Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): You might be hearing people talk about the new show Wednesday, which focuses on a teenage Wednesday Addams, of the canonical Addams family—indeed, it just surpassed the previous record-holder for most hours viewed in a week for an English-language Netflix series. If you want a critical review, this just isn’t it. I started the show while visiting a friend, and we were both much more hooked than we expected to be. Jenna Ortega is marvelous as the characteristically brooding, depressive, and clever Wednesday; I could (and in fact did) watch the subtle, calculated changes to her facial expressions for hours. (As Ortega has discussed, Tim Burton—who executive produced the series and directed four of its eight episodes—was so pleased with a take in which she didn’t blink that he insisted she avoid blinking altogether; this unsettling stillness makes the minor movements of her face and eyebrows all the more vivid.)
In the first episode, Wednesday is quickly kicked out of her regular high school for a murderous prank against kids bullying her brother Pugsley, and she enrolls mid-year in Nevermore Academy, a school for “outcasts”: students who could be called monsters, such as gorgons whose snake hair turns you to stone and artists whose images come alive. The school is based near the town of Jericho, which is obsessed with its pilgrim heritage. The story follows shifting allegiances and mysteries about who Wednesday can trust and who is plotting subterfuge or revenge, against the backdrop of an unknown monster in the woods. In Wednesday’s mission to unearth and eradicate misdeeds of the town’s founder, the narrative has satisfying echoes of the fight against white supremacy. The insights we get into the side characters are a highlight of the series, and at the end I was left wanting to spend more time with what’s basically a cool, creative, and thoughtful group of friends.
Ari M. Brostoff (senior editor): I think my favorite thing I read this year is Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, a book I did not recommend earlier because I have no real idea of how to describe it. The bleakly comic 1961 novel’s premise is not difficult to convey: It is about a mild-mannered British wine merchant, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, smugly satisfied with an existence compartmentalized between his society wife, Antonia, and his free-spirited young mistress, Georgie, whose life falls apart when Antonia announces she is leaving him for her psychoanalyst, a friend of the family named Palmer Anderson. This much I was able to explain to Sam, my friend whose shelf I found the book on when I stayed with him in the Catskills this fall. He had not read it himself, but in solidarity he spent the weekend reading “The Idea of Perfection,” one of Murdoch’s influential essays on moral philosophy (besides writing a couple dozen novels, she was a prominent Oxford philosopher). The essay is largely concerned with the question of how to be good, a quandary also posed by A Severed Head: Much of the novel finds its characters wrapping their ludicrous treatment of each other in the cloak of the affable.
None of this, however, is exactly the point, which was why, once I reached the second third of the book, I had to stop describing it to Sam altogether: I have never read a novel of ideas so packed with spoilers. A Severed Head seems for a moment to be set in a farcical version of bourgeois London, but the reality is far stranger. As characters pair off in increasingly rapid and shocking configurations, it becomes clear that desire in this fictional universe operates in a strange, almost algorithmic way. Love is experienced so intensely, fleetingly, and destructively that it reveals itself as synonymous with fetishism—a point made most directly via the severed heads that pile up throughout the novel, often through the sorcery of Palmer’s half-sister Honor Klein, a demonic anthropologist Jewess who functions to make all that is politely bad, indescribably worse. The short book turns out to be a long joke about structuralism, psychoanalysis, and the bourgeois novel itself; I can’t tell you what it means, but can report that it has remained under my skin for months. The other day I started reading another Murdoch novel, 1973’s The Black Prince, which opens with one character blithely revealing to another that he may have accidentally killed his wife. I don’t know what this one’s about yet either, but I’ll keep you posted.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I’ve spent much of the past year binging episodes of the podcast Blank Check, in which actor and comedian Griffin Newman and critic David Sims discuss every installment in a director’s filmography. The recent episode on the 1999 psychological drama Eyes Wide Shut—part of a miniseries on the career of paradigmatic auteur Stanley Kubrick—inspired me to return to this magnificent, vexing film for the first time in a decade.
It’s a nice time of year for it. As Newman, Sims, and guest David Ehrlich acknowledge, Eyes Wide Shut is set in this season, and it’s become something of a truism that it’s a Christmas movie, its unsettling and graphically sexual subject matter notwithstanding; in his book on Christmas films, critic Alonso Duralde calls it “a Christmas movie for grownups.” Newman, Sims, and Ehrlich suggest that the portrait of the holiday in the first act, which features a lavish Christmas party, is one seen from a Jewish perspective: pure spectacle, stripped of even the faintest trace of sacred significance. This made me wonder whether the film’s entire understanding of Christmas might be understood as Jewish. (As the podcast mentions, the film’s source text—the 1926 Austrian novella Dream Story—was written by the Jewish author Arthur Schnitzler; Kubrick, himself a nonobservant Jew, excised its Jewish content in the process of adaptation.)
To call Eyes Wide Shut a Jewish Christmas film is perhaps provocative, considering that the movie follows a doctor and his wife (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, at the time still actually married) as Cruise’s character finds himself caught up in a cultic orgy of the abominably rich—and their seemingly homicidal conspiracy to keep their rituals secret. But in my reading it’s not the wealthy, sinister cabal that is coded as Jewish, but rather Cruise’s character. Goyish though he may be, the doctor is proximate to yet removed from the world of the ultra-rich at the film’s center in a sense that evokes the paradoxes of Jewish assimilation. In line with the Blank Check hosts’ observation that the opening offers an estranged, hollowed-out vision of Christmas, I wonder whether the film’s critical approach to the holiday is thus rooted in a distinctly Jewish sense of familiarity cut with alienation. The result is powerful: In the same way that Kubrick artfully and disturbingly empties sex of eroticism, he plumbs the ways holy mystery can metamorphose into a phantasmagoria of secular menace.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Quietly, subtly, brilliantly, Mia Hansen-Løve has made a name for herself as perhaps the best filmmaker in France today (sorry, Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas, Hansen-Løve’s partner). She is certainly the French director making the most emotionally real films. Unlike too much contemporary French cinema, her films are not about Big Issues—immigration, class differences, state violence. Rather, her work returns to what the French long did best: tales of people dealing with the everyday issues of love, family, loss, and resilience.
Hansen-Løve’s new film, One Fine Morning—which opens today in New York and Los Angeles for one-week runs, prior to its full opening on January 27th—is so solidly real in its feelings, so well acted by its stars, that it’s almost painful to watch. Pascal Greggory plays Georg Kienzler, a former philosophy teacher now fading away with Benson’s syndrome, a neurodegenerative condition. His daughter Sandra, played by Léa Seydoux, is a young widow who does her best to take care of him while falling in love with her late husband’s friend Clément, played by the always excellent Melvil Poupaud. The lovers’ back and forth—the emotional turmoil of their attraction to each other, the fears and hopes it induces, the pull of outside forces—is magnificently limned. There’s not a false note in the writing or acting, or even in the decors. Even the streets the characters walk down speak volumes about who they are, as we follow them along rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and the Grande Mosquée in the Latin Quarter. Yet no one is a walking cliché: Their struggles and successes are those of recognizable people.
Hansen-Løve’s films are unabashedly concerned with crises confronted by the comfortable and educated. (The central calamity in One Fine Morning is one the director lived through herself, with the illness of her own father, also a philosophy teacher.) Sandra is a translator and interpreter, her on-again, off-again lover an astrochemist. Hansen-Løve’s characters live in their dearest objects, which are almost always books. Apartments are well-stocked with tomes in several languages; as in her earlier film, Things to Come, the issue of what to do with a character’s library when it has to be dispersed is a major one. How wonderful it is to watch a movie in which the question is raised as to the proper category under which to place a book by Elias Canetti, and where the camera lovingly glides over Adorno’s works in German.
Aging and its attendant horrors feature prominently in Hansen-Løve’s work. Her tenderness toward the difficulties senescence inflicts on the elderly and their children is manifest, and nothing about it is sugarcoated. The film allows for exasperation on all sides, and no condemnation of this feeling is even implied. Hansen-Løve’s characters do the best they can with remarkable strength.
If the great French humanist cinematic tradition—that of Renoir and Truffaut—still exists in France, it’s thanks to Mia Hansen-Løve.
This week, organizer Elena Stein has a remembrance of Shatzi Weisberger, adapted from a piece written for the Jewish Voice for Peace community:
Late last week, the legendary People’s Bubbie, Shatzi Weisberger, died at 92 years old in her home in New York City. A lesbian, AIDS nurse, death educator, life-long organizer, and proud member of JVP, Shatzi was at the center of a multi-generational, anti-Zionist political community.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I called Shatzi, worried. “Do you need groceries?” I asked. She paused. “I don’t need groceries; I need friendship.” That began years of weekly conversations and one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. We talked about everything from her early life to prison abolition and the struggle for Palestinian liberation. We celebrated birthdays at the beach, drank piña coladas at the pier, and sang showtunes in our favorite gay piano bar. We argued with love, and of course, we marched side by side.
Rocking her iconic signs at every major demonstration in NYC—from Nakba Day to Pride—Shatzi came to symbolize something much larger than herself: We need each other across generations, and all of us have elders and ancestors at our backs.
When Shatzi was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she abruptly found herself without the care or money she needed. Without skipping a beat, a community of mostly young JVP members flocked to her side, caring for her round the clock, all while reflecting on life with her and visioning the world we’re working toward, even as she knew she wouldn’t make it there. Among her final words: “I feel the love—beyond, beyond.” Shatzi Weisberger, Z’’L. May her memory be for a revolution.
Before you go, we have a few event announcements and reminders. A few weeks ago, editor-in-chief Arielle Angel recommended Vinay Shukla’s new documentary While We Watched, about NDTV news anchor Ravish Kumar and his lonely crusade against deepening ethnonationalism and crumbling democracy in Narendra Modi’s India. Tomorrow afternoon, Jewish Currents will be screening the film at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn at 2 pm, followed by a Q&A with the director. There are a few tickets left exclusively for Jewish Currents readers. If you’d like to attend, please RSVP here: email@example.com. Don’t miss this one-day-only opportunity!
The next day—Sunday, December 11th—join us at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 4 pm for a panel on “Writing the Third Generation of Holocaust Survivors” as part of The New York Jewish Book Festival. The conversation, moderated by Angel, will feature contributing writers Linda Kinstler and Helen Betya Rubinstein and contributor Menachem Kaiser. Register here. And don’t forget to stop by our table and say hello!
Also, on Saturday, December 17th, join us at Union Pool for a Hanukkah party and concert by Black Ox Orkestar, starting at 7 pm. The party is open to all, and you can purchase tickets to the concert here.