Posted by Danielle Berrin
Writer Aaron Sorkin gave a rare glimpse into his relationship with Judaism during a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
During a conversation about Sorkin’s intellect—which he more or less downplayed, “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other; the characters I create would have no use for me,” he said—the creator of HBO’s “Newsroom” segued into a story about how he acquires knowledge.
Gross suggested that Sorkin’s penchant for rapid-fire, argumentative dialogue is related to having three lawyers in the family—his father is an intellectual property lawyer for Time Warner, his brother worked as a criminal prosecutor before entering private practice and his sister litigates for the Justice Department—and Sorkin agreed. “I liked the sound of our dinner table growing up,” he said. “Anybody who used one word when they could have used ten just wasn’t trying hard enough.”
“I hope this serves as an example of my relationship to the intelligence of my fictional characters,” he added.
“I’m Jewish but have never had any religious training. I never went to Hebrew school. But in seventh grade, nearly every Saturday I was going to a friend’s Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah—this was right around the time I was developing my love of theater—and I would go to these Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs and think, ‘Damn, I really missed out. These are great. You get to go up there and you’re wearing a costume and there’s theatrics and there’s singing and there’s an audience; I wish I had done this.’ Finally about six weeks before my 13th birthday—in my family the boys would just have a really nice party before their 13th birthday—I opened a local phonebook and called the local rabbi and said, ‘Rabbi I’m turning 13 in six weeks. I’d like you to teach me the Torah.’ And he said, ‘You know kid, I can’t teach you the Torah in six weeks. It takes years.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no that’s okay. I don’t need to really learn it. If you just say it into a tape recorder I can learn it phonetically. He pointed out that was hardly the reason to get Bar Mitzvahed…’”
“My point is, I have expert tutors around me who, with an IV needle, inject me with the information that I need to find the point of conflict, to find the point of friction in a particular subject, whether it’s the census on The West Wing or Arizona’s Immigration Law…”
But Gross wanted to get back to the Bar Mitzvah.
“We kinda dropped the Bar Mitzvah thing,” she said. “So you called the rabbi, he declined; you know there were records available that you could have bought to learn the haftarah—which is what the bar mitzvah boy has to sing…”
“Now you tell me,” Sorkin quipped.
“Did you have any kind of makeshift Bar Mitzvah in which you got to perform?” Gross continued.
“We had a party, and I had learned to bless the bread, and I did that: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz—still do it. Even though I’m pretty sure the last time I blessed bread was on my 13th birthday. And, I don’t know what anything I just said means.”
Cynthia Ozick recently lamented the tragic non-existence of Hebrew in America, where once there existed a culture of few but formidable Hebraists who loved and lived the language. In a New Republic review of the book Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry by Alan Mintz, she describes a culture at once so rich, that at the beginning of the 20th century the novelist Henry James referred to a collection of cafes along the Lower East Side of New York as reflecting “the hard glitter of Israel”. James, Ozick noted, even feared that the intense “infiltration” of Hebrew would compromise the English language. But alas, it more or less disappeared.
THEN WHO IS TO BLAME? We are: we have no Hebrew. But who, or what, really, is this culpable “we”? An admission: inescapably, it is the educated American Jewish mentality, insofar as it desires to further self-understanding. The Hebrew Bible has long been the world’s possession, and those who come to it by any means, through whatever language, are equals in ownership, and may not be denied the intimacy of their spiritual claim. Yet spirit is that numinous essence that flies above history, inhabiting the moment’s exquisite experience: it is common to all peoples, hence native to none. History, in contrast, is linked to heritage, and heritage—preeminently its expression in language—is what most particularly defines a civilization.
What a pity, then, Ozick writes, that there is “an absence of Jewish literacy in a population renowned for its enduring reverence for learning.”
Quoting Mintz, the author who mined the depths of America’s long lost Hebraist culture, Ozick gets at the crux of why Hebrew is indispensable to an authentic Judaism (which unfortunately, she later claims, most American Jews do not have, herself included, even though her uncle Abraham Regelson was one of the famous American Hebraists).
[The American Hebraists] may have been wrong about Hebrew being the measure of all things—this was the monomania that contributed to their eclipse—but they were surely correct in seeing Hebrew as the deep structure of Jewish civilization, its DNA, as it were. They understood the unique role of Hebrew as a bridge that spans many cleavages: between classical Judaism and the present, between religious and secular Jews, and between Israel and the Diaspora. They further understood that any Jewish society that takes place largely in translation runs the risk of floating free of its tether to Jewish authenticity.
Sorkin often speaks of his relationship to dialogue as the most essential quality in his writing. He told Gross that he writes dialogue that aspires to musicality. Recounting how his parents took him to plays as a child, Sorkin said, “The sound of dialogue sounded like music to me. I wanted to imitate that sound.” Plot, he admitted, is his weakness. “My achilles heal is story. I’m not as good at constructing story as I’d like to be,” he said, but explained that he compensates with meaningful linguistic rhythm. “What words sound like is as important as what they mean.”
Hebrew seems to innately embody this quality, even without expert arrangement. It is, many say, a tough language to acquire and even harder to master. But just imagine what might be if writers like Sorkin had the opportunity and the will to learn it.
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July 11, 2012 | 1:01 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The only thing Americans love as much as their celebrities is … hating them.
Just ask Madonna. During the course of a three-decade career,
her public image seems to have been defined more by her indulgences in ignominy than exemplifying personal values. Is it just me or was she was much more fun hitchhiking naked in Miami Beach than foisting kabbalistic platitudes upon us all? How impoverished our love of her would be had she not burned crosses, angered the pope, portrayed Jesus as black and introduced us to S&M.
But star worship, the rich and famous quickly learn, is a double-edged sword.
On a recent trans-Atlantic trip, I took a slight flight risk in watching Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.” Because I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for praise of Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson), I was not particularly excited about my choice. But, with 12.5 hours until touchdown, even a time waster held appeal.
And, reader, I liked it.
The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose own marital turmoil fuels an obsession with a romantic legend — the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their relationship scandalized Great Britain; it began when Wallis was still married and compelled Edward to abdicate his throne — perhaps laying plain why Madonna liked the tale.
Her stylized take on the melodrama has many flaws (including a throwaway line about the duke’s ardent Nazi sympathies), but the film was not nearly as pitiful as declared by some critics. In fact, by its end, I wondered if I liked it more than I should have because my expectations had been so thoroughly sullied beforehand.
Harvey Weinstein, one of the film’s producers, acknowledged this disconnect: “Of all the movies this year that have gotten a bad shake from the critics, this is the one. And I think it’s Madonna. I think they see the personality behind the film,” he told Deadline.com.
Weinstein’s suggestion that Madonna’s star power undermined her directorial debut is indicative of current attitudes toward the overly acclaimed. That is, we cherish our icons so long as they live up to our ideals of them, but God help them if they go off script (Madonna, a director?) or off-kilter.
Reviews savaged Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” weeks before it premiered. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “ ‘The Newsroom’ gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping.” Likewise, Maureen Ryan wrote on the Huffington Post that she found the show “obvious and self-congratulatory,” “manipulative and shrieky.”
The tenor of criticism toward Sorkin was so venomous — and personal — it reeked of the perverse pleasure the less secure and less successful feel when the brilliant and prosperous err. Many attacks were aimed straight at Sorkin rather than at his show, with Ryan decrying “giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight” and Nussbaum snidely remarking, “Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV.”
This ravenous need to topple the talented also laid claim recently to Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling science author newly added to the staff of The New Yorker. Several weeks ago, when blogging (for free) on his New Yorker Frontal Cortex blog, Lehrer recycled whole paragraphs from his own work that had previously appeared in other publications. The media pounced, unstintingly shaming him for “self-plagiarizing,” an oxymoron to begin with, as, by definition, plagiarizing requires copying the work of another.
“Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Self Plagiarism’ Scandal Rocks The New Yorker” blasted a Daily Beast headline. When, really, it rocked his lower-ranking peers: From The New York Times to Slate to New York Magazine, reporters seemed to delight in Lehrer’s harmless gaffe, determined to smear an otherwise stellar career for the crime of a little laziness.
Lehrer received a pounding in the press less because of what he did and more because of who he is: young (30!), brilliant and successful, and oh what a delight to see him falter.
This is the downside of stardom, though it is rooted in our own self-conscious aggrandizement of the stars.
Ruminating about the apotheosis of the pop star Adele, The New Republic’s David Hajdu wrote, “[O]ne of the things we expect of celebrities is a hint, at least, of normalcy — a strain of mere humanity among the superhuman qualities we demand of and project upon the hyper-famous. That thread of ordinariness, however thin or slippery, gives us something to tie ourselves to. By retaining an imagined connection to the celebrities we celebrate, we can make use of them as objects of aspirational fantasy without wholly succumbing to the feelings of profound personal inadequacy that go along with celebrity worship.”
In other words, as long as stars screw up, as Hajdu expertly puts it, “We can love our stars instead of loving ourselves, but without hating ourselves too much for doing so.”
July 6, 2012 | 11:55 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
On the flight back from a recent trip to Italy, I took a slight flight risk and decided to watch Madonna’s critically maligned movie “W.E.” Since I had not heard a single positive thing about it (save for Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Wallis Simpson) I was not particularly excited about my choice. But since the flight was 12.5 hours and it was either that or “Jeff Who Lives At Home” I went for stylized melodrama over modern melancholy.
And reader, I liked it.
The film tells the story of Wally Winthrop, a young, upper-crust New York City housewife whose marital turmoil fuels an obsession with romantic legend: the love affair between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, otherwise known as King Edward VIII and the American coquette Wallis Simpson. Their romance scandalized a nation; it began when she was married and compelled him to abdicate his throne. The film has its flaws of course, but it was also intense and entertaining. The score, by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski was a highlight, and though the script was somewhat uneven in its focus on the modern thread (Wally’s affair with a Sotheby’s security guard) and not the classic story, the dialogue was sharp and smart.
By the film’s end I wondered if I liked it more than I should have because my expectations had been so thoroughly sullied beforehand.
As the one of the film’s producers, Harvey Weinstein acknowledged the disconnect: “Of all the movies this year that have gotten a bad shake from the critics, this is the one. And I think it’s Madonna. I think they see the personality behind the film.”
Weinstein’s suggestion that Madonna’s star-power undermined both her and the film’s ability to get a fair shake is an increasing phenomenon.
This is the dawning of the age of celebrity schadenfreude.
Several weeks ago, popular science writer Jonah Lehrer was unstintingly shamed in the press for—I think the term was “self-plagiarism”. The recent staff addition to The New Yorker reportedly lifted whole paragraphs from his earlier work at other publications—among them The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine and Wired—and reproduced them on his New Yorker blog, Frontal Cortex. The media pounced. “Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Self Plagiarism’ Scandal Rocks The New Yorker” read a Daily Beast headline. Really, it rocked his less successful peers: From The New York Times to Slate to New York Magazine, reporters seemed to delight in Lehrer’s harmless gaffe, determined to crucify an otherwise stellar career for the crime of a little laziness.
As Slate’s Josh Levin put it, “[Self-plagiarism is] not a victimless crime. Lehrer’s readers deserve to know whether the stuff he’s representing as new material was first published in Wired in 2009.”
OK, so sue him.
The reason Lehrer received such a pounding in the press is not because of any crime—petty or otherwise. It is because he is young, brilliant and successful and oh what a delight it is to see him falter.
I also wondered whether this ravenous need to topple the talented played into the scathing reviews Aaron Sorkin received for his new HBO series, “The Newsroom.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “The Newsroom’ gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping,” and Maureen Ryan wrote on Huffington Post that she found it “obvious and self-congratulatory,” “manipulative and shrieky.” They were hardly the only ones. The tenor of criticism towards Sorkin has been so harsh it reeks of the perverse pleasure the insecure and inferior experience when the brilliant and successful err.
By contrast, one “Newsroom” review that was even-handed and fair (though no less critical) was Jake Tapper’s piece in The New Republic. Before he delved into his critique of “The Snoozeroom,” Tapper, the senior White House correspondent for ABC News admitted, “I wanted this show to be great,” and disclosed that he had “eagerly” participated in a research conference call with Sorkin and other writers and journalists during the show’s development stage. His criticism of the show stood apart because it was mostly about the show, not just Sorkin. While Huffington Post’s Ryan decried “giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight” and Nussbaum snidely remarked that “Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV,” Tapper was the only one who clearly outlined the show’s conceptual and structural failings: “McAvoy [Newsroom’s protagonist played by Jeff Daniels]—and by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans…The fact that the show begins at the height of the Tea Party’s fervor—is no accident… Sorkin’s intent is to show how events of recent memory coud have been covered better by the media if journalists had only had the courage.”
A contrarian spirit is an essential quality in criticism (and in fiction, and in a democracy, for that matter). It is the oil that fuels a show like Sorkin’s “Newsroom”, that enlarges and complicates Madonna’s public image, and challenges abnormally brilliant minds like Lehrer’s to stay fresh. Mediocrity should never be acceptable within the status quo. But, to tear down some of our brightest stars when they are not at their best is a pitiful consolation for the indignity of human envy.
July 5, 2012 | 3:38 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Aaron Sorkin, the playwright, television writer and Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Social Network,” is causing a stir with his new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” about the inside antics of a cable news show and its commentary on American journalism. Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” among others, have earned the veteran show creator a reputation for intense examinations of institutional milieus — government, sports and now the news industry. He’s also distinguished himself through his style of writing, famous for its prolix dialogue, withering wit and moral idealism, for which he ranks among the most literary of Hollywood writers. In an e-mail interview, Sorkin expounded on the journalism he trusts, how he copes with bad reviews and the unique rewards of having a daughter.
“The Newsroom” is an indictment, specifically, of cable TV news but makes broader commentary about the culture of American journalism. What led to your disappointment in news media or at least provoked you enough to want to write a show about it?
Aaron Sorkin: I believe that “The Newsroom” is no more an indictment of cable news than “The West Wing” was an indictment of the Clinton and Bush White Houses. The show is a very romantic and idealistic take on a group of people trying to figure out how to do the news well in the face of market forces as well as their own personal entanglements. I like to write fantasies set against the backdrop of the real world.
When you want to be informed, what sources do you rely on? What people or publications do you most trust?
AS: For breaking news, I go to CNN. I like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal op-ed writers. I’ll listen to Rush [Limbaugh] for a few minutes in the morning to try to figure out why half the country hates the other half so much, and I like the gang at MSNBC. I think all the Sunday shows are helpful and compelling, but if I was forced to only trust one person — and of course I’m not — it would be Brian Williams.
There have been some harsh reviews about “The Newsroom.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “ ‘The Newsroom’ gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping,” and Maureen Ryan wrote on Huffington Post that she found it “obvious and self-congratulatory,” “manipulative and shrieky.” But, these same writers use words like “Sorkinese” and “Sorkinian” to describe the show’s style, which indicates their perception that your writing has established a new film and television lexicon — a high compliment. At this point in your career, how seriously do you take reviews of your work? How do they affect you personally?
AS: My writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I wish it was, but as Hiram Roth would say, this is the business I’ve chosen. One of the nice things about being on HBO is that the whole season is written and shot before the first episode airs. That schedule removes the temptation to adjust how you’re writing in order to change the minds of your critics — whether they’re professional critics or your brother-in-law.
Your work is noted for being high-minded, idea-driven and zeitgeist-y. But it also has romance and relationship. Which area interests or concerns you more: matters of the heart or the head?
AS: In “The Newsroom,” as well as in some other things I’ve written, matters of the head and matters of the heart are often the same thing. My characters tend to be hyper-communicative. There are exceptions — Mark Zuckerberg for instance.
During a recent interview on “The Today Show,” you talked about your early discomfort being in the public eye and how your arrest for drug possession forced you to be more open about your image. Do you still feel you have to play a certain role for your audience? Or have you become more comfortable allowing your public image to reflect your true nature?
AS: As a writer, it would be best if nobody knew anything about me. I don’t want to get in between the audience and what’s on the screen or the stage. But, as you point out, my addiction and arrest in 2001 was a bell I can’t un-ring. I’ve seen far worse consequences of drug addiction, so I’m not going to complain.
You told The New York Times, “If writing is going well, I’m happy. If writing isn’t going well, there is nothing that is going to make me happy. Except my 11-year-old daughter, who always makes me happy.” What has surprised you most about being a parent? Has having a daughter changed or deepened your understanding of women?
AS: Being a father is the only thing that lives up to the hype. Whether we’re doing homework, eating breakfast, playing Starburst hockey — just trust me — kicking around a soccer ball or anything else, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. As for understanding women, I go on the assumption that not all women are the same. I gave up trying to understand the women in my life a long time ago, and now I just try to please them. Much better results.
When asked about the Steve Jobs biopic you will soon write, you ruminated on the theme a bit and then said, “Now all I have to do is turn that into three acts with an intention, obstacle, exposition, inciting action, reversal, climax and denouement, and make it funny and emotional, and I’ll be in business.” Is your writing process more an adherence to structure or an innate, streaming sense of drama?
AS: I have to cling to the rules of drama — intention and obstacle. Somebody has to want something, and something has to be standing in the way of their getting it. If I don’t have that nailed down, I’ll be fingerpainting.
Aside from obvious things like wealth and that Oscar, in terms of your own self-understanding, what’s been the best benefit of success?
AS: With all respect to Lou Gehrig, I’m the luckiest man in the world. Aside from getting to be my daughter’s father, I get to earn a living doing exactly what I love doing. That’s winning the jackpot.
If you were ever to take a break from the Hollywood grind, how would you spend your time?
AS: Beating up fifth-grade boys who are checking out my kid.
July 5, 2012 | 11:59 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Call it romantic idealism or shallow egoism but most women adore PDA.
A beautiful bouquet sent from a lover is nice, but receiving it at work to the oohs and ahhs of others is better, as if to say, ‘Look how she’s adored.’ A quiet candlelit proposal is surely sweet and intimate, but a dazzling display at a city landmark is grand and cinematic. It bespeaks pride. Even the jewelry a man gives a woman is seen less as a statement of his wealth than how he values his love, as if it says, ‘Look how much I think she’s worth.’
So it seemed promising when Tom Cruise lavishly love-jumped on Oprah’s couch declaring his feelings for Katie Holmes. He had no qualms that people would know, that they would judge, that his private affairs should even remain private. He was bursting and besotted.
“Something’s happened to you!” Oprah shouted with a mix of curiosity and amazement. “Something’s happened to you!”
Who was this gushing goof formerly known as Tom Cruise?
“I’m in love,” he proclaimed, throwing his hands in the air.
“I have to say to you,” Oprah added, admitting her befuddlement. “I’ve known you for a a while and you are such an intensely, I mean intensely, intensely! intensely! private person. And then, now you are just out everywhere kissin’ and a huggin’....I thought, ‘What has happened to you???’”
Cruise threw his arms up again in a triumphant pose, gesticulating up and down, falling to his knees, posing like Adonis, banging on the floor and vociferously nodding (which is what I imagine he might do if he ever won an Oscar). More than “in love” he seemed downright possessed.
“We’ve never seen you behave this way before!” an astonished Oprah said, still not quite believing her eyes. “Have you ever felt this way before?”
Again Cruise jumped on the couch, then, oddly, began wrestling Oprah down while she crowed and cackled.
“You are gone,” she told him. “You are gone.”
“I’m gone and I don’t care,” Cruise rejoined.
Five years and a pending divorce later, the stunt seems shallow. What were we to make of such a public outpouring? Simply that they were madly in love, going to marry in a castle and live happily ever after? That we should affectionately call them “TomKat” since we knew them so well? After all, since their courtship began before our very eyes didn’t we have a right to share in the progress of their story?
But all that glutinous display, though exciting and flattering, inciting jealousy among couples who do not so publicly adore one another, was for naught. Extravagant public displays, Tom Cruise has so generously taught, are meaningless. Remember Bennifer (the one-name moniker ascribed to Ben Afflect and JLo)? Their romance delivered fur, cars, the sexy “Jenny From The Block” music video and a $1 million engagement ring. But it too ended, short of all the romantic promise implied by their public struttings.
The disappointing ends of these Hollywood romances will probably not deflect continued public admiration of them. But they do add a dose of disillusionment. Glamorous though they are, adoring fans would do well to remember that real relationships happen in private. Any love story worth its salt depends on a zone of intimacy between two people to which the public, family or friends, have no access. Foisting adulation and attention on the romantic lives of others is a pleasant distraction when we need it, but much of what we imagine is our own elaborate fantasy and not the reality of the people in receipt of our projection.
Of course, real love is hard to hide. It is magical and powerful and beautiful. But it doesn’t need to be stated; it is seen.