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.
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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.”
November 29, 2012 | 5:10 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Earlier this week, I asked political commentator and comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" to weigh in on the outcome of the 2012 election and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is the uncut, uncensored interview in which he talks about America's number one political priority, the negative edification of the Bible and what his (Jewish) mother taught him about anti-Semitism.
Hollywood Jew: What was your big takeaway from the election this year?
Bill Maher: It’s the year Obama won. I was for that, so you know, I’m very happy about it. I’m more relieved than I even thought I would be.
HJ: Any lessons from a historic campaign that cost nearly $1.5 billion?
BM: After the election, Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that Romney lost because early money in the swing states defined him, and that’s the whole reason I made my contribution to the Obama PAC. That’s what the Democratic strategists thought, and it kinda worked, because those numbers really never budged throughout the whole campaign. The media went through hoops covering all the ups and downs but people just basically made up their minds pretty early.
HJ: What do you think will be the single most important issue facing the American people in the next decade?
BM: The environment. Because if we don’t fix that, there are no other issues.
HJ: What are your favored sources for news and commentary? Or what book or writer influenced you the most? I know it wasn’t the Bible.
BM: (laughs) Well, it could be -- in a negative sense. Actually I took a bible course in college. It’s funny, making the movie “Religulous,” what I found out is that people who are religious have no idea about their own religion. They are completely clueless; they do not know what’s in the Bible. You could quote them something and say it was from the Bible and they would nod their head. I think if they read the bible, especially the Old Testament, I think they would be appalled. If you just told them it was something else, if you just said, ‘Read this story,’ you know, about this God – let’s call him Spor -- and how he’s wiping these people out and ethnically cleaning them for no apparent reason, how he does things on a whim and how he’s jealous; They’d go, ‘This is terrible.’
HJ: It’s no secret you’re not a great admirer of religion. But I’ve seen your live stand-up show and it seemed to me the religion you poke fun of the least is Judaism. Why is that?
BM: We do poke fun of it quite a bit in “Religulous” but I mean it’s certainly not as dangerous as Islam and Christianity. Those are warlike religions. The Muslim world was conquered in a century. Mohammad died in 632; by 732, they were at the gates of France, they were in the Pyrenees. Jesus Christ, I mean, you don’t do that by handing out pamphlets and singing ‘Cumbaya.’ They conquered by the sword.
HJ: So, in your opinion, Judaism is not as bad because it’s not as violent?
BM: There’s a lot to be made fun of in any religion, and that includes Buddhism, by the way. A lot of my Hollywood friends think ‘Oh, Buddhism is a philosophy, it’s not a religion.’ It’s a religion because it includes crazy whack shit that doesn’t exist, that somebody made up, like reincarnation. OK. But I mean, Judaism, we had a lot of fun when we did “Religulous” [because] we went to the institute where they invent devices that allow people on the Sabbath who cannot use electricity to take an elevator or ride in a wheelchair.
HJ: The Shabbes Elevator
BM. The Shabbes Elevator. Stuff like that is just insane and it’s funny but it doesn’t really threaten anybody’s life. I did a joke in my act about, ‘I’d like to see Joe Lieberman as President because he doesn’t use electricity on Friday night and so if there’s a nuclear attack, he gets a Shabbes goy to launch our nuclear missiles.’
HJ: I know you’ve been to Israel and that you’re part Jewish. What’s your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How optimistic are you that they’ll find a two-state solution?
BM: I’m optimistic that it’ll get worked out in the same way I’m optimistic that Marijuana will be legal all across the country; perhaps not in my lifetime, but at some point. But I’ve never hid the fact that I don’t think it’s a conflict where both sides are equally guilty. I’m more on the side of the Israelis; that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu did my show a few years ago, before he was Prime Minister.
HJ: Why are you more on the side of Israelis?
BM: Take this conflict; here, everyone in the newspapers, the pundits, they talk about it like it’s very complicated. It’s not that complicated: Stop firing rockets into Israel and perhaps they won’t annihilate you. I mean, it’s so crazy when you look at these images on TV. Ok, they just had a little war. It lasted a week like most Israeli wars do; the Israelis lost a handful of people, shot down most of the rockets, and the neighborhoods in Gaza are devastated. They’re rubble. They lost over 1,000 people and yet somehow Palestinians are celebrating in the streets? I don’t get this celebrating when you just totally got your ass kicked.
HJ: The Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out that many in the media tend to point out the disproportionate casualty count between Israelis and Palestinians, and he wisely wondered if there is a moral difference between attempted murder and successful murder.
BM: It’s obvious that Israelis, in all of their battles with the Palestinians, show restraint. Because they have nuclear weapons. And if the situation was reversed, I don’t doubt for a second that Palestinians would fire them immediately. They’d use the maximum of what they have available and the Israelis don’t.
HJ: There was a big debate this week in the Jewish world that arose from a dispute between two rabbis about whether Judaism should be more universal and humane or more tribal and self interested. But it is widely felt that the Israeli army conducts itself with deep concern for the humanity of the people they are fighting.
BM: Let’s not forget the other side of this issue, which is, the Palestinians do have gripes, and most Israelis do not agree with the Netanyahu government on the settlement issue. [Israelis] want a two state solution. I don’t think anybody’s ever gonna be happy or the conflict will ever end before that happens and as many writers have pointed out, Israel faces the problem of becoming a minority Jewish state within their own country if they allow this to keep going. There has to be some solution. In a lot of ways, what we see in Israel is their government has been taken over by the equivalent of what would be the Tea Party in this country. If you talk to most people in Tel Aviv, I don’t think they’re for what the government is doing, but when it comes to self-defense -- Obama himself said the other day: There’s just not another country in the world that would allow missiles to be rained down on them without fighting back. What I find so ironic is that after World War II, everybody said, ‘I don’t understand the Jews. How could they have just gone to their slaughter like that?’ OK, and then when they fight back: ‘I don’t understand the Jews. Why can’t they just go to their slaughter?’ It’s like, ‘You know what? We did that once. It’s not gonna happen again. You’re just gonna have to get used to the fact that Jews now defend themselves -- and by the way, defend themselves better. I mean, this is a country, after all, that is surrounded by far greater numbers than their own [and] they are like two generations ahead in the military technology they have.
HJ: Considering the reality of an unstable Middle East, an Iranian nuclear threat, a stalled peace process and a civil war in Syria, what’s the best thing Israel can do to engender moral support from the international community?
BM: I think they’re over worrying about international goodwill. I hope they are, because it’s great to have but it doesn’t really feed the bulldog, you know? As my Jewish mother used to say, whenever there was a problem in the world, she would go, ‘Oh I know they’re gonna get around to blaming the Jews.’ [Laughs] And it’s kinda true. I mean, you know, it’s like somebody who’s always worrying whether everyone’s gonna like them -- Obama kinda had that problem in his first term -- but at a certain point you learn: You know what? A lot of people are not gonna like you no matter what you do, so just do what you’re gonna do. Just be yourself. And do what you think is right. And if they condemn you or hate you, that’s really kinda their problem.
September 27, 2012 | 2:28 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Can a Hollywood action hero save Washington politics?
That seems to be the aim of former California “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last week launched the new Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at USC with characteristic bravado.
“If you don’t have political courage,” the former governor swaggered during his opening remarks, “You have nothing. Meaningful change takes balls.”
He would know. As governor, the centrist Republican strong-armed a Democratic legislature in order to reduce the debt during one California budget crisis early in his tenure, and then topped it off by calling his opponents “girlie men.” Even so, he was much lauded for working both sides of the aisle.
Now, he just wants everybody to get along.
Decrying “poisonous partisanship” and politicians who are “party servants, not public servants,” the daylong symposium at the Sol Price School for Public Policy was a rallying cry to restore “civility” and “decency” to Washington. The Governator’s brand-new bag — which brings with it a new job and new title as professor — promises to “advance policy, not politics.”
It sounds soul soothing, especially in the midst of a dramatic election that The New Republic’s Walter Kirn has called a “cross-dimensional struggle” between constitutional opposites. Of Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, Kirn wrote, “One reason their rivalry may try our patience is that the candidates speak such different languages that they seem to be talking past each other, like separate halves of one lobotomized brain.”
Now, in steps the action star to save us from political apocalypse:
“Political courage is not political suicide,” Schwarzenegger declared, rattling off a list of his most courageous acts as governor, like building infrastructure and supporting stem-cell research when it was unpopular in Washington. “People risk their lives in war,” he said of the bravery of American troops. “Why would a politician not risk his office to make the right decision?”
What politicians need to do, he said, is put aside personal beliefs and ask, “What does the state need? How do we serve the people?” So it was a little awkward when, intending to assert his own selflessness and altruism, his best evidence was his former marriage, which ended with his admission of infidelity: “Remember, I was married to a Democrat for 25 years,” he said with dizzying unselfconsciousness.
Decency and politics can make a bitter cocktail. At the morning panel, which included mostly former congressional and state leaders who can now afford to make nice — including former Senate majority leader and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, former Democratic governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson and the first Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge — former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recalled how a 2009 hug with President Obama probably cost the former Republican his 2010 Senate race, so aggrieved were his GOP compatriots at his PDA with the enemy.
“The notion that some in my former party would so disdain an act of decency” really stunned him, Crist said. “We have to respect each other. We don’t have to agree.”
But all the talk of compromise and coming together eventually sounded ... like talk. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ominously warned that Congress couldn’t stand its 11 percent approval rating much longer without “something seismic happening.” Schwarzenegger promised to “bring [to Washington] the most dazzling ideas no matter the ideology behind it.”
Who is “right” in a face-off between values?
Enter Hollywood, a mysterious body whose political power is best described as something definite but inscrutable. During the afternoon panel on innovation with Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, Imagine Entertainment chairman Brian Grazer, Lionsgate co-chairman Rob Friedman and Interscope Geffen A&M chair Jimmy Iovine (James Cameron withdrew at the last minute because he was on a “creative roll” with his “Avatar 2” script), the conversation focused on Hollywood’s triumph in its own political battle — the culture wars.
“Anyone who’s covered politics knows the entertainment industry has this enormous power,” moderator and former Politico writer Ben Smith said, “but as a kind of dark matter.”
Yet, all one needs to do is turn toward the light of the projector or the television screen or the smartphone to see how Hollywood has, in some instances, moved the political pendulum in American culture. The panel agreed that it was Hollywood — or, more specifically, Grazer’s Fox series, “24”— that “got America used to the idea of a black president,” as well as classics like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” that brought interracial relationships to the fore, and shows like NBC’s “Will & Grace” and the Oscar-nominated “Brokeback Mountain” that helped to normalize homosexual love.
Hollywood has a history of promulgating progressive values not yet totally accepted by the culture. Hollywood at its best is about taking risks, showcasing shared humanity, working together in community and contributing to charity, all while amassing capitalist fortunes and affording mansions in Beverly Hills.
When the music business suffered through its own existential crisis, Iovine led a charge to develop headphones that would sound better than those of Apple’s iPod. If the industry couldn’t control where the music was being heard, it could at least attempt to control how. The Beats by Dr. Dre headphones were a hit, and the content-providing music industry discovered its competitive advantage over the platform-controlling Silicon Valley.
“It took being scared to death to be motivated to do this,” Iovine told the crowd.
Hollywood runs a good business. Must it also teach Washington how to act?
September 11, 2012 | 10:46 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
His mother called him King David.
Perhaps that’s why, when David Geffen was profiled in GQ magazine in 1991, the writer suggested that, “he seemingly swaggered straight from the womb.”
But from the start of Susan Lacy’s documentary “Inventing David Geffen,” airing in November as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series, Geffen appears more like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, the brash and determined individualist of her triumphal 1943 novel, “The Fountainhead,” than the biblical hero. King David was part of a royal line; David Geffen made himself into Hollywood royalty.
Geffen’s charismatic, winsome personality drives Lacy’s documentary, with Geffen candidly narrating his own journey from middle-class Jewish boy from Brooklyn to masterful music and movie mogul. The story is peppered with dishy interviews from legendary friends, including Cher, Warren Beatty, Elton John, Steven Spielberg, Arianna Huffington and Rahm Emanuel, to name just a few, whose flattering accounts of Geffen seem to swell his stature into almost mythic importance. Pared down to its essential plot points, Geffen’s biography is a fascinating account of a hard-charging, radically ambitious man whose life became the embodiment of the American dream, at once an astonishing feat, but also a stark reminder that not too long ago radical mobility was possible.
Like Rand’s Roark, Geffen has played the architect, in his case refashioning the music and movie industries so substantially he’s been compared to Hollywood’s founding fathers. As actor Tom Hanks plainly puts it in the documentary’s opening sequence: “He defined this culture. He built it.”
A contribution to the culture of fandom devoid of any critique, Lacy’s fawning portrait is the one Geffen would most like you to see: He is the self-made, sensitive-souled star-maker, the biggest legend of all. But in his case, what might seem an inflated self-image isn’t actually that far from reality.
Gifted. Ruthless. Brutally honest. Friends and enemies alike characterize Geffen as a business firebrand. “His power comes from those Vesuvian impulses of his,” media mogul Barry Diller tells us.
Watching the film, it is hard to begrudge Geffen his storied reputation, his billions, or even his braggadocio, because he’s just so darned candid about who he is (“I don’t see ambition or ego as pejorative words”), as well as what he wants (“I wanted to get out of Brooklyn and move to California where the sunshine was constant, where everybody was pretty and good looking ... [and] everybody was rich”). He is also forthright about his flaws: He told the crowd assembled for his 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “I have no talent except for being able to enjoy and recognize it in others.”
David Geffen’s success arose more out of desperate yearning than a unique skill set. He grew up poor, and his mother was the family’s primary breadwinner and his deepest influence. He was ashamed of his father, a struggling intellectual who worked odd jobs, like pattern-cutting, before dying young, when the future mogul was just 18. Geffen’s mother, Batya, was a vivacious spirit who owned a corset shop and worked tirelessly to keep the family afloat. But the trauma of losing her entire family in the Holocaust, and then suppressing that history, brought her to a nervous breakdown. To this day, Geffen is reticent to discuss it (see sidebar). When prodded about his Jewish background at a recent press conference, he carped to The Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Don Henley and David Geffen. Photo by Henry Diltz
Indeed, Geffen’s desire to transcend his childhood has been an animating force of his adult life. He tells Lacy: “My mother said, ‘You better learn to love to work, because we have no money and you’re going to be working the rest of your life.’ ” And since he believed himself to be “completely without gift,” he had to be more resourceful and more wanting than anyone else.
Before he became the industry godfather, Geffen had a protean career with many chapters. He started out in the William Morris mailroom, a job he notoriously obtained by lying, falsifying his resume with academic credentials from UCLA. The mythology goes that when a co-worker was fired for the same offense, Geffen arrived early at the mailroom for the next six months so he could intercept the inevitable letter from the school exposing him. He succeeded, replaced the incriminating missive with his own fabrication and, along the way, managed to impress the higher-ups with his dedication to sorting mail (given all this, one can only wonder whether his massive charitable contributions to UCLA don’t have their roots in reparative gratitude).
Geffen went on to become a rock ’n’ roll manager, record producer and, finally, a game-changing executive known for championing solo artists. During his heyday, which coincided with the cultural revolution of the 1970s, he helped launch the careers of iconic singer-songwriters Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Neil Young, among others. While music and pot whirred through the air, Geffen was at his desk cutting deals. But he was different from other executives: “He loved music like an innocent person loves music,” Young says in the film. His relationships with his clients were characterized by a loyalty and nurturing that often bordered on the familial. Geffen had no musical talent, but he possessed an artist’s soul — sensitive, wounded, mercurial and restless, qualities that burnished his ability to recognize and cultivate talents, and draw them close.
“It was always about the song; it was always about the spirit,” Elliot Roberts, his partner at Asylum Records tells us in the film.
Where Geffen was passionate, it was wise not to cross him. Once, when he brought a green Jackson Browne to see kingpin record-producer Clive Davis, Davis made the mistake of taking a call during Browne’s performance, and Geffen walked out. He started his own company, Asylum Records, in competition. Choicely located on the Sunset Strip, a boulevard lined with music halls and nightclubs, Asylum became a star factory, with Geffen poaching talent he discovered during the evening lineup. It was at the Troubadour, for instance, that he discovered the Eagles, a scouting method so effective he went on to cofound another legendary club, the Roxy, in 1973.
“We would do anything to be with David Geffen,” lead singer Glenn Frey tells Lacy. “ ‘Here: ‘Sign this.’ I didn’t care. I wanted David Geffen to be involved in as many aspects of my career as possible.”
By Geffen’s own account, his was a fast rise: In 1964 he was a lackey in the Morris mailroom; by 1972 he had sold his first record company and had $10 million in the bank. His success in music got him attention from the movie business, and he did a short stint as vice chairman of Warner Bros., but his maverick methods and flouting of authority quickly got him fired. In 1980, he assembled a small team of agents and created Geffen Records, which added alternative rock bands Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana to an already impressive roster that included Elton John, Irene Cara, Cher and Don Henley.
Geffen’s ineffable, je ne sais quoi eye for talent and fortuitous timing eventually enabled his success with movies. He took on the Tom Cruise star vehicle “Risky Business” when no one else would read the script, and followed up with a series of hits including “Lost in America” with Albert Brooks, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Interview With the Vampire.” It is clear, however, that Geffen’s heart was never in the movie business in the same way it was in music. By 1990, he was getting restless. He sold Geffen Records to MCA (now Universal Music Group) for an unprecedented $550 million in stock, and when the Japanese company Matsushita purchased MCA, Geffen’s stock had risen to almost a billion in cash.
Geffen worked hard and played hard, achieving a lifestyle of decadence and glamour to match his Herculean work ethic. Though he has always lived as an openly gay man, the documentary makes no mention of any significant relationship with another man; instead Lacy portrays his 18-month romance with movie and music diva Cher as the one great love of his life. “It was the greatest high I had ever experienced,” Geffen said. After they broke up, Esquire magazine ran a cover story about Cher under the headline, “Who Is Man Enough For This Woman?” Geffen confessed: “Clearly I was not.”
The AIDS crisis compelled him to finally, officially “come out.” As friends attest, the difference between quietly living as openly gay and making a public declaration about his identity was significant. It meant “freedom” for him, the designer Calvin Klein says in the movie. Geffen kick-started his philanthropic side when he became a pioneering donor to AIDS research, and he admitted that, for a time, he feared he had the disease. “Every time I took a shower I looked at my body to see if there were marks,” he recounts in the film.
Cher and David Geffen. Photo by Nate Cutler/Globe Photos/Zumapress.com/Newscom
By the time Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg approached him to help them co-found DreamWorks, in 1994, Geffen, by then 51, had one foot in retirement. He had become more interested in political fundraising (he was close with the Clintons before he switched to Barack Obama) and enjoying his extravagant lifestyle. Still, he helped DreamWorks “overcapitalize” — his strategy for how a movie studio could succeed — by raising $2 billion dollars in just a few weeks, although from the start he had little interest in the day-to-day running of the studio.
Once the man-about-town, Geffen today is an enigmatic presence in Hollywood, his name more likely to appear on buildings — the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood — than in the headlines. After his meteoric rise and novel achievements, sources say that that he is now content to play a quiet, behind-the-scenes role as advisor and mentor to his many successors.
“He’s a kibitzer,” former Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein told me. “There are generations of people in music and film who call him for advice all the time — and he loves to give advice, and he’s very good at giving advice. He’s like the Cardinal Richelieu of the entertainment business.”