Posted by Danielle Berrin
It was almost too much that Mel Brooks and Philip Roth were set to appear together in the same room. It was almost a relief that for their back-to-back press conferences promoting the PBS “American Masters” series, Roth was streamed via satellite into Pasadena’s ritzy Langham Hotel from his home in Newark, N.J., and Brooks was running “chronically late,” blaming L.A. traffic.
The legendary writer and the legendary entertainer couldn’t be more different. Roth is a shy, stern but sweet intellectual with bushy eyebrows and dark, penetrating eyes; Brooks is an effervescent crowd-pleaser, dapperly dressed and still, at 86, deprecating about his size: “I’m not such a comedy giant — I’m 5-foot-6,” he said.
They also couldn’t be more similar.
“I’m not crazy about seeing myself described as an American-Jewish writer,” Roth tells the camera in his “Masters” portrait, which will air on March 29, shortly after his 80th birthday. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American.”
“I think I missed the Jew boat by one generation,” Brooks said when asked if he considered himself a “Jewish entertainer.” “When I worked in the Borscht Belt, I spoke in English; a generation before me, they spoke in Yiddish.”
These two Jewish geniuses get asked about Jewishness a lot. Is it their Jewishness that makes them so special or their specialness that makes Jewishness matter?
“They keep asking me,” Brooks continued, “ ‘What is Jewish comedy? How does it differ from normal comedy?’ I say, ‘You got it wrong. It’s not really Jewish comedy — there are traces of it, but it is really New York comedy, urban comedy, street-corner comedy. It’s not Jewish comedy — that’s from Vilna, that’s Poland.”
I asked Roth why the Jewish label bothered him. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “People can call me anything they want.” Well, then, what role has it played?
“I’m an American writer. Think of Faulkner, think of Bellow — they’re regionalists. They write about the place that they come from. So was Joyce, a regionalist. I wrote about the region I came from, and that particular locale was full of Jews — me, my family and all my friends. So I wrote about them. The ‘Jewishness’ wasn’t so much Jewishness as these are the people I knew, and this is the culture I knew. In my adult life, I have had many friends from many different backgrounds, but by and large, I have followed the lives of Jewish men because I know the most about them — I think.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d make of Brooks — what inner life he’d ascribe to the zany, jocular, extrovert who has a difficult time going deep. When I asked Brooks about his major struggles, he replied, “getting stuff made.” Turns out, his mega-hit movie “The Producers” (1968) was the hardest: “the highest mountain I ever had to climb,” Brooks said. “First of all, the title was ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ ” — that got a laugh — “and it got to Lew Wasserman at Universal, and he liked it. He said, ‘I’ll do it — but not with Hitler. How about Mussolini? He’s more likable.’ I said, ‘Well, you don’t really get it ...’ ”
When the subject of Brooks’ late wife, actress Anne Bancroft, came up, he welled up with tears, his voice tremulous. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s a little too painful and private” — though he mustered composure for one anecdote about her learning Polish to sing “Sweet Georgia Brown” with him in the 1983 film “To Be or Not to Be.” “I was very lucky for 45 years,” he said, “and it is very difficult everyday to go on without her.”
Roth was even more reticent in sharing his heart. I asked him about the great loves of his life, expecting he might say “writing,” or even “fly fishing.”
“Do you want names?” he quipped. Everybody laughed. “I’ve loved quite a few people. And I think I’ve been loved back. And it’s great while it lasts.”
Roth was more forthcoming on the subject of struggle and how difficult it is for him to write. The topic has become an item of recent fascination, ever since Roth announced his plans to retire to The New York Times last November, allowing a reporter to glimpse the now infamous sticky note at his computer that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.” In reality, no one was more surprised by Roth’s retirement than Roth himself, who said that long before the Times caught wind of it, a French journalist, writing for an obscure publication, asked about his next book and he replied, “I think it’s over; I think I’m finished.” He was astonished by the Times’ front-page splash, suggesting, “Somebody must have gone to a barber shop one day and seen the [English translation of the French] article.”
“I don’t know where to go after I’ve finished a book,” he said. “I feel barren.” What begins with “a character in a predicament” becomes a task of producing “a whole world, a world of language [and] that’s a labor. It’s laborious to come up with the fullness, the richness of the thing. You build a book out of sentences, and sentences are built of details, and you’re working brick by brick to make a structure, and the bricks are heavy!”
But what if you find another character in a predicament, someone asked.
“I don’t want to find it anymore. I’m tired,” he replied.
Brooks, on the other hand, is seemingly tireless. He is currently developing “Blazing Saddles” as a stage musical, and even after an hour-long Q-and-A session, he didn’t want to stop:
“Are there any other questions from any other Jews here?”
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January 14, 2013 | 10:37 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.”
January 10, 2013 | 9:33 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 | 2:16 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 9, 2013 | 12:33 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
My friend Omri Marcus, a writer and content creator based in Tel Aviv has written a clever "TV Guide" of sorts to Israeli politics. It's a fun little map of Israel's copious and distinctive political parties -- with commentary TV buffs will know and understand.
"Here is a news flash," Marcus writes. "[N]othing is going to change after the Israeli elections in a few weeks...The right wing parties will stay in power, and the Israelis will show once again that they want peace, just not with Arabs."
Here is a very quick guide to Israeli politics that will make everything less confusing -- but not in the least bit less crazy.
Likud- Beitenu: A buy-one-get-the-other thing. One ballot for two parties fused together:
(1) Likud (literally "Unification") -- A right-of-center party which, based on current polls, is going to remain the ruling party. In a way, it's the Israeli version of the Republican Party. Representing an ignorant racist center, with a very thin crust of dignity and pretty words on top.
TV show: Honey Boo-Boo
(2) Israel Beitenu (literally "Israel is our Home") -- An extreme right wing party and the proud producer of Israel's version of Extreme Makeover: Gaza Edition. Well maybe not the whole show, but at least the first half where you take poor people from their house and tear it to the ground, although apparently taking them out of the house was optional.
Kadima (literally "Forward") -- currently the biggest party in parliament, and the leader of the opposition. This center party made so many mistakes over the past four years that almost all its members left it to other parties and from being the biggest party in parliament, it's now struggling to get a seat in the elections. TV show: The Walking Dead
HaAvoda (literally "Labor") -- It's called the Israel's Labor party even though the only laborer you can find there is the cleaning lady, and she's going to vote for the Likud. TV show: Lost
Yesh Atid (literally "There is A Future") -- a new party, headed by an Israeli journalist. He is sexy, he speaks nicely but never about controversial topics. So far the party is doing great in the polls. People are going to vote for him without ever actually seeing his platform or agenda.
TV show: The Voice
Hatnua (literally "The Movement") -- This party was established in such a rush that they couldn't even find a name. It's a central party, composed of leaders of other parties that lost in their primaries.TV show: The Biggest Loser
Habait Hayehudi (literally "The Jewish Home") -- An extreme right wing party with a surprising ecological agenda. They are in favor of transferring all the Arabs out of the country -- but insist this will be done in hybrid trucks.
TV show: Wipe Out
Hadash (literally "New" and also an acronym for "The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality" but no one in Israel knows that) -- An extreme left wing party that supports the complete withdrawal of Israel from all occupied territories, and proposes sending a "So Sorry" card to all the Palestinians. Anything for a peace treaty.
TV show: Two and a half men (this is the amount of voters they have)
Read the rest at The Huffington Post
January 8, 2013 | 12:19 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In his review of Herman Wouk’s latest book, “The Lawgiver” Julian Levinson writes in the Jewish Review of Books about a genre he calls the “Jewish Hollywood novel.” Included in this canon he counts various works from Leon Zolotkoff’s 1932 novel “From Vilna to Hollywood” to Nathanael West's “Day of the Locust” (1939) to Budd Schulberg's “What Makes Sammy Run” (1941) to Leslie Epstein’s more recent, “San Remo Drive” (2003).
They each function at some level as fable, Levinson writes, with the underlying moral that “financial success is precarious and often gained at the price of one's soul.” Indeed, many of these works feature Jewish characters who abandon their roots for fame and fortune and must ultimately pay a price.
“Jews are not alone in their fascination with the mythical allure of Hollywood, of course, but they have been among the most adept at crafting moral fables that decry its corrupting force,” Levinson writes.
He counts Wouk’s latest in this camp, since it has overtly Jewish content and is squarely set in Hollywood. The plot hinges upon the wishes of an Australian uranium tycoon named Louis Gluck, a Hasidic Jew, to finance a movie about the life of Moses. Exacting in his vision, he enlists the help of a writer named Herman Wouk to oversee the screenplay. Wouk, meanwhile, is at work on his own Moses project, so rather than guide the young screenwriter hired to write Gluck’s movie, (the fictional) Wouk is instead intimidated by her scope and speed. Margot Solvei, it turns out, isn’t just any enterprising, young screenwriter; she possesses a “deep intimacy with Torah” which, we are to assume she inherited from her father, the esteemed Bobover Rebbe of Passaic.
Solovei’s roots have added significance here because they signal a shift in perception of the Hollywood-Jewish hero(ine). In the past, Jews who endeavored to succeed in Hollywood typically abandoned their roots, so as to become more fully American. But here, though the heroine distances herself from her former religious life, it continues to act upon her psyche, informing and enriching everything she writes without serving as a source of shame.
Margot has absorbed her father's teachings but cannot abide his literal understanding of the text...This rebellion enables her to discover her true calling as a Jewish American screenwriter with a properly ambivalent relationship to tradition. Her first success was an Off-Off Broadway parody of her father's world called "Bobover Bobover." Now she is ready to return to Torah on her own terms, as a creative writer, and her passion for the project becomes the driving force in the narrative.
Levinson is not alone in drawing parallels between Margot, Wouk's 21st century Hollywood screenwriter, and Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk's 1930's aspiring actress (a character that real-life Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson exclaimed to Charlie Rose, "I am Marjorie!"): "Margot is in many ways a more talented and scholarly Marjorie Morningstar," Levinson writes,"or, even better, a kind of Herman Wouk in reverse."
Whereas in real life [Wouk] reclaimed the Orthodoxy of his youth, she's escaped it; whereas he's contemplating mortality, she's filled with guileless verve; whereas he can't write the story of Moses, she can. In the process, Margot also succeeds in rescuing the story of Moses from Cecil B. DeMille, whose The Ten Commandments is pilloried in the novel as a counterfeit, anglicized version of the true story. Margot's Moses is psychologically complex, a believer in God who cannot believe in himself. And her God is properly Jewish, speaking Hebrew, not pompous pulpit English.
In Wouk's version of the Hollywood story, then, we discover the triumph of the Jewish American storyteller: she feels Torah in her bones, but she's free enough from the past to recreate the tradition in her own words. In so doing, she reclaims Hollywood as a space for genuine Jewish self-expression.
...In this Hollywood novel, dreams are realized, parents and children are reconciled, love blooms, and Jews triumph while still remaining Jews.
Though in "The Lawgiver" Margot is the hero and not (the fictional) Wouk, she is the real Wouk’s triumph because she is his revelation; the product of his dizzying journey through the labyrinth of Jewish American life. It is through Wouk’s own struggle with Judaism that he is able to write such a clear-minded Jewish character, one who learns to use her Judaism rather than forsake it. Between sacred and secular, there need not be such a struggle, Wouk seems to be saying. Deep Jewish engagement -- whether intellectual, spiritual or communal -- has a role to play, even a "place" in secular life. The two need not be separated, but integrated.
At 97-years-old, Wouk has let faith triumph. He is finally able to see it as the core of his character (and his characters). When Vanity Fair recently interviewed him for their famous Proust Questionnaire, he was comfortably self-revealing:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Monogamy, with the right lady. (Sheer luck.)
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Betty Sarah Wouk, no contest.
When and where were you happiest?
Anywhere with her, while she lived.
Where would you like to live?
Ideally, Jerusalem. Realistically, Palm Springs.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Being a mensch.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Silent, steadfast love.
The poet Marianne Moore once wrote that the deepest feeling always expresses itself in silence. Though Wouk’s legacy is hardly a silent one, he has quietly revealed his abiding passion for faith -- faithfulness in tradition and faithfulness in love.
January 7, 2013 | 2:07 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
[Read part I here]
The Oscar-hopeful film “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the ten-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, has been the source of intense debate over its depiction of American use of torture.
Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director and screenwriter Mark Boal have both been accused of promoting the effectiveness of torture, albeit misleadingly, as well as deeper insults such as artistic moral blindness.
The film’s impact has reverberated in the press and in the corridors of power in Washington, igniting debate about the role “coercive” interrogation played in the eventual revelation of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee launched an investigation into the contact between the filmmakers and their sources at the C.I.A., citing “inappropriate” and misleading exchange of information.
But outrage at the filmmakers’ depiction of torture, and its questionable usefulness, is misdirected. Though some allege that the U.S.’s controversial interrogation program caused convulsions throughout the halls of government, the compromised behavior of the country during the ceaseless War On Terror was not only evident in its application of so-called “enhanced interrogation.”
To truly discern the country’s post 9/11 values in action, one need not focus on movie scenes of torture (that may or may not have helped find Osama bin Laden), but on the actual sequence of events that occurred during Operation Neptune Spear, just around Zero Dark Thirty, the night bin Laden was killed.
Since that fateful night almost two years ago, various and often contradictory accounts have emerged to explain the sequence of events leading to the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist. Early accounts from the White House, as well as the New York Times, depicted a valorous tale of U.S. bravery in the face of unmitigated danger. But as more information surfaces and more individuals step forward with firsthand accounts, a different, more complicated picture arises.
In his review of Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer’s book, “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden” (Owen is a pseudonym for retired SEAL Matt Bissonnette who participated in the raid) Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Steve Coll writes in The New York Review of Books that “there might be more to the subject of bin Laden’s killing than a straightforward story of justice delivered.”
In his essay, he pieces together numerous accounts and statements that unveil the potential moral hypocrisy of the U.S. strategy -- a strategy carried out by both the Bush and Obama Administrations -- claiming to want bin Laden “dead or alive.”
Coll suggests that although the U.S. government had stated its willingness to capture bin Laden alive, even claiming it as a goal, the facts suggest this was a dubious proposition: “a fig leaf created mainly for appearances’ sake.”
In his insightful and revelatory article, Coll points to the various moral and political dilemmas counterterrorism has imposed on the Obama administration, leading it to wrestle with the perdurability of American values. For example, Coll explains, both the public and political risks of putting terrorists on trial ultimately “led [the] White House to discover that ‘killing was a lot easier than capturing,’” a phrase coined by journalist Daniel Klaidman who used it to title his book “Kill or Capture.”
How to ethically and responsibly handle the capture of terrorists proved a heavy burden. The failure, for example, of the Obama Administration and Congress to engender enough political will to shutter the prison at Guantánamo Bay is probably the most salient emblem of the its political usefulness, even though its existence exacts a moral cost.
President Obama...never said publicly whether he favored putting bin Laden on trial or killing him. In early 2009, in a speech at the National Archives, Obama announced that he would end the policy of using interrogation methods judged to be torture by the International Red Cross, and that he would close Guantánamo’s prison. He indicated that he would be open to trying some terrorists before military commissions, rather than dispatching all of Guantánamo’s inmates to federal courtrooms, but he declared that we “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” He promised policies based on “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process.” He added that “fidelity to our values” is the “reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s Armed Forces than from their own government.”
And yet, Coll claims that the values propounded above are inconsistent with some of the actions the government has taken -- particularly on the night Osama bin Laden was killed, a drama that constitutes the climax and conclusion of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Here, again, as in the film’s early scenes of torture, the filmmakers have chosen to treat certain details with disturbing ambiguity.
Coll does a great service in attempting to reconcile Bissonnette’s firsthand account with other “official” accounts. And he goes not shrink from addressing the veracity of Bissonnette’s claims:
Typically, the authors of such memoirs submit their manuscripts before publication for official review, to scrub the works of classified information. Bissonnette declined to do so; he writes that he eliminated all secret information from his book on his own. The Pentagon has declared that Bissonnette is in breach of his legal obligations, but so far the government has taken no action against him.
The main thrust of Coll’s argument is this: Early reports of the raid claimed that a “firefight” took place between bin Laden and members of SEAL Team 6, that he used women’s bodies as shields during a gunfight -- thusly implying there was a struggle and bin Laden was “justly” killed. But revelations from Bissonnette’s book depict a scene in which none of that happened; he claims there was no firefight with bin Laden and that he was unarmed when he was killed. Coll recounts: “Bin Laden had stored a gun on a shelf nearby but it contained no ammunition; there has been no evidence that he tried to get hold of it; he was neither armed nor aggressive at the moment of his death.”
Nevertheless, the following is Bissonnette’s description of how bin Laden died:
The point man’s shots had entered the right side of [bin Laden’s] head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.
Though the SEAL Team commendably held their fire earlier in the raid when a woman exited the compound carrying a baby, their approach to bin Laden was altogether different. It seems this was due to orders.
"Having chosen to go in on the ground," Coll writes, "Obama evidently did not wish to design a mission that precluded the theoretical possibility that bin Laden might surrender. Instead, he approved rules of engagement that made bin Laden’s surrender all but impossible."
Coll adds that in Klaidman’s book, “Kill or Capture,” a Pentagon official is quoted as saying, “The only way bin Laden was going to be taken alive was if he was naked, had his hands in the air, was waving a white flag, and was unambiguously shouting, ‘I surrender.’”
Thus, the question about protocol arises, and whether or not that protocol was in line with American values of due process, enemy surrender, and other principles enumerated in Obama’s National Archives speech. Furthermore, it makes the issue of torture’s efficacy -- and the subsequent Congressional fury over a movie portrayal -- seem beside the point.
Again and again, the filmmakers of “Zero Dark Thirty” have claimed they did their best to recount events as they happened, without offering commentary or critique. It is the film's strength and its weakness. But to blame them for excising a moral debate about torture when the U.S. government's position is frightfully tenuous seems misguided.
In the end, “Zero Dark Thirty’s” brilliance is in its blankness. In presenting a decade-long sequence of events that will likely go down in history as the most pivotal and world-changing ten-years of the 21st century, the filmmakers are inviting audiences to think deeply and to reflect; not to garner meaning but to impose their own on the film’s morally blank slate. Seen that way, the vigorous responses to “Zero Dark” are quite refreshing, even promising, if in some way they indicate that true values can’t be prescribed by politics or presidents, but are gleaned through human instinct.
January 7, 2013 | 12:22 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
With Academy Award nominations just days away, the Oscar-winning team that includes director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal continue to endure harsh ignominy for their portrayal of torture in the Oscar-hopeful movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Over the past year and a half, they have been accused of various improprieties by the press, the left, and the right, including but not limited to: obtaining classified information from acting CIA operatives, using their extensive access to make a film that might boost Obama’s re-election campaign, and then, when the film’s release date was pushed from October 2012 to December 2012 (effectively cloistering it in the dark during the November election), the revelation of its content brought forth angry charges that the film promotes torture’s efficacy. Adding insult to injury, the film’s unflinching and uncritical presentation of torture prompted yet more accusations of moral equivalency and even moral bankruptcy.
Who said pursuing an Oscar was easy?
The conversation reached fever pitch over the last month with the film’s release and subsequently, the commencement of online voting for this year’s Oscar nominations. But although the film has captured national attention, it has been a Pyrrhic victory.
In Washington, lawmakers are incensed at the film’s alleged intimation that coercive interrogation aided in the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. As if the use of torture wasn’t bad enough, the suggestion that it might work prompted the Senate Intelligence Committee to call for an investigation into the communications between the filmmakers and their C.I.A. contacts.
At the behest of its chairwoman, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the bi-partisan committee, which also includes Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), contends that the C.I.A.’s cooperation with the filmmakers was “inappropriate” and “misleading.” In their view, the filmmakers were granted information that they should not have been granted and came to conclusions they should not have come to.
In a Dec.19 letter to Michael Morell, acting director of the C.I.A., the committee unequivocally states that the revelation of bin Laden's hideout was not at all an outcome of employing torture:
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently-adopted Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program concluded that the CIA did not first learn about the existence of the bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and that the CIA detainee who provided the most accurate information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.
The film has struck both political and moral nerves. But its turn from being seen as campaign season agitprop (Obama got bin Laden!) to inspiring political shame and moral outrage (torture is evil and pointless!) has more to do with political preening and posturing than the film itself.
The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer provides the worst indictment, eloquently accusing the film of having "zero conscience" and Bigelow of “milk[ing] the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked.
"In her hands," Mayer writes, "the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context.”
In reality, the C.I.A.’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the F.B.I. withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces. The C.I.A.’s actions convulsed the national-security community, leading to a crisis of conscience inside the top ranks of the U.S. government.
Mayer’s beef is: How dare the filmmakers show lurid scenes of bodily abuse and human degradation without showing the concomitant agony involved in inflicting it.
The filmmakers have defended themselves by insisting their only goal was to make a realistic film without an agenda. “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge,” Bigelow told the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. But according to the film’s production notes, distributed to the press at a recent screening, the filmmakers were very much aware of the moral sensitivities surrounding their subject matter:
The film encompasses sweeping events spanning nearly a decade, journeying across multiple countries and involving a precisely chosen cast of hundreds...whose objective was to capture the on-the-ground reality of this mission as truthfully as possible. To that end, it pulls no punches in documenting the moral lines -- including torture -- that were crossed. The intention was to create a cinematic work with the sweep and human emotion of a historical novel.
The difference it seems, might be one of semantics. What do they mean by “crossed”? Judging by the film, crossed might just mean “happened.” But according to Mayer, “crossed” should mean crossing a boundary.
The filmmakers have also been accused of boundary-pushing when it comes to the truth. Mayer also unloads on them for “distort[ing] history,” in particular, the film’s alleged claim that torture helped obtain intelligence that led to the courier that led to Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout. This reasoning seems to cohere with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s view that not only is torture inhumane and immoral (and embarrassing), it is ineffective.
But in other circles, torture’s usefulness is still a matter of debate. When C.I.A. acting director Michael Morell responded to the Senate Intelligence inquiry, he wrote: “Some [intelligence related to bin Laden’s location] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.” Furthermore, according to the New York Daily News, Morell has also said: "Whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."
As Mayer points out, whether or not torture “worked” is not the most important issue in this debate (she also subtly suggests that any defense of torture likely comes from “self-serving accounts of C.I.A. officers implicated in the interrogation program”). But what no one -- including Mayer -- seems to want to say is that all this rage at the filmmakers is sorely displaced. Regardless of agenda or implication, the filmmakers included torture in their movie because America has included torture in its war on terrorism.
Is all this outrage really about Hollywood’s misunderstanding of American wartime conduct -- and/or its refusal to denounce it? Or is it sadness and shame at America’s failure to enforce its own values in a bind?
To truly discern the country’s post 9/11 values in action, one need not focus on movie scenes of torture -- that may or may not have helped find Osama bin Laden -- but on the actual sequence of events that occurred during Operation Neptune Spear, just around Zero Dark Thirty, the night Osama bin Laden was killed.
Read Part II