Monday, March 4, 2013

Hollywood loves "Hooker with a Heart of Gold"

I knew from Seth MacFarlane’s opening boobs song that this year’s Academy Awards, and the choice itself of MacFarlane as host was tremendously revealing about male gender anxiety.  Dana Stevens, who wrote in Monday’s morning’s Slate that there was the air to last night’s Oscars of male anxiety about their losing power to women, and Amy Davidson, who wrote in The New Yorker that the show’s “misogyny involved a specific hostility to women in the workplace,” hit the nail on the head.

What no one has yet mentioned is that beyond MacFarlane’s tasteless jokes, the nominations and award winners, themselves, reflect how Hollywood, and society as a whole, is resistant to women having too much ambition.   

Society still doesn’t like a woman who comes across as too ambitious, too celebratory of her success. That’s why the Onion tweeted that Quvenzhane Wallis “seems kind of a cunt” after she pumped her fists and smiled at the end of her nomination for best supporting actress.  

And that’s why Anne Hathaway is in a bind, and comes across as unlikeable despite her best efforts.  She’s a fabulous actress but one whose ambition seeps through her pores. She tries to tone down her desire to win and it seems false.  Hathaway gushed on the red carpet, and at the podium, about her husband, as if that was way more important than her acting efforts, as if, like the princess roles she has played, she was a princess saved by a prince.  Yet the way Hathaway named at least ten people in her “management team” in her acceptance speech suggests that she is not naturally expounding upon her glowing love of her husband: she’s a savvy industry-player who self-consciously plans out her words. She is trying to tap into an image that appeals to Hollywood and the ticket-buying public--that she’s a non-threatening waif, a Disney princess come to life. 

Indeed, Hollywood only rewards women for playing a certain kind of woman.  Hathaway won the Oscar for playing a woman forced to prostitution to support her children.  It’s in an altogether different guise than Julia Robert’s, but again it’s that Oscar-winning role that Hollywood loves -- “the hooker with the heart of gold”, that beloved archetype that only exists in fiction.  Hollywood doesn’t mind an ambitious woman if her career is selling her body.

Jennifer Lawrence’s supporting actress win for her role in “Silver Linings Playbook” is just another variation of the “hooker with the heart of gold”.  Lawrence’s role is a man’s fantasy of a new widow, a woman who works through her grief by sleeping with everyone in her office, men and women alike, and then, instead of being ashamed, or regretful, likes to frankly talk about it with Bradley Cooper’s Pat, her new love interest.  She’s not ashamed of being a slut, she tells him she likes all her parts, including the dirty ones.  That might seem feminist, to own one’s sexuality, but not to call oneself dirty because one is sexual.  Further, even though she is portrayed as strong-willed and smart, she uses those smarts to manipulatively snag the man and only shows her brain power when she delivers a speech to Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) about how whenever she was with Pat Jr., the Eagles won. Again, a male fantasy: a babe who even knows sports and cares about football as much a man.  And she doesn’t express any interest in an actual career beyond competitive dancing.  Her only goal besides the dance competition is to get Pat to fall in love with her.  But the Academy, which is 71 percent men, likes a female character whose end goal is not her own career advancement but a man’s love.  Again, it’s Disney Princess archetype.  
Which brings me to “Zero Dark Thirty”.  I don’t think the Academy snubbed Kathryn Bigelow because of the film’s honest depiction of torture. That strikes me as just a cover.  "Zero Dark Thirty" is not really about Osama Bin Laden, either.  Really the entire film is a woman’s fantasy about being taken seriously in her workplace, it’s just this woman’s workplace is the CIA, and Jessica Chastain’s overpowering ambition and drivenness is off-putting to the white male establishment.

Indeed, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a female version of a James Bond movie:  unlike Bond, which is the product of pure male fantasy) this government agent is serious and doesn’t waste her time sleeping with eye candy.  Surprisingly for a Hollywood film, Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent Maya never expresses any love or sexual interest in anyone.  She is too focused on her commitment to finding Osama Bin Laden.  In one of many tasteless jokes, McFarlane said  the film celebrated “a woman’s ability to never, ever, let anything go” because it is Maya’s career determinism that causes anxiety to men. The film is about a beautiful, smart woman’s total commitment to her career; her animating passion has nothing to do with men.  

At the end of “Zero Dark Thirty”, there’s a high-level CIA boardroom meeting to plan what step to take to capture Bin Laden, and a male colleague says, let’s ask Maya what she thinks. She has finally proven herself.  The CIA Director (James Gandolfini) joins her at the cafeteria table not because he wants to sleep with her but to tell her he’s impressed with her smarts.  We’re not used to scenes in which the male boss and female underling connect without sex entering the picture.  The whole film is a woman’s fantasy to be taken seriously in the workplace.  

And it doesn’t end with everything wrapped in a bow.  The film suggests that women really can’t have it all.  Sure, Bin Laden is killed, but Maya gets in a helicopter and cries, because now that her mission is accomplished, she doesn’t know where home is.  She doesn’t have a family; she has sacrificed everything.  Bigelow is not interested in propounding some false rosy-eyed idea that women can have it all.

That this woman’s fantasy of career success made it to the big screen at all is because it’s made by a female director, a rare commodity in Hollywood.  Last week’s awards ceremony, and the Academy’s snubbing of Bigelow by not even giving her a nomination, proved that the Academy is afraid of women’s ambition.   As “Brave’s” Academy Award demonstrated:  the only powerful women with ambitions of their own that Hollywood at this point thinks are award-worthy are computer-animated. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

IDF joins with Women of the Wall

I just saw this on Facebook:

Breaking News: On Monday morning, Feb 11, 2013 Women of the Wall will be joined by the IDF paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall in 1967. These Israeli heroes overwhelmingly agree that they must stand with Women of the Wall, as we continue to liberate the Kotel! This historic moment is not to be missed!

This should be interesting to see - I wonder what the reaction will be, maybe it will change the image of Women of the Wall so that they seem less an isolated "fringe" group. The original IDF paratroopers that liberated the Wall probably never anticipated that women would not be allowed to wear tallitim at the Wall! 

Friday, January 18, 2013

On Bernard Goldberg and the fight to save Old Prentice

My piece on Bernard Goldberg and the controversy over saving the Old Prentice building was published in The Forward.  I found analyzing the Jewishness of his approach fascinating, and something that has never yet been written about.

Since publication, a judge has granted a 30-day stay on demolition. But things don't look good for Old Prentice, and that is just so terribly sad.  If you live near Chicago, go take a look at the outside of the building. It might be your last chance.  Here is my article.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

New Spertus exhibit of Jewish Modernist Artists

In next week's Forward, out next Friday the 30th, I review the current exhibit at Spertus on Jewish Modernist Artists, focusing on the theme of reinvention that I saw in the artwork and also in Spertus itself.  The exhibit is vibrant and fascinating. Yet, as I write in the review, while looking at the pieces I felt like Owen Wilson in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, wanting to disappear into a forever lost Chicago world of Yiddishkeit.

My Review of Shimon Attie in the Forward

My review of new Shimon Attie exhibit at Northwestern's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.  Visit the exhibit and let me know your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Overheard at Nathan Englander Reading Last Night

Last night I attended a Nathan Englander lecture at Northwestern. He was the inaugural speaker for the Renee and Lester Crown speaker series sponsored by the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies (last night it was announced that due to a generous donation from the Crown Family, it will now be known as Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israeli Studies.) His most recent book is "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank."

As I eagerly awaited his talk, I listened to two college students behind me:

Boy: Oh, this is Nathan Englander who wrote the story we just read in class?
Girl: Yes, that Nathan Englander. I find his stories all kind of creepy in tone.
Boy: Yeah.
Girl: He is obsessed with the Holocaust.
Boy: That's a weird game to play.
Girl: I've definitely read Anne Frank and it inspired me to write a diary, but I never wondered where I'm going to hide when the Nazis come."

There's obviously some kind of generational disconnect: Englander during his rambling yet evocative talk (he was like a Woody Allen on steroids or hallucinogens) mentioned a British review of his most recent book that said, "It's absurd--for Jews in America to worry about the Holocaust." Englander said, "That was so British! All we talk about is the Holocaust and food!"

I think it's the Jewish "shtetl" on Long Island that Englander grew up in and then disavowed (but now writes about even when he is not directly writing about it) that talks all the time about the Holocaust and food, not the young Jewish college students like those behind me last night who think of the Holocaust as something that happened a lifetime ago and that they have no connection to.

To be fair, Englander knows he is treading a fine line. He joked at the end of his talk that his goal for his unborn children is for them to be fluent in reading Torah and doing a "'drash" and yet at the same time to be "anti-organized religion." And yet it is in holding these seemingly irreconcilable polar positions at the same time within one's mind that is the seed of creating fiction. Indeed he said that it was exploring the idea that the most glorious times for Jews in history were preceded by tragic times, the act of "holding both these things at the same time" in his brain, that led to the shaping of his book.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review of Poet Alan Shapiro's Debut Novel in the Forward

My review of Alan Shapiro's first novel, Broadway Baby is in this Friday's edition of The Forward.

What's really interesting is how this is a sympathetic account of the life of a Jewish Mother, reclaiming the stereotype of the Jewish Mother from the likes of male authors like Philip Roth who depicted the Jewish Mother with dark humor but without empathy. The voice of Portnoy was that of an angry male adolescent, the male Jewish Son, this is a sympathetic portrait of a fifties-era Jewish Mother.

It's also intriguing to read Shapiro's biographical poetry on the same exact topics that he writes about in this novel (a son forced to take care of an aged, incontinent grandmother and resenting the loss of his childhood; a brother who is a musical actor and dies of cancer) and to see how different the novel form is from poetry.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shoah, the Unseen Interviews

Last week I posted a piece on the Forward's Arty Semite Blog on the previously unseen footage from Claude Lanzmann's Shoah documentary.

Those posts have to be short, about 600 words. For my original full-length posting, this is what I wrote:

Last night (December 6th) I attended a screening of “Shoah, the Unseen Interviews,” sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 epic is more than nine hours long and features interviews with 70 individuals from 220 hours filmed (no images are in the monumental film, only interviews with witnesses and survivors). This was a chance to see outtakes from the 220 hours that did not make the original film, clips which are part of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.

More than 500 people filled the auditorium at Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe to see these unseen interviews. (Tonight there will be a sold-out screening in Chicago.) These outtakes, which features footage from interviews with three individuals, two of whom are in the Shoah film, will also be shown in January in the New York Jewish Film Festival, and have already been shown in Cleveland and Detroit.

Rabbi Lowenstein of Am Shalom started the introduction with some fitting words of the Baal Shem Tov and Eli Weisel about the importance to Jews of telling our stories, and suggested that Primo Levi’s words tell us “we should help make the world a little bit better” which is “just what the U.S, Memorial Holocaust Museum is doing”, “remembering the Genocide, the Holocaust, of course, but also Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and unfortunately, the list goes on and on...” (Not to pick on a Rabbi, though that was one of the individuals included in this screening does, but must the Jewishness of the Holocaust really be stripped away, I thought, even at a synagogue screening of unseen clips from Shoah, and equated with the atrocities suffered by others, yet which do not equate with the Holocaust?) His words seemed to unwittingly de-Judaize the Holocaust much as is the recent trend in U.S. Holocaust Museums, which are “contextualizing the Holocaust,” mentioning other genocides alongside the Holocaust, as if the Jewish experience in the Shoah is not important enough in itself for a museum to exist.

Raye Farr, Director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archives, then introduced the footage, explaining that these clips were chosen from the 210 and a half hours of Lanzmann’s footage not included in Shoah because first of all, they are in English, and second, they were an attempt to “bring out the remarkable depth and variety of people that Lanzmann filmed but that didn’t fit into the final construction, or architecture of the film. Lanzmann’s edited film [hews] closely to the killing process, the sweeping up of all the Jews in the Nazi’s process of genocide.” The Archive’s goal was that these excerpts from unseen interviews would bring out other aspects that didn’t fit into this architecture: “victims’ families, the will to survive, women’s experiences, and the attempt to let the world know and rescue remaining Jews.”

The first outtakes are from Lanzmann’s interview with Abraham Boma, a Polish survivor who was the barber in Treblinka, cutting the hair of prisoners before they were led to the gas chambers. Chillingly, Boma speaks in several outtakes, talking about cutting the hair of women before they were gassed while he trims the hair of a man in his barbershop in Israel. He says how it took getting used to once he started working in a new barbershop after the war, getting used to cutting the hair of “ladies” who were wearing clothes, as they were “meant to,” when he was so accustomed to cutting the hair of women who were stark naked. He speaks also of cutting the hair of a 17 year old yougn woman, Sarah Levinson, such a “nice,” “friendly” girl, who told him that she knew she was going to die but that he should escape and then tell everyone he could of what was happening to the Jews in Treblinka. He said he never forgot this girl, that her face was in his mind when he escaped from Treblinka. He tells of how he told the Jews when he returned to the Warsaw Ghetto that all the Jews in Treblinka were being killed but, understandably, they refused to believe him.

The third interview is with Ruth Elias, of whom there is merely a “glimpse” in the film, who talks about her experience in Thiesendat, Auschwitz, where she was pregnant and gave birth, then she and her baby became an experiment with Mengele. Elias, still at the age at which she was interviewed, has a beautiful face, high cheekbones and large brown eyes, and even as she speaks of the horrors she experienced, speaks in such a sweet, palatable voice. She talks of being selected to work in the camp kitchen because of her excellent singing, and then being spotted by an SS singing and asked to organize a variety show. The clip ends with her mentioning finding her second husband in one variety show. To me, her story of romance found in the camps verged on seeming like a recent Hollywood movie about the Holocaust (she tells her full story in her 1988 book, Triumph of Hope) despite her horrible, Sophie’s Choice experience with her baby.

Even more chilling and thought-provoking, indeed, challenging to the audience itself, 500 plus largely well-off, comfortable, assimilated American Jews, is the second interview shown, outtakes from 1.8 hours filmed in 1978 with the fire-brand Peter Bergson (aka Hillel Kook, his birth name), nephew of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac Kook. (Outtakes from this Bergson interview was used in the 2009 Simon Weisenthal documentary Against the Tide, and in the hour-long documentary by Pierre Sauvage, “Not Idly By,” to be released in 2012,.) Unlike the other two interviews shown, this man is not included at all in Lanzmann’s Shoah film. Bergson has remained a little-known figure, though “Not Idly By”, already had a sold-out preview screening November 16th at the Center for Jewish History in New York. Perhaps the time is now right for his story which questions the reaction of American Jews to the suffering of Jews in Europe. The story Kook has to tell begs to be made into a fascinating film in itself, an account of the American Jewish response that has not been depicted. (Kook died in 2001). Unlike Boma and Elias, Bergson, who is not a survivor, is angry in his interview with Lanzmann; he exudes an anger that probably didn’t fit into the original film. He’s angry about the lives he couldn’t save because of the reluctance of American Jewish leaders to do anything. He led an Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe but this only upset American Jewish leaders. Why? Because of their fear, he says, that “people will say this is a Jewish war.” He said he asked for an agency and President Roosevelt formed the War Refugee Board. Bergson says, “Jews were afraid to say, Jewish Refugee Board, afraid to say it’s a Jewish war. All the Jewish organizations came to give money so that it wouldn’t be said ‘the American government spent money on Jews.’” Bergson doesn’t say it here but these American Jewish leaders were afraid that if they called attention to the plight of the European Jews, that it would disturb their own efforts to assimilate into American society.

Bergson’s mission was “to get as many influential Americans to create an atmosphere so the administration would feel this is more important to them then the British pressure not to do anything because of Palestine.” We wanted to “create a tidal wave of human reaction to sway Washington..” He organized a theatrical pageant, They Shall Never Die, that filled Madison Square Garden twice in one night, selling 22,000 tickets in January 1943, that was shown in several U.S. cities. “Who are we, unknown people,” he says, “If Rabbi Weiss would have called a march on Washington we would’ve had half a million Jews march on Washington. Instead,” he says, “Rabbi Weiss, ‘Pooh bah of the Jews,’” declared that Bergson was “bringing antiSemitism to the Jews.” He points to ads on the wall, part of a “propaganda technique,” he and his committee worked on, creating over 90 individual ads placed in newspapers...”” He says of one ad, “The ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe”, by Ben Hecht, with this ad “we almost got the [American] Jews to act.” The poem ends, “Oh world, be patient it will take / Some time for the murder crews / Are done. By Christmas, you can make / Your peace on earth without the Jews.” He says he was contacted at the time by the President of American Jewish Congress Mr. Shulman, and President of American Jewish Committee, Justice Roskow, to stop this ad because they were afraid it would rouse antisemitism because it mentioned Christmas. Bergson says he said to them, “Forget it, we won’t publish it, we have no illusions one ad will save the Jews. You are influential Jews, let’s talk about what we can do to save the Jews, let’s organize a committee. Roskow started crying, I thought I broke through. After 10 days we had one meeting. After they saw we’d withdraw the ad, we didn’t have another meeting.” Bergson says, looking at the camera with steely gray eyes, “If the Jews would have led the action, the American people would have acted.”

Raye Farr spoke again briefly after the clips were shown, asking, “Where is such inhumanity happening today? What can we respond to today?” Ironically, her brief commentary, while well-meaning, like Rabbi Lowenstein’s seems part of the recent trend, contrary to the tremendous testimonial power of Lanzmann’s original Shoah, to contextualize the Holocaust, which threatens to have the effect of trivializing the Holocaust.

As the night ended, Bergson’s words which I had just heard echoed in my head, his description of American Jews’ reluctance to call attention to the particular Jewishness of the war, to the plight of the European Jews, because they didn’t want others to say America is fighting a Jewish war. It’s as if contemporary U.S. Holocaust Museums are similarly afraid to be criticized as teaching and testifying about solely a Jewish experience, the Shoah, and so they include within their museums and their missions “other genocides” such as in Darfur, Rwanda, etc. in order to justify their own existence. Ironically, this is contrary to the purpose of Landsmann’s Shoah, and Bergson’s unseen footage suggests there is still much Holocaust Museums could probe and teach us about the American Jewish response to the Shoah.