Shabbat Reading List
Sign up for our email newsletter, featuring exclusive original content

Oct
21
2022

David Klion (newsletter editor): On September 28th, my wife (and JC Board Vice-Chair) Lauren Goldenberg gave birth to our daughter Simone five weeks early; we have been commuting daily from our apartment in Brooklyn to a NICU on the Upper East Side ever since. This makes me the second Jewish Currents staffer to become a NICU dad (and the third to get hit by a car; I’m fine!) in the past year or so. Simone is beautiful and “feisty,” as the nurses say, and is making steady progress, but this surreal setup means that for now I have a lot of time to read when another new parent might be trying to steal naps whenever possible.

Last week, I tore through a 600-page book that has nothing to do with parenthood, but that I had been meaning to read for a while: Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner’s acclaimed and comprehensive 2008 history of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Weiner, a reporter, doesn’t share precisely the same anticolonial leftist perspective on the CIA as some JC readers; his premise is that the United States ideally ought to have a well-functioning, professional intelligence agency, but what he means by that is an agency that collects and analyzes accurate information about the world in order to advise presidents on how to avoid wars. What we’ve actually had since the CIA’s founding in the wake of World War II, Weiner persuasively argues, is an unaccountable cabal of reckless, incompetent adventurers who are awful at gathering intelligence, and only marginally less awful at their real business of overthrowing and manipulating foreign governments.

Because of the US’s hegemonic wealth and military power, the CIA has enjoyed its share of high profile “successes” in the form of imposing brutal right-wing dictatorships from Guatemala to Iran to Congo to Indonesia to Chile, but its failures have been every bit as legion. Weiner recounts, for instance, how the agency recruited Nazi collaborators in the 1940s and ’50s to infiltrate Eastern Bloc governments and consistently saw them captured and executed due to superior Soviet intelligence, and how the many subsequent efforts to murder Fidel Castro and topple Cuba’s communist government flopped. Meanwhile, the CIA consistently failed to call some of the biggest geopolitical events of modern times, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the 9/11 attacks.

Even if you’re broadly familiar with many of these stories, Weiner has done a real service in compiling them all in one readable narrative that relentlessly indicts 60 years of CIA directors and US presidents for criminality, immorality, and incompetence. There are revelations on every page, and you’ll come away angry but also with a new respect for how complicated the world is, and how delusional it is to imagine anyone can control it with a few well-placed bribes and assassinations.

Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Around this time last year, perhaps as a way to steel myself against the approaching terrors of new parenthood, I started watching horror movies—a journey I chronicled intermittently in this newsletter. With Halloween season again in full swing, I’m recommitting to the project. Last week, I watched David Gordon Green’s Halloween Ends, which follows Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills (2021), concluding Green’s trilogy of direct sequels to John Carpenter’s untouchable 1978 masterpiece about a remorseless masked killer named Michael Myers.

Halloween was most notable for its antipathy to the very notion of a Halloween sequel. While the franchise is famous for the comically convoluted relationships between its 13 films, which repeatedly void previous installments, Green’s 2018 film was the first to take the original as canon while throwing out its initial direct sequel, Halloween II (1981). This movie—which Carpenter co-wrote with Debra Hill, his script partner for Halloween—introduces the twist that the paradigmatic “final girl,” Laurie Strode, is not a random victim, but the killer’s long-lost sister. The revelation is great narrative fodder, but it destroys the mystery of Myers, who transforms from an unaccountable force of nature to a man with a pathological agenda. In Murray Leeder’s book on the first film, Carpenter admits that he disdains the twist, which he feels “makes no sense,” and says it was devised as a justification for the sequel’s existence: “That was purely a function of having decided to become involved in the sequel to this movie where I didn’t think there was really much of a story left,” he explained. “What was I going to say? There was nothing more to say.”

Indeed, the procession of sequels that followed—with the exception of Halloween III (1982), which takes place in an entirely different timeline and gives Myers only a cameo appearance when the original film plays in the background—can’t stop saying needless nonsense. They build out elaborate justifications for Myers’s murderous drive and apparent invulnerability, effacing the ominous unknowability that gives the original its power. It’s a common problem with horror sequels: The desire to expand on a film to continue to profit off its premise often requires explicating the inexplicable. (In a piece for the defunct website The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson argued that because this impulse is at odds with cultivating fear of the unknown, “horror sequels are literally the opposite of horror,” which perhaps explains why some of the best sequels to horror films, like Aliens, shift genres altogether.) Even as the franchise occasionally negates its own explanations—for instance, developing a thread about druidic magic only to abandon it for H20 (1998)—it stays locked in this explanatory mode.

Green’s 2018 Halloween, then, is remarkable because it accepts Carpenter’s premise that the original left “nothing more to say,” yet still attempts to make a movie out of that nothing. It directly follows the original film, overrides the idea that Laurie is Myers’s sister, and—in the spirit of what Tyler Malone calls the “decayed psychologism” of the original—repeatedly introduces and then undermines theories about Myers’s motives, a dialectic that culminates in the killer smashing his psychiatrist’s skull, literalizing the ultimate rejection of rational explanation. Though it has little of the subtlety or ingenuity of the original, the 2018 film could have stood alone as a potent anti-sequel. But of course, it made too much money not to produce further follow-ups, creating a curious predicament: How do you make a series of horror sequels that challenge the form’s essence, which at once defines and ruins it?

The result is a trio of self-loathing sequels, movies at war with their own existence, which struggle to honor the enigmatic atmosphere of the 1978 film while still advancing the story. Halloween Kills doubles down on inexplicability by denying that Myers and Laurie, who has spent decades convinced the killer will return for her, have any special connection, but in casting about for some engine for its plot, settles on an equally unsatisfying motive. Reaching desperately for broader significance, it also tries to shoehorn in a timely political moral about the dangers of mob thinking, reducing inscrutable evil to elementary symbolism.

Halloween Ends represents the greatest structural diversion since Halloween III (and in fact, its title sequence suggests an explicit affinity with that wildcard entry), shifting much of the emphasis away from Myers. The film—admirably ambitious but poorly written, half-heartedly acted, and unconvincingly directed—instead focuses on Corey Cunningham, a babysitter who becomes a town pariah after a tragic accident befalls the child under his care, setting the stage for a melancholy meditation on how bogeymen can be created by mundane cruelty. This thematic shift at once contests the singularity of Myers’s inscrutable evil and honors it by letting it diffuse through the world as a force that transcends him. Tiresome voiceover speeches by Laurie (played, for the seventh time, by Jamie Lee Curtis), drawn from her memoir-in-progress, develop an overwrought theory of evil—what could be more didactic and less scary? Yet the striking incompatibility between her account and the understandings of Myers developed in the previous films generates an incoherence that (perhaps unwittingly) returns us to a sense of profound mystery.

Even its treatment of the film’s conclusiveness at once adheres to and subverts the sequel form. While the official synopsis markets the movie on the pretense of true finality, its producer has clarified that it is only his company’s last entry. (According to Curtis, it’s her last one too, though she said the same thing in 2002.) Asked whether the film would close out the franchise, John Carpenter, who returned to help score the trilogy, remarked, “I will have to see how much money it makes!” The film elegantly plays off this ambiguity, bringing its story to an almost comically clear resolution while still gesturing toward the impossibility of ever truly killing a profitable franchise in the name of aesthetic integrity. Drawing on the name used for Myers in the credits since the first film—“The Shape,” an expression of his unknowability—Laurie tells the viewer, “The truth is, evil doesn’t die. It changes shape.” This is the wisdom of self-consciously confronting the inevitable. Until the destruction of capitalism finally liberates Michael Myers from interminable resurrections of diminishing returns, I’ll take it.

Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Last weekend, as a joke, on a date, I saw Bros. Written by the abrasive comic Billy Eichner, directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, etc.), and co-produced by Judd Apatow, the film was marketed with no small degree of self-satisfaction as the world’s first big-budget gay romcom. Unfortunately for the gentlemen involved, Bros has been a flop. The week before I saw it, seemingly all 14 of its extant viewers tweeted lengthy threads proclaiming it the final, not-kidding-around-this-time nail in the coffin of queer life and art. I couldn’t wait!

Bros, to wit, is about an uptight bachelor, Bobby (Eichner), the smirking host of a popular podcast, who inhabits his role as a public gay uneasily; his life has cursed him with the task of reminding gala dinner audiences that love is love, depsite the fact that he has never experienced this exalted state himself. All of that changes, sort of, when he meets Aaron (a pleasantly shirtless Luke Macfarlane); their bond lies in the fact that Aaron, too, is love-shy and neurotic, but in a hot-person way. Much of their romantic pursuit takes place in the course of fundraising escapades for the (fictitious) National Museum of LGBTQ+ History and Culture that Bobby is helming, and where he spends most of his time pouting about his obsolescence as a “cis white gay man.” I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a cultural object as devoted to the enunciation of identity categories as Bros; the reality star Ts Madison, for instance, plays an ostensibly major role but has little to do besides declaim her status as a Black trans women, like Death or Beauty in a medieval morality play. Like David Sedaris, who proclaimed himself “straight” this week in a one-man strike against the word “queer,” Eichner seems not to have gotten the memo that the LGBTQ+s around him might find him more charming if he tried a simple greeting like, “My fellow homosexuals!”

Bros is probably not the final nail in the coffin of anything, but it does feel like a vague, dubious achievement in the annals of masculinity: the achievement of a perfect standoff between heterosexual and homosocial scripts. A central question of the traditional romcom is whether a man and a woman can be friends (When Harry Met Sally famously said “no”). Male buddy comedies, by contrast, have often teased audiences by asking whether a guy and a dude could be more than friends, and screamed the answer (still “no.”) Bros would like to borrow from both canons, but settles instead for neither. What Bobby and Aaron have in common is a blockage around both platonic and sexual intimacy, as though they have never learned to eroticize either prohibition or invivation. Or maybe they just aren’t that into each other—it doesn’t appear that the filmmakers would know what the alternative looked like if they saw it. It is kind of interesting to watch a movie premised on such a total lack of chemistry in all its guises. But it probably won’t draw many passionate lovers, or haters, to Bros.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In 1938, with the Spanish Civil War still being fought and its eventual victor becoming increasingly certain, the great photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (born Dawid Szymin) published Death in the Making, a volume of photos taken in the first year of the war. Its cover showed what would come to be considered one of the greatest images of war ever produced: Capa’s shot of a Loyalist soldier at the moment he’d been struck and killed by a fascist bullet.

The photos in the book, which was reprinted in 2020 by Damiani and the International Center of Photography (ICP), and which is the subject of an exhibit at ICP that runs until January 9th, 2023, remain masterpieces of left-wing art—left-wing not just because they chronicle the early months of the defense of the Republic against the coup led by General Franco, but because of the people they capture. There are almost no photos of leaders on display (with the notable exception of the Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri, known to all as La Pasionaria, who appears once). Rather, we are presented with the factory and munitions workers, the peasants who have occupied the land they work even as they attempt to turn back the rebellion. The suffering of women features prominently, and not only in the lined faces of the peasant women or the embraces of the wives saying farewell to their husbands as they leave for the front. Women are shown as workers and fighters, too, playing an active part in the war.

The show and the book express the enthusiasm of the early period of the resistance to Franco and his troops: the children playing on barricades; the fighting men and women seen more often in street clothes than in uniform, some in helmets, some not. This is clearly a people’s war. The photographs and Capa’s accompanying text subtly present the Communist (rather than anarchist) position on how the war should be fought. The ragtag army of the summer of 1936 is shown being turned into a disciplined People’s Army, with the uniformed troops lined up in ranks carrying out military drills. A section of the show and a chapter of the book are dedicated to the Republicans’ protection and preservation of Spain’s artistic heritage—in this instance, the protection and preservation of church art. The church burnings and iconoclasm of the anarchists was not for Taro, Capa, and Chim.

To walk through the exhibition and then read the book is to journey through a world in which the title of André Malraux’s great novel about the war—L’Espoir (Hope)—was real. The armed workers with their clenched fists carried with them the possibility of not just a new Spain, but a new world. There is no hint here of the ugly splits that occurred within the Republican camp, the Communists’ crushing of the anarchists and the independent revolutionaries of POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). The book should be on every reader’s holiday gift list, the exhibition on the must-see list of everyone in or passing through New York. They are moving monuments to the last good cause.

SubscribeCode FALLWEB2023