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Posted by Danielle Berrin
The camera opens on a frazzled Philip Roth.
He is futzing with the horseshoe of hair he has left, rubbing his face and furrowing his unruly brow as a look of supreme unease settles over his face. For a man who recently announced his retirement, he seems a bit stressed. And for a writer who has spent the better part of his life projecting outward, Roth, at first, squirms under the scrutiny of the camera’s gaze.
“In the coming years I have two great calamities to face,” he announces at the beginning of the documentary “Philip Roth: Unmasked” for the PBS “American Masters” series that will air on March 29. “Death and a biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”
From the outset of his denouement, the newly minted octogenarian — Roth turned 80 on March 19 — has been in the news a lot lately. In November, he told a New York Times reporter, “The struggle with writing is over,” which sent shockwaves through the literary world and effectively commenced his retirement. And over the past few weeks, he made headlines yet again for the many birthday celebrations being held in his honor — in Newark, where he grew up, and New York, where he resides part time, there has been a literary conference, a museum toast, hometown bus tours and even a photography exhibit devoted to his life and oeuvre. Now comes the documentary, also timed to his birthday, which features a chatty and reflective Roth looking back on a life lived through words.
In it, he is as candid, open and charming as ever. Quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Roth observes the truth of his life: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
It follows then that Roth’s most faithful relationship has been to his work. Other than two brief and really disastrous marriages, he has remained at-least-legally unattached and has never fathered children. In 1983, he told People magazine: “I can’t talk casually about home and family, about good marriages and bad marriages and the relationship between men and women and children and parents. I’ve devoted a life to writing about these things. These are my subjects. I’ve spent years trying to get it right in fiction.”
As many presume is the case with his novels, Roth appears in the film as both narrator and narrative. He is entirely in his element as he recounts tales from his childhood and career trajectory for Italian journalist and French director Livia Manera, and expounds on his foremost passions and preoccupations, which, over eight decades, haven’t changed much: reading, writing, Jewishness and sex continue to ensorcell him. “God, I’m fond of adultery,” Roth says at one point, during a discussion of his 1995 book “Sabbath’s Theater” (his personal favorite). “Aren’t you?”
The author of 31 books, among them at least a dozen bestsellers, is also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, to name a few. But among writers of contemporary fiction, perhaps no one is more closely associated (or confused) with his characters as much as Roth. “People have always assumed his characters are him,” writer Nicole Krauss observes in the film.
And Roth offers some delicious and illustrative anecdotes: In 1969, with the release of his career-making “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth recalls, “Everything people perceived in Portnoy, they then perceived in me.” One day as he walked near his home, a man shouted at him from across the street: “Philip Roth: Enemy of the Jews!”
Roth admits his own life has served as fodder for his fiction, but he prefers to think of this journalistic element as “invent[ing] off of something.” He was influenced in this by another American (Jewish) writer, the incomparable Saul Bellow, who he says, inadvertently gave him permission to draw from his own experience. After reading “The Adventures of Augie March” as a college student, Roth felt free to plumb the depths of his background.
But it wasn’t exactly an exercise in memoir: “I’d have to fight my way to the freedom of drawing upon what I knew,” Roth says. “Life isn’t good enough in some ways. If it was just a matter of putting things down that happened to you, or happened to your friend or happened to your wife, you wouldn’t be a novelist.”
But balancing between truth and fiction can be tricky. He isn’t fond of being called an American Jewish writer, for instance. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American,” he says. But that may be a defensive position taken after enduring years of public criticism. From the time “Defender of the Faith,” his first short story was published for The New Yorker, readers held Roth responsible for popularizing Jewish archetypes. “It caused a furor,” Roth remembers of the 1959 publication, “I was being assailed as an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. I didn’t even know what it meant.”
Even author Jonathan Franzen admits he had a “moralistic response” when he first read Roth. He thought, “Oh, you bad person, Philip Roth,” though he added, “I eventually came to feel as if that was coming out of envy. I wish I could be as liberated … as Roth is. Here’s a person who’s decided he does not care what the world thinks of him. He is not shame-able.”
The widespread perception of the wanton sexuality associated with many of Roth’s novels is a source of some frustration for the author, who spends some time on camera defending specific characters who have been charged with being “sex obsessed.”
“In nine books,” Roth begins, outlining the plot of each one, “there is virtually no sexual experience.” And yet, the characters, he says, “are described repeatedly as sex-obsessed. Well, that’s because Roth is.”
In matters of sexual appetite, at least, his art imitates his life. To that end, he recounted his favorite line from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which comes during a scene when the character Leopold Bloom walks to the waterfront to watch a girl and masturbate. “Joyce tells you what’s going on, but you don’t get it — until the next paragraph, Joyce goes: ‘At it again.’ I loved it. I think it should be on my tombstone.”
As Roth wrote in the 2001 novella, “The Dying Animal,” “Sex is all the enchantment required.”
Roth’s candid and sometimes contradictory take on himself, is given added context by friends and colleagues, from fellow writers like Franzen and Krauss to actress Mia Farrow. But the most intelligent and insightful comments come from his biographer, New Yorker critic Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), whose book “Roth Unbound” will be published in November.
It was Kafka, she points out, who said, “We should read only those books that bite and sting us,” adding that, for her, Roth is that perfect dose of painful pleasure. “If the book you’re reading does not rouse you with a blow to the head, then why read it? I think that Roth writes books that are meant to rouse you with a blow to the head.”
Roth’s pugnacious prose, however, is fueled by a rather ordinary and peaceful private life. He splits his time between New York City and a country home in Connecticut, where, when he is writing, he writes “every day,” standing up, with “lots of quiet … lots of hours … lots of regularity.” At night, surrounded by his books, the faint silhouette of trees swaying still visible through darkened windows, he likes to read for several hours and listen to music. Once or twice the camera intrudes upon him as he listens to opera or Mahler’s Third Symphony and listens intently, with his whole body, much the way he reads. And it is sheer delight when the camera invites us to watch and listen as Roth reads passages throughout from some of his best-loved works, adding new volume to the voice on the page.
His quieter moments are more frequent now, as Roth confronts his mortality. He says he is afraid of death, but not enraged by its coming. What is hard is that he suffers from chronic back pain, and, like other great writers before him — Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi — he admits he has contemplated suicide. “Writing turns out to be a dangerous job,” he says. But, “I don’t want to join them.”
Before he dies, though, he plans to reread the authors he admired growing up, among them Conrad, Hemingway, Faulkner and Kafka. And while he swears he’s through with writing himself, hardly any of his friends — or fans — believe him.
Near the end of the film he tells of a recent walk he took near his Connecticut home when he happened upon a wooden sign in a tree that said: “BRING BACK PORTNOY.”
“It was wonderful, hilarious moment,” Roth recalls. “I actually thought about it for rest of walk: Why don’t I do that?”
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February 23, 2013 | 10:28 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When did Michael Moore anoint himself the broker of Middle East peace?
I wondered this as I sat in the audience during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Oscar Celebrates Docs” night on Feb. 20, as an evening that began with laudatory reverence for “nonfiction cinema” devolved into Israel-Palestine couples therapy with Moore as shrink.
It would not surprise anyone that knows of Mr. Moore to learn that he was hardly impartial. A real couple would have divorced.
Among the five documentaries nominated -- including “The Invisible War” about rape in the military, “How To Survive a Plague” about the AIDS crisis and “Searching for Sugarman” about a musician resurrected from obscurity -- Moore mostly wanted to talk about the two indictments of Israel.
“The Gatekeepers” which features a compilation of interviews with former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency has been called “a damning censure of Israel's occupation of the West Bank,” as my former colleague Amy Klein described it in the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Maybe so, but it is nonetheless eye-opening and brutally honest and does not deserve censure for being censorious.
“5 Broken Cameras” is one Palestinian man’s account of life in the West Bank village Bil’in where he has both witnessed and experienced horrors at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Emad Burnat, who is both the subject and the chronicler of this film would pass his footage “over the wall” to his Israeli collaborator, Guy Davidi, for editing.
Neither paints a pretty portrait of Israel, because, like every other country or nation-state in the history of the world, it is flawed. But collapsed into the space of one evening with only these two films as reference points, any talk of the Israeli Palestinian conflict becomes sorely misguided. And disturbingly lacking in context.
But for Mr. Moore it was an opportunity to congratulate the Israeli filmmakers for being so very, very “brave” in daring to portray their country in its realness, and accept complicity in its crimes. “This has been a painful process,” Davidi, the co-director of “Cameras” said of receiving the nomination. “The image you get of having an [Oscar] nomination, you think it will be a moment of joy, but moments of joy and moments of destruction are all tied up.”
Moore was also inclined to grant “Cameras’” Emad Burnat, who was unceremoniously detained at Los Angeles International Airport the evening prior, a soapbox with which to vent his prolix grievances about Israeli occupation: “For me to go through this,” he began about his LAX ordeal, “they stop me for questions [and] this moment reminds me of where I live, where I come from. I live under occupation. I live under Israeli control. For me it’s become a normal life.”
Moore referred to a scene in the film where an “Israeli soldier purposely shoots a Palestinian civilian.” “What makes this film so powerful,” he added, “is that it shows non-violent resistance is the way to do this. And I think that’s what [the Israeli government] is so scared of -- because non-violence will work.” He suggested that “the day 5,000 or 10,000 Palestinians sit in the road and don’t get up” might just do the trick.
Moore’s strutting, stunning lack of sense about the depth and scope of this conflict was discomfiting to watch. If one didn’t know better, it was as if the troubles between a powerful Israel and a powerless Palestine began with the 2010 Gaza Flotilla raid. “I think if every American watched these two movies, there’d be a sea change,” Moore naively suggested. “That’s what makes [these films] so dangerous.”
That’s it! If only Americans would watch two documentaries, the ancient conflict over the Holy Land would be resolved. Moore’s calls for peace now were absurdly oblivious to the travails of history -- God forbid he ask Burnat what he felt when PLO President Yasser Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of 95% of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip during the Camp David Summit in 2000, for instance, or of any of the other numerous occasions when Israel was indeed ready to End The Occupation but came up against Palestinian intransigence.
Moore would do well to learn more about that for which he so vociferously advocates. But the sort of nuances that history requires would hardly serve the Hollywood penchant for clear-cut villains and vagabonds.
February 19, 2013 | 7:04 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The year is 2063. In a Los Angeles classroom, a group of history students awaits the day’s lesson on the Civil War period. The teacher announces that instead of reading from a textbook, the class will watch the movie “Lincoln,” by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. The lights dim, a calm descends and a 13-inch transparent, retractable screen emerges from each student’s desk. With one touch, the ancient myth of a president who lived two centuries prior comes streaming to vivid life.
Over in an adjacent, upper-school building, 10th-graders are studying the more recent history of the United States’ War on Terror. The teacher announces that to supplement their reading of “The 9/11 Commission Report,” they are going to watch the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it? What sense might the students get of the time in which these films were set, or of when they were made? What social or political values will they glean from those narratives? In choosing to show “Lincoln,” certainly the first history teacher had more in mind than a basic lesson on the voting records of a 19th century Congress. Surely Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who, way back in 2013, called on Spielberg to correct an error that put his state on the wrong side of the slavery vote, would agree with that. Well, one can only hope.
Although opinions will inevitably vary as to the historical value of these films — or any film, for that matter — there is little doubt that the popularity of Hollywood movies can leave an indelible imprint on our understanding of history. It is probably already true that more Americans have seen Spielberg’s fictionalized “Lincoln” than read the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography upon which it is based. If this indicates the impoverishment of our culture, it is still a truth. But it is the “truth” in fiction that has prompted a wave of persnickety bickering around many of this year’s Oscar contenders. It’s an anxiety that is no doubt tied to the power of the historical film.
During a year in which the only shared theme among Oscar contenders is a concern with the attributes of history — both distant and contemporary, and the individuals (“Lincoln”), events (“Argo”), settings (“Django Unchained”) and issues of our time (“Zero Dark Thirty”) — parsing how Hollywood marks the historical record seems a worthy exercise. Over the past few months, an Oscar-campaign drama has played out among filmmakers and politicians, artists and philosophers over the historical value of this season’s spate of movies. Public consternation has focused on an almost neurotic obsession with factual accuracy, which, at least for some, seems like the silliest debate.
“Using movies to learn your history is a disastrous course,” New Republic film critic and historian David Thomson told me during an interview. “But we’ve all done it.”
Historian Robert Rosenstone has called learning history from movies a sign of a “postliterate” age, a time when “people can read, but won’t.” In an essay for Harvard University Press published in 1995, Rosenstone explained why historians distrust the historical film: “Films are inaccurate,” he wrote. “They distort the past. They fictionalize, trivialize, and romanticize people, events, and movements. They falsify history.”
But academics’ discomfort with Hollywood’s hold on the popular imagination likely stems from anxiety about their own lack of control. Who are the real custodians and transmitters of history? In our time, that privilege seems to rest with the greatest storytellers, the ones who can hold our spirits captive through the sheer power of their gifts. This is as true of Hollywood writers and directors as it is of a biographer like Robert Caro, whose much-lauded biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson provide both a fount of data and an abundance of drama. The problem with Hollywood, of course, is that it is bound by a different set of formal and practical constraints than written history.
For one, “they’re there to make entertainment; they’re there to make money,” Thomson said. “And most of the time, they will use what they think are the facts and turn them into the best dramatic advantage they can think of.”
When Courtney accused playwright and “Lincoln” scribe Tony Kushner of botching Connecticut’s voting record on the 13th Amendment, Kushner took to the Wall Street Journal to admit his error but defend his decision. “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote,” Kushner explained. “The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.”
Kushner went on to justify his position by revealing his personal writing criteria, one that distinguishes between history and historical drama.
“Here’s my rule,” Kushner wrote. “Ask yourself, ‘Did this thing happen?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s historical. Then ask, ‘Did this thing happen precisely this way?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s history; if the answer is no, not precisely this way, then it’s historical drama.”
That facts often get kicked to the curb for the sake of a sexier story was best expressed in John Ford’s 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In one of its final scenes, a newspaper publisher and editor famously insists, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” An apt mantra for Hollywood, it suggests a discomfiting reality: that the public has a larger appetite for myth and fantasy than for truth. Truth, after all, is stranger than fiction — and proof that even a false version of events can gain ready acceptance.
It is somewhat peculiar, though, to say nothing of a minor hypocrisy, that the same artists who so easily enjoy the stature a historical movie affords will not hesitate to cherry-pick history. As Patrick Goldstein, former entertainment columnist for the Los Angeles Times put it to me: “The same filmmakers who will go to such exquisite lengths to have the costumes correct, the production design accurate, the cars and clothes and everything else historically perfect, when it comes to story, they go ‘Oh, well, I had to condense it because the Connecticut lawmakers didn’t fit the story.’ ”
Filmmakers try to have it both ways, Goldstein complained. They want the credibility of facts and the license for legend. “They do all this enormous research to make sure that the movie is accurate, then they go ahead and say, ‘Oh yeah, but’ when somebody calls them on it. That’s when I part company. Lots of filmmakers tell great stories and use history as a launching pad the same way Philip Roth does in his novels, but Roth would never dream of saying, ‘My novels would stand up to any historian’s criticisms.’ He’s a novelist.”
This year, criticism has been lobbed primarily at “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both of which are proudly presented historical movies. It was only after public discussion began that they sought to cover their tracks with caveats. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens with a long, unsparing torture scene, the implication is that torture played a role in intelligence gathering during the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Whether or not this is really true (the veracity of this claim is still being debated among members of the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, senior White House officials and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta), the filmmakers have coolly demurred from confirming the film’s basic premise. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge,” director Kathryn Bigelow told the New Yorker last December. “I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.”
“That’s absolute nonsense,” Thomson told me. “They want to use torture in the film for its dramatic values and, equally, they want to sit on the fence and say, ‘Well, no, no, no; we weren’t saying that the CIA really used torture — it’s all fabricated.’ ”
According to Rosenstone, a California Institute of Technology emeritus history professor, a historical film must present a moral argument. In crafting a history-based narrative, “You’re faced with an infinity of details, and at some point you have to cut them off and say these are the ones that I think are important. Well, how are you making that choice? You’re making a choice to give a certain set of political, philosophical and moral beliefs about what’s important.”
Even the most rigorously researched histories are vulnerable to dispute. “All history is debatable, the books as well,” he told me. “You have to choose. And filmmakers have to do the same thing.”
“Argo,” a story of the rescue of American hostages during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has suffered far fewer indictments over its reliability than “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark.” “It was an entertainment from the minute it started to the minute it ended,” Goldstein said. “There was nothing about the tone or style of filmmaking that led me to believe it was a serious historical tract. It allowed me as a viewer to say ‘I’m on a ride.’ ”
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in “Argo.” Photo by Claire Folger/© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
But where its history is concerned, “Argo” has been bolstered by a vigorous speaking campaign undertaken by retired CIA operative Tony Mendez, the inspiration for the character played by Ben Affleck, which has provided the film with a certain authenticity (and likely added to its acclaim). At the same time, critics and historians agree that there can be a distinction between factual accuracy and truth: Take “Argo’s” climactic, final airport scene. As the hostages make their escape, they encounter a series of hair-raising attempts to thwart their passage, which climaxes with a heart-pounding chase sequence as their plane is pursued down the runway — none of which actually occurred.
“The end is apparently completely preposterous,” Goldstein said. Yet the dramatic tension of the final scenes serve a deeper truth: that a daring agent with a dumb plan actually did rescue six American hostages from behind enemy lines.
Even the most devoted historians acknowledge that history concerns more than the accumulation of data. “The accuracy, the individual details and facts of history are not what history is about,” Rosenstone said. “One of the greatest works of history, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ ” — the 18th century work by English historian Edward Gibbon — “is riddled with errors. The issue we should be talking about is the overall portrait these films give of a period, even though particular details may be wrong.” “Lincoln,” then, finds historical value in its “fascinating portrait of political maneuvering; and how, behind our idealistic visions [of democracy] also lies this system that we have to work through.”
The application of “Lincoln’s” themes to our present experience bespeaks the notion that all film is essentially a time capsule. As Thomson put it, “If you want to know what 1939 felt like, the movies of 1939 are valuable.” The “history” films of our day may tell us more about the time in which they were made than the time they seek to explore.
“In a general sense, it is always true that history serves the present,” Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman said during an interview. “The historian is choosing and arranging and interpreting from the perspective of the time in which [their work is] written. ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Django,’ to a degree, are movies that clearly come out of Obama’s first term, and that’s how they’ll be seen ultimately; as certain things which came to the fore during Obama’s presidency that the American people had to chew on — issues of race and the history of race as well as presidential power and greatness are sort of rehearsed in these movies.
“Our Lincoln” – the one played by Daniel Day-Lewis — Hoberman added, “is not the same Lincoln of 1940, when [Raymond Massey] played him.”
Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Photo by Jonathan Olley/©2012 Zero Dark Thirty
Retelling the most contemporary history, however, may be laden with the most challenges. “Zero Dark Thirty” relays a sequence of events so eerily recent and familiar that the film itself seems to function as a quasi-documentary. For most audiences, the film conveys an amount of reported detail that for most Americans was previously unknown. The writer, Boal, who is also a journalist, has said countless times that his telling is based on real reporting. “I think he thought this movie would be kind of a scoop,” Hoberman said.
But the public was deeply disturbed by the revelation of its contents. “Sometimes filmmakers raise what we call an uncomfortable truth,” Hoberman said. The film’s disclosures and its implications struck raw nerves and open wounds. Osama Bin Laden’s death is too recent for the critical distance that understanding his place in history requires. And the confrontation with our country’s use of torture is still unfolding. “Zero Dark Thirty” has helped uncloak dark chapters in our nation’s history, but the response to it suggests that history is better understood when it’s over.
The problem with historical movies is the problem with all histories: They are approximations, interpretations or imaginings of what happened. “Even professional historians, when they come to write, begin to do the things that movies do,” Thomson said. “Not as crudely, but you select and present; you tell a story.”
If written history is considered more reliable, explained Gary Gutting, endowed chair of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, it is because it presents “the reasoning behind things, the evidence for it, how certain positions are established.” It provides footnotes, arguments and counter-arguments. It presents facts as evidence for certain historical conclusions. “A movie has the problem of its very vividness; it’s always going to be presenting more than we can possibly know.”
Movies can at best probe elements of history and evoke them with the tools of its trade: color, character, scene, drama, emotion.
“When you’re writing about history you have to consider what the audience already knows and then use that to your advantage,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin explained of his craft. Sorkin has won much acclaim for his highly detailed renderings of “real” life — from the White House television drama “The West Wing” to his Oscar-winning portrayal of the creation of Facebook with “The Social Network” to his latest study on modern media with HBO’s “Newsroom.” Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about translating reality into fiction without compromising verisimilitude. “It can be exhilarating when the audience knows more than the characters do. In ‘All the President’s Men,’ Robert Redford is woken up by a call to go cover a petty burglary. We know his life and the country are about to change forever. We also know how it ends. The movie is going to live in the places where the things we know meet the things we didn’t.
“Tony Kushner had to make Abraham Lincoln talk,” Sorkin added admiringly. “He humanized a guy most of us only know from the penny.”
Feature films, in the end, are about the magic of invention. Realistic, but constrained by the need to entertain and the impulse to inspire. Sorkin, for one, often describes his work as “idealistic,” and history is anything but. But he is right that movies are better understood as dreams and fantasies, illusions and ideals, mysteries and beliefs. As Hoberman exquisitely put it: “I don’t think that there can be absolute history. When you have a dream, you create a narrative when you remember it.”
Like the Bible, movies are not diminished if devoid of literalism. On the contrary, their stories gain relevance and meaning through the prism of interpretation.
“I think we owe it to those whose stories we tell to be as accurate as possible,” the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis wrote to me in an e-mail. “[But] we are dramatists, not documentarians. We shape the truth not only in what we write, but what we don’t. We need to tell the truth as we see it, through our characters’ eyes. And if we do our job well, we will reveal the truth of our subject and characters, even if those truths are uncomfortable, and perhaps not what our subjects would have liked to have seen, should they be sitting in the audience.”
January 30, 2013 | 4:23 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Anyone just tuning in to the sensation created by Aaron Swartz’s death might easily think he’s the Internet’s Joan of Arc.
Last month, the 26-year-old prodigy programmer, activist and blogger hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was a “wizardly” figure, according to The New York Times, a Stanford dropout and a Harvard University fellow, lauded foremost for his creation of the RSS feed, a Web syndication program that allows Internet users to subscribe to information.
Swartz’s passion and purpose was that everyone should have access to information and ideas — without having to pay for them. To that end, he once hid out in an M.I.T. utility closet, broke into the school’s computer network and downloaded millions of files from JSTOR, a nonprofit organization that sells subscriptions to scientific and literary journals. His act was born of principle, but nevertheless illegal: He was indicted on federal charges of wire fraud and computer fraud, which carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
But Swartz’s stunt also provoked a big question that continues to resonate: Is knowledge a right or a privilege?
Story continues after the jump.
Since his suicide on Jan. 11, the Internet has erupted with outrage. Scores of passionate eulogies have portrayed Swartz as a gallant hero, some of which is justified: The world has lost “a prodigal mind,” “a brilliant programmer” and “a passionate advocate for social justice.” But much of it also seems misguided: “Why Did the Justice System Target Aaron Swartz?” read a headline in Rolling Stone. According to that article, Swartz’s friends and family believe he was “driven to his death” by an unfair lawsuit and an uncompromising prosecutor.
“How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz — And Us,” echoed The New Yorker, whose writer Tim Wu went so far as to implicate the whole of American society in Swartz’s death: “We can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses — and by that measure, we have utterly failed,” he wrote.
What we have failed at, rather, is distinguishing between deviance and sedition. Like Julian Assange, Swartz was a steward of the free-information movement, a group of technology activists with anarchist ideas and methods who sought to make Web content freely available — copyrights be damned. Swartz even founded the online advocacy group Demand Progress, which led the charge against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a Hollywood-backed bill that would have restricted access to copyrighted content. This endeared him to the digital generation but made him a bane of Hollywood.
“I don’t understand it at all,” one industry heavyweight told me. “When has a suicide ever been attributed to anything other than a mental or emotional instability? The government prosecutes people all the time who don’t kill themselves — the Hollywood 10, to name one example. Or 10 examples.”
Unlike James Dean, Swartz was a rebel with a cause. He was no idling, addlepated teenager suffering from listlessness and moral confusion; he was a deeply engaged dissident with apparently few qualms about breaking the law. A victim of his own ideology, he is more mascot than martyr. A sweet-faced youth icon for a shadowy movement.
The looming criminal case may have cast a dark shadow over a delicate soul that suffered from serious depression. But was the government being too callous in mounting a case against him? Or are Swartz’s followers, aggrieved and naïve, unwilling to acknowledge that political dissent has its price?
Information activists should read up. Literature is filled with myths and tales about the dangers of pursuing knowledge. It melted Icarus’ wings. It drove Adam and Eve from Eden. It is no accident that the very first story in the Bible teaches that the human pursuit of knowledge is answered with punishment.
“For in much wisdom is much grief,” Ecclesiastes tells us. “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
What Swartz knew, and which, perhaps, his supporters do not, is that knowledge is painful and consequential. The biblical Tree of Knowledge is referred to as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is no neutral knowledge; it always leads somewhere. Ignorance is the only true bliss.
In Swartz’s legacy is a tragic but powerful lesson. He loved knowledge; he sought knowledge; he suffered from knowledge. It is an unfortunate truth that the more you know, the more truth you seek, the more the world becomes strange in its lack. Swartz sought to fill that void with more and more information, more access. The government, with its mandate to protect, manages the unknown with laws of control.
Law and philosophy came into conflict within Swartz’s soul, and he suffered terribly. “Everything gets colored by the sadness,” he wrote in a blog post about his battle with depression. “At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But...[y]ou feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.”
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once taught that when faced with the choice between the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve chose wisdom over immortality.
In his way, Swartz made the same choice. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.
January 10, 2013 | 8:33 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," a film about the passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, garnered the most Academy Award nominations of any film this year, including Best Picture as well as nods in three major acting categories, achievement in directing for Spielberg and best adapted screenplay for playwright Tony Kushner.
Upsets this year centered mainly in the directing category, with "Zero Dark Thirty" director Kathryn Bigelow, "Django Unchained's" Quentin Tarantino and "Argo's" Ben Affleck notably left out.
But don't shed too many tears for the jilted directors: "Zero Dark" and "Argo" still scored Best Picture nods and Tarantino was nominated in the original screenplay category for his "Django" script (all three films, in fact, scored writing nods).
Also worth noting is love for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the little film that could about a 6-year-old girl and her father as they struggle to survive in the storm-riddled, under-developed Louisiana bayou. Benh Zeitlin, the film's 30-year-old director and co-writer seems to be at the beginning of a promising career, as does his star, the 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who this morning became the youngest actress ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
In the documentary category, "The Invisible War," a searing investigation into the US military's epidemic of sexual assault, received a well-deserved nomination. Producer Amy Ziering is a Los Angeles native.
In an interview last year, she told The Jewish Journal that, as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she has particular empathy for victims of violence. “I think my father’s Holocaust background has always made me acutely interested in, and sensitive to, trauma and second-degree trauma, and working through trauma, and what all that means, so that has been an influence on my life and my preoccupations in work," she said.
The film "5 Broken Cameras," a Palestinian-Israeli co-production, continues to win acclaim. Co-directed by Palestian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, it is an unflinching portrait of life in the West Bank village Bilin shot entirely from the perspective of a Palestinian farmer (Burnat) who lives there.
So far, "Lincoln" looks to be the favorite on Oscar night with its easy moral and contemporary political currency. The film's focus on the politics involved in the passage of a bill -- to say nothing of that bill's definitional significance in enforcing the ultimate American value -- has given a distant period piece added cultural relevance.
Will this year reward the story of a small triumph or a large one?
Tune in to the 85th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24 on ABC to find out...
Full Nominations List:
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln"
Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables"
Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"
Denzel Washington in "Flight"
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Alan Arkin in "Argo"
Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"
Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour"
Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts in "The Impossible"
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams in "The Master"
Sally Field in "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway in "Les Misérables"
Helen Hunt in "The Sessions"
Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best animated feature film of the year
"Brave" Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
"Frankenweenie" Tim Burton
"ParaNorman" Sam Fell and Chris Butler
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" Peter Lord
"Wreck-It Ralph" Rich Moore
Achievement in cinematography
"Anna Karenina" Seamus McGarvey
"Django Unchained" Robert Richardson
"Life of Pi" Claudio Miranda
"Lincoln" Janusz Kaminski
"Skyfall" Roger Deakins
"Argo" Screenplay by Chris Terrio
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" Screenplay by David Magee
"Lincoln" Screenplay by Tony Kushner
"Silver Linings Playbook" Screenplay by David O. Russell
"Amour" Written by Michael Haneke
"Django Unchained" Written by Quentin Tarantino
"Flight" Written by John Gatins
"Moonrise Kingdom" Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
"Zero Dark Thirty" Written by Mark Boal
Achievement in directing
"Amour" Michael Haneke
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" Ang Lee
"Lincoln" Steven Spielberg
"Silver Linings Playbook" David O. Russell
Best motion picture of the year
"Amour" Nominees to be determined
"Argo" Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, Producers
"Django Unchained" Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers
"Les Misérables" Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh, Producers
"Life of Pi" Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark, Producers
"Lincoln" Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
"Silver Linings Playbook" Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison, Producers
Achievement in costume design
"Anna Karenina" Jacqueline Durran
"Les Misérables" Paco Delgado
"Lincoln" Joanna Johnston
"Mirror Mirror" Eiko Ishioka
"Snow White and the Huntsman" Colleen Atwood
Best documentary feature
"5 Broken Cameras"
Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Nominees to be determined
"How to Survive a Plague"
Nominees to be determined
"The Invisible War"
Nominees to be determined
"Searching for Sugar Man"
Nominees to be determined
Best documentary short subject
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider
"Mondays at Racine"
Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan
Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill
Achievement in film editing
"Argo" William Goldenberg
"Life of Pi" Tim Squyres
"Lincoln" Michael Kahn
"Silver Linings Playbook" Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg
Best foreign language film of the year
"A Royal Affair" Denmark
"War Witch" Canada
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
"Anna Karenina" Dario Marianelli
"Argo" Alexandre Desplat
"Life of Pi" Mychael Danna
"Lincoln" John Williams
"Skyfall" Thomas Newman
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
"Before My Time" from "Chasing Ice"
Music and Lyric by J. Ralph
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from "Ted"
Music by Walter Murphy; Lyric by Seth MacFarlane
"Pi's Lullaby" from "Life of Pi"
Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri
"Skyfall" from "Skyfall"
Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
"Suddenly" from "Les Misérables"
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil
Achievement in production design
Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Production Design: Dan Hennah; Set Decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson
"Life of Pi"
Production Design: David Gropman; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson
Best animated short film
"Adam and Dog" Minkyu Lee
"Fresh Guacamole" PES
"Head over Heels" Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
"Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"" David Silverman
"Paperman" John Kahrs
Best live action short film
"Asad" Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
"Buzkashi Boys" Sam French and Ariel Nasr
"Curfew" Shawn Christensen
"Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)" Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
"Henry" Yan England
Achievement in sound editing
"Argo" Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn
"Django Unchained" Wylie Stateman
"Life of Pi" Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
"Skyfall" Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Paul N.J. Ottosson
Achievement in sound mixing
John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
"Life of Pi"
Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson
Achievement in visual effects
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
"Life of Pi"
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
"Marvel's The Avengers"
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
"Snow White and the Huntsman"
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson
January 9, 2013 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
So what if the Les Mis cast of characers are thoroughly Christian and utterly French -- there's still Torah to be found in Victor Hugo's epic tale of redemption, writes Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a liberal-minded Orthodox rabbi in West Los Angeles. "[A]lthough Jean Valjean’s fall and rise is a great Christian drama of grace and self-sacrifice, Jews can easily enough transpose it into a story of profound teshuva, repentance. The sort of teshuva that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described as 'redemptive,'" Kanefsky writes.
After tackling Hugo's epic novel and seeing its latest incarnation on screen, Kanefsky penned a lovely note on the Jewish lesson he encountered in the Christian tale, but alas, one that didn't make the Oscar-hopeful's final cut. He writes of a scene early in the story when a bishop treats Jean Valjean with incredible grace, allowing him to keep candlesticks he had stolen before being caught by the French police. Instead of prosecuting the desperate man, the bishop sends him on his way, telling him he is good and that his soul belongs to God. But moments later, Valjean finds himself torn between good and evil yet again, when a destitute child drops a coin and Valjean stomps upon the lucre, ignoring the child's pleas to have it back. Soon enough, remorse overwhelms him...
Jean Valjean searches frantically for the child, screaming his name like a wildman and asking every passer-by if they had seen him. But all this proves futile, and the child is nowhere to be found.
"…his legs suddenly gave way beneath him as if an invisible power had suddenly bowled him over with the weight of his guilty conscience. He dropped, exhausted, onto a big slab of rock, his hands balled into fists and buried in his hair, his head propped on his knees, And he cried, “I am a miserable bastard”.
He burst into tears. It was the first time he had cried in nineteen years."
And the story of course pivots right there. This is teshuva’s primal essence.
All of us have felt regret over particular deeds that we’ve done. But how often do we part the clouds and see that it’s not the deeds, but the doer that is twisted and corrupt. How often does our introspection and reflection bore through the layer of specific actions we wish we could retrieve, and touch the heart the matter, the person who we are?
January 3, 2013 | 1:34 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In retrospect it was a gross misnomer and an audacious assumption to call the Titanic “unsinkable.” But in theory, the notion that such a designation should apply to a water vessel is rather basic and logical, and can probably trace its origins to the biblical story of Noah.
When God promises to bring flood waters upon the earth so vanquishing they will “destroy all flesh under the sky,” he instructs Noah to build an ark to withstand it.
Said ark is made of gopher wood, various compartments, and according to God’s instruction, measures about 450 ft x 75 ft x 45 ft. It is completely enclosed, saved for “an opening for daylight” and in fact weathers the calamitous storm intended by God to reset life on earth.
For remarkable feats to occur in the Bible, though, is really unremarkable. It often seems the bible’s very purpose is to imbue the many miserable conditions of human life with a sense that the miraculous is possible. In reality, for anything to be as “unsinkable” as Noah’s Ark would require both superlative (or supernatural) design and the unintended (or preordained?) kindness of nature.
In no small feat of irony, a Hollywood film about Noah and his Ark had the right mix of the aforementioned blessings. The Darren Aronofsky-directed movie which stars Russell Crowe as Noah was filming on location in Oyster Bay, Long Island when Hurricane Sandy hit last November. The actress Emma Watson, who also stars in the film, then tweeted: “I take it that the irony of a massive storm holding up the production of Noah is not lost.”
According to the New Yorker, who reported from the set in late November, “Aronofsky’s ark stood fast against the winds of Hurricane Sandy, even as they ripped up more than three hundred trees from the surrounding arboretum."
Perhaps that’s because, as production designer Mark Friedberg explained to the magazine, the crew closely followed the biblical dictates. As the New Yorker’s Julian Sancton noted, the ark looked like a “gigantic windowless log cabin crudely slathered in pitch.”
“The Bible itself lays out the dimensions of what this thing is,” Friedberg told him.
Per Genesis, Friedberg built the ark with three levels: one each for birds, reptiles, and mammals. Insects will bunk with the reptiles. “At first there weren’t going to be insects, for budget reasons, Friedberg said, “but Darren decided, ‘We can’t not have insects.’” (Friedberg made cheap bugs out of Lucky Charms cereal, bulgur wheat, and coffee beans.) Instead of the Biblically prescribed gopher wood, which appears nowhere else in the Scriptures or in any botanical almanac, Friedberg’s team used pine and carved foam.
At a time when the ark could have been rendered digitally, Aronofsky’s insistence on a life-size set was equated as a “Herzogian extravagance,” but the filmmakers aspired to as much verisimilitude as possible. And also: artistry.
According to the article, the ark’s design is influenced by the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, who is not Jewish, but whose work is said to bear the influences of Jewish mysticism, the Old Testament and especially the German history of the Holocaust, among others.
Aronofsky, who is Jewish, has said that making this film is the realization of a lifelong dream. Last July, when he first laid eyes upon his modern-art-modern-ark, he tweeted: “I dreamt about this since I was 13. And now it's a reality. Genesis 6:14.”
December 6, 2012 | 10:15 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
When Stevie Wonder backed out of a planned appearance at a Dec. 6 gala to benefit the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), the reasons given for his decision were varied.
Many news articles focused on the thousands of signatures on a letter and online petitions urging Wonder not to appear at the event. As has been reported previously on this blog, the FIDF’s initial explanation for Wonder’s cancellation mentioned that some individuals associated with the United Nations had pushed Wonder, who was appointed a U.N. Messenger of Peace in December 2009, to drop out.
But in addition to these efforts, voices from within the African American community in Los Angeles and beyond also put significant pressure on Wonder to abandon his planned appearance.
“The first level, which has been popularized, is the petition campaigns,” said Dedon Kamathi, a producer of Freedom Now, a radio show about “pan-African political and cultural” subjects that airs weekly on KPFK. “I think that the real, within-the-family pressure came from a number of black community organizations.”
Kamathi, who first heard about Wonder’s planned appearance from Cynthia McKinney, a former U.S. Congresswoman from Atlanta, said that leaders within the black community told Wonder’s staff that if he didn’t drop the FIDF benefit appearance, they would picket in front of KJLH, the Los Angeles-based R&B and Gospel radio station owned by Wonder, as well as at Wonder’s annual House Full of Toys benefit concert, set to take place at the Nokia Theater in L.A. later this month.
“They said they would protest at KJLH because we take personal responsibility for people like Bob Marley, people like B.B. King, people like Stevie Wonder, people like Public Enemy,” Kamathi said, standing on the sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel on Thursday evening, about an hour before the FIDF gala was scheduled to start. “We gave them life, they live in our communities.”
For the approximately 130 protesters who gathered along with Kamathi outside the hotel in Century City on Thursday afternoon, the fact that Wonder would not be playing inside made the moment not just one for protest, but also for celebration.
“We are here to celebrate our brother Stevie Wonder for standing up on a principle, the principle that the Palestinians of today are the South Africans of yesterday,” said Shakeel Syed, a member of the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. “He had the courage and principle to defy the oppressors and defend the oppressed.”
Although the protesters were quick to claim Wonder as a fellow activist for their cause -- one man held a sign with Stevie Wonder’s face and the words, “Thank You!” painted on it – in a statement posted on the KJLH Web site, Wonder did not choose sides.
"Given the current and very delicate situation in the Middle East, and with a heart that has always cried out for world unity, I will not be performing at the FIDF Gala on December 6th,” Wonder said in the statement. “I am respectfully withdrawing my participation from this year's event to avoid the appearance of partiality. As a Messenger of Peace, I am and have always been against war, any war, anywhere. In consistently keeping with my spirit of giving, I will make a personal contribution to organizations that support Israeli and Palestinian children with disabilities.”
The protest started at 4:30, an hour and a half before the FIDF dinner was set to begin in the hotel’s ballroom. During a brief press conference, a number of speakers denounced Israel, the IDF, and the FIDF.
“I am here to admit that I was a member of the terrorist organization,” said Miko Peled, an Israeli activist on behalf of Palestinian rights, referring to his time in the IDF. “Yes, they have tanks, commanders and fancy fundraisers and this hotel, but it is no more than a brutal terrorist organization."
The son of an Israeli general, Peled, who lives in San Diego, has written a book about his becoming a pro-Palestinian activist. His own son, Eitan Peled, was at the protest as well, a Palestinian flag draped like a cape over his shoulders.
“I grew up with friends in Palestine before I knew I was supposed to be enemies with them,” the 18-year-old UCLA freshman said.
After a few speeches, the smaller-than-expected crowd waved Palestinian flags and conducted a candle-lit funereal march along the pavement, complete with a tiny flag-draped casket.
An online invitation for the protest on Facebook had garnered more than 1,000 positive RSVPs, and the Los Angeles Police Department had come ready for a crowd of that size. According to the commanding officer on the scene, Commander Dennis Kato, 60 officers had been mobilized from two different bureaus.
At about 5:40, around two dozen of those officers could be seen still standing by their cars at a remote staging location behind the hotel.
“Now that we’ve seen the crowd, we’ve released a number of units already,” Kato said just as the first of the cars of people arriving for the dinner began arriving on Thursday evening, around 5:45 p.m.
While the cars, most of them luxury imported European models, drove past, the protesters shouted slogans -- “Shame on you!” “Stop killing children!” “Israel is a Racist state!” – and waved their flags.
“These groups have been very cooperative, which makes it easier for all involved,” Kato said. “We don’t want to disrupt either side. It’s America, they get a chance to exercise their rights and say what they want to and we’ll let them have that opportunity as long as they abide by rules.”