The Arty Semite

Why 'Supermensch' Shep Gordon Likes To Be a Plus-1

By Dorri Olds

It took Mike Myers 10 years of begging for Shep Gordon to agree to a documentary about his life. The film, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” is Myers’s first go at directing, and he made a masterpiece.

Gordon was the one who masterminded Alice Cooper’s image with stunts like throwing a live chicken on stage, putting underwear on the album “School’s Out,” and plastering a picture of Cooper naked — save for a snake covering his manhood — on the side of a truck whose driver was paid to “break down” during rush hour in London.

Gordon also invented the concept of the celebrity chef, managed Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and Raquel Welch, and handled Groucho Marx during his senior years, pro bono.

But all of these accomplishments don’t describe the sweet essence of the man — the mensch — that Myers captures in his movie.

Gordon came to the rescue of a grandmother who had no idea how she’d be able to raise her suddenly deceased daughter’s four children. Gordon said, “It seemed like something had to be done, and I had the resources.” He supported them and they became his makeshift family.

Dorri Olds caught up with Shep Gordon to talk about Jewish spirituality, living at the same hotel as Janis Joplin, why he always likes to be a plus-one.

Dorri Olds: You have led such an eclectic life.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Watched Her Life Onstage

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: Ari Roth

Despite having had a long, busy day at the US Supreme Court this past Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a point of attending a special performance of “Stars of David: Story to Song” in Washington that evening. The performance of the musical review celebrating the lives of Jewish public figures — including Ginsburg herself — was a benefit for Theater J, a program of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.

To the delight of the cast, the 81-year-old Justice visited them backstage after the performance to express her appreciation. “She was very expressive,” actor and singer Aaron Serotsky, who was in the original “Stars of David” off-Broadway run in New York last fall, shared with the Forward the next day. Ginsburg reportedly told him and the others that she was moved to laughter and tears as she watched the show, which is based on the best-selling book by Abigail Pogrebin and features original music by Broadway’s finest composers and lyricists.

According to Serotsky, the cast was made aware just an hour before curtain time that the Justice, who had been invited to the benefit performance by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, was actually going to show up. “We knew she was there when a female security guard showed up backstage,” Serotsky recalled.

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Pluralistic Shavuot at Tel Aviv City Hall

By Ronen Shnidman

Photo courtesy of Beit Tefilah Israeli

This Shavuot, the Tel Aviv Municipality broke new ground in the effort to develop a native-grown pluralistic form of Judaism that meets the spiritual and cultural needs of Israel’s non-Orthodox Jewish majority.

In conjunction with the liberal, independent, egalitarian minyan Beit Tefilah Israeli, the local government of Israel’s cultural capital hosted a night of lectures, panel discussions, study sessions, intimate musical performances and a pluralistic prayer service at dawn at city hall.

The evening, some participants hoped, would provide a prototype for an inclusive form of Judaism that better suited to the needs of Israel’s Jewish population than the one represented by the established Orthodox Rabbinate. During the evening there was much discussion of the need to create a positive secular Jewish and democratic culture as a focal point for non-religious Israelis, instead of a militantly anti-Orthodox or de-Judaized public sphere.

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David Bezmozgis Turning 'Natasha' Into Film

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Photo: David Franco

A decade after its publication, Canadian author David Bezmozgis is turning his debut short story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” into a film. As with “Victoria Day,” his first cinematic endeavor in 2009, Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, is both writing and directing the project.

The stories in the breakout “Natasha” chronicling the saga of the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish immigrant family to Toronto, were hailed by critics as “dazzling,” “scary good,” and “stunning.” The book was translated into 15 languages and won several prizes. Virtually unknown prior to the collection’s publication, the Riga-born Bezmozgis’s literary star rose with “Natasha.” His celebrated first novel, “The Free World,” was published in 2011, and will be followed this coming September by a second novel, “The Betrayers.”

The film version of “Natasha” will focus on the title story, which comes in the middle of the collection.

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Did Photographer Garry Winogrand Exploit Nude Subjects?

By Menachem Wecker

Garry Winogrand, New York, 1968, gelatin silver print, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Walking through the many rooms in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “Garry Winogrand” (through June 8), I was surprised to see several groups of transfixed boys. Winogrand, after all, was born in 1928 and died more than 20 years ago; he had an ingenious eye for interpreting urban street scenes and the pedestrians that passed through them, but his work has nothing to do with Instagram or iPhones. Why, I wondered, were these young boys so interested in black-and-white photographs from the 1970s?

When I crossed over the room toward the boys, I realized they were gawking at some of the photographs from Winogrand’s 1975 series of 85 works: “Women Are Beautiful.” The images showed women in various stages of undress. “Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her,” Winogrand wrote of the series. “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”

Winogrand’s program of photographing beautiful women has been controversial. The photographer, born to Jewish parents who left Budapest and Warsaw for the Bronx, is “routinely criticized for exploiting the subjects of his work,” according to the website of the Worcester Art Museum, which showed works from the series in 2013. The photographs of the young women in the series are “typically composed to emphasize their breasts and backsides,” the site adds.

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2 Jewish Lawyers and Hitler's 'Butcher' Share Stage

By Nigel Stephenson

(Reuters) — The improbable tale of three music-loving lawyers linked to Ukraine - two of them Jews and one a Hitler aide known as the “Butcher of Poland” - has made it to the stage in a work premiered at the Hay Festival.

“The Great Crimes” tells how the lives of Hersch Lauterpecht, who formulated the legal concept of crimes against humanity, Raphael Lemkin, who helped make genocide an international crime, and Hans Frank, World War Two governor of Nazi-occupied Poland, became entwined.

“It is about the origins of our modern systems of justice and the role that an individual can play,” Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College, London, told Reuters.

Sands, baritone Laurent Naouri and pianist Guillaume de Chassy gave “The Great Crimes” its first public hearing at the Hay festival on May 25. Sands narrates the story, interspersed with music from Naouri and de Chassy.

It will performed at London’s Southbank Center in November.

Sands uncovered the story on which the work is based while researching the early life of his grandfather, who was born in the city now known as Lviv in Ukraine but called Lemberg under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by its wartime German occupiers.

Lauterpecht and Lemkin studied law at the Jan Kazimierz University in what was then Lemberg and both were Jews who lost most of their family members in the Holocaust.

They both left the city, Lauterpecht becoming an academic lawyer at Britain’s Cambridge University and Lemkin taking teaching posts at several leading United States universities.

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Palestinian Artists Pull Out of Pittsburgh Show

By JTA

Mohammed Musallam

An art exhibition in Pittsburgh featuring the work of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists was canceled after the Palestinian artists withdrew from the show.

“Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship,” scheduled to run at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum from June 1 to July 27, was the culmination of a joint multimedia project begun a year ago by the artists, the Jewish Chronicle reported. The Palestinian artists pulled out of the show on May 29, a day after the Israeli artists had canceled their participation in order to allow the Palestinians to continue participating and to protect them from threats and criticism on an Arabic-language Facebook page, Tavia La Follette, the independent curator of the exhibit, told the newspaper.

La Follette said the use of the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” as part of the descriptions of the exhibit were the triggers of the criticism, since the words mean different things in the realms of the art world and politics.

“The Palestinian artists said, ‘We can’t be in this show,’ so the Israelis withdrew,” La Follette told the newspaper. “The whole idea behind the project was to move it beyond political rhetoric. But we need to protect the Palestinian artists. It shows the integrity of the Israeli artists that they pulled out of the show.”

The artists traveled together last year in the West Bank.

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'Mad Men' in Land of the Dead

By Eitan Kensky

Images courtesy of AMC

Watching “Mad Men” is like watching shades dance. The undead and the dying slouch at every corner.

This one was born in a concentration camp. Never sane, this season brought a self-immolating insanity. This one stole a dead man’s identity, legally killing his true self in the process. Now he works in a crime scene, an office where dreams of happiness and self-worth end with a rope. Fevered, the man with the stolen life dreams of killing a woman who tempts him. This one is an echo of Sharon Tate. She wears the same clothes and lives in the same, coyote-haunted part of the Hollywood Hills. In real life, Tate was killed by the followers of a mad man. This one is an orphan who has now essentially orphaned his daughter; this one is an old man who staves off aging with cocktails and psychedelic drugs and ever-more-meaningless sex; and this one is Betty, whose blood never ran warmer than ice, now wilting and freezing in her gothic Westchester crypt.

The undead and the dying were everywhere during part one of “Mad Men”’s seventh season, which ended last Sunday. It’s nothing new for a show whose title sequence features a man falling from a building (whether he jumped or was pushed is curiously omitted), and which once foreshadowed the season-long story of protagonist Don Draper’s descent into hell with a shot of a shirtless Don (Jon Hamm) casually reading Dante’s “Inferno” on the beach.

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A Mandolin Orchestra's Labor Roots

By Jon Kalish

Photo courtesy New York Mandolin orchestra

On June 1 the New York Mandolin Orchestra will celebrate its 90th anniversary at a concert in Manhattan. The repertoire ranges from a Vivaldi concerto to St. Louis Blues. Founded in 1924 by a Russian Jew named Samuel Firstman, the orchestra was initially affiliated with the Jewish communist newspaper Freiheit. For a time it performed both the national anthem and the socialist Internationale at its concerts.

“All these people had come from Europe and it was part of their culture. They believed in a larger culture,” says Bill Knapp, a concertina player who was a card-carrying member of the Wobblies and played with the orchestra for more than 30 years. “It was very important to them that they play this music, that they learn it, they pass it on.”

Among the New York Mandolin Orchestra’s alumnae are the bluegrass virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff, who was given his first mandolin by his aunt Sylvia Reuben who had played in a mandolin orchestra in Newark, New Jersey. Mitterhoff, who now performs with the acoustic music group Hot Tuna, joined the New York Mandolin Orchestra in 1976 and served as its concertmaster for 12 years. He’ll participate in the concert on Sunday.

“By the time I got involved in 1976, there were very few, quote, unquote younger players, which included anybody under 50,” Mitterhoff told the Forward. “Most of the members were senior citizens and some of them were couples. They all worked in factories and sweatshops.

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POEM: 'Hebrew, My Love'

By Tuvia Ruebner

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

It’s been a lifetime together.
Fifty years? Sixty? How many?

We were never like that coiled knot
only the slash of the sword could undo.
I turned my back on you.
You turned your back on me
though still we pulled toward each other like magnets to the pole
like the moon and the tides.

I conjugated at your will, I accepted your grammared sentences
I queried your roots,
I stuttered, became silent, I begged and whispered,
and you, turning inward, saw nothing.
Until suddenly, you opened up wide like a field in the wind
and your voice burst forth from my throat.

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).


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A Dutch Monastery’s Jewish Prayer Books

By Menachem Wecker

Photo: Menachem Wecker

For the past three years, mid-March has meant for me a pilgrimage to the southern Dutch town of Maastricht to cover The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, the fair offers (for a hefty price) everything from Greco-Roman antiquities and Rembrandts to Warhols, photography and modern sculpture. The best metaphor I can think of for navigating the fair’s 275 galleries is an ice cream headache that comes from too thoroughly tantalizing the eye with too many artistic treasures.

I have also, for the past three years, walked several times from my hotel to the intersection of Maastricht’s Sint Pieterstraat and Achter De Oude Minderbroeders streets, the latter of which is Dutch for “Behind the Old Franciscans.” There, I thumbed through Jewish books at a former Franciscan monastery dating back to the 13th century.

The reading room of the Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg, Limburg’s regional historic center, has the soaring, vaulted ceilings and stunning windows one would expect of a monastery. Like many in Holland, the building changed hands when Frederik Hendrik, the prince of Orange, conquered the city in 1632. The church heads were beheaded, and the building became an orphanage, military hospital, jail and even sauerkraut factory.

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Yale Jewish Choir Sings at Brussels Vigil

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Getty Images

(JTA) — Moments before they were scheduled to start singing at an impromptu memorial vigil outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium, the 13 members of Yale University’s Jewish a cappella group were still unsure what number to perform.

Fresh off the train from Paris, Magevet’s men and women had not initially planned to perform anywhere near the museum during their biennial international tour in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

But they decided to show up after hearing on Saturday that an unidentified shooter had killed four people at the Jewish museum in central Brussels.

The following day, they were already standing at the solemn vigil that the Jewish community of Brussels had hastily organized. And while they were full of emotions, they still had no proper set for that performance before the 2,000 people who showed up.

“It was not even clear whether it would be possible for us to sing at all,” recalled Yale sophomore Joshua Fitt, 18.

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The Science of Laughter

By Margaret Eby

Courtesy of Joel Warner

Denver journalist Joel Warner and his co-author Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, trekked across the world in search of the answer to a seemingly simple question: What makes people laugh?

Their book, “The Humor Code,” is at once a lighthearted collection of adventures in the world of humor and a serious-minded inquiry into the mysterious mechanisms of what makes things funny across cultural barriers. Across nine chapters, the duo bothers Louis C.K. in a green room, hangs out with scientists who tickle rats in Tanzania and flies into the Amazon rainforest on a cargo plane full of clowns.

Perhaps most daring of all, Warner. 35, and McGraw spent some time in Israel and the Palestinian territories and talking to Holocaust survivors, trying to determine the way that jokes have the power to simultaneously unite and divide people. His favorite post-intifada Palestinian joke describes several heads of state meeting with God and making requests for their people. To each, God says, “Not in your lifetime.” Then Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, asks for his people’s freedom and God says, “Not in my lifetime.” The Forward’s Margaret Eby caught up with Warner by phone.

Margaret Eby: Since humor is such an incredibly subjective thing, did you go into this project with certain metrics? Did you have some sort of more precise laugh-o-meter, for example?

Joel Warner: Laughter is actually a really imperfect predictor of humor. We didn’t go around tracking every example of humor we could track or think of. We thought, “We’re not going to be able to cover everything.” So we decided to organize the book around the most interesting questions. Is humor really the best medicine? Why do we laugh? In many ways, the locations are window dressing. We didn’t have to go to Palestine, we could have gone anywhere.

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Cannes Diary #5: Prizes and Farewells

By A.J. Goldmann

Getty Images

After 10 cinema-soaked days, the International Jury, headed by Jane Campion, dished out the prizes of the 67th Cannes Film Festival.

There were no multiple winners in a year when there were clearly not enough awards to go around. In fact, some have taken issue with the jury’s decision to award the Jury Prize to both Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” and Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D “Adieu au Langage.” Splitting the prize between the youngest and oldest directors in competition (Dolan is 25; Godard is 83), the jury was rectifying a long-standing oversight (Godard has never won a prize before at Cannes) and endorsing the work of a passionate and original new director. You would think that Dolan would be deeply honored to keep company with Godard, but apparently his tears onstage accepting the award masked his fury at not getting the Palme d’Or (the film that gets the Palme can’t score a win in an other category).

Russian filmmaker Alexei Serebriakov’s “Leviathan,” one of the final films to screen in competition, was something of a surprise winner for the screenplay award. A modern retelling of the Book of Job, it is a grim tale of government corruption and religious hypocrisy that is all the timelier in light of recent events in the expanding republic of Putinistan.

It came as little surprise when Timothy Spall was announced as Best Actor for his astonishing work in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” That Spall beat out Steve Carell –the other critical favorite — made sense in light of the directing award, which went to Bennett Miller, who became the first Jewish director to win the prize since Julian Schnabel in 2007 for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” His “Foxcatcher,” which was one of the stronger competition entries this year, is already being mentioned as a contender for next year’s Oscars. Julianne Moore, the Best Actress-winner for her Norma Desmond turn in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” was the only winner aside from Godard — who didn’t even bother showing up for his screening or press conference last week — not on hand to accept.

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Why I Use 'Yeshivish'

By Leah Vincent

In my writing, I very purposefully label my ultra-Orthodox non-Hasidic community of origin the “Yeshivish” community or sect, although I know it is a strange label for some, like Ezra Glinter, who in a footnote to his thoughtful and thorough essay “Ex-Hasidic Writers Go Off the Path and Onto the Page,” questions my use of the term, calling it “irritating.”

“Vincent” he says “…trades in cliché, since it is easier to slot her community into the Hasidic sect-based model familiar to readers of other ex-Orthodox memoirs than it is to deal with the vagaries of denominational hair-splitting.”

There are plenty of ultra-Orthodox non-Hasidic people who don’t fit under the Yeshivish umbrella, but a significant percentage does. And while there are many sub-sects within the Yeshivish community (as the joke goes — two Jews, three opinions), the Yeshivish community is at least as homogenous as the Hasidic community, which manages to stretch wide enough to encompass sub-groups as divergent as Satmar and Lubavitch, Belz and Breslov. One might even say that the Yeshivish community is as homogenous as a single Hasidic sect like the deeply fractured Satmar Hasidim.

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Cannes Diary #4: Strong Women On Screen

By A.J. Goldmann

Of the themes to emerge during this year’s Cannes Film Festival — incest, dogs, neglected children — uncommonly strong women have been the most pervasive. This seems appropriate in a year where the jury is presided over by Jane Campion, the only woman to win a Palme d’Or in the history of the festival. As the festival opened, Campion accused the film industry of “inherent sexism.” Thierry Fremeux, who runs the festival, has by way of a rebuttal pointed out that one-fifth of the films in the official selection are by female directors, including two in competition.

But beyond films from the likes of Asia Argento, Alice Rohrwacher and Naomi Kawase, a surprising number of films this year are literally anchored by their tough, often-complex female protagonists. This holds true for Ronit Elkabetz as an Israeli woman fighting for a divorce in a rabbinical court in “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” as well as Marion Cotillard as a working-class mother struggling to keep her job in “Two Days, One Night,” and Bérénice Bejo as an aid-worker trying to convince the UN of the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War. By way of contrast, there haven’t been many memorable male characters or performances on offer — Timothy Spall and Steve Carell being notable exceptions.

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Oscar Nemon, Freud's Forgotten Sculptor

By Edie Jarolim

Photo courtesy of Aurelia Young

Sigmund Freud did not like sitting for portraits. The results, he claimed, never justified the time he was forced to remain idle. But his devotees wanted to see the great man immortalized, the more urgently as Freud aged. In 1931, with Freud approaching his 75th birthday, Paul Federn, a physician and analyst friend, convinced him to see sculptor Oscar Nemon, a 25-year-old Croatian Jew.

None of Nemon’s subsequent representations of Freud — nor any full-sized statues of Freud, period — can be found in the city where he lived and worked for most of his life. But on June 6, Nemon’s daughter, Lady Aurelia Young, will give an illustrated talk, “Oscar Nemon: My Father and Freud,” at Vienna’s Sigmund Freud Museum, followed by a concert of music from Freud’s Vienna.

The match didn’t begin promisingly. Nemon, who had been telegraphed by Federn to rush over from Brussels to Freud’s summer home outside Vienna, initially got a brush-off. After Freud reluctantly agreed to let him make a few quick sketches, Nemon’s only pencil broke before he could capture his subject’s beard. The following morning, when Nemon returned with a clay representation, his taxi made a sharp turn into Freud’s driveway, causing the bust to fall on its nose.

But it turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship. In a letter to Max Eitingon, a physician and analyst in Freud’s inner circle, Freud wrote: “The head, which the gaunt, goatee-bearded artist has fashioned from the dirt — like the good Lord — is very good and an astonishingly life-like impression of me.”

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POEM: 'Voices'

By Tuvia Ruebner

I am walking. I am always walking. Where
am I walking? I am not here.

From where is this kindling in my arms?
This fire? They are not mine. I am not mine. In vain

– I am in your footsteps, in vain…

I know, my son, I am the father.
I lead you, the two of us walk together.

– I am not asleep. I am not awake.

I am asleep. My heart is awake
a ram bound by its black ribs.

A still stutter falls silent among the boughs
of time entangled in its day and night…

– Yes, I am here.

No!

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).


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Cédric Klapisch and the Legacy of Jewish Humor

By Anna Goldenberg

Courtesy of Cohem Media Group

It’s been 12 years since French student Xavier (Romain Duris) left his girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou), to move into a Spanish apartment in “L’Auberge Espagnole,” where he met Isabelle (Cécile De France), Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and others and inspired a generation of European students to sign up for the Erasmus student exchange program.

The protagonists were later reunited in “Russian Dolls,” which takes place all over Europe. “Chinese Puzzle,” the third part of the trilogy, brings graying Xavier, now 40, to New York, where Wendy has moved with their two children to live with another man. Isabelle, in a tumultuous relationship with Ju (Sandrine Holt), is also there — and as if life weren’t already complicated enough for Xavier, old sparks are rekindled when Martine comes to visit.

“Chinese Puzzle” opened on May 16 and is a humorous depiction of multicultural, fast-paced, urban life in New York. Director Cédric Klapisch, 52, grew up in a Jewish family in a suburb of Paris and attended film school at New York University in the 1980s. He even refers to New York City as the “fifth actor.” During a visit to New York, which he calls the “capital of Jewish humor” because of Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and others, Klapisch explained to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg why he always feels at home on the Lower East Side and how he felt it was his duty, as part of the legacy of the Holocaust, to make comedies.

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Cannes Diary #3: Cronenberg, Carell and the Infamous Strauss-Kahn

By A.J. Goldmann

There was a lot of buzz — and not necessarily the good kind of buzz — surrounding bad-boy director Abel Ferrera’s “Welcome to New York,” his fictionalized account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, which was screened on Saturday for press and market ahead of its VOD-only release in France (a theatrical rollout is planned for America later in the year). I was busy seeing the enigmatic and dreamy Italian competition entry “Le Meraviglie” (“The Wonders”) by Alice Rohrwacher during the screening and wild after-party, which reportedly vied with the film for obscenity and grotesquery. In the wake of the film’s release, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer said that the former International Monetary Fund chief planned to sue Ferrara for defamation. (DSK is reportedly “heartbroken and terrified” and refuses to see the film.)

After a long, party-studded weekend on the Croisette, David Cronenberg’s celebrity satire “Maps to the Stars” debuted in competition. With an all-star cast (Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson), the Canadian auteur’s first film shot in L.A. works best when savaging Hollywood culture, name-dropping (“Harvey’s producing and you know Harvey. Harvey is Harvey,” is one of the gems in Bruce Wagner’s screenplay), and mocking the lifestyles of the rich and weird. But the film is so busy making fun of child stars, personal shoppers, the vanity of aging actresses — shades of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” — and quack New Age therapists that it doesn’t bother to stop and think what it’s all about. There is also a central incest drama to the film, which creates an accidental resonance with Keren Yedaya’s “That Lovely Girl,” which was profiled in an earlier festival post.

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