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Jan
27
2023

Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): I’ve been thinking about the quietly devastating film Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells, ever since I watched it earlier this week. The compulsion to revisit images, replay scenes, feels especially appropriate in this case: The movie starts with the instantly recognizable sound of a VCR player rewinding as the protagonist, Sophie—now an adult—recursively rewatches video footage from a vacation she took as an 11-year-old with her dad. This understated framing device signals the film’s interest in everything that has evaded the camera’s gaze—that hovers, elusive, behind the moments that Sophie keeps returning to.

The enigma Sophie is searching for in these videos is, simply put, her dad, Calum (played exquisitely by Paul Mescal; the young actor who portrays Sophie, Frankie Corio, is also wonderful). If you think that Mescal, who had his break-out performance two years ago as a university-age heart-throb in a Sally Rooney adaptation, seems a bit young to be cast as the parent of a pre-teen, that’s kind of the point: He jokes about the “old” parents of his daughter’s age-mates, but also visibly struggles to live up to his own idea of what a father should be. As the film follows the pair through a few days on the Turkish coast (normally, we gather, Calum lives in London, while Sophie’s home is in Edinburgh with her mom), it captures the tenderness between them—in gorgeous, sometimes wordless scenes washed with the golden glow of summer or the soft lilac light of dusk—as well as the darkness that Calum tries to conceal. After Sophie goes to bed at night, he does Tai Chi, seeking with an excruciating and dancerly grace to banish the cloud that smothers him. That this shadow never falls directly across the camera only makes its presence harder to bear. In one scene, Sophie tries to interview Calum on video (“When you were 11, what did you think you’d be doing now?”), but he makes her stop recording. The viewer watches in the dead mirror of the TV screen as he sits on the bed, facing away from Sophie, and answers one of her questions with a clipped, false cheer.

The film is full of this formally inventive reticence: of camera angles that reach around doors, catch Calum reflected in mirrors, or bore into the back of his neck as he walks away. It withholds, creating in the viewer the very experience that it captures so precisely and painfully—and sending us, like Sophie, poring back over its images of thwarted intimacy, in search of answers they artfully refuse to yield.

David Klion (newsletter editor): A group chat I’m in recently started a weekly film club. Every week, someone takes a turn nominating three films to watch, and we vote on which sounds most interesting, then watch that one and discuss it together. I really recommend doing something like this with your friends. It’s simultaneously a great communal activity and way to discover movies you probably weren’t going watch otherwise.

In the spirit of starting a trend, I want to recommend one of our latest selections, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical 1979 musical All That Jazz, which most of us never would have thought to watch but were blown away by. It’s not a typical musical (not that there’s anything wrong with musicals as a genre, but if they’re not your thing, this isn’t what you’re probably imagining), and no less an authority than Stanley Kubrick called it “[the] best film I think I have ever seen.” It’s a kind of deep dive into the psyche of a successful and charismatic creative who thinks most of what he does is shit and whose lifestyle is rapidly killing him. If that description resonates with you in any way, maybe pitch it to the film club that you formed upon my earlier recommendation.

Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): One of the funnier books I return to every so often is artist Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (2009), a graphic novel in the form of an auction catalog detailing items once owned by the titular characters, Lenore and Harold.

Lenore (played in the book’s staged photographs by none other than Sheila Heti) is a recipe developer at The New York Times; Harold (depicted by artist Paul Sahre), about ten years her senior, is a commercial photographer who travels for work several times a year. I can’t say this is the most subversive piece of art I’ve ever enjoyed—in part because the compulsion to continue reading, at first, derives from the gossipy delight of digging into someone else’s conspicuous consumption—but it has made me consider what it means to hold onto the matter of a relationship, even after the associated objects cease to seem like anything but stuff.

The entire narrative of the couple unfolds over a series of about 300 auction lots and their descriptions. We witness, through ephemera, gifts, and trash, how Lenore and Harold got together (“LOT 1006: A pair of movie tickets // A pair of unused tickets to Annie Hall at the Film Forum”), the banal domestic life they lived as a couple (“LOT 1119: Dog salt and pepper shakers // A pair of dachshund salt and pepper shakers. Given by Morris’s mother to Doolan”), and the long dissolution of their relationship (“LOT 1306: A white noise machine // a no. 500 Sleep Sound by Invento white noise machine, kept by Morris . . . Irreparable damage to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer”). Though the drama plays out over the course of several years, the form of auction catalog as fait accompli lends itself to a kind of pessimistic reading: Every time I return to the book, I find myself searching for more clues as to the tensions that tear apart the relationship. As much as Jewish Currents readers might relish the easy materialist analysis the form encourages, Shapton’s text would make anyone contemplate the strange and mundane objects from ex-lovers and friends that they still possess.


Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ve long found the 19th-century French socialist Paul Lafargue admirable for two reasons. The first is his suicide alongside his wife Laura, the daughter of Karl Marx. In his suicide note, Lafargue wrote, “Healthy in body and mind, I end my life before pitiless old age which has taken from me my pleasures and joys one after another; and which has been stripping me of my physical and mental powers, can paralyze my energy and break my will, making me a burden to myself and to others.” No longer able to fully participate in the social struggles that had given his life meaning, he chose to exit the world on his own terms, ending his note with an optimistic declaration that the cause for which he fought would triumph: “Long live Communism! Long live international socialism!”

The other reason for my admiration is his one truly great contribution to socialist thought, his pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy, which was recently published by NYRB Classics in a new, vibrant translation by Alex Andriesse. As a theorist, Lafargue’s ultra-radical line famously inspired his father-in-law to say that if this is Marxism, “je ne suis pas marxiste.” In The Right to Be Lazy, Lafargue takes the socialists and the wider working class to task for valorizing the greatest ill that afflicts them: work. The time has come, he insists, for the proletariat to reject existing morality and thinking and “return to their natural instincts.” “They must proclaim the right of laziness,” he writes, “a hundred times nobler and holier than the Rights of Man cooked up by the philosophizing lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. They must hold themselves to working only three hours at a time, lazing about and feasting the rest of the day and night.”

How will they be able to do this? By supporting mechanization, which reduces the need for manpower and, in the new socialist order, will permit them to spend their time fishing. The death of capitalism will reduce the need to overproduce, making labor superfluous. True socialism is not, for Lafargue, the ultimate sanctification of labor, but rather its gravedigger. (In the end, it was not Marxism but Situationism that followed the path laid out by Marx’s kin, with their call to “Never Work.”)

It’s no surprise that none of what Lafargue imagined has come to pass. Like most Marxist writing, this great book can be classified as science fiction, though actual science fiction (think Jules Verne) has predicted the future far more accurately than, say, anything in the catalog of Verso Books. Still, the fact that things didn’t turn out as Lafargue hoped—that veneration of work remains ubiquitous even among leftists and the drive for consumption, which in Lafargue’s time spared workers, is now the defining feature of all classes—takes nothing away from the cogency, the sparkle, the sheer fun of The Right to Be Lazy.

Lafargue, in his diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, brings a class analysis to the problems that impact every individual. Almost all of us spend our lives busy at something of little use or interest to us. And as he reminds us, there’s nothing revolutionary about a marginal reduction in the workday, unless it’s to virtually zero.

Jan
20
2023

Alex Kane (senior reporter): Even among peers like Dissent and Jewish Currents, Commentary magazine remains the most famous—not to mention most politically influential—of the “little magazines” that came to prominence during the American post-war period. In the journal’s heyday, leading left-liberal literary and political personalities like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Hannah Arendt regularly graced Commentary’s pages. Today, the magazine publishes pieces like Elliot Abrams’s most recent lamentation concerning the “Jewish freak out” over Israel’s new hardline government (you might remember Abrams from his Iran-Contra days). I had sometimes wondered about Commentary’s transformation from renowned literary journal to publisher of neoconservative polemics, but it wasn’t until I finished Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right that I truly understood how the metamorphosis came to be. Balint’s treatment of the magazine’s politics in the 1950s and 1960s–from its early dalliances with the civil rights movement to its editorial backlash against the New Left–deftly shows that the roots of neoconservatism lie not in foreign policy but the domestic clashes that defined the post-war era.


Overall, Balint’s account of the magazine’s history is a brisk tale with a healthy mix of literary and political gossip, all of which keeps the reader curious about Commentary as a social project as well as a political one. Balint—whose own neoconservative credentials include a fellowship at the Hudson Institute and a stint as assistant editor at Commentary itself—does not set out to challenge the assumptions that drove the magazine’s ideological shift from an anti-Stalinist leftist outpost to neoconservative rag. This might disappoint readers who want a history of the neoconservative movement that bares down on the ideology’s murderous mistakes (chief among them, propping up Latin American dictators and, of course, the Iraq War). Instead, Balint takes the magazine on its own terms and writes an entertaining and candid account of its greatest successes and controversies.

Ari Brostoff (senior editor): The biographer Robert Caro has chosen his subjects carefully—as one would hope, given that he spent seven years writing the story of 20th-century New York through the career of its central planner Robert Moses and has devoted the rest of his life to a five-volume, still-in-progress biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s easy to imagine what a movie about Caro and his subjects could be: a rote exploration of a nerdy kid from the Upper West Side and the outsized antiheroes whose deeds he has spent his life chronicling. But the documentary Turn Every Page does something more surprising. The film pairs Caro with the man in his own shadow: the editor Robert Gottlieb, who has been working with Caro for over 50 years. It’s not an obviously compelling premise (I dutifully bullied the friend who asked if I wanted to see it before realizing: of course I did), but it yielded a very charming movie that is not only the best but perhaps the only film I’ve ever seen about the craft of editing.

Lovingly directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, Turn Every Page oscillates between the two Roberts and their accounts of their working life together. Both men are New York Jews born in the 1930s who have maintained a lifelong, manic enthusiasm for reading. Caro, the more cantankerous of the two, channeled his enthusiasm into prodigious research; at one point, he recounts how he knocked on the right doors in Texas’s Jim Wells County until he solved the decades-old mystery of how Johnson apparently stole his first Senate election. Gottlieb, who is wily, grandiose, and a collector of women’s handbags in a—I don’t quite know how to explain this . . . and neither does his wife . . . but, a straight guy way?—channeled his own mania into becoming an almost absurdly prolific editor. First at Simon & Schuster and then at Knopf, he edited everything from Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park to most of Toni Morrison. (He also edited The New Yorker for a few years.) He edited every page of The Power Broker, Caro’s bestselling 1974 Robert Moses biography, cutting it down from over a million words to a reasonable 750,000, leaving us with the 1,300-page classic now in its umteenth printing.

The relationship between writer and editor has also been a challenging one. While the film is circumspect about the deeper sources of Caro and Gottleib’s difficulties in working together, it seems clear that they have met their match in one another. Not only do the two men equal each other in their obsessive habits and long-ranging ambitions—they crack jokes throughout about whether Caro will finish his fifth Johnson volume for Gottlieb before one or the other dies—they also share a deep stubbornness concerning the granular questions that shape the crafts of writing and editing. Their most notable squabble concerns the value of semicolons, the topic of an entire, delightful sequence of the film. The Roberts appear on screen together only in the documentary’s final scene, when Lizzie Gottlieb is finally permitted to observe their editing process. The permission is conditional, though: She must turn the sound off on her camera, because the editing process between these two garrulous men is, at the end of the day, “private”—and, one gets the sense, almost sacred.

Mitch Abdior (contributing writer): The streaming channel Ovid.tv has added a marvelous series of films on anarchism, all of which are available starting today. Taken as a whole, these films cover anarchism in all its varied forms from the mid-19th century until the present.

Five movies in the collection were made by the two-man collective Pacific Street Films. The filmmakers, Steve Fischler and Joel Sucher, have known each other since elementary school and have worked on films together for over 50 years (for a complete career overview, see my article in the Fall 2022 issue of Cineaste). This series includes their classic documentary on the Jewish anarchist movement, Free Voice of Labor (1980), which follows the movement from its immigrant beginnings to its end, with the 1977 closing of the Yiddish anarchist newspaper, Freie Arbeiter Stimme. It’s an affectionate and moving portrait of this once-great movement. Also featured are Pacific Street’s Red Squad (1972), an angry documentary about the NYPD’s activities during the Vietnam War era; Frame Up! (1974), which recounts the framing of Black activist Martin Sostre in Buffalo in 1967; and Anarchism in America (1982), which presents an eclectic picture of the varieties of American anarchism and the ways they fit into the American geist. (On a different—and non-anarchist—note, the 1999 film From Swastika to Jim Crow is a fascinating work about the German Jewish émigrés who taught at historically Black colleges upon arriving in the US after fleeing Hitler—men who successfully handled the move from Heidelberg to the wilds of the Deep South.)

Two films about the anarchist martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti are streaming as well. The 1971 Italian feature film Sacco & Vanzetti is an overheated and not entirely accurate account of the trial. (I remember reviewing this film for my college newspaper 50 years ago, proof of Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return.) But Peter Miller’s excellent 2006 documentary Sacco and Vanzetti thoroughly demolishes the case against the two men. Neither film hides the fact that they were not gentle souls, as they’ve long been depicted, but rather members of a violent wing of anarchism—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Also streaming by Peter Miller is a history of the hymn of the international working-class movement, The Internationale (2000). The interview subjects are an international lot who place the song in its multiple historical and sentimental contexts. It’s a thoroughly inspiring half-hour of cinema.

Stew Bird and Deborah Schaffer’s The Wobblies (1979) has justly been added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry (for further information, see my article in the Summer 2022 issue of Cineaste). Bird and Schaffer constructed their filmed history of the revolutionary union out of interviews with surviving members of the Industrial Workers of the World. The result is lively, informative, and irreplaceable.

Finally, the three-part series No Gods, No Masters (2017) by Tancrède Ramonet is something of a mixed bag. Ramonet covers the history of anarchism from Proudhon in the mid-19th century to the end of the Spanish Civil War. The three parts all contain magnificent footage of people and events from the anarchist past, from the contemporary newsreel of the French anarchist bandits of the Bonnot Gang’s final battle with the police in 1912, to the anarchist fighters under Durruti in Spain. The series is worth watching if only for this material. An international battery of experts provide a thorough history of the movement, but the problem is the voiceover narration, which is full of exaggerations and errors (for instance, it claims that the Paris Commune gave women the vote and that the American volunteers during the Spanish Civil War were members of the IWW, among many other mistakes). Watch the whole series and trust the experts when they speak; take everything else with a bucketful of salt.

Jan
13
2023

Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): The other day, I went to “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” at the Museum of Modern Art, which reexhibited collected works from the gallery Just Above Midtown, or JAM. Organized and led by multimedia artist and gallerist Linda Goode Bryant between 1974 and 1986, JAM was a self-described laboratory for and by Black artists, who were given total creative control when working with Goode Bryant. The art featured in the MoMA retrospective is in turn innovative, beautiful, and sometimes strikingly labor intensive. I took a long time walking through the rooms of the exhibition, absorbing the breadth of the work on display. Howardena Pindell’s bricolage of individually painted hole-punches fixed to a canvas with string and adhesive, Senga Nengudi’s hanging sculptures of nylon stockings filled with sand (“reminiscent of both breasts and testicles”), and David Hammons’s designs made from paper pulp and hair represent only a fraction of the diverse media and subject matter in the collective’s work.

The exhibition is also forthright about how funding was a constant challenge for JAM: One wall is papered over with all of the overdue bill statements Goode Bryant received over the gallery’s life, which she had kept in storage since its closing. At another point, the curators pair a timeline of JAM’s debts and evictions with MoMA’s asset accrual and expansion. The exhibition offers a view into what was possible, artistically and communally, thanks to the ambition and labor of JAM’s artists. It also encouraged me to imagine what the art world could have been had JAM received institutional backing and kept its doors open through the 90s and into the 2000s. This exhibition is on view until February 18th; if you’re in or passing through New York, definitely go check it out!

Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Last Sunday, JC Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel staged an intervention with me, her husband, and a couple of our friends, all former theater kids of one stripe or another: None of us had seen the movie Fame, and this had to be fixed right away. Fame, released in 1980, is set at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, a prestigious public conservatory then located in the city’s theater district; the movie was a big enough hit that in the years after its release, the high school was nicknamed “the Fame school.” I was expecting high camp: ballerinas bashing each other’s kneecaps, voice teachers undermining their most talented students. Instead, Fame turned out to be a beautifully made, hyperkinetic but almost understated love letter to arts education.

Fame is full of pathos, of course: There are dancers in an interracial love triangle, a babushka-wearing Jewish mother who doesn’t want her actress daughter to change her name from Doris to Dominique, a sad clown of a repressed young homosexual who lives alone in a neon-soaked Broadway apartment while his mom flies to Hollywood to make pictures. The students’ senior year melodrama includes an actor named Ralph Garcie turning his bottled-up insecurity and rage into a rapid rise and fall as a standup comic.

But the film’s nervous system is made up of its scenes of rehearsal and performance, from its hilarious opening audition montage to Irene Cara, who, in a breakout role, pounds out her ballad “Out Here on My Own” on the piano. (Cara passed away late last year; sadly, one of the film’s other brightest stars—Gene Anthony Ray, who plays the defiant, lovable dancer Leroy Johnson—struggled with addiction and died of AIDS complications in 2003.) One of the best sequences in the movie takes place at a packed screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show—no drama unfolds, it’s just theater kids having fun.

Mari Cohen (associate editor): Nearly a decade since the explosive debut of season one of Serial, the genre of the narrative journalism podcast has begun to seem almost like a cliché. There can be no doubt that the market is oversaturated, and that the proliferation of true-crime imitations is not just annoying but arguably harmful. Still, I continue to find certain facets of the form intriguing—namely, the way the figure of the host makes visible the journalist as a character in the reporting process, signaling to the listener that the findings are being channeled to us through a specific individual. Of course, the extent to which this is true varies—plenty of podcast and radio hosts play the “neutral” straight man—but at the very least, hearing the host’s voice, and their participation in conversations with sources, reminds us that they, too, are a persona in the story, rather than some omniscient authority hovering above.

The “Trojan Horse Affair,” Serial’s fourth season, released about a year ago, plays on this dynamic to great effect. The story begins with Hamza Syed, a doctor-turned-journalism-student, on a quest to report on the provenance of the Trojan Horse letter, a mysterious letter that turned up on the desks of Birmingham, UK officials in 2014 professing to be the communication between two Islamists plotting a takeover of local schools. The letter seemed like an obvious hoax, but it still spurred a series of investigations and interventions that led to the rollback of a number of reforms that had made Pakistani Muslim students more successful in public schools. It also prompted changes to British counterterrorism policy that disproportionately targeted Muslims and other minorities. Hamza, himself a British Pakistani Muslim living in Birmingham, is disturbed by the extent to which this bogus letter prompted so much outrage and policy change, and hopes that if he can uncover where the letter actually comes from, he might persuade British politicians and journalists to reconsider their response. Syed manages to enlist Brian Reed, a white American reporter known for the successful Serial productions podcast “S-Town,” to take on the story with him.

More interesting than what Hamza and Brian do find is what they don’t find. While they turn up compelling evidence that the Trojan Horse letter may have been written by a peculiar school head teacher desperate to turn attention away from her own misconduct, their efforts to fully grasp why the Birmingham City Council and UK Parliament ignored this obvious link is mostly futile. The answer is maddening and illuminating in its banality: It’s a lot easier for even well-meaning officials to fall in line behind an Islamophobic status quo than to commit to doing due diligence. No one in charge can really explain why they didn’t try harder to get it right, because no good answer really exists. Along the way, throughout their multiple years of reporting, Syed and Reed’s reporting partnership—and their charming “buddy comedy” dynamic—showcases the tensions between two diverging approaches to journalism. Reed, despite his stature in new media, hews closest to traditional journalistic “objectivity.” He never wants to make assumptions about what he’s going to find, and he’s in it for the “good story.” Any impact his story makes is just icing on the cake. Hamza, meanwhile, finds it impossible to divorce his approach to the story from his own experiences of racism and Islamophobia. How can he not have certain suspicions about where the story is headed, he wonders, or frustrations with certain sources? And if his reporting is not going to make an impact, what’s the point of doing it at all? It’s intriguing to hear Brian admit that that impact is not his primary motivator—and that, until now, he hasn’t had to think much about what is. The podcast reveals Brian to be a sharp, dogged, likable reporter, and one obviously, at times, emotionally caught up in the work. Could he really not be politically invested in what his story might do in the world? Or does he just not want to admit that he is?

Major NYTimes investigations and smash-hit podcasts are known for often provoking real change. But the aftermath of the release of the “Trojan Horse Affair” has been anticlimactic. Rather than consider its own damaging role in the original scandal, the British press has doubled down, running hit pieces on the podcast. Local journalists have mostly declined to pick up on the reporting, and politicians who came off looking shady in the podcast are mostly back to their regular posts. The primary school head teacher who was implicated as a potential author of the hoax letter is still at work—it’s unclear if anyone even tried to interview her after the podcast came out. A few months after the release of the podcast, Hamza admitted to Vulture that this was disappointing: “My motivations are at the level of the politicians. To make them face stuff. And if something I do has no bearing on them, then I’ll always be in some form of mourning regardless of the collateral benefit it brings, because it means we continue to have the same people in charge of us.”

I can relate. Often enough, the reporting work I do fails to produce real accountability. I can point out when institutions and politicians are engaging in harmful behavior and expose contradiction after contradiction, but often enough, these actors’ reputations and credibility remain largely unscathed, the status quo weighing heavily on their side. Does it matter if you keep trying to scream the truth if no one’s listening? Hamza, at the end of the podcast, expresses doubt that he wants to continue in journalism, if this is what it’s like. For now, though I’m still here, doing my best to nudge the rock up the hill.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): This year’s New York Jewish Film Festival started yesterday and will be running through January 23rd. Here are some highlights:

I usually enjoy the challenge of keeping my weekly recommendations under 500 words—my version of an Oulipian constraint, like Georges Perec writing a novel without using the letter E. But to properly treat Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s breathtakingly original film Charlotte Salomon: Life and the Maiden, I would have to explode this limitation. Instead, I will simply say that this film brilliantly blends period movie footage with Salomon’s masterwork, Life? or Theatre?—a series of hundreds of paintings she made about the story of her family and of her love for her stepmother’s singing teacher. These works, which included dialogue painted onto the images, serve as a kind of animated telling of the story; in the film, selections of her words are read by some of France’s greatest actors.

The Polish director Krzysztof Lang’s March ’68 is a love story between two students, the tale of the 1968 Polish student protest movement against censorship, and finally, a recounting of the horrific antisemitic campaign carried out by an ostensibly socialist country in the wake of the Six-Day War of the previous year. Lang braids the stories together with great skill. Hania, the aspiring actress at the film’s center, is the daughter of a neurosurgeon who loses his post because he is a Jew, despite having hidden his identity. She is also actively involved in the protests that arose after the censoring of a play by Poland’s national writer, Adam Mickeiwicsz. Hania’s love interest, Janek, is the son of a colonel in the country’s security forces, who is a key player both in crushing the student protests and in executing the campaign against the few remaining Jews in Poland. Lest anyone think director Lang is exaggerating the antisemitism of the time, in the background we can see and hear anti-Jewish speeches given by supporters of the government—and even from Władysław Gomułka, the head of state. March ’68 is an important history lesson.

Amanda Kinsey’s Jews of the Wild West is not great cinema, but it does tell a story that is not very well-known: that of Jews who settled in the American West. Though some of the stories it tells are fairly familiar—like those of Levi Strauss and of Josephine Marcus, the wife of the lawman Wyatt Earp—it also features forgotten figures like Bronco Billy Anderson, a Russian Jew who starred in the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery. Kinsey interviews ranchers, rabbis, historians, and descendants of settlers in the West, who provide a loving picture of this alternative to life in the slums of New York and Chicago.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by the 11 minutes of the uncredited Yiddish film Jewish Life in Lvov, made up of simple street scenes shot in that Polish city shortly before the war. It’s a nothing of a film that history turned into a heartbreaking document. When it was made, it was just a sentimental reminder of the old world—within a decade, that world was no more.

Jan
6
2023

Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): When I finished my stint in the UK and moved back to the US in September, I needed something light to carry around while schlepping through Brooklyn to buy used furniture from strangers. So I started reading Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, which I found while unpacking the books I had left at my parents’ house. Like many people who encounter Lispector in the wilderness, I immediately became a devotee. And after reading a few of her novels, I splurged on Too Much of Life, the new unabridged collection of her newspaper columns that ran between 1967 and 1976.

At times diaristic but never pointedly confessional, these crônicas—a Brazilian genre of brief, digressive prose pieces—take a variety of forms: flash fiction, irritated accounts of boring parties, odes to and jeremiads against the apparatuses of modern life (the telephone, the typewriter), and a host of intellectual and spiritual meditations. As I’ve made my way through the first 250 pages, I’ve been struck by the intimacy and humor of many of these dispatches. To my mind, these qualities of her weekly work are less as an intentional, aesthetic effect than a function of Lispector’s personality. Like in her novels, her style across columns is spare and crystalline, but unlike her longer work, the crônicas don’t build towards a poetics to unlock or an emotional landscape to parse. They feel like an author inviting you into the banal mental and intellectual labor of writing: trying out ideas, working through a query, getting tired of yourself, and going to bed.

Lispector is also writing from the vaunted vantage point of self-proclaimed middle age. Even in the more seemingly frivolous columns, she feels like an auntie drawing you in to tell you something important, because the lesson has come at a personal cost: the cost of thinking. It is breathtaking when those moments of confidence coincide with what appears to be a germ of an idea for a novel (I would argue you can see the beginning of The Hour of the Star in her serialized retelling of an issue with a hired maid and a clairvoyant cook).

My high school art history teacher once pointed out the snow on the branches of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow as, on some level, evidence of the joy of painting. Bruegel enjoyed his vocation to such an extent that he delighted in the work and challenge of such a detail. In his epilogue to Too Much of Life, Lispector’s son Paulo writes that it’s not clear whether his mother kept the column just to have a steady income, but her writing does reveal she relished the joy of extra thinking.

Ari Brostoff (senior editor): A few years ago I saw a video installation called Manifesto, created by the German artist Julian Rosefeldt, in which Cate Blanchett, dressed as a variety of characters (sanitation worker, CEO, etc.), delivers excerpts from manifestos by strongly opinionated people from the choreographer Yvonne Rainer to Karl Marx. It was then—even more than while watching Elizabeth or Carol, other notable films in which the actress, as the queen of England or a bored lesbian, allows us to enjoy the pressure of her iron grip—that I discovered the strength of my desire to be talked at by Cate Blanchett for two to three hours at a stretch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, I really loved Tár.

The biggest question that has been asked about Tár, which has provoked considerable dissonance among friends and critics, is whether it’s a reactionary jeremiad against “cancel culture” (see this review by Richard Brody) or is navigating the current culture wars in a more subtle way (see this one by Zadie Smith). The question largely circles around a single early scene in which Lydia Tár, the fictitious world-famous conductor and impresario portrayed by Blanchett, blows up at Max, a student in her master class who is trying (though not very hard) to cancel Bach. Tár has arrived to teach the class shortly after a public appearance at the New Yorker Festival with critic Adam Gopnik, who fawns over her; the conductor’s preferred mode of communication, we quickly learn, is holding forth. Onstage at the festival, she talks at Gopnik and at her rapt audience; now, teaching the class, she begins to talk at her students. The scenes are twinned, her speech flowing almost unbroken from the former into the latter, between sycophant and challenger, like Blanchett moving between manifestos in Manifesto. All of this works beautifully, except for one problem: Max. He describes himself woodenly as “BIPOC” (c’mon) and “agender” (really?) and is not just disdainful of Bach’s misogyny but seems strikingly unfamiliar (he’s a Juilliard student!) with the composer’s work. Tár calls him “a robot”; he is, essentially, a prop. Meanwhile, Blanchett is striding about, going off on an unhinged rant that, when it later surfaces on the internet, helps to take her down. Her lines are brilliantly written; his are generated by algorithm. The scene is totally maddening. And then—it is over, never to meaningfully return.

The truth is that Tár is ultimately uninterested in politics, much as Manifesto is far more invested in Blanchett’s power to convince than it is about the particular contents of any one manifesto. Tár is about a long-haired butch who pairs luxurious baggy sweaters with baseball caps, whose daughter calls her “Lydia,” who has conned the world into thinking she’s the second coming of Leonard Bernstein though she has not a grain of populism in her frightened elitist soul, and who succumbs to a very familiar—one might say classical—form of hubris: believing she can treat young women as playthings without facing consequences.

I would have watched it for four more hours—this instant cult classic that would have been a truly great movie if it had taken its antihero’s adversaries just a little more seriously, instead of wanting to save its pitch-perfect condemnation for itself.

David Klion (newsletter editor): As a new dad, my reading time is limited and I’ve been bouncing between a few different books without making adequate headway in any of them. Movies have been a better bet, and fortunately for me, as a card-carrying member of the Writers Guild of America, East, I now get sent DVDs and streaming logins for every movie up for awards this year. Here are the last three I watched, in descending order of how much I liked them:

Tár: Apparently I’m not the only JC staffer recommending Tár this week, but it’s just that great. A lot of the online discourse around Todd Field’s masterpiece focuses on the interminable public discourses around “cancel culture” that you’re probably as sick of as I am. The film is certainly informed by those debates, but it’s first and foremost a work of art, not a shallow polemic—and like all great art, one takes what one wishes from it. Whether you think “wokeness” has gone too far or not far enough is beside the point; either way, you’re going to be engrossed in Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the fictional (but wholly believable) conductor Lydia Tár—a creative genius, a fraud, a striver, a predator, and a singularly compelling figure whose subjectivity shapes every scene, as the movie vacillates between horror and farce.

The Fabelmans: Steven Spielberg’s latest, a semi-autobiographical family drama co-written with Tony Kushner, didn’t have to be as good as it is. It could have easily been a cliched coming-of-age saga combined with an indulgent celebration of the magic of cinema, full of little winks at the Spielberg canon, and no doubt that’s all some will see in it. But The Fabelmans is more subtle than that, positing filmmaking less as an escape from a crumbling home life than as a lens into that very dysfunction and a means for distorting and manipulating an unpleasant reality. Spielberg is critical of his younger self and empathetic for both of his late parents (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are both terrific, if not the least bit convincing as Jews), and there are sublime moments, including a confrontation with two high school bullies that serves as an allegory for how Jews have used Hollywood as a means to negotiate relations with a sometimes-hostile America.

Glass Onion: It’s fine, I guess, and no doubt far more commercially successful than the first two. Everyone is a broad caricature and the mystery isn’t all that mysterious, but we do get to see a lot of actors having fun, and Edward Norton’s scathing portrayal of (essentially) Elon Musk could hardly be more timely. You could do worse.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): I’ve always accepted the rule that whoever invokes Hitler when discussing their opponent automatically loses. And yet, as I read Confidence Man, the engrossing and terrifying new volume on Trump by journalist Maggie Haberman—who has covered him extensively over the past few years, risking great damage to her soul—I realized the similarities between the two men are unmistakable.

I am not a fool, and am not likening even Trump’s worst actions to those of Hitler. He’s a racist, to be sure, and despite surrounding himself with Jews, he is full of antisemitic prejudices. (Haberman even tells us that Trump kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside, that he regretted not having German generals running the US military, and that he said Hitler did good things.) But it is in Trump’s work and political methods that he most resembles Hitler. The constant lying is an obvious trait shared by the two men, as is the certainty that a lie repeated often and loudly enough will be accepted as truth. The constant dysfunction and chaos that marked all of Trump’s operations, the pitting of one underling against another, the lack of clarity around orders and designs—all of this was typical of Hitler. Those under Hitler were said to be “working toward the Führer,” anticipating and acting in accordance with what they thought he intended. And so it is with Trump: Life working for him was a daily, non-lethal Night of the Long Knives, with no one safe from his ire.

In my review of the first volume of Volker Ullrich’s biography of Hitler for Jewish Currents, I wrote of how, on top of all his murderousness, Hitler was also a chiseler. Trump is famously tax averse, and Hitler, in his first years as Chancellor, likewise failed to pay his taxes; it was ultimately necessary for a law to be passed exempting him from them. Had Trump known of this, we can be certain the Republican legislature would have obliged. Trump’s greed in licensing his name was anticipated by Hitler as well: Stamps in Nazi Germany bore his image, and he received royalties on each one sold. Should Trump return, be prepared for something similar. As Confidence Man demonstrates, nothing is outside the realm of possibility.

Dec
23
2022

Mark Egerman (board co-chair): If you’re reading this newsletter, then Hanukkah on Rye—the newest Hannnukah-themed Hallmark Christmas movie—is not for you. It’s not that people engaged in modern Jewish life (in any of its forms) can’t or shouldn’t watch it. But they should know that the film is nominally about Jews in the same way Toto’s “Africa” is about Africa or Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is about Japan. Even though Judaism is as central to the plot as it is in Fiddler on the Roof, which Hanukkah on Rye tries and fails to play for a laugh, it’s hard not to feel like a voyeur while watching it.

This is essentially a Christmas-themed remake of You’ve Got Mail—itself an adaptation of a far more Jewish movie, Shop Around the Corner, which is itself an adaptation of Miklós László’s Parfumerie. In the past three years, Hallmark has incorporated Jews into a few entries in its annual barrage of new Christmas films. But while those earlier films find comedic potential in the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah on Rye technically ignores Christmas—it’s exclusively about Hanukkah and features exclusively Jewish characters, who pepper their speech with Yiddish—while replicating the entire structure of a Christmas movie.

The central tension of the film centers on a rivalry between two delis: Gilbert’s on the Lower East Side and Zimmer’s from LA, which is opening a new location next door. The LES has never looked more goyish; the movie was shot in Winnipeg, and there are a number of incredible moments when a character will point to a three-story building built in 1970 and say, “This used to be a tenement where my great grandmother lived.” But of course, none of this really matters, because the whole absurd setup exists just to fill out the standard Hallmark Christmas script, now with a new ethnic flair.

The central problem with the movie is that substituting Hanukkah for Christmas just doesn’t make sense. It’s a stretch to imagine that the deli takes people caroling each night of Hanukkah—especially given that they keep singing the second Hanukkah candle blessing for some reason. But the biggest howler for me was when the female lead’s parents admitted that the deli was in bad shape because of a rent hike and said they had refrained from telling her because they didn’t want to ruin her Hanukkah. This is a woman in her 30s without children. There is no Hanukkah to ruin; she’s fine.

The whole film is a mess: Lisa Loeb briefly appears and sings a new Hanukkah song, and here’s a wise Magical Negro character that would have been offensive even 30 years ago. The emotional climax (spoilers ahead) comes during a cook-off between the delis to see which makes the best latkes. When everyone realizes that they taste the same, the families discover that they all used the exact same recipe from their great grandmothers. For a brief moment it looks like the romantic leads might be second cousins. Sadly, no—their great grandmothers were simply (and incredibly unrealistically) friends on the boat over to Ellis Island. I guess the extended Hallmark Christmasverse just wasn’t ready for that.

Ari Brostoff (senior editor): In the 1980s, photographer Nan Goldin began taking pictures of her friends in New York’s downtown scene—the glamorous, doomed home of a generation of queer avant-garde artists and writers. She photographed people dressed fabulously at parties, people sick with AIDS, couples fucking, and her own bruised face after being beaten by an abusive boyfriend. Many of these images appear in her landmark 1986 photo diary, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Looking back at the series today, these images restore blazing life to a world largely destroyed by AIDS, and then by gentrification. Goldin’s gaze—painfully intimate but also stagey, romantic but unsentimental—was formative for me, as it was for so many others, in illuminating a version of the city gone before our own time.

Laura Poitras’s new documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed weaves together Goldin’s life as a photographer with the story of the struggle, both personal and political, that consumed her over the past decade. In 2014, Golden became addicted to painkillers after a surgery; after she recovered three years later, she founded a group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Their primary target is Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin and played a pivotal role in a massive increase in opioid prescriptions in the 1990s. One of the group’s main tactics has fused Goldin’s stature in the art world with her fight against Purdue. P.A.I.N. has publicly shamed the many museums that have accepted large donations from the Sackler family, which owned Purdue, in an egregious case of “artwashing”: For a long time, the Sackler family name was most familiar not for the deaths they caused, but for its prominence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major cultural institutions.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed faces the challenge of juxtaposing the mix of gorgeousness and repulsion in Goldin’s work as an artist with the unvarnished horror of the crimes she has highlighted as an activist. It succeeds miraculously, creating a portrait of pain and pleasure, artmaking and exploitation, worthy of Goldin’s own oeuvre.

Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): My first job was as a fact-checker at a magazine that came out every other week. That meant that “close”—the final stages of finishing an issue—came around twice a month, and with it the inevitable night when all the checkers stayed at the office until 3 or 4 am, annotating drafts, eating cheap takeout, and growing increasingly slap-happy and unhinged. We would ship the magazine to the printer on Thursday, drag ourselves into work at noon on Friday, and wake up Monday to start the cycle again. A quarterly magazine like Jewish Currents is a different beast, however. Close isn’t a night or two—it’s a month-long stretch. During these sprints to finish an issue, it can be hard to unwind in the evenings.

This close, I found the perfect diversion in the genius Spanish-language comedy series Los Espookys, which follows a group of friends who decide to pursue their love of horror by starting a business that puts on paranormal spectacles. The show itself isn’t remotely scary: Its practitioners of fright are an exceedingly gentle group of misfits, played by co-creators Julio Torres and Ana Fabrega as well as Bernardo Velasco and Cassandra Ciangherotti. (Fred Armisen also has a role as Velasco’s character’s uncle.) I was inspired to watch it by the wave of online lamentations that I saw after HBO announced its cancellation earlier this month. As many have said in the past few weeks, it’s a shame to lose a show that’s like nothing else on television: a bilingual comedy that uses subtitles to enhance its humor; a story about queer millennials who just want to attain excellence at their one weird thing; a fractured fairytale where the deadpan punchlines always kill and there’s something liberating about the minimal stakes.

Sleep-walking through the last few days, the thing I’ve loved most about the show is its dreaminess: It takes place in a fictional Latin American country where everyone takes strange events in stride. A water spirit shows up wanting to watch a movie; a television news host displays signs of demonic possession; a haunted mirror ingests a diplomat. The candy-sweet color scheme lends a softness to the surreality. If you, too, find yourself on the edge of incoherence as the holiday break begins, you could hardly do better than to enjoy the two seasons in an all-too-short binge.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has paid dearly for having displeased the authorities of the Islamic Republic. Banned from making films, placed under house arrest for much of the past 12 years, and sentenced to jail time this past summer, he has nevertheless persisted, finding unique means of circumventing the ban. In his films This is Not a Film (2011) and Taxi (2015), rather than using standard film equipment, he has used his cell phone as a movie camera, circumventing the ban he lives under.

Panahi has always been fond of allowing reality to intrude into his fiction films. In his great film The Mirror (1997), the main character is a little girl making her way home from school on her own when her mother fails to pick her up. Almost halfway through the movie, the little actress rebels against working with Panahi—though after several viewings, I’m still not sure whether this turn is genuine, or if everything in the film is staged. In Offside (2006), he placed a group of women attempting to view a World Cup qualifying match in the stadium during a real game, making it impossible for the actors and crew to know how the film would unfold.

Panahi’s new film, No Bears, takes his circumventing of his ban and his mixing of fiction and reality to an even greater extreme. The film opens on a scene of a man and a woman meeting outside a café in Turkey and arguing over their possible flight to France. We soon learn that the scene we are seeing is being viewed by Panahi on his laptop, from a small Iranian town across the border. He is directing the film from his room, with his assistant guided by the shooting script as Panahi reviews the process and issues directions to the cast and crew. We’re never told why Panahi is in the nowhere town in which he’s rented a room from a poor but admiring local, who never calls him anything but “dear sir.”

It soon becomes difficult to tell just what in the film being shot in Turkey is part of Panahi’s script and what reflects the real collapse of an escape attempt, as the film script and the lives of the actors seem to intersect. Meanwhile, Panahi—who had taken photographs in the Iranian border town—becomes embroiled in a local squabble revolving around superstitions that determine young people’s mates at birth. He is ultimately forced to flee for Tehran, as tragedy engulfs everyone who has passed before his camera.

In all of Panahi’s previous films except for Crimson Gold (2003), even in the worst circumstances, there has been a persistent undercurrent of humor, and thus hope. No Bears is in a much darker register. It’s a film in which even seemingly nice people harbor evil, where fear reigns. The only hope is captured by the title: At one point, a local warns Panahi about walking down a certain street, telling him he will be attacked by bears—but he soon clarifies that this is merely a superstition.

*****

Check out our last piece of the year, a Jewish Currents staff roundtable on Christmas, in which we debate the question: Is Christmas bad or good?

Remember that our Winter 2022 issue will be arriving in mailboxes soon! If you enjoy our newsletter and the recommendations you see each week in the Shabbat Reading List, subscribe to receive our work in print—and receive a free tote back as part of our subscription drive! Every subscription dollar we receive goes toward supporting our staff, producing the magazine, and building the Jewish Currents community.

And before you go: Editor-in-chief Arielle Angel wrote a forceful letter to the editor in response to The New York Times’ recent editorial on the new Israeli coalition, writing that the paper of record “offered a master class in how to offer nothing but hand-wringing.”

We’re taking the rest of the year off, so we’ll see you in 2023!

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