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Posted by Danielle Berrin
A view of the 2013 Emmy Awards — through a Jewish lens
1. Tradition, tradition, tradition.
2. Identity crisis
From host Neil Patrick Harris’s opening monologue about the changing television industry to a 3-hour telecast that looked and felt like the Tony Awards, TV is deeply unsure of itself. The entire Emmy telecast transpired under a veil of self-consciousness, with sporadic musical numbers that added to the confusion (“The Number in the Middle of the Show” was one such dopey attempt at self-ridicule). Nevertheless, producers tried hard to put a positive spin on an insecure time: “These are remarkable times for television,” Harris said. “The content has never been more varied, the viewing [has] never been [sic] easier. You can now watch TV on your TV, on your laptop, on your mobile device, on a watch, on google glass[es]...”
Still, for traditionalists, things seem so out of whack that even Kevin Spacey made an in-character cameo as Congressman Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” to call a group of current and former Emmy hosts “blithering buffoons.” In coded but metaphorical language, Underwood confessed it was almost “too easy” to get the former hosts -- Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, who all made appearances -- to sabotage Harris (read: Netflix unnerves Network TV).
3. Many a mourner’s Kaddish
Emmy night was filled with remembrances of people passed. In addition to broadcasting the annual list of names of the deceased, special guest presenters offered personal tributes to the stars, including Edie Falco for James Gandolfini, Robin Williams for Jonathan Winters, Rob Reiner for “All in the Family’s” Jean Stapleton and Jane Lynch for “Glee’s” Cory Monteith.
4. The power of As It Is Written
In one of the evening’s bigger surprises, Jeff Daniels took home the Emmy for lead actor for his portrayal of Will McAvoy on HBO’s “The Newsroom” -- but he gave all the credit to writer/creator Aaron Sorkin. “The great American playwright Lanford Wilson said, ‘Whatever you do with your career, make it matter, make it count.’ Aaron Sorkin makes it matter and makes it count.” Daniels’s homage to Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist, was the highbrow reference of the evening, and an acknowledgment that storytelling is not just showmanship but sustenance.
5. In praise of spiritual balance
Upon accepting her second consecutive award for playing Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland,” actress Claire Danes thanked her husband, actor Hugh Dancy for “making me so whole and happy so I can be so entirely unhappy in the world of make-believe.”
6. A healthy dose of Chutzpah
Upon accepting his acting award for playing Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” Michael Douglas surprised the audience with some suggestive homoeroticism. “This is a two-hander,” Douglas said, as he graciously acknowledged his co-star Matt Damon, who played Liberace’s lover in the movie. “The only reason I’m standing here is because of you,” he added. “So, do you want the bottom or the top?”
When “Behind the Candelabra” uber-producer Jerry Weintraub accepted the Emmy for best miniseries or movie he added to the evening’s chutzpah factor with a quip on his success: “People always ask me, ‘How do you do all this?’” Weintraub said. “I don’t do it all. Everybody else does it all and I get all the credit.”
7. A healthy dose of humility
When Steve Levitan accepted the fourth consecutive Emmy award for “Modern Family,” he said that all the success still feels “surreal.” “None of us grew up feeling like winners,” he began. “So thank you to the bullies, the popular kids, to the gym teachers who taunted us, rejected us and made fun of the way we ran. Without you, we never would have gone into comedy.”
8. Embracing the vicissitudes of life
When Don Cheadle curated an homage to television (and U.S.) history, he channeled the Torah's message of transformation. After the famous CBS News clip in which Walter Cronkite announced President John F. Kennedy’s death, he talked about the journey from darkness to light, the experience of grief to healing. After national tragedy and trauma, "dark clouds lifted" with the arrival of The Beatles, who told us “it was OK to experience joy again.”
“Two emotionally charged events forever linked in our memories,” Cheadle said, adding that, “fifty years later, they underscore the immediacy of TV, and its tremendous impact on our society. The boxes are thinner, the screens are flatter and more portable, but television’s power to engage, inform and unite continues to have a profound purpose -- as we remember the past, celebrate the present and anticipate our future.”
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August 29, 2013 | 1:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Miley Cyrus really, really wants us to know something: she f----s.
Her Me-So-Sexy show-and-tell at MTV’s Video Music Awards was the least sophisticated display of youthful sexual prowess in recent memory (and considering the venue, that’s saying A LOT).
It did, however, provoke a hot, gushing lava-like flow of media outrage, prompting pundits to describe her so-called “twerking” routine as pornographic; vile; racist; degrading; unoriginal; inauthentic; or in the words of the Daily Beast, “the nadir of American civilization.”
What a compliment to her twerking tush that her performance inspired such fervor!
Cyrus isn’t the first female to wave her I-am-Woman flag through hypersexuality. Like Madonna and Monroe before her, she wants us to know that she can have sex like a man, and should be treated as more than just a powerless girl. In Cyrus’s case, that girl would be sweet little Hannah Montana, who was rinsed, waxed and neutered by the squeaky-clean Disney image machine. Thus, the general read on Cyrus’s race-y anal exploits is that she desperately wants to proclaim her adulthood.
So why on earth is she acting like a stubborn, rebellious child?
The Freudian answer is that she never got to be one. Cyrus became the headlining star of The Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” in 2006, when she was just 14. It ended five years later, which basically means that Cyrus spent her high school years cut off from the typical trajectory of adolescence and puberty, and thrust into adult professionalism. Within the first year of Hannah Montana airing, Cyrus became a multimillionaire.
The irony about Cyrus’s alter-ego, Hannah Montana, is that while the character was permitted a double life -- as both a “normal” teenager and a superstar -- the actress playing her was not. Only in fiction can split lives co-existence so seamlessly. In reality, coming of age as a child star in Los Angeles, there was nowhere teenaged Miley Cyrus could go and not be seen as Hannah Montana. A famous face and a young professional, Cyrus was forced out of the cocoon of childhood and into the quid-pro-quo of adulthood, where one must sing -- quite literally, in her case -- for their supper.
A dirty little not-so-secret about youth in the entertainment industry is that it both profits from and promotes family dysfunction. The parents of child stars often get so seduced by the glitz of success, they attempt to realize their own broken dreams through their children. Instead of protecting their young from an inestimably complicated life, parents push their kids to further perform. As my friend Irene Dreayer, a producer of children’s programming and a talent coach often asks of showbiz parents: “Who’s dream is this -- your kid’s or yours?”
The other thing Dreayer will tell you about the trajectory of child stars -- having honed her expertise as executive producer of The Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and the sitcom “Sister, Sister” -- is that if young talents don’t have reliable authority figures in their lives, they crumble.
"No one is protecting her," Dreayer said when I called her for comment. "There’s nobody there to say to her: 'What the f--- are you doing?'
But even worse than parents who can’t be depended upon are jealous parents who exploit a child's success. As with Lindsay Lohan’s mother, Dina, I wonder about the relationship between Miley and dear daddy, Billy Ray. Yes, “Achy Breaky Heart” was a catchy little number that a lot of people heard too many times, two decades ago. But does it count as a career? Last I checked, poppy Billy Ray was earning his pay playing a father to his daughter on her star-making show.
When a parent’s well being is dependent upon his child’s success, that parent can hardly encourage what is best for the child. And if a parent is less successful than his child -- in the same chosen profession -- what sort of dynamic arises in the family?
Fast forward to Miley Cyrus, “all grown up” at age 20. Eager to escape the childhood career that stole her childhood, she thinks an overt sexual consciousness will make her appear more adult. On television, she projects a voracious sexual appetite that makes her feel powerful and in control -- “Look at me, Daddy; I can do whatever I want” -- when really she is expressing a child’s deep and desperate need for discipline and boundaries.
All that tuchus-in-the-air twerking? A quite literal request for a spanking. All that sticking out her tongue? A child’s taunt: “Na na na na na -- come and get me!”
If Cyrus was seeking to display adult maturity with that faux provocation, she failed. That was not the performance of a young woman in full thrall of her sexual powers; it was the enraged acting out of a little girl seeking a responsible father.
It is dead wrong to interpret that performance as Miley Cyrus’s declaration of adulthood. What she wants is to be a child. What she’s singing for isn’t sex, it’s a parent.
July 31, 2013 | 12:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“SO SORRY,” writer Joshuah Bearman e-mails after he forgets about our interview. “I’ve stood up someone exactly twice before, and have been stood up a couple times too, and it’s terrible. I could still meet, if you aren’t peeved …”
A year ago, Bearman might have made the same mistake and it wouldn’t have seemed like such Hollywood behavior. But ever since Wired magazine published his nail-biting account of “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” in 2007, and it became the Oscar-winning movie “Argo,” well, Bearman has hit the big-time. He has since optioned nine other projects based on his work as a journalist.
When we finally come face to face later that same afternoon, Bearman is sitting in the far corner of Fix Coffee in Silver Lake eating a turkey-and-cheese sandwich. I can’t resist teasing him about his tardiness and his treif.
“My dad keeps kosher,” Bearman says as cheeky consolation. “My stepmom keeps kosher, too. They’re very Jewish.”
You might say Bearman owes the start of his career to Judaism. While in graduate school at Columbia, he published his first piece — an interview with his physicist father about the elder’s work studying the Dead Sea Scrolls — in the fourth issue of McSweeney’s, the prestigious literary journal founded by author Dave Eggers.
“The issue basically came out the same time [that Eggers published] ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ and his career obviously exploded,” Bearman recalls.
So did Bearman’s. The issue containing his maiden story also included work by authors Denis Johnson, Haruki Murakami and George Saunders, winning the mag easy praise as “the voice of new generation,” Bearman recalls, and loads of attention. “I didn’t even know who all these people were.”
Bearman didn’t have the bookish childhood one might imagine for a successful writer. When he was 9, his parents divorced, and he and his brother Ethan moved from their native Minnesota to Pasadena so his father could work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His mother stayed behind, got involved with a drug dealer and soon became a severe alcoholic prone to disappearing. Oftentimes, for months on end, Bearman wouldn’t know where she was. His father eventually remarried; his mother regressed into her illness. She also had another child, Bearman's half-brother David, whose tumultuous childhood led to chronic legal trouble. Bearman detailed their tale of woe in a wrenching personal piece for "This American Life."
Growing up surrounded by turmoil eventually took its toll. Angry at being cheated out of childhood, Bearman left his father’s house at 16 to live with a friend, who was experiencing early-onset schizophrenia. “It was a wacky household,” Bearman recalls of his brush with other family dysfunction. After high school, he enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, moved in with a girl he met on the first day of classes and got a job at Pizza Hut. “That’s a weird scene out there,” he remembers. “I lived all summer on pizza, in a s----y apartment complex, watching, like, ‘Hellraiser 3’ on cable.” He flunked out within the year.
“I wasn’t really ready for school,” he says, looking back. “I grew up late. It probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up with my mother.” But, even since his mother died a few years ago, he says, he hasn’t spent much energy investing in the psychoanalysis of it all.
“When I look back on what I was doing, it seems like a totally different person,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know anything.”
Bearman eventually transferred to UCLA. “I basically clawed my way back to the land of the living.” He also “wandered around Europe for awhile, chased a girl to Vienna” and spent a year abroad at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where he studied Heidegger (one can only imagine what his Hashomer Hatzair, ardently Zionist, Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents would have made of his inquiry into the avowed Nazi fan).
By 2004, he got his first staff position with the LA Weekly and, shortly thereafter, a magazine assignment from Harpers. Bearman likes to tell how an editor once described his journalism as, “Dude, No Way” stories, as he seems to be most attracted by the outrageous and unbelievable: For Playboy, the “true-life 1970s Hollywood epic” about a “cocaine-addled” Jewish producer (Burt Schneider) who helped smuggle the legally endangered leader of the Black Panther movement (Huey Newton) to Cuba; and for the July issue of GQ, “how a group of 20-something surfers and their former high school Spanish teacher form one of the most successful drug-smuggling operations in the country” — which George Clooney is rumored to be developing for film. Bearman also once considered writing about Joseph Stalin’s attempt to crossbreed monkeys and humans in order to create a race of ape warriors — seriously —– but ultimately deemed it unreportable.
Nowadays, he lives a double life, working as a nonfiction reporter as well as a screenwriter. “I like having a foot in both worlds,” he says, explaining that he was recently hired to write his first screenplay. Though he's been lucky to work with some tip-top talent, not everything ends in an Oscar. “I’ve seen people get paid some serious money to write total nonsense based on my stories, and I was like, ‘I would write that same garbage for half that!’”
Because while Hollywood is fun, glamorous, and pays the bills, journalism maintains its appeal because “it forces you to reckon with something entirely outside your experience.”
Tell that to somebody who doesn’t know Clooney.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this story misstated Bearman's relationship to his brother, Ethan. They share the same parents.
May 21, 2013 | 9:43 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
They were just two Jewish boys kidding around.
“Not since Passover have there been so many people here,” writer/director/producer Judd Apatow announced to a full house at the Saban Theatre last week, there to see Apatow foist his comedy colleague Marc Maron into the hot seat for the popular Writers Bloc salon series.
Tribal affiliation notwithstanding, Apatow, 45, and Maron, 49, couldn’t be more different. Apatow is an uber-wealthy Hollywood hotshot, whose movies “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and, recently, “This Is 40” have made him one of American comedy’s household names. Maron, on the other hand, struggled as a gypsy stand-up comic for nearly three decades before coming into his own as the host of the popular podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” which he has been recording in his garage since 2009 and has recently parlayed into a book, “Attempting Normal” and a TV series on IFC, “Maron.”
Although the comedy gurus spent time admiring one another onstage, demonstrating an easy, funny, flowing rapport, their temperaments and comic sensibilities proved wildly divergent. Apatow identified himself as having the “classic Jewish neurotic people-pleasing personality,” while Maron described himself as a longtime “cynical, bitter -f---.” But for these two wielders of wit, hot-blooded though bearded and graying, having similar backgrounds propelled them into a shared profession, as each aimed to realize comic gifts sprung from alienation.
The first topic they tackled was fathers, the most primary of influences on their life and work. Maron is candid about his complicated feelings for his father, who is often the subject of raw and even brutal scrutiny on his podcast. Apatow’s parents divorced when he was 12, and he was subsequently split from his two siblings, who each lived with different guardians. The experience clearly wounded him, to the point where even after achieving uncommon success, Apatow said he is always on guard for something disruptive to happen. “I always feel like someone’s gonna punch me in the face,” he said. “I can’t shake that feeling.”
“Well, I get into bed and think someone’s gonna hit me with a bat in my sleep,” Maron countered, followed by an anecdote depicting a sort of clueless, rageful father. “You never knew whether or not we’d spend a weekend looking for a hat.” The unpredictability sparked in Maron a kind of rueful, anxious comedy through which his sadness and self-effacement became a creative asset. “When you have a charismatic, completely self-centered, erratic parent, and you work to adapt to that your whole life, it’s like, ‘You’re perfect for interviewing celebrities!’ ”
“Maybe with erratic parents, you feel unsafe,” Apatow said, offering a reason for artistic diligence as a stabilizing force.
“I got into comedy to be OK with myself,” Maron said. “I have to explore who I am on stage.”
Sexual swagger (Maron) — or lack thereof (Apatow) — was another subject in which the comics were at odds. In his book, Maron boastfully declares his skill and virility in the bedroom, whereas on stage Apatow admitted to “awkward” experiences, in which casual sex proved empty and unwieldy and climaxes came prematurely. Apatow has, of course, long been married to the actress Leslie Mann and is the father of two daughters, Maude, 15, and Iris, 10. Maron is twice divorced and, according to his memoir, currently in a committed relationship with a woman who is eager to have children.
Apatow seized on the opportunity to nudge Maron toward fatherhood: “Don’t be a p---y,” he said. “Have a kid! You don’t want to be that guy.”
“I’m almost 50!” Maron exclaimed.
“So?” Apatow answered.
Maron explained that since publishing the book, the conversation about having children with his girlfriend had “leveled off.”
“How can it level off?” Apatow wondered. “It has to resolve …”
“I was a given a deadline,” Maron said.
“July. I have to put a baby in her by July.”
“That’s what you should tell your child,” Apatow quipped. “You were the result of a lost argument.”
For all their mutual mishegoss, they have both led wildly colorful lives. But whereas Maron regaled the crowd with tales from his early stand-up career apprenticing at The Comedy Store with stars like Sam Kinison whom he called “mad men” who liked to drink and dope, Apatow said he considers himself of a cleaner comic breed. “I was more of a Seinfeld guy. I wanted to have roast-beef sandwiches with Jerry Seinfeld. I didn’t want to stay up all night doing coke.”
“You did the right thing, Judd,” Maron said, alluding to Apatow’s first-class career, but admonished, “I have better stories.”
As Apatow pointed out, Maron’s desperation led him to a “pure-of-heart creativity” that reflects his self-doubt and self-loathing, his anger and cynicism, but also offers a raw, real honesty that the public has found endearing. What happens, though, Apatow wondered, when a person who has staked his comic career on the bitterness of life eventually achieves many of its pleasures — fame, money, maybe even love?
“I don’t know if I can completely identify with happiness,” Maron said. The feat, he said, is that “I don’t feel bitter anymore.”
Apatow said that several years ago he realized he had reached the pinnacle of his personal experience of happiness; because of his personal and professional successes, he’d gotten the chance to be “as happy as I can get.” Eventually though, he confessed, it goes away, dissolving into a kind of homeostatic contentedness. “You can’t make your life about chasing peak joy experiences,” he told Maron, this time sounding a bit like a parent.
“I didn’t think any of this was going to happen,” Maron said. “Three years ago, I thought, ‘I just have to make this podcast work so I can get health insurance.’ ” He said his podcast enabled him to work through his disappointment and anger by “talking to guys who made me laugh.” The garage as confessional — or even therapist’s couch — proved psychologically salutary.
“I got my heart back,” Maron said. “I was in search of being myself; that was my journey.”
February 25, 2013 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In what seems like an annual compulsion, the writers of The Oscars telecast routinely include jokes about Jews to remind everybody in the industry -- and everybody watching – that Jews indeed “rule” in Hollywood (whatever that imprecise measure of power means).
But for some in the Jewish establishment, this is akin to a crime. Talk of Jewish power is asur, forbidden. If it exists, it should be secret. Therefore the historic and enduring Jewish presence in Hollywood is publicly regarded as “myth,” a “falsity,” a “stereotype,” and should not be construed as fact. It is dangerous -- much too dangerous – even to joke about.
Take for example, this year’s big Jewish Oscar joke which came courtesy of host Seth MacFarlane. It was delivered by the actor Mark Wahlberg and his snuggly-looking, smut-talking sidekick stuffed-bear, Ted, both of whom appeared in MacFarlane’s summer sleeper hit, “Ted” which grossed more than $500 million at the box office. Their whippy repartee not only mocked Jewish power in Hollywood, it provided a criterion for getting into the club: a Jewish-sounding name (duh) and a philanthropic commitment to Israel.
Here is a partial transcript of their conversation:
Ted: Look at all this talent, all this talent in one spot. There’s Daniel Day-Lewis… there’s Alan Arkin… there’s Joaquin Phoenix. And you know what’s interesting? All those actors I just named are part-Jewish.
Mark Wahlberg: Oh. Ok.
Ted: What about you? You got a ‘berg’ at the end of your name. Are you Jewish?
Wahlberg: Am I Jewish? No, actually, I’m Catholic.
Ted: (whispering) Wrong Answer. Try again.
Ted: (still whispering) Do you want to work in this town or dontcha? (to audience) That’s interesting, Mark, because I am Jewish.
Wahlberg: No you’re not.
Ted: I am. I am. I was born Theodore Shapiro and I would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever. Thank you, I’m Jewish.
Wahlberg: You’re an idiot.
Ted: Yeah, well, we’ll see who the idiot is when they give me a private plane at the next secret synagogue meeting.
On the surface, this exchange seems entirely unoriginal. Quips about Jewish last names, support for Israel, "secret synagogue meetings" and the like are hardly new to the canon of comedy drawn from anti-Semitic tropes. But the sketch nonetheless elicited the usual defensive outcries.
Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (and self-appointed tribal arbiter of Jewish humor) condemned the sketch as "not remotely funny." “It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism,” he wrote in a statement. “For the insiders at the Oscars this kind of joke is obviously not taken seriously. But when one considers the global audience of the Oscars of upwards of two billion people… there’s a much higher potential for the ‘Jews control Hollywood’ myth to be accepted as fact.”
Dear me, what a horrible blight that would be on the perception of Jews worldwide. Especially since most people consider the Jewish reputation so pristine!
As Foxman pointed out, this is not the first time MacFarlane has poked fun at Jewish power. Last Fall, MacFarlane placed a “For Your Consideration” ad in Deadline.com’s Emmy Awards print supplement, Awardsline. “Come on you bloated, over-privileged Brentwood Jews. Let us into your little club,” it read, just above an image of Peter Griffin, the character voiced by MacFarlane on “Family Guy.”
It was a plea, not a provocation. But apparently it can be quite confusing to discern between diverting and disdainful. Though there must be some value in distinction; not all contexts are created equal.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, sees little difference between joking about Jewish power or simply stating it. “When Marlon Brando said [something about Jewish power in Hollywood] on the Larry King Show several years ago, there was widespread criticism throughout Hollywood for those remarks, for which Brando profusely apologized,” Hier said in a statement released on Monday.
“But the Oscars are not Larry King,” he added. No, indeed they are not; the Oscars are an entertainment centered around movies, and Larry King at least presented his show as a serious news enterprise.
“Every comedian is entitled to wide latitude, but no one should get a free pass for helping to promote anti-Semitism,” Hier argued.
He’s not actually all wrong. For those inclined to dislike Jews, the idea that they are powerful in Hollywood – meaning, I guess, funny, creative, talented, successful, rich, populous, award-winning and in possession of top-jobs – will probably not prove endearing to their detractors. Haters, after all, are going to hate. Should Hollywood’s Jews deflect negative attention by pretending they are powerless? Does AIPAC feign weakness in Washington?
A deeper read of MacFarlane’s Jewish joke underscores other, worthier reasons for public fascination. Its unoriginality for one, was actually striking this year: The Oscars are nothing if not traditional, so even though it was utterly in character for the show to play to redundant, conventional tropes (“Jews control Hollywood: Surprise!”), it seemed to ignore a shift happening elsewhere with erstwhile sacred cows.
Take Israel, for example. The assumption of industry-wide support for Israel intimated in MacFarlane’s sketch is perhaps unsurprising. It even seems obvious considering Hollywood’s founding, its history and current Academy demography – which, according to a 2012 study conducted by the L.A. Times consists mostly of white men at a median age of 62, many of whom are presumed to be Jewish though, oddly, the Times did not account for ethnicity or religion. Still, it is an interesting choice, in 2013, to kid about support for Israel at a time when Hollywood’s presumed liberal values appear in conflict with Israeli behavior.
Of the two Israel-focused documentaries nominated for Oscars this year, itself a considerable feat, neither paints a pretty portrait. The Israeli-Palestinian co-production “5 Broken Cameras” is one Palestinian man’s account of life in a West Bank village, where he is both witness to and victim of horrors at Israeli hands. In “The Gatekeepers” each of the living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, unanimously regret and condemn Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.
Neither film won the Oscar, of course. But the very same Jewish academy members who “donate money to Israel,” as Ted so illustratively put it, also voted this dual nomination onto the ballot. With their irrefutably provocative positions towards Israel, the impulse to recognize these particular movies evinces a deepening awareness (and an implicit acknowledgment) of Israel’s faults and flaws.
The inconvenient truth for traditionalists is that many of today’s Hollywood Jews are feeling far more comfortable in their Jewish skins than ever before. There is far more freedom and nuance in expressing Jewish characters, talking about Israel, and embracing the legacy of profuse Jewish power than in years past. It’s even become a bit of a joke.
Jews in Hollywood understand this; so do the industry’s non-Jews, like MacFarlane. It is simply a minority of old-time Jews with the loudest mics who see offense where most find humor. Seth MacFarlane isn’t poking fun at Jews because he’s anti-Semitic. He’s poking fun at Jews out of the seriously comic irony that in Hollywood, he is the outsider. If MacFarlane has no trouble owning the truth of Jewish accomplishment, why can’t we?
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 14, 2013 | 9:37 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler said it early when they declared: “This was a great year for women,” which they promptly followed with a cutting, sisterhood kind of joke.
In an oblique reference to the Academy’s snub of Kathryn Bigelow, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Poehler quipped: “I haven’t really been following the controversy over ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady that spent three years married to James Cameron.”
Sony Pictures Chairwoman Amy Pascal and ‘Zero Dark’ best actress nominee Jessica Chastain were so stunned and giddy they nearly buried their heads.
But throughout the night, the comedy duo’s charming humor set a relaxed tone, an apt complement to the reported 700 magnums of champagne that were poured throughout the three-hours-plus telecast in which women were the big winners in accolade and in attention.
Just ask former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who reportedly attended the event at the behest of directing nominee Steven Spielberg to laud Spielberg’s historical political drama “Lincoln.”
“It’s a tough fight, to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives,” Clinton said. “The President has to make a lot of unsavory deals -- I would know nothing about that.”
But “in this Lincoln,” he continued, “we see a man more interesting than the legend and a far better guide for future presidents.”
Clinton may as well haven been talking to his wife, who, in Hollywood’s eyes, has apparently overshadowed him.
“Wow, what an exciting special guest,” exclaimed a goo-goo eyed Poehler after the president’s speech. “That was Hillary Clinton’s husband!”
“Bill Clinton,” Fey gushed. “Bill Rodham Clinton.”
Absent Angelina and Brad, Clinton was the night’s biggest star, a symbol of America’s (or at least Hollywood’s) current fascination with behind-the-scenes political drama.
Ben Affleck’s film “Argo” about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis won Best Motion Picture Drama, as well as a directing nod for Affleck, even though the Academy left him off its list. “Lincoln,” about the politics of passing the bill to end slavery failed to gather any major awards last night, though it is largely considered the favorite to win Oscars.
In television, the political thriller “Homeland” continued its winning streak, garnering acting awards for stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, as well as best TV drama for creators Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and and their Israeli counterpart Gideon Raff, upon whose series “Hatufim” “Homeland” is based.
Lena Dunham, the triple-threat creator of HBO’s “Girls” (she writes, directs and stars in the series) also won big, scoring honors for lead actress in a TV comedy as well as best TV comedy series in the same evening “Girls’” aired its second-season debut. Dunham, who is ordinarily spontaneous and articulate, trembled as she thanked her fellow honorees, “women that inspire me deeply, and have made me laugh and comforted me at the darkest moments of my life,” she said.
“Girls” has won popularity among audiences (many of whom, it turns out, are middle-aged men) for its frank and edgy portraits of twenty-something life. It made an early fan of Judd Apatow, the show’s producer, whom Dunham thanked as “the greatest man and the greatest honorary girl.”
“For every woman who has ever felt like there wasn’t a space for her, this show’s made a space for me,” Dunham said.
That turned out to be an appropriate segue for Jodie Foster’s receipt of the Cecile B. DeMille award, presented by Robert Downey Jr. and endorsed by Foster’s BFF and guest, Mel Gibson, who sat beside her. Foster delivered a raw and rambling speech that finally publicly affirmed her homosexuality, which shocked no one more than her gushy praise of Gibson.
But if the Golden Globes is anything, it’s a celebratory spectacle of Hollywood self-love. Minus the prestige and pressures of Oscar, it’s a night to hang with friends, forge new alliances and affirm current ones.
Accepting the award for best dramatic actress, “Zero Dark Thirty” star Jessica Chastain delivered special praise to Bigelow, the film’s director.
“I can’t help but compare my character to you: two powerful fearless women who allow their expert work to stand before them. You have said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles, but when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you’ve done more for women in cinema than you take credit for.”
Lastly, Chastain thanked her grandmother: “For teaching me to always believe in my dreams and this is an absolute dream come true.”
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.”