Posted by Danielle Berrin
Only the city that birthed Hollywood could dramatize a freeway closure the way Los Angeles has these past few weeks.
As soon as it was announced that the city would close the 405 freeway, from the I-10 to the 101 for a full weekend, prognosticators started predicting the end of the world. The ensuing theatrics have reached far and wide, from The Washington Post to CNN. “Carmageddon” is currently the second most searched phrase on Google, according to Google trends, its “hotness” level characterized as “spicy.”
The histrionics surrounding such events may derive from Hollywood, but Los Angeles isn’t the only city screaming ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it.’ Carmageddon makes it clear that Hollywood’s penchant for dramatic climax has afflicted the American consciousness.
Earlier today in Washington, even President Barack Obama channeled apocalyptic overtones when he suggested that raising the debt ceiling was the only way to “avert Armageddon”. Which begs the question: What is with America’s obsession with the apocalypse?
It seems just about everyone, from the media to local bars to private planes are cashing in on this climactic moment. “L.A. braces for Carmageddon” declared The Washington Post (why people who live on the East coast need to know the re-route details of a Los Angeles freeway closure is Greek to me). Even CNN chose to spotlight the potential traffic turmoil by interviewing L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who promised the renovation of the freeway would reduce commute times by a minute per mile from Los Angeles to Orange County. The cost? $1 billion. “Is it worth it?” asked the news anchor. Villaraigosa laughed.
Locals are getting in on the action too. Carmageddon cams, drinks specials and helicopter tours are being touted on Facebook and Twitter. The ubiquitous local, L.A. Weekly is offering an indispensable online guide to all things Carmageddon, including information about a private jet company offering specials to transport sidelined travelers to local airports. For $299, Angelenos can get from LAX to Burbank with a once in a blue moon view: the 405, which accommodates up to 500,000 commuters daily will be empty.
“Carmageddon” is being treated like The Big One, the mythical looming earthquake some predict will one day plunge Los Angeles into the sea, or maybe sever California from the rest of the United States entirely.
Must all struggles be met with harbingers of doom? It seems awfully melodramatic to confront a troubling freeway closure with end-of-the-world speculations. Is such fatalism a religious impulse? A national neurosis? Is this what happens when a capitalist system is in full-throttle crisis, on the verge of losing superpower status and maybe—heaven forfend!—become a little less extraordinary?
Enough with the doom and gloom. Is it too difficult to say, “This will be very annoying, but we will survive and see another day—- and on that day, there may even be less traffic.”
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July 14, 2011 | 6:43 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Tonight Israeli musician Idan Raichel will apppear in concert alongside the poetess India.Arie at The Broad Stage.
I’ve been an Idan Raichel fan for a long time. He has both a gift for creating beautiful music and the courage to spread a message. He preaches universalism, the power of shunning labels and celebrating humanity. In “The Gift of Acceptance,” a collaboration with Arie, he plays piano while she sings:
“They call you Israeli and they call me American/ I look at you and I don’t see your country, I just see my friend/ I pray we’re in each other’s lives for a long long time. Cause I honor your choices and you honor mine.
Today was a sad day in the Jewish world. Reports of the untimely death of 8-year-old Leibby Kletzky, mutilated and murdered at the hands of Levi Aron in Brooklyn, NY, make the artists’ words even more potent: “We all want the same things from life,” Arie sings. “We want peace and love and prosperity. But can we give up our need to be right?”
Sometimes, events occur that should only be mourned, not judged.
No doubt, there will be those who point fingers. It’s easier to believe such tragedy could have been prevented, controlled. But the murder of an innocent child is an inexplicable act. His family needs support, not blame.
“Give the world a present. Give the gift of your acceptance,” Arie sings.
The video of the Raichel/Arie recording is below, which I love not only for its lyricism but because they spend a good deal of time in the kitchen, one of the central loci of love, family and community. As Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman wrote on his Foodaism blog, “Food is not just intricately tied to eating, but also to culture, politics and spirituality; to the health of our bodies as well as to the health of our planet.”
So cheers to acceptance and alimentary blessing.
My 2007 interview with Idan Raichel:
Raichel and Arie play ‘Acceptance’:
July 13, 2011 | 1:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Marta Kauffman and Roberta Grossman are as dissimilar as two working women can be: Kauffman, creator of a little sitcom called “Friends,” is well-off, well-connected and well-known. Grossman, a documentary filmmaker most people have never heard of, is cerebral and low-key and often has to scramble for money to make a living. When we meet, Kauffman has just returned from Paris. She wears elegant attire and glistening jewels. Grossman is the hippie in splashy beads and sandals.
But where they diverge in lifestyle, they come together creatively, sharing a passion for obscure Jewish tales that may at first sound jejune. Their current collaboration, a documentary about the history of the song “Hava Nagila,” has not been the sexiest pitch for fundraising.
Even Kauffman was indifferent when Grossman first told her about the project. “I thought, ‘I want to do something that hits harder,’ ” Kauffman said. Tracing the roots of Judaism’s most popular Chasidic niggun didn’t sound like a topic that would sustain her interest throughout the long and arduous process of documentary filmmaking. But Grossman felt she was on to something, “I was not discouraged,” she said, and won Kauffman over with a show of early footage.
“She’s dogged,” Kauffman said.
Kauffman and Grossman met when their daughters were in preschool together at Temple Israel of Hollywood. But they really got to talking a few years later, when their girls played in the same soccer league. Right there on the sidelines, they discovered they shared the same childhood hero: the parachuting poetess Hannah Senesh, who tried to save Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz but was caught, tortured, tried for treason and killed. They decided to make a documentary about Senesh, a mother-daughter love story, emblematic of how they’d met, but also an homage to the Senesh women, whose bond was unthinkably tested.
At the time, Kauffman was transitioning through a career turning point. “I had hit menopause, ‘Friends’ had ended, and I was thinking, ‘There’s a last chapter here, and I want to do stuff that has meaning,’ ” Kauffman said over bisque at Kate Mantilini. “Making people laugh is a wonderful thing, but I wanted to go deeper.”
Grossman was brimming with ideas but needed a champion. Kauffman could bring both cash and cache to the project. “When I would ask to interview Jewish celebrities, I’d be sent to an assistant and told, ‘They’re not interested’ — but when Marta calls or her agent calls, it opens doors,” Grossman said. Kauffman also opened her checkbook, providing the seed money to start production.
They premiered “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” in 2008 to sizable acclaim. The film screened 300 times around the world. It aired on the Independent Lens series on PBS, won the audience award at 13 Jewish film festivals, received a Prime Time Emmy nomination and was short-listed for the documentary Oscar nomination in 2009.
“She’ll never be as well-known as Anne Frank,” Grossman said of Senesh. “But she’s more well-known than she would have been if we hadn’t made the film.”
That first success cemented their partnership.
“I had never done documentary before,” Kauffman said. “And I didn’t know what the process would be like. I remember going in with my first set of notes feeling incredibly excited about the prospect of making something good even better.”
“That’s very modest,” Grossman interrupted. “It really was not good. But Marta came in [with her] unbelievable sense of story and structure.”
With two women in charge, Kauffman said they didn’t have to deal with Hollywood’s usual misogyny. And without male leadership, she said, there was “less ego involved.” But what about the cutthroat competition that can occur between women, who are sometimes known to claw and catfight their way to the top?
“There’s nothing for us to compete over,” Grossman said insouciantly. “We’re in really different worlds.”
“It’s about a vision,” Kauffman added. “It’s not about career tracks. There’s honesty without cruelty, and there’s vision without ego. It’s not about Roberta saying, ‘I’m the director!’ and me saying, ‘Hey, I did “Friends”!’ ”
The women have both been surprised by the success of their funny/serious split: “Documentary filmmakers are not cheerful people,” Grossman said. “They make films because they want to address a wrong, make change or tell a story that otherwise wouldn’t be told.”
Their second collaboration, “Hava Nagila: What Is It?” probably falls into that category. But a trailer tells a compelling story that unites patrons of Canters Deli on Fairfax to dancing Chasids in 18th century Ukraine. Grossman describes the film as “a window into Jewish history.”
“It’s a profound exploration of Jewish spirituality and the role of music in Jewish life, and the role of joy in Jewish life, and what does that mean for a people who have experienced so much hardship and so much tragedy?” Grossman said.
While their goals for the film differ — Grossman hopes it becomes a history lesson, Kauffman hopes it entertains — they are equally earnest about illuminating the “national anthem of Jewishness,” as the song is called in the film. And for now, both seem content to work on smaller-scale projects that aren’t likely to be glamorous, glorious or gross gazillions.
“Are you asking me if I care that I’m never gonna make a cent in my whole life?” Grossman said with a hint of mordant realism. “If I can participate in making a lasting historical document with high production value that people actually want to see, I think that’s a life well-spent.”
And how does Kauffman feel about going from prime time to parochial?
Just fine, she said. This way she can take on a mix of projects — currently, she is also producing “Project Five,” a five-part series about breast cancer that will air on Lifetime with segments directed by Jennifer Aniston and Demi Moore. Her industry colleagues, she said, are befuddled by her newfound obsession with Jewish themes. “I get a lot of, ‘Huh.’ ”
But Kauffman genuinely glows when her collaborator says, “Marta has helped make my life from what it could have been to what it is,” Grossman said. “And that’s a tremendous gift.”
July 13, 2011 | 11:13 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
She has the looks of a diva, but apparently, the heart of a do-gooder.
The Russian-Jewish actress Mila Kunis has agreed to accompany a U.S. soldier to the Marine Corps. Ball in Greenville, North Carolina next November.
The spunky soldier, identified as Sgt. Scott Moore and currently serving in Afghanistan, invited Kunis on the date via youtube.
His chutzpah evidently impressed Justin Timberlake, who was with Kunis promoting their upcoming film “Friends With Benefits” when Fox News asked Kunis if she would attend. “You need to do this for your country,” Timberlake said. With casual brio, the actress said, “Sure, I’ll go.”
How rare to encounter an actress so unaffected. Especially one whose star is rising so rapidly. Thanks mainly to the success of “Black Swan,” Kunis is Hollywood’s gal-of-the-moment. In a cover story interview for the lifestyle glossy Los Angeles Confidential, Kunis talked about the impact of fast fame. She said that commonplace activities, like picking up her dry cleaning, now come laden with under-the-looking-glass anxieties.
Nice to know she’ll transfer the attention to the Marine Corps ball, bringing with her a little goodness and a lot of glamour.
Today Show video:
July 12, 2011 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
You can’t pass a billboard in Los Angeles without seeing the ubiquitous Harry Potter campaign pronouncing, “It All Ends”—- July 15.
How ironic then, that L.A.’s Westside will be subjected to its own apocalypse of sorts – popularized as “Carmageddon” – when a dense portion of the 405 Freeway is shut down for three days.
The concurrence of two such major events suggests a weekend of chaos. How ever will Potter fans make it to the Cineplex on time? But more importantly, how could the world end if Harry is a kind of literary messiah?
“And a little child shall lead them,” goes the famous verse in Isaiah that prophesies a peaceful world.
As The Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton pointed out in 2010, 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 says, alluding to a messianic intent, and an interesting turn of phrase, since it can be read as either an affirmation or repudiation of the Christ figure.
A mystical understanding of redemption posits a world in which death can be annihilated. In Potter’s world, if only Harry could find the Deathly Hallows, he could eliminate Death entirely. In that same film, a scene of Harry and Hermione evoking the Garden of Eden recalls the foundational curse of the biblical word: Eat from the Tree of Knowledge and paradise will be wrested from humanity, because the acquisition of knowledge equals the inescapable, ceaseless awareness of mortality.
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 goes so far as to suggest 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.”
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 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 seminal in his development as a leader, G-d’s aid in Israel’s redemption from Egyptian 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, and the sparing of a scholar in judgment” are the most essential forms of goodness, Wineman writes.
But in the world of Harry Potter, the magic that can save the world is inextricably linked with the dark arts that might destroy it. Good versus evil battle out, side by side, in luscious Hollywood imagery that suggests a world that never was, but somehow spiritually exists.
The richness of the “Harry Potter” fantasy cannot end, even if the tale concludes. Like the Bible, its lucid storytelling can be read in repetition. But as far as next weekend’s traffic is concerned, the best redemption from Carmageddon is to get lost in a dark theatre, where spiritual sustenance comes in the form of deeply satisfying entertainment, through the visceral talent of a Jewish actor and his alter-ego, the Chosen One.
July 11, 2011 | 10:54 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Who doesn’t love an epic love?
“Give me a book or a movie about lovers in the depths of a “Wuthering Heights” passion or a Proustian fixation, and I’m off to the moors with a box of madeleines,” Maureen Dowd wrote in her Sunday Times column. She was referring to reports about a film in development about the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton romance. It will be based on the book “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century” published last year by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. Martin Scorsese is rumored to be directing.
But how to find two actors whose star-power and magnetism can measure up to Liz and Dick’s? Not to mention, whose onscreen chemistry could come close to the real-life fire and fury Taylor and Burton possessed. You can’t, Dowd argued. Modern movie stars can’t stand up to the greats.
“What makes superstars blaze is how inimitable they are. You can’t replicate what’s unique or measure up to what’s immeasurable,” Dowd wrote.
No doubt, it’s a tough act to follow a romance—and remarkably, a marriage—that writer Ada Calhoun described as a “bodice-ripping, booze-soaked, jewel-bedecked brawl that survives even death.” They broke all the rules, cheated on their earlier spouses and were ultimately condemned by the Vatican. But they loved each other with wild abandon and the relationship endured.
Perhaps if more people loved that way in life, they wouldn’t need Hollywood to present reduced replicas. But a love so passionate and self-sustaining is rare.
Love that lasts strikes me as very un-Hollywood. The great romances of the past—from “Casablanca” to the “The Way We Were” to “Love Story” to “Titantic” end tragically, through painful splits or premature death. Romantic comedies end with some kind of lovers’ reconciliation, where future commitment is suggested, never seen. So even if “Furious Love” doesn’t become the next “English Patient” it will be heartening to watch how Burton and Taylor lived out their romance, even from a distance, until the bitter end.
July 7, 2011 | 1:10 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Over the course of profiling LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who is the subject of this week’s cover story, I discovered a sad truth about Hollywood’s relationship to Los Angeles public schools: There really isn’t one.
Shouldn’t the epicenter of the largest creative industry in the world have the best arts education programs in the country? And what about creating a feeder program that trains thousands of students with skill-sets that could get them industry jobs, even those unglamorous but indispensable ones that form the bulk of film crews? Are there internship programs designed exclusively for public school students (and not just those who have connections to the industry)? For the hundreds of thousands of students matriculating at LAUSD schools, many of them from families of low socioeconomic backgrounds, these opportunities could change their lives.
Individuals from the industry have made their mark—for example, Philip Rosenthal, creator of the series “Everybody Loves Raymond” and his wife, Monica, fund an arts education campus on skid row called Inner-City Arts—but on the whole Hollywood seems afflicted by apathy.
“I shouldn’t be scraping together budget shards for elementary school arts programs that literally sit in the shadow of Paramount Studios or Fox,” Zimmer said when I asked him about recent budget cuts to arts programs district-wide.
“The centerpiece of the L.A. economy is entertainment so that should be made real in our public schools. I challenge the industry to help us to not have to worry about funding our arts programs year to year because it’s the most sensible investment they could make.” Zimmer also said he’s like to see a massive apprenticeship program develop so that “every union job for the next generation that comes out of the film industry goes to LAUSD graduates.”
These grand dreams are fair in a town that was built upon dreams and depends on them for its lifeblood. But how to realize dreams when a crisis permits nothing more than survival?
“What I’d really like to see is a summit, a meeting of LAUSD folks, arts advocates and entertainment industry people where we really sit down and determine how to secure arts education funding for the next decade,” Zimmer said. Funding is a start, Zimmer said, and has heightened importance during a time of crisis, but he wants more than money from Hollywood. “I’m looking at something more dynamic than that. I’d like to see a partnership. A mutually beneficial relationship.”
Every successful person in Hollywood should feel a responsibility to this, Zimmer said, but Hollywood Jews? Even more so.
“As Jews we have an obligation to our community, to the future of this city, and we have a calling – we’ve always had that calling—to Tikkun Olam. Here, it is not just healing it’s also investing. It’s the paying forward of tikkun olam so that we don’t have to heal another generation.”
Excerpted below is my profile of Zimmer but you can read the whole thing here.
It’s been dark for almost five hours, the city has slowed, and even the 101 Freeway is sparse and quiet. Steve Zimmer has just wrapped his last appointment, but rushing home seems foolish when a rare sit-down dinner is an option. Most days Zimmer hardly notices how alone he is, because he never stops working.
On this wintry night earlier this year, the then-18-month veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education is coming off a 14-hour day, a zigzag tour of schools from West Hollywood to the Elysian Valley, from parent meetings on the Westside to policy meetings downtown, home to Hollywood to walk his blind Chihuahua-pug mix and is about to wind down — finally — with dinner and a very necessary nightcap in Echo Park. By this point, Zimmer is hungry, tired and melancholy, so once he’s decided upon the kitschy French bistro Taix on Sunset Boulvard, he pops in a Leonard Cohen CD and sinks into the driver’s seat of his LAUSD-owned Prius.
“So you know that everybody covers ‘Hallelujah,’ but this version, this live version is just … unbelievable,” he says. “The instrumentation is very different than his studio albums. I didn’t realize how Jewish-influenced his music was until I heard this. It almost has a klezmer-y feel.”
Zimmer moves to another favorite, Beck, whose album “Sea Change” he calls “the breakup album.” “It rips your heart out,” he says, explaining that he listened to it on loop for months after a six-year relationship ended recently. At 41, he has never married, but he says his last breakup felt like a divorce.
“I’ve been good — or at least passable — at a lot of things in my life,” Zimmer tells me. “I haven’t been as good at relationships. An artist can’t help being an artist — in the same sense that I can’t help what I do. It’s a focus thing.
“I don’t know how to do things any other way. It’s a complicated balancing act to have two passions. It takes a very, very special person to be willing to be part of a balancing act.”
Two Hollywood stars who do care about public education—Brian Austin Greene and Megan Fox—created the following PSA to bring attention to the impact of budget cuts on LAUSD students:
July 7, 2011 | 9:22 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
There is a strange competition among famous people over who can come up with the most original baby names.
According to a rumor swirling in the media, the Jerusalem-born Natalie Portman has named her son Alef, according to a report published in the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, though Portman’s camp has not confirmed the news.
If it is true, however, then Portman has joined a long list of celebrities who prefer, shall we say, ‘obscure’ names for their kids. This little game usually results in place names; Dakota (Fanning), Ireland (Baldwin and Basinger’s daughter), or you better believe it: Mars (that one, from singer Erykah Badu); then there are food names; Gwyneth Paltrow went with ‘Apple’ for her daughter, Food Revolution chef Jamie Oliver named his ‘Poppy’; military-sounding names; Demi Moore and Bruce Willis named two of their three ‘Rumer’ and ‘Scout’; oddly spelled names; “Cruz” Beckham or “Reign” for rapper Timbaland’s daughter.
The list of wacky names is endless (Alicia Silverstone named her son ‘Bear Blu’!). And then there are names that are equally as wacky but sound nice—anyone know where ‘Suri’ came from?
This peculiar fad for exotic baby naming can only stem from one thing (narcissism), although it comes with an ironic twist. First celebrities insist that their children have names that, God forbid, no ordinary children of the world can share, and then US Weekly does a cover story and suddenly the most popular baby name in America is ‘Zuzu’.
What this means for Jews, and especially pregnant Jews, is that ‘Alef’ just got added to the list.