi Pfefferman’s wonderful piece on the journey from book to film.
July 21, 2011 | 3:09 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I posted an earlier version of this piece prior to the release of the film, but after seeing it, I have some fresh thoughts, which I’ve limned below.
The marketing campaign for the final installment in the “Harry Potter” franchise saw billboards throughout the country declare that with the film’s release, “It All Ends.”
Presumably this means the Potter series, as “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II” is the purported end of J.K. Rowling’s epic literary franchise. But audiences are also meant to understand this pronouncement as a double entendre, as Potter and friends must face the threat of an apocalyptic end, in which good versus evil battle it out for the fate of the living world—unless, of course, Harry Potter is the messiah.
“And a little child shall lead them,” goes the famous verse in Isaiah that prophesies a peaceful world.
The Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton pointed out in 2010, that Harry, played by the Jewish Daniel Radcliffe is referred to in “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part One” as The Chosen One. “No one else is going to die for me,” Harry declares, alluding to a messianic intent. The turn of phrase is bemusing because it can be read as either an affirmation or repudiation of the Christ figure.
Death, resurrection and mastery of death are central themes in “Deathly Hallows II.” In the opening sequence of the film, Harry confers with a character who tells him that if he acquires The Deathly Hallows—three powerful magic objects comprised of the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak—he can conquer death itself. “It is said that to possess them all is to make oneself a master of death,” Mr. Ollivander tells Harry, “but few truly believe that such objects exist.” Faith, it seems, is a precursor for redemption (there is another wonderful line about faith uttered by Helena Ravenclaw, who tells Harry where to find an object he’s seeking: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know; if you know, you need only ask.”)
Harry’s quest to overcome his own fate has foundational origins in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve choose to eat fruit from the Garden – they do not choose from the Tree of Life, the guarantor of immortality. Instead they choose the Tree of Knowledge and become inescapably, ceaselessly aware of their mortality. In “Deathly Hallows Part I,” there is a scene that evokes the Garden of Eden in which Harry and Hermione stand in as Adam and Eve, falling prey to the seminal biblical curse on humanity.
To reverse this curse, a Jewish mystical understanding of redemption posits a world in which death can be annihilated. Just as Harry’s pursuit of the Deathly Hallows can eliminate Death, Jewish mysticism conjures a world in which a child possessed of magical powers will bring about redemption.
In Aryeh Wineman’s 1997 book, “Mystic Tales from the Zohar” he speaks of the redemptive power of a child wonder or “yanuka”. In mystical literature, “the child figure is a kind of personification of Eden, a condition lacking blemish, defilement or moral complexity,” Wineman writes. The yanuka is a “wonder child capable of offering brilliant interpretations of Torah.” As it goes in prophecy, it goes in Potter: even a wonder does not work alone.
The Zohar, the major work of Jewish mysticism, suggests the importance of ancillaries in the redemption of the world. As the Potter movies can attest, Harry needs his friends. There is a concept, Wineman explains, of “a collective yanuka,” in which “the child-archetype has shifted from a single child to an entire generation of such wonder children.”
In one scene, Harry encounters Professor Dumbledore in a kind of postmortem heaven. As they discuss the nature of life and death, Dumbledore tells him, “Don’t pity the dead, Harry, pity the living. And above all pity those without love.” Harry’s ability to triumph, then, rests not on his shoulders alone, but on his ability to work in relationship with others.
No adult can save the world. In much of mythological literature (“Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings”) as well as in the bible, redemption comes through the gifts of a child. Even Moses seals his destiny as an infant. There is a midrash that tells of a suspicious Pharoah, who tries to test whether Moses is a threat to him. He places his crown on the ground, and at another distance, hot coals. If Moses were to reach for the crown, it would reveal his kingly ambitions. Since an infant is naturally drawn to the glittery crown jewels, an angel descends and promptly pushes the child toward the coals. Moses burns his hand and then reaches for his mouth, burning his lips. This, the rabbis, say explains his speech impediment, a handicap that becomes central to his development as a leader, God’s partner in Israel’s redemption from slavery.
There are things in the earthly world that resist the power of death. In Jewish mysticism, “the innocence of children, the wonder child, pleading to spare the innocent, the powerful prayer of the broken hearted, the willingness to die” are examples of the most essential forms of goodness, according to Wineman. Only when Harry accepts his fate, can he transcend it.
There are, however, moments of doubt and despair. When Harry returns to the post-war wreckage of Hogwarts, he despairs of what he has done, of what others have risked to protect him. It is one of most poignant moments in the film, as Harry realizes that even the pursuit of his higher purpose comes with casualties.
When Harry is finally prepared to confront his fate and face Lord Voldemort, he encounters apparitions of the afterlife. Wraithlike figures of his parents and friends appear before him. “Why are you here now?” Harry asks. “We never left,” his mother answers, suggesting the interconnectedness of life and death that Harry cannot yet know.
Likewise, in the world of Harry Potter, the magic that can save the world is inextricably linked with the dark arts that might destroy it. Harry contains within him both good and evil – it is why he can hear snakes, why he can hear Lord Voldemort’s thoughts. When Harry discovers that he harbors a piece of Voldemort within his own soul, he is anguished. No redeemer is pure. But Dumbledore reassures Harry that it was not his pure soul that was corrupted, but the evil of Voldemort that was overcome with good. “You were the heart cracks he was never meant to have,” Dumbledore tells him.
The world is not perfect when Harry defeats evil, it simply goes on. Harry must choose goodness and humility over power and control again and again. In his symbolic final act as a young man, just after he defeats Voldemort, Harry finds himself in possessesion of Voldemort’s wand. “That’s the most powerful wand in the world,” Hermione and Ron remind him. With it, he could become a kind of God.
But Harry’s truest act as a messianic figure is also his most human act: he snaps the wand in half and tosses it over the cliff, into the sea. He rejects power in favor of relationship. He doesn’t separate himself from his friends, he joins them in a final act of, you could say, true love. Interestingly, though the film values romantic love, the ultimate love combines sexual love with Godly love which is seen near the film’s end when Harry Hermione and Ron all hold hands together. It is a mirror of the Garden, a metaphorical ‘going back’ to a place where death, vulnerability, class, race and religious distinctions don’t exist, with three friends serving as stand ins for Adam and Eve and the Godly figure that saves the world.
July 20, 2011 | 5:51 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Ryan Seacret and “Real Housewives” creator Andy Cohen are teaming up for a new reality series centered around L.A.‘s Persian community.
Modeled after “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” another Seacrest-produced hit, the series promises lavishness, luxury and lots in the way of stereotype. According to a press release from ryanseacrest.com:
“Shahs of Sunset” will follow a group of young Persian-American friends who juggle living and working in Los Angeles while balancing the demands of their families and traditions.
The series will showcase the group’s luxurious lifestyles from over-the-top shopping sprees to traditional yet lavish family feasts in their sprawling homes. Unafraid to flaunt their designer clothing, tricked-out cars and boisterous personalities, spending money is no foreign concept to these young socialites but also treasure the value of family and Persian traditions.
After announcing the series on his morning radio show “On Air With Ryan Seacrest” earlier today, Mediabistro reported that Seacrest said of Persians: “These men and women are hysterical… Some of them are hot, and some of them are not so hot, but funny.”
There are reasons stereotypes exist, and they certainly sell in Hollywood, but it’d be nice to see a reality show examine the motivations behind some of these obvious tropes. Part of the reason Iranian-Americans are ostentatious has to do with their identity as an immigrant community, in which material wealth is indicative of their success as Americans. The more you have, the more you’ve made it. I would also hope the show looks at social and cultural differences between men and women in the Persian community, in terms of sexual mores, professional achievement and education. The lavishness is just the surface, so let’s hope Seacrest does justice to his name and dives in deep.