Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last night, UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies hosted Arab-Israeli (or Israeli-Arab, or Palestinian-Israeli, or quite simply) writer, Sayed Kashua to discuss his unusual career as “an Israeli Arab who writes in Hebrew.”
Kashua is the author of three novels—“Dancing Arabs,” “Let It Be Morning” and his latest, “Second Person Singular,” the creator of a popular Israeli TV series “Avodah Aravit” (or “Arab Labor”) which will soon enter its fourth season, and the author of a weekly column for the liberal Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz.
While Kashua said he simply wants to be known as a writer, his interviewer—Arieh Saposnik, director of the Nazarian Center—was much more interested in his identity politics.
Introducing the author, UCLA’s Gil Hochberg, associate professor of Comparative Literature spoke about the “schizophrenic” experience of being an Arab citizen of Israel. Kashua, she said, has been “the target of political and literary praise and accusation”; his protagonists are called to “negotiate two seemingly incompatible identities”; and quoting Kashua, bolstered the idea that “simply by being an Israeli-Arab, one is considered a traitor.”
According to Hochberg, Kashua’s work lends itself to “manufacturing tension,” “reappropriating conditions of exclusion,” “reworking and restaging ethnographic and national othering” and ultimately forces the reader to “rethink our notion of the Arab Israeli.” Now, if you can get around the academic lingo, which is useful when prancing around polemics, you’ll empathize with Kashua’s plight: to let the work speak for itself and not an entire populace.
When Kashua finally got to talk, he said that even his recent appearance at an East Coast university was co-opted as part of a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. “I don’t know how to come out of this clean, and not be a hypocrite,” he said, highlighting the ever-present tension he lives with. “I just want to write.”
As an Arab-Israeli, Kashua is not only a minority within greater Israel, he is part of an ethnic group in constant conflict with the Jewish State and thus in a very awkward position. As Jews well know, it is not easy to live among one’s “enemies.” Kashua’s citizenship in Israel, along with his incredible success, also makes him an object of scorn among his own people. His work reflects this torment.
“Is this just a tension in your work or does this reality make your life impossible and miserable?” Saposnik, an associate professor of Near Eastern Language and Culture asked.
Again, Kashua said, “I really just want to be a writer and a storyteller. But maybe pain is one of the things you have to feel in order to be creative.”
“[This condition] is very problematic,” he added, “I’m not representing anyone—not Israelis, not Palestinians—I’m just a storyteller trying to raise more questions than give answers. I wish I could be proud of being an Israeli citizen, but how can I do that when I’m not really recognized as a full citizen?”
Still, Kashua was careful not to overstate his dilemma. He is a person first, a Palestinian second: “I don’t really wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ohmigod, I’m a Palestinian in a Jewish state’; I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ohmigod I have to make sandwiches for my kids.’”
What saddens him even more than living uncomfortably as an outsider is that peace talks have stalled. “I still remember the morning after the Oslo agreements,” he said wistfully. “It was real once - talk about peace. It would be easier for me if there were a solution, a way or hope.”
Long before the Arab Spring, Kashua said he remembers a time when Palestinian national aspiration included plans to demonstrate democracy. “In the 50s and 60s, there was hope that the PLO will create a state that will show the Arab world what a real democracy could be.”
The night before The Second Intifada broke out, Kashua remembers being at a jazz club, dancing and drinking with his “Israeli Jewish friends.”
“Now it’s just getting worse,” he lamented. “The feeling now in Israel is that it’s impossible to make an agreement and the situation will never be different.”
In person, Kashua has an easy, friendly, often very funny manner. He was never unkind in speaking about Israel, but he was sarcastic: When a woman from the audience said, “I’m right wing and I admire you!” He replied, “I admire you that you don’t live in Israel!”
His awkward status as a sorta citizen in a segregated society is not only burdened with losses, but with an anxious sense of loyalty to both sides: “I’m always very worried, ‘Is there going to be an attack on Gaza? Is there going to be an attack on Sderot?’”
The irony of Kashua’s experience, whether he realizes this or not, is that it is precisely the same experience as the historically alienated Jew.
“To be a minority is part of your daily life,” he said. “There is pain calling you always to be aware of being different and to teach this to your kids.”
Kashua’s own parents imbued him with a worldview that emphasized both national aspirations and personal ones. They were not too proud to send him away to an Israeli boarding school that offered a superior education than the one in their village. There, he read Kafka (“I couldn’t believe when I discovered he was Jewish!”) and “The Catcher in the Rye” (“I was shocked that you could have doubts like that, and think like that, and write like that”). Even with all the guilt, Kashua enjoys a level of success most Israeli Jews have not experienced; so much so, that he said he often finds himself apologizing for his success.
I asked Kashua if he ever wonders what his life might have looked like had he lived in the Palestinian territories. Would he have had a hit television series? Published three novels? Gotten a lucrative contract at a major national newspaper?
He didn’t really answer: “I would have grown up to be the same screwed up person.”
I also asked if he felt camaraderie with any of Israel’s leading writers.
“Israeli writers are really very supportive of me,” he said, naming Amos Oz and Etgar Keret.
He said Oz once called him in the car when he was driving his family to Eilat “for Passover vacation” to tell him how much he liked “Avodah Aravit”. Oz also wrote him a letter praising his novel, “Second Personal Singular” and counseled him that even with a column and a TV show on his plate, he should always set aside one or two days of the week for writing literature.
“Literature is like a very proud woman,” Kashua said Oz told him. “You can cheat her once or twice but more than that and she’ll never forgive you.”
Kashua said that although he is heeding Oz’s advice, “I’m sorry to say, my main goal is to earn enough money so I can sit down very early and watch TV.”
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April 25, 2012 | 4:37 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
On a recent Tuesday, a group of 30 leading music executives, talent agents and entertainment lawyers gathered for lunch in the downstairs conference room at the law offices of Ziffren Brittenham in Century City. Together, the group represents the likes of Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake — to name a few.
Organized by the nascent group Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a nonprofit seeking to counter artist boycotts of Israel, the meeting would include an educational PowerPoint presentation and an informal discussion with Los Angeles’ Consul General of Israel, David Siegel.
Cueing up the first slide, adorned with photos of famous musicians — Carlos Santana, Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and the alternative rock band The Pixies — David Renzer, the former Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, asked, “What do these artists have in common?”
The room remained quiet. Renzer clicked to the next slide, displaying photos of jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, alt rocker Cat Power and UK-based electronic artist Joker.
Then, in his most equanimous voice, Renzer offered the big reveal: “They’ve all boycotted Israel,” he said. He repeated, for added effect: “They’ve all canceled their tours to Israel.”
The music industry executives, producers, lawyers and agents included Jody Gerson, co-president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing; Ron Fair, former chair of Geffen Records; and Rob Prinz, head of music at United Talent Agency. But few of them were aware that Israel faced an international campaign to create a cultural boycott of the country.
Renzer described the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), a loose collection of self-described “pro-Palestinian” activists who use every means — from sophisticated Web sites to tables on college quads — to spread a pro-boycott message.
“This is a very well-organized, very well-funded movement,” Renzer told the group.
“It doesn’t have clear leadership or a major hierarchy,” Siegel added. “But the goals are very, very clear: Boycott, delegitimize, dehumanize. They’re not about peace, and it’s not about debating Israel’s policies. It’s really about undermining our right to be a state for Jews.”
The next slide showed images encouraging the boycott of Israel: a Coca-Cola can inscribed with the words “Killer Cola,” an Israeli flag overlaid with a no-smoking symbol and the words “Boycott Apartheid Israel,” and another food label that reads “baby blood fresh Gaza.”
“I just want to point out,” interjected David Lonner, a former William Morris agent and founder of the Oasis Media Group. “That ‘baby blood fresh Gaza’ thing? That’s not anti-Israel. That’s plainly anti-Semitic. That’s as vile as anything you’d see in Nazi Germany.”
Next, Renzer showed videos of BDS in action: a divestment debate on a college campus; a street boycott of London’s Ahava retail store, a distributor of skin-care products from Israel’s Dead Sea; and a video of the BBC cutting off its live broadcast of the Israel Philharmonic’s performance at Royal Albert Hall last fall, after pro-boycott demonstrators disrupted the concert.
“This is an example of the stuff that gets put in front of artists,” Renzer said, adding that just this month, Oscar winner Emma Thompson joined three dozen other actors, directors and writers in protesting the inclusion of Tel Aviv theater troupe Habima in a Shakespeare festival at London’s Globe Theatre. Not only musicians are targeted, Renzer said, “This is about culture.”
“Well, where’s our music video? Where’s the counter publicity?” griped an angry Gary Stiffelman, a partner at Ziffren Brittenham, who has represented Eminem, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. “Don’t the Jews still control the media?”
“It just shocks me that this ragtag group is doing a better job at the PR battle than Israel,” Stiffelman said. “There should be a global campaign! I don’t see it. I don’t see counter-PR happening on YouTube.”
Siegel chimed in: “It takes a network to fight a network. You don’t see Abbas making these videos; you see Westerners doing it. It’s much better to do this at the local level,” he said, prodding his audience with eye contact. “You don’t want government bureaucrats doing this; believe me, I’ve seen those videos.”
Siegel went on to list some of Israel’s accomplishments in science, technology and the arts. Most people don’t know of them, he said, because the BDS movement wants to “pull an Iron Curtain over Israel.”
“Israel can’t be like Vegas,” Siegel said. “What happens in Israel can’t stay in Israel.”
Talk turned to producing a pro-Israel promotional video, then, inevitably, questions followed about who might pay for it. “Couldn’t Israel underwrite a campaign managed by laymen to create these videos?” Stiffelman asked. Siegel’s answer: “Right now there are three anti-missile batteries protecting Israel’s south. In order to defend the entire country, Israel needs 15. So there are very immediate demands on Israel’s resources.”
“What people respond to is pop culture,” said Hanna Rochelle Schmieder, president of Lyric Culture, a company that licenses rights to famous music lyrics and prints them on everyday apparel. “They like Lady Gaga, they like Justin Bieber. Music brings people together.”
“It’s all a question of image,” Siegel agreed. For many in the younger generation, being associated with the anti-Israel cause can be “way more cool.”
“We need to make Israel cool,” Atar Dekel, cultural attache for the Israeli Consulate, concluded.
CCFP is the first group led by industry insiders to try to counter negative messaging about Israel targeted toward the artistic community. Although the music community has been the biggest target to date, with musicians routinely getting bombarded with anti-Israel agitprop, the BDS movement has also arisen in the film and theater worlds, most visibly during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, when a group of artists tried to stop the festival’s spotlight on films from Tel Aviv.
Israel is no stranger to challenges, both at home and abroad. But at a time when its image as a vibrant, democratic society is constantly threatened, the presence of world-class entertainers, many of whom have large, impressionable audiences, can help make life there seem, and feel, more normal. These days, however, luring mostly liberal-minded artists to a country whose reputation is often defined by its detractors can be a challenge. As Esther Renzer, co-founder of the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, put it, “This is a battle for hearts and minds.”
CCFP was created to demonstrate to artists that Israel is a decent place. And that whatever their opinion of Israeli national policy, the boycott and divestment efforts unfairly punish the Israeli public. Shuki Weiss, one of Israel’s leading music promoters, told The New York Times in 2010 that the boycott was akin to “cultural terrorism.”
But while some high-profile musicians have succumbed to pressure to cancel their Israel tours, many prominent artists are still performing there — Lady Gaga, Elton John, Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen are just a few who have taken the stage there in recent years. This summer, 46 musical acts are scheduled, including Madonna, who will debut her World Tour in Tel Aviv, as well as Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock and Lenny Kravitz. For the classical palate, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform; for spectacle, Cirque du Soleil.
But elsewhere, there may be trouble ahead. CCFP is already monitoring a situation arising with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, scheduled to perform in Israel in September, who have become the subject of an intense Internet campaign to cancel. If you Google “Red Hot Chili Peppers Israel” the third hit from the top is a Facebook page demanding the Peppers “Defy Injustice, Cancel Israel.” At press time, it had 700 “likes.”
“Maybe this [boycott activity] is an aberration,” record producer Fair said. “Maybe it’s a small thing, and it won’t spiral out of control. But it’s another thing to watch. It’s another swastika painted on the front door of a Jewish institution. That’s how I look at it. I think it’s straight-up anti-Semitism with a new twist.”
CCFP first germinated in the summer of 2010 on a Master Class trip to Israel organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It was around this time — just weeks after the Gaza flotilla raid prompted an international uproar — that musicians like Elvis Costello and The Pixies began to cancel. David Renzer and his friend Steve Schnur, worldwide head of music for Electronic Arts (EA) video games, got to talking about what they could do.
Schnur had just come from an Elton John concert at Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan stadium.
“Elton walked on stage and said, ‘They’re not gonna stop me from coming here, baby,’ ” Schnur recalled. “I was on the verge of tears, because someone was speaking up when all others were protesting. And the press was turning [the flotilla incident] into a forum for significant misinformation, and people have a tendency to believe what they read.”
Renzer and Schnur held an informal meeting, which also included Ran Geffen-Lifshitz, CEO of Media Men Group, a music publishing company based in Tel Aviv, and Doug Frank, former president of music operations for Warner Bros. Pictures. They decided they could use their connections to reach out to artists who were planning to perform in Israel.
“The initial mission was: Make sure no one else cancels,” Renzer said during an interview with CCFP co-founder Schnur last fall.
“We were in a position that we could contribute,” Schnur added. “And it’s easy to write a check, but it was time to get my hands dirty.”
They also felt the need for urgency. “We saw the boycott movement was getting some wins,” Renzer said, referring to the initial spate of cancellations, which also included spoken word artist and poet Gil Scott-Heron. After pro-boycott activists disrupted Scott-Heron’s concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall, he announced his tour would “end in Athens, not Tel Aviv,” according to The New York Times.
Costello, the most prominent artist to cancel, publicly vacillated before his final reversal. He initially told The Jerusalem Post that abandoning plans to play in Israel to protest the government was misguided. “It’s like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn’t like Bush’s policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher.”
But as pressure mounted, Costello changed his mind.
According to a post on his blog, Costello’s decision had nothing to do with being anti-Israel and everything to do with not wanting to get caught in a political tug-of-war.
The Creative Community for Peace was designed to preempt those battles before they start.
“It was frankly a bit of a race at first,” Schnur said about how CCFP got its start. Before officially launching in late 2011, they teamed with Geffen-Lifshitz, who began providing a monthly list of artists scheduled to perform in Israel. From that, they wrote a letter, and sometimes made a phone call, to thank each artist for planning to go to Israel. They also received material support from the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs (whose co-founder Esther Renzer is David Renzer’s wife) and a $50,000 start-up grant from The Jewish Federation.
“Our job was to get ahead of [the boycott] and make sure they didn’t cancel,” Schnur said. “What we felt was that we were going to have to take this on musician by musician, artist by artist.”
Their efficacy was quickly tested when singer Macy Gray was subjected to online intimidation so intense that it escalated into death threats. In fall 2010, just after she announced her Israel tour dates, a group of supposedly pro-Palestinian activists began posting on her Facebook page, accusing Israel of apartheid and other human rights abuses. Genuinely perplexed, Gray asked her online audience to weigh in. She received more than 10,000 responses.
“The dialogue that she created became very intense, and also became quite sinister and threatening,” her manager, Merck Mercuriadis, said during a phone interview.
As an African-American, Gray was particularly sensitive to accusations of apartheid, Mercuriadis said. Gray finally decided to go, but it took a village. And it was only after a protracted and agonizing period, during which Gray consulted with members of the Jewish community — including the Renzers, Schnur, then-Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan and media entrepreneur Dan Adler — as well as individuals from the Palestinian community. Mercuriadis said it was Adler “who became a real confidante to Macy,” and who put Gray in touch with Palestinians so that she could hear from both sides, which ultimately convinced her that performing in Israel was good for both communities. While in Israel, she visited the Palestinian territories, and with additional financial support from the Renzers, Schnur and Adler, donated a ambucycle to United Hatzalah, an organization of medical volunteers serving both Israel and the territories.
Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s 30-year-old manager, was also menaced online when Bieber announced his Israel shows.
“There were threats on my life,” Braun said. Threats that said, “If Justin Bieber comes to Israel, we’re gonna kill the Jew manager.”
But the tough-talking Braun, whose sister is in medical school in Tel Aviv, said he was indifferent to the threats. “I reacted like, ‘I knew this was coming; let’s go to Israel,’ ” he said. “You can’t go through life afraid. It’s not a good way to live.”
The death threats turned out to be the least of Braun’s troubles with Israel, since Bieber’s one-week visit included a public kerfuffle with the Prime Minister’s Office and enough paparazzi haggling that Bieber took to Twitter to complain about it. Of the botched meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Braun said that Israel can be a little too eager (and perhaps sometimes a little too crafty) in using Hollywood celebrity for an image boost. Besides, he said, “The statement [of support for Israel] was made when my guitarist walked on stage at the beginning of the show and played ‘Hatikvah’ to 40,000 people in the style of Jimi Hendrix,” he said.
Not to mention that Bieber, a religious Christian, had Yeshua — the Hebrew name for Jesus — tattooed on his body.
Considering the many colorful experiences artists have in Israel, CCFP’s raison d’etre may come off as a little sensational, or sound like fear-mongering.
But as Geffen-Lifshitz pointed out, “If you boycott Israel in art, the next thing is boycotting Israeli manufactured goods, then a boycott of Israel as a tourist destination. Then a boycott of anything that has anything to do with Israel. We have to nip this in the bud.”
Still, he admitted that American Jews sometimes get more excited by the perils facing Israel than do Israelis. Overwrought worry may be one of the psychological costs of living in the Diaspora, a sense that Israel is perennially in peril and needs saving.
“We want to present a balanced point of view,” David Renzer said, defending the group’s integrity. “We don’t want to be right wing or left wing. But we do start with an initial premise, which is, Israel is not apartheid. It’s an easy sound bite to make that accusation — it’s a little more complicated to give the reasons why it’s not.”
But the point, really, is that music goes beyond politics. It is personal, emotional and can cut across language barriers, boundaries and borders, and spread messages of openness and peace. As Braun simply put it, “Music is the most influential thing in the world.”
“People who live in Israel are music fans and have a right to hear the music they love,” Schnur said.
“Musicians that play there don’t have to agree with the current or previous policies of the Israeli government — but they can go there and speak toward it or against it. Where else in the Middle East can an artist do that?”
April 19, 2012 | 12:07 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I got a strange email in the middle of the night from one Dan Bloom, a freelance writer who says he’s living in Taiwan. He asked if I could blog about an open letter he posted on TheWrap.com asking comedian Ricky Gervais to refrain from joking about Anne Frank.
Last week, Gervais appeared on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” for the second time in only a month. His much acclaimed prior visit discussing bestiality was such a big hit, Stewart invited him back. This time they discussed Gervais’s new HBO series “The Ricky Gervais Show”. Then the men had what I can only describe as an awkward conversation—about Anne Frank.
While talking up his collaborator and sidekick Karl Pilkington, the 37-year-old British comedian who appears on his show, and has something of a cult following in Britain according to the New York Times, Gervais giddily said, “This is a man who genuinely thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent.”
Jon Stewart dropped his head, something he does when he is stunned by a joke, as if hiding his face is an act of detachment.
“What do you mean?” Stewart asked.
Again referring to Pilkington, Gervais said, “[He] thought she was a squatter. He said, ‘I knew she lived in a cupboard but I thought that was to keep away from the landlord.’”
Cracking up, Gervais added, “I had to explain the landlord in this situation were the Nazis.”
“Does Karl really think a whole industry would crop up over someone who was hiding from a landlord?” Stewart asked incredulously. Stewart seemed uncharacteristically serious. “Why would we still know about it? Why would there be movies?”
If anyone can take—or rather make—a joke about Jews, it’s Stewart. But here, he seemed a bit disturbed. Like he sensed ill-humor.
Gervais: “I didn’t know how far back I had to go to explain about the war and the Nazis. I’ve been to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and it’s tiny,” he said, pausing. “So I don’t know why they didn’t find her earlier to be honest. It’s terrible! But Nazis must be stupid! Really? Everyday they went in, didn’t one of them say, ‘Can we look upstairs today Sargeant?’”
Stewart, now visibly horrified, replied: “She didn’t live in a Nazi’s house…”
“No, but they were looking for her so…” Gervais interjected.
“But they didn’t come in everyday and go…” Stewart began, defensively. Then even he suspected he was walking a dangerous line. “You should read the book,” Stewart said. “It’s very.. its… good!”
“That’s what I mean,” Gervais shouted. “She had time to write a book! Did they go, ‘What’s that tapping? Move on, it’s just mice. I can hear something Sarg!’.. it’s ridiculous!”
At this point, Stewart gets instructive, realizing that the man across from him who he ordinarily finds very funny is now making jokes on a subject in which he’s completely ignorant.
“The Nazis in general, did not go… it’s not like Halloween everyday [when] the Nazis came by and they would knock and go, ‘Any Jews today?’ She lived with a family that was harboring… people would harbor Jewish people, and protect them, but the Nazis wouldn’t do like bedchecks.”
Gervais gets the message and backpedals. “Say what you want,” he says to Stewart, “but I think the Nazis are useless—that’s what I’m saying.”
“Well you’re not gonna get a lot of pushback from me on that,” Stewart concedes, but then he goes back to being serious. “It’s more the logistics of what happened. It’d be like just describing other things that way, you know, ‘They should have done with Jesus, just not put him up on that wood, that was the trouble!’ We need a contextualizing of the historic [reality]...”
Whoa Jon Stewart.
Stewart’s discomfort is worth attention. Usually casual anti-Semitism or a bad Holocaust joke is worth an eye roll, or concerted quiet when everyone else is laughing. But the cringeworthy headline “Ricky Gervais accused of anti-Semitism” is hyperbolic, if not entirely off-base. Ignorance is not the same thing as hatred, but it is still a dangerous tone.
As Elie Wiesel has said, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. What I think Stewart detected in Gervais’s comedy was blatant dispassion towards the Holocaust, a cool, impassive detachment. This does not, by any means, mean Gervais would have been a Nazi, but it does make you wonder if he might have been a bystander.
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in times of moral crisis, do nothing,” wrote poet Dante Alighieri. Ignorance leads to indifference which permits moral atrocity to go on unchallenged.
But we must be careful about which comedy we jump to criticize or censor. As I’ve written before, for the mantra “Never Again” to be realized, the Holocaust must become a paradigm ingrained in the culture, and with such an imperative, all kinds of permutations and perversions are inevitable. The Holocaust will appear in an “X-Men” movie; Anne Frank will be made fun of in literature and on television.
As Hungarian Jewish author Imre Kertesz and Holocaust survivor acknowledged in his essay, “Who Owns Auschwitz?”: “For the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid.”
April 18, 2012 | 4:22 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A recent spate of pop culture depictions of vapid, loveless sex has some convinced feminism has failed.
William Bennett, a CNN contributor and the author of “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood” has decided he is an authority on women.
On the “disheartening and dismal” portraits of “liberated sex” offered up by popular culture nowadays he wonders: “[H]ow could women be happy with what is described in “Fifty Shades of Grey” and [Lena Dunham’s HBO series] “Girls”?
“Girls” paints a grim portrait of general ennui and loveless sex, but as Porochista Khakpour points out, what’s appealing is that it’s real.
[W]hat is most delightful about “Girls” is not the premise, but rather, the smart writing and the surface details. Behold the spectacle of everyday pimples and bad tattoos and unshaven skin and some fat and really awkward sex — what you see in your real life but rarely mirrored back in any pop cultural depiction.
She knocks “Sex and the City” for imposing layers upon layers of aesthetic flourishes on its women, a resentment not quite tied to envy but exhaustion. Who should want to dress to the nines just to go to Whole Foods? But you must look your best in case he might be there. Dunham’s “Girls” are too bored with their wussy boyfriends to bother.
“And so the world discovers the big secret, that we women are funny and smart and, without a ton of makeup and couture, we actually have appeal.”
We actually have appeal!
But all Bennett sees is the vapid, demoralizing sex and it’s enough to convince him that feminism has failed. If only we skipped “Sex in the City” and read real literature like “Middlemarch,” then we’d learn, home is where the heart is.
Consider one of the most well regarded writers of the Victorian era, Mary Ann Evans, better known to us by her pen name, George Eliot. In her novel, “Daniel Deronda,” she says of love, “For what is love itself, for the one we love best?—an enfolding of immeasurable cares which yet are better than any joys outside our love.” In an enfoldment of immeasurable cares in a real and true love, there is immeasurable intimacy too, including a richly satisfying sexual intimacy that finds no equal or parallel in a callous and casual hookup culture.
It is worth pointing out that this desideratum—deep sexual satisfaction—is found most often, as has been empirically verified over and over again, in what is often called, derisively, traditional marriage.
I agree with Eliot; not with Bennett. Because while the best love is the truly, madly, deeply committed kind, anyone who’s ever been hurt knows a casual encounter can go a long way in helping heal a broken heart.
April 18, 2012 | 12:23 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Mel Gibson makes a strong case for the return of a Hollywood blacklist.
Not what bears the name today, an insider online database of coveted unproduced screenplays, but the blacklist as it was mid-20th century, a politically charged ignominious register of the do-not-employ. Gibson’s multi-hyphenate talents as a misogynistic, anti-Semitic, raving lunatic deserve to rank on an index of shame. His film credit should read “persona non grata.”
So why, oh why, is he still getting work? Why must we continue to endure the madness of Mel?
Last week brought yet more stunning accusations that Mel Gibson is — can you believe it? — an anti-Semite. This time from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who was hired to pen the script for Gibson’s already much-maligned Maccabee movie. When Warner Bros. put the film on hold because of a bad script, Eszterhas, whose own father was a Nazi collaborator, pulled a Freudian transference on Gibson, in the form of a scathing nine-page missive.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that you never had, or have, any intention of making a film about the Maccabees,” Eszterhas wrote in a letter published on TheWrap.com. “I believe you announced the project with great fanfare ... in an attempt to deflect continuing charges of anti-Semitism which have dogged you, charges which have crippled your career.”
Eszterhas went on to recount, in sordid detail, some rather horrifying incidents that occurred while he and his family were guests at Gibson’s Costa Rica home. He described Gibson as “wild,” “crazed” and “explosive,” and how, one day, Gibson went surfing with Eszterhas’ 15-year-old son, Nick, and told him a rape fantasy he had of killing his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Gregorieva, also the mother of his child. Eszterhas also claims that Gibson’s choice descriptors for Jews are, alternately, “Hebes,” “oven-dodgers” or “Jewboys.” The Holocaust is “a lot of horses—-,” and what Gibson really wants to do with his Maccabee movie is “convert the Jews to Christianity.”
It’s a fun read, but about as revelatory as an episode of “Real Housewives.” At this point, the only thing more shocking than the fact that Gibson’s mania has drawn him closer to Britney Spears than to Jesus Christ is the fact that his remaining Hollywood friends refuse to call him what he is: a stark-raving anti-Semite.
Last fall, when the Maccabee project was first announced, I interviewed several of Gibson’s former colleagues (all Jews). Not a single one — including Rabbi Irwin Kula, director of Clal and a consultant on the film — was willing to scarlet-letter Gibson with the definitive label. When I asked: “Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite?” this is what I got in response:
“Mel has never, ever said anything anti-Jewish on the record. He’s never said anything against the Jews,” Dean Devlin, producer of “The Patriot,” said.
What saddened Devlin was not that his friend launched into a Jew-blaming tirade during his 2006 drunken-driving arrest, but that it made him realize Gibson’s sobriety had lapsed.
“For me it was more about being heartbroken, about knowing that something must be horribly wrong with my friend because [to say] something that outrageous, you know something’s wrong,” Devlin said. “It was clearly not in character.”
True, Gibson is an actor. But how many times must something happen for it to be considered “in” character?
Richard Donner, director of four “Lethal Weapon” movies, offered some psychoanalysis, saying Gibson had been “brainwashed since infancy” — by his giddily anti-Semitic father — but stopped short of a diagnosis. “He’s nuts,” Donner admitted. “He’s truly one of the nuttiest guys I’ve ever met in my life. He’s off-the-wall.”
Donner said he finds the Jewish community “very narrow-minded” when it comes to dealing with Gibson.
“The Jewish community has gone through hell all their lives, and [anti-Semitism has] been part of it all their lives, and I guess they’re overly defensive of it. And maybe rightly so. But my feeling is: Give somebody a chance.”
How many chances? Gibson remains gainfully employed by big studios like Warner Bros., run by Barry Meyer (one guess) because Gibson is a talented filmmaker whose films have made heaps of money and won Oscars. It is why, as Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein pointed out in his 2006 headline about Gibson’s drunken-driving debacle, “The shame is that so few say ‘shame.’ ”
And, as Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wondered, “Why do you go to the one guy who made a movie that blames devilish-looking Jews for the murder of Jesus Christ, and who, when drunk, and possibly when sober, just lashes out at Jews with all kinds of stunning invective? Why would you do that?”
It is also worth wondering whether Eszterhas would have come forward had things not gone awry with his pending Maccabee paycheck. Gibson’s other friends in the industry — among them Jodie Foster (not Jewish, but who once told me she lights candles each Friday with her family) and Robert Downey Jr. (part Jewish) — have urged their Hollywood colleagues to forgive Gibson. Forgiveness is a nice thing — a core Jewish value, in fact — once someone has repented.
“Mel Gibson knows for sure what it would take,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Maybe I should take a course about the Holocaust, about anti-Semitism; maybe I should visit a concentration camp, maybe I should make it a point to speak to the Jewish community, maybe I should say, ‘I want to apologize.’ ”
Hier maintains that if Gibson made an effort toward genuine repair, “A lot of Jews would say, ‘You know what? The guy made a mistake. He seems to have learned something from those lessons. Why not give him a shot?’ But Mel Gibson didn’t do any of that.”
Still, Hier would like to see Gibson make amends. “Everybody would rather see Mel do big teshuvah. But he’s had a long time to do it — the man has had a very long time to do teshuvah. And it’s never too late.”
April 16, 2012 | 2:24 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The best part of Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story about the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey and what it reveals about female sexual desire, which is otherwise full of bright insights and ideas, comes in the very last paragraph.
Pondering why so many millions of sophisticated working women are literally flush with desire to read a novel about a college girl who submits to the S&M fantasies of a twenty-something billionaire named Christian Grey (because she loves him, of course), Roiphe states the obvious in a clever, witty way:
“...if I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like “In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,” or “My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed,” you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.”
Oh how right Roiphe is. The prose in this book is positively pitiable. Last month, in her column on the novel, “She’s Fit To Be Tied,” Maureen Dowd wrote that author E.L. James “writes like a Brontë devoid of talent.” James is no cunning linguist but the book suffers even more from poor editing; at least half of protagonist Anastasia Steele’s puerile inner-monologue could have been cut. As Dowd points out: “Anastasia’s typical response to sex or anything else is ‘Holy cow!’ In fact, she utters that phrase 84 irritating times in the trilogy.”
No matter. The book flew out of stores. Days after the film rights sold to Universal for a stunning $5 million (this after James rejected an $11 million offer from Israeli producer Arnon Milchan), the book was out of stock. I bought one available copy at L.A.’s Book Soup for almost $30 days before it was being re-released through Random House at less than half that price. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
And apparently, in an economy in which women are ascendant and now, according to Roiphe, “close to surpassing men as breadwinners”, all they want for Christmas is a little whip and chain.
“It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace… with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.
But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? ... It may be that power is not always that comfortable… it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes… it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring… It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.”
Roiphe may be exactly right, but this particular phenomenon does not only apply to women. I suspect highly successful men, who shoulder tremendous external responsibilities and burdens, also crave, what Susan Sontag called, “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness.”
When one bears so much responsibility, one sometimes craves its total opposite.
The popularity of the book has also ignited debate as to whether this softcore subjugation of a young woman is anti-feminist. Again, Roiphe deftly points out that the political and the personal do not always go hand in hand. “The barricades,” she writes, “have always been oddly irrelevant to intimate life.”
“As the brilliant feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir answered when someone asked her if her subjugation to Jean-Paul Sartre in her personal life was at odds with her feminist theories: ‘Well, I just don’t give a damn ... I’m sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say it’s too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life.’
In real life we have complex emotional and psycho-biological needs that have nothing to do with what’s correct, appropriate, or even British-be-damned civilized. My current brain idol, Leon Wieseltier (yes, I’m a little late to the party, but the point is I’ve arrived) once that the human primal need for sex has a politics of its own. The bedroom is the only safe place for core animalism, the only place, short of the battlefield where human beings can exercise in freedom what is most basic about them.
As he put it in Maureen Dowd’s book, “Are Men Necessary?”:
Sex is a spiritual obligation. It makes up for the poverty of bourgeouis experience. We’re too late for the Spanish Civil War. We missed the landing at Omaha Beach. But still we need to know what we’re capable of. So it is in the realm of private life that we have to risk ourselves, to disclose ourselves, to vindicate ourselves; and the more private, the more illuminating. Our theater of self discovery is smaller. And in this lucky but shrunken theater, the bedroom looms very large. It is the front line, the foxhole.
The bedroom is where people who live otherwise safe lives can learn how cowardly or courageous they are, what their deepest and most dangerous desires are, whether they can follow the unreason within them to what it, too, can teach.
Maybe what’s compelling to women about Fifty Shades is not simply that it’s a break from having to showcase their strength, but that it’s an opportunity to see that of which a man is made. Women are courageous in love; maybe when it comes to the courage of the body, it’s a man’s turn. Will he give you everything he has to give? Would he die—a little death—for you?
April 13, 2012 | 4:35 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When Daily Mail columnist Samantha Brick wrote a whiny essay on the downsides of being attractive, the blogosphere laid it on like a ton of bricks.
“I am sorry, but this woman is not even remotely attractive,” a commenter named Alex, from New York City, wrote. As if beholders of beauty are ever objective, what was even more absurd was that Alex missed the point entirely.
What Brick had intended to illuminate in her essay is how a woman’s appearance fuels objectification, which has both helpful and harmful effects. But what she ended up doing instead was recounting a series of sad trivialities tied to her looks that have lost her friends, uplifted her husband and littered her dinners with free champagne.
“Throughout my adult life, I’ve regularly had bottles of bubbly or wine sent to my restaurant table by men I don’t know,” Brick wrote. “And whenever I’ve asked what I’ve done to deserve such treatment, the donors of these gifts have always said the same thing: my pleasing appearance and pretty smile made their day.” But, for her, good looks don’t come without gripes: “I’m not smug and I’m no flirt, yet over the years I’ve been dropped by countless friends who felt threatened if I was merely in the presence of their other halves. If their partners dared to actually talk to me, a sudden chill would descend on the room.”
It’s a dull idea and a bore to read, having nothing whatsoever to do with the requisite chutzpah it takes to presume such elemental prettiness. But perhaps even more irritating is that Brick counts her blessing a curse.
When Israeli-born producer Noa Tishby, a some-time model and actress, was asked during a Women In Film And Television panel discussion about her “relationship with [her] beauty,” she was caught off-guard but answered beautifully.
“I feel awkward about answering this question,” Tishby, the producer of HBO’s “In Treatment” said, according to a report on Jezebel.com. “ecause the answer I really want to say is, ‘Boo fucking hoo me. Poor me!’ Saying like, ‘Oh you know, it’s really hard,’ is crap, and there are harder things than that, than to… be – to be pretty.”
Tishby added: “It’s not something that’s in my DNA. And yes, it’s an advantage, but it can be a problem. And it’s something that I need to make sure I have no particular relationship to, good or bad, because it just is. And people may react to it in a certain way, but that’s just their story… And it’s not something I complain about. Do I get upset when I get, for lack of a better word, disrespected? Absolutely… And it [has] happened a lot, and I found myself in a lot of those awkward situations, but you just have to remove yourself from them and stick to whatever it is that you want to say.”
Jezebel blogger Irin Carmon called the moment, “[t]he most uncomfortable — and interesting” of the night.” It is never a joy to have to discuss the role of one’s looks in public—as Brick’s confessional illustrates, owning up to attractiveness is slippery terrain—though the issue seems to have sparked a slew of personal stories lately.
Writing on The Daily Beast, the actress Ashley Judd articulated her grievances with the cultural preoccupation with female beauty.
“The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately,” Judd wrote. “We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification.”
Is there something especially special about female beauty or have we been socialized to focus on women’s bodies but men’s skills? I once asked a male friend about this, who gave a typical male answer: “If you were to put a photo of a woman’s thigh or a man’s thigh up on a billboard, which would cause more rubbernecking?”
If you asked me, I’d refer you to those juicy 1990s Calvin Klein ads in which Mark Wahlberg modeled underwear. In his recent essay on the French philosopher Albert Camus for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik even had to explicate how Camus’s handsome face propelled his popularity.
“Looks matter to the mind,” Gopnik wrote. “Clever people are usually compensating for something… When handsome men or beautiful women take up the work of the intellect, it impresses us because we know they could have chosen other paths to being impressive; that they chose the path of the mind suggests there is on it something more worthwhile than a circuitous route to the good things that the good-looking get just by showing up.”
Beauty, whether on a man or a woman is a powerful thing (just ask Brad Pitt or that Danish hunk on “Game of Thrones”), but the male reception of female beauty is what drives the difference. When men get a whiff of female sensuousness, they seem to lose their senses (“Men become very absolute about pretty girls, don’t they?” writes Zadie Smith in her novel On Beauty), while women can appreciate what is eye-pleasing without instantly connecting it to their own pleasure.
The point is not that it isn’t flattering—and often seriously fortunate—for a woman’s appearance to be praised; the trouble is that too often it snuffs out acknowledgement of her other qualities.
As Judd put it, “Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”
Several years ago, when I wrote a profile of a director who had made a pass at me, a male colleague of mine remarked, “Well I could never get that story.” Which was a polite way of saying that the only reason my piece was deserving of attention was because of what I wrote, not how I wrote it; the subject of being an object more worthy than my skill.
In the movie “Elegy” based on the Philip Roth novella The Dying Animal, two men discuss exactly this phenomenon.
“Beautiful women are invisible,” opines the poet George O’Hearn, played by Dennis Hopper.
“Invisible?” says David Kepesh, the professor and cultural critic played by Ben Kingsley. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Invisible,” O’Hearn repeats.
Incredulous, Kepesh insists, but “they jump out at you. A beautiful woman stands out, stands apart! You can’t miss her.”
“But we never actually see the person. We see the beautiful shell,” says O’Hearn. “We’re blocked by the beauty barrier. We’re so dazzled by the outside, we never make it inside.”
We all want to be seen, and there’s nothing more painful than being seen skin deep.
Poem “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith
Cape Cod, May 1974
No, we could not itemize the list
of sins they can’t forgive us.
The beautiful don’t lack the wound.
It is always beginning to snow.
Of sins they can’t forgive us
speech is beautifully useless.
It is always beginning to snow.
The beautiful know this.
Speech is beautifully useless.
They are the damned.
The beautiful know this.
They stand around unnatural as a statuary.
They are the damned
and so their sadness is perfect,
delicate as an egg placed in your palm.
Hard, it is decorated with their face
and so their sadness is perfect.
The beautiful don’t lack the wound.
Hard, it is decorated with their face.
No, we could not itemize the list.
April 11, 2012 | 12:21 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Alesia Weston, associate director of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program, where she has worked for the past nine years, will take over as executive director of the Jerusalem Film Center, known in Israel as the Cinematheque, in June. During her tenure at Sundance, Weston worked extensively to nurture Middle East cinema, heading film labs in India, Turkey and Israel and a screenwriting program in Jordan. Raised in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France and Israel, Weston began her film career at Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. She talks about what she learned growing up in Israel, the country’s reputation on the international film scene and why Israel hasn’t won an Oscar yet.
Jewish Journal: In its mission statement, the Jerusalem Film Center declares that it is a place where Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims from all backgrounds can meet and work together. Given the current political climate, aren’t those intentions a bit of a reach?
Alesia Weston: I think art allows people to come together in ways that politics doesn’t. Politicians are not always the best representatives of people and what is possible between people. Stepping into a film, you can step into very, very different shoes and feel as close to that experience as somebody who’s lived it. It doesn’t mean you’ll agree on everything or that you want the same things, but it does mean you’ll see the “other” as less dangerous. It’s one of the ways we can increase our tolerance and understanding. I am that idealistic when it comes to the arts.
JJ: Hollywood has trained American audiences to consume highly formulaic films that tend to dazzle, but lack depth. What type of film experience do you seek when viewing for leisure?
AW: I look for something I haven’t seen before. I look for an original voice that is telling a story outside of the formula I’ve become used to. I obviously love it when there’s high quality of craft, but I’m also very forgiving when that’s still being worked on; I’m very forgiving about clumsy, I’m not as forgiving about lazy. I’m looking for something that expands my understanding of the human experience. For me, I come out of the Dardenne brothers’ films, and I feel better about being in the world. There’s so much humanity in their work and so little ego.
JJ: The film center has historically included and awarded Palestinian films as part of its program, even at times of great resistance. With such splintering between cinemas, how would you characterize Israel’s national cinema?
AW: I think Israel’s national cinema reflects the diversity of the people who live there. Israel’s cinema tends to be quite realistic; it’s a very personal cinema. The nice thing about films outside of Hollywood and outside of big systems is that it’s individual voices and individual filmmakers telling their stories. Israel has a growing relationship with Hollywood, but also a very strong relationship with Europe, and I think Israeli films are much more influenced by French and European cinema.
JJ: Do you think Israel’s relationship with Hollywood will move a cinema known for its artistry more toward the commercial?
AW: I’m hoping that it doesn’t become one or the other, but that there’s everything. U.S. national cinema includes really fun big animated movies and some really good commercial fare like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and good thrillers. I love going to those movies. I need them. I don’t think that any country is just one thing or should be represented by one film. Can you imagine if Israelis had “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that took place in Jerusalem, all in Hebrew, and was made for them, to go with their families to see themselves on screen? Not at checkpoints, and not having to read subtitles or have it dubbed.
JJ: One of the main reasons audiences and critics praised Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” — nominated this year for the foreign language Oscar — was that it wasn’t about “the conflict.” Is that the gauge for what makes an Israeli film fresh?
AW: Filmmakers don’t want to be saddled with every film having to be about the conflict. When [Nir] Bergman’s “Broken Wings” was made, it was essentially about a dysfunctional family, and he was a given a hard time because the conflict was completely absent. [But Israelis] are going to the market and then going to take their daughter to ballet class, and then they’re going to a birthday party. That’s their day. There’s a lot of life going on.
JJ: Many think Israel’s film industry has been undergoing a renaissance — which Hollywood has recognized with a total of 10 Oscar nominations, four of those in the past five years. Why haven’t they won yet?
AW: Who knows? Oscar nominations are wonderful, but they’re not the only measure of successful films. I don’t think there’s any reason in particular that an Israeli film hasn’t won, but the fact that they’ve been nominated as much as they have shows that they get an extraordinary amount of recognition and generally what [the Academy is] saying is that there are high-quality films coming out of [Israel] on a regular basis that deserve this recognition. Then you give it up to the voting process. Sometimes, when things are very political, like with “Waltz With Bashir,” that’s complicated. I think that’s when politics comes into play.
JJ: Do Jews or Israelis have a unique gift for storytelling?
AW: I think that we have a very evolved and developed history and tradition of storytelling, so it’s part of something we grow up with and is a natural way of being. I don’t think that it’s like a God-given gift, no. But I think it’s absolutely a skill we develop. Everything about our culture — like [the Passover seder], where we sit down and retell the story every year — is part of our ritual, part of what we do. And it’s hard-wired into your system at a certain point.
JJ: Growing up, you lived in four different countries, including Israel.
AW: When I was 8 years old, I was living in Switzerland, in the Alps, with my mother. My parents had gotten divorced, and my dad lived in France, across the border, so we’d go back and forth every few weeks. My mother comes from East Flatbush in Brooklyn. My maternal grandmother lost her whole family in the Holocaust, and my mother was concerned that I was being raised without any other Jewish kids around, without it being comfortable [to be Jewish]. So it was important for my mom to create a space for me where I could be part of a community. She said to me when I was 8, ‘We’re moving, and we can either move to America or we can move to Israel.’ I had a funny thing about America — it felt very big to me; sneakers felt big, cartoons felt big, food portions felt big. I couldn’t conceive of living there.
JJ: At Sundance you did a lot of work internationally, heading screenwriting labs throughout the Middle East. Did the international film community accept Israel as part of its family or treat it as a pariah state?
AW: Israel is an incredibly huge part of the international film community and much more accepted in the film community than [in] any other realm — and not just accepted, but celebrated and respected. When I first started at Sundance, I used to help my friends with the Israel party that they would put together in Toronto — I would give out a lot of fliers — because they were trying to get people to come to their event, and it was not well attended. Now, it’s hard to get in.
JJ: But what about the infamous 2009 protests at the Toronto International Film Festival, where several high-profile artists boycotted the festival’s spotlight on films about Tel Aviv?
AW: There are always going to be people who care deeply about human rights, as many filmmakers do, and they’re right to care about that. But I don’t believe in boycotting culture.
JJ: A lot of Jews are concerned about Israel’s image and hope that film, being one of the most influential mediums in the world, can change perceptions about the country. What should Israeli cinema tell the world about itself?
AW: I think it should represent everything about itself. The film that won the Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize this year, called “The Law in These Parts” — it also won best documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival last July — is about the difference between upholding the law and upholding justice, and that they’re not always the same thing. Wrestling with that and suggesting that the Jewish ideal and the principles upon which the state was founded are such that we should care about how well everybody lives. It’s one of the things I love most about Judaism ... it’s about really appreciating that this is good for me, and it may not be good for somebody else, so I’m not going to impose what I want on everyone else, but I’m going to listen. And that’s what film allows audiences to do: go and to listen. And we don’t do enough of that.