The Arty Semite

Why Michael Cera Should Direct More Movies

By Eitan Kensky

This is the way the story goes in the alternate timeline: “Paper Heart” (2009), the arch and quirky romantic comedy written by and starring Charlene Yi, became the next “Juno” (2007) and earned all the money at the box office. Audiences burst in anticipation for “Youth in Revolt” (2009) and swooned over its male lead’s newly revealed depth and maturity. Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) was a smash hit. It launched a series of sequels while, paradoxically, also inspiring Hollywood to abandon sequels and superhero adaptations. In came a new era where Hollywood took risks on unknown properties and produced scripts that barely even whispered “blockbuster.”

Getty Images

No matter how much I admire the frenetic, original and actually clever “Scott Pilgrim,” the alternate timeline is not better, and it may even prove much worse than the status quo. There was something troubling about “Scott Pilgrim” star Michael Cera, circa 2009. He wasn’t growing as an actor — but he also wasn’t not-growing in the way that most actors not-grow. The weight of past performances makes it harder and harder to get cast in anything that isn’t a repetition of those performances. Audiences love to see their favorite actors play their favorite roles again and again. Everyone eventually becomes a character actor, even movie stars. Sandra Bullock in “The Heat” is Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality.” It’s why the movie is so popular.

Michael Cera, however, was not-growing as an actor in the worst possible way: He was trying and failing. Cera probably had another year to play the lost puppy/stunted youth. I would have happily followed Nick from “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” to Berklee College of Music. But he decided to change and to be more ambitious. Unfortunately, he was only somewhat ambitious: He took on characters that were his logical next steps and natural evolutions. He smirked 20% less. He added more angst. It was neither the radical change he needed nor the stasis we wanted. It was a disappointment, that’s all.

Now Cera’s done what he needed to do before. He’s taking on challenging roles, like the lead in “Crystal Fairy,” and he’s savaging his best-loved ones. Season 4 of “Arrested Development” contorts George Michael Bluth and “This Is the End” aggressively mocks his nice guy image. He’s getting a lot of media attention for this growth and development.

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Amy Schumer vs. 'Princesses: Long Island'

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy of Bravo

I had the idea to compare Bravo’s “Princesses: Long Island,” the Jewish-tinged reality show about aspiring Real Housewives, to Amy Schumer, the Long Island-born stand-up comic and star of Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” The idea was to talk about how misguided these Princesses were, and about how depressing it is that their goal in life is to marry a banker, lawyer, or doctor — it doesn’t really matter which, so long as he can afford to pay for days and days of shopping at the Americana.

The idea was to cast Amy Schumer as their foil: She was the one who got away. Amy was the one who escaped status anxiety and the need to measure her self-worth by how many men she dated and the shiney presents they give her. I would cast her as somewhere between a refugee and a role model. Look past the surface, young Jewesses and Forward readers! Look past the shock value of her humor. Look past the initial parlor trick of hearing a beautiful, polite-seeming blonde woman tell crude jokes about the most unglamorous parts of sex. Realize that Amy is actually a brilliant, hard-working career woman determined to blaze her own path.

But there are two problems with that review. First, “Princesses: Long Island” is a much sadder, darker show than I thought it ever would be. And second, “Inside Amy Schumer” is the most inventive sketch show on television. It throws all formulas out the window. It keeps sketches going. It allows them to twist and turn into something far richer and deeper. It challenges our impressions of women in comedy and then challenges the challenges to those impressions. It’s also an insightful commentary on dating, technology, and the breakdown of etiquette. (No, really.) “Inside Amy Schumer” is not always funny; sometimes it’s painful. But the effect is always exhilarating.

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What We Can Learn From Mel Brooks About Racism

By Eitan Kensky

“Blazing Saddles” is generally regarded as Mel Brooks’s best movie: It was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies and it was nominated for three Academy Awards. “Best,” though, is a relative term. Brooks’s Borscht Belt-meets-absurdism style is so unique and so indelible that what we call the “best” is usually the first of his movies we fell in love with.

YouTube

It’s safer to say that “Blazing Saddles” was Brooks’s most timely movie, even his most serious movie. And it’s as safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks installment of PBS’s “American Masters” (premiering May 20; check local listings) without “Blazing Saddles.”

The opening scene is terrific and justifiably famous. We see a mix of Chinese and black workers pounding hammers under the desert sun. Their vicious and idiotic white overseers demand they sing spirituals like they did when they were slaves. The workers huddle, break apart, and slowly we hear a sweet, beautiful voice: “I get no kick from champagne.” Almost before we can process the joke, Brooks lays a second one atop the first: the black workers join in, harmonizing with the lead singer. This isn’t one person singing Cole Porter; this is a full, sophisticated a cappella routine. Brooks continues to add inversion after inversion, but the jokes work because the first few bars of that unexpected, anachronistic song say so much about racial ignorance.

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'Mad Men' Is Best When It's Angry

By Eitan Kensky

Sometimes it seems as if only Daniel Mendelsohn and the New York Review of Books can criticize AMC’s “Mad Men.” Only someone like Mendelsohn, whose work is devoted to mythic themes and to the eternal, can look past the crisp elegance of Don Draper’s pocket square and the show’s captivating visual style. Only someone like Mendelsohn can see its aesthetics as fantasy, a dream of living in a time when drinking and smoking were encouraged, when people would cheer you on for sleeping with your secretary, (when offices had secretaries), when men wore hats, and uniformed elevator men led you gracefully to your floor. And it could only run in a journal like the New York Review, a journal that started during the New York printers’ strike of 1962-1963, an event that would have transpired sometime during “Mad Men’s” third season. Only a publication designed to be academic and comprehensive, someplace that wouldn’t even review “Mad Men” until the end of Season Four, can look past the immediate joys of watching the show.

Courtesy of AMC

Then, at other times, it feels as if some sort of cultural window opens and everyone (myself included) gets their two months to criticize “Mad Men.” The joys of watching disappear. Its slowness becomes tediousness. Its oblique approach to historical events feels ridiculous against the backdrop of radicalism, of escalating war, and of rioting and mass protests.

Yet directly engaging with historical events is even worse. The aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King dominated this season’s fourth episode. Characters were scared; characters were hopeless. Everyone was glued to the TV because that was the only thing they knew they could do. They debated whether to go to the office the next day and what to do at the office. Were they really supposed to work?

It’s a perfectly rational discussion for two characters — even two real people — to have. But the conversation also highlighted what was until then the bland ok-ness of Season Six. For weeks, nothing happened. Themes were sketched; elements of eventual movements were gathered; breakpoints between the characters flashed up. Accounts came, accounts went; you could tell that something would happen, but nothing had.

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Five Ways of Looking at Joan Rivers

By Eitan Kensky

1. “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”

There’s something strange about Joan River’s Internet talk show, “In Bed with Joan.” Maybe it’s strange that the show exists, or maybe it’s strange how seriously Joan takes the web series — that she earnestly seems to believe it will lead to a new period of fame and critical acceptance. As if we aren’t already living in that new period, and that “In Bed with Joan” is only possible because she’s back on top as a comic legend, even a national treasure. Or maybe it’s just the wallpaper and duvet.

Getty Images

“In Bed with Joan” is filmed in a basement bedroom of Melissa Rivers’s house in Malibu. The laundry room doubles as a green room. Joan introduces her guests by asking them to come out of her closet, then invites them to lie down next to her on her full-size bed.

But they also lie under a reddish-orange sign that reads “In Bed with Joan,” next to french doors with a nighttime “view” of the New York skyline. In the second episode, Nick Kroll asked if the view is of the South Street Seaport, which would place the “studio” somewhere in the New York harbor.

On the first episode, Sarah Silverman repeatedly insulted the set, saying how depressing it was to be there and to discover that hosting an Internet talk show in your daughter’s basement was “making it.” You can’t quite decide if Silverman is joking, maybe because Silverman can’t decide if Joan is joking, if the aesthetics of the show — the weird incongruity between the actual bed, the massive sign, the fake New York skyline, and the audience of three-to-four people perched on the steps — are all one big joke. As Melissa Rivers put it, “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”

Everything that’s strange about “In Bed with Joan,” starts with that room. Joan Rivers has decided to make a low-budget online talk show, but Joan Rivers cannot make a low-budget online talk show. She cannot admit that the show is filmed in a Malibu basement; she has to pretend that it’s produced in glamorous New York City. She isn’t content to film conversations with friends or comics, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Joan Rivers needs to have a team of writers help her compose jokes and formal interview questions. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be something larger than it really is. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be a full-size Talk Show, maybe to continue making up for a creative failure that she’s long since made-up for, one that few people remember. Maybe she does it because few people remember.

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What I Learned About Anxiety From 'Girls'

By Eitan Kensky

Earlier this month, HBO’s “Girls” ended its second season with Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) incapacitated by anxiety-induced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, her ebook on the lost generation of 20-somethings looking more and more unlikely; I read the first few chapters of Phillip Lopate’s new book “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction” and Lopate’s thoughts on a writer’s obsessions; and I started to have a panic attack at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., during a promotional screening of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”

Courtesy of HBO

It had been three medicated years since the last one, but I knew immediately what was happening. There is the initial trigger: a jolt, a kick, you’re aware that your breathing is a little unusual, or that your body isn’t reacting the way that it should. You extend your breathing to see if that will slow your heart, but your body is shifting, moving, trying to find a comfortable position. You become obsessed with the thought of relaxing. You notice that you wore really tight socks. You need to be composed, and stay composed. The thing you fear most is embarrassment. As soon as your conscious mind forms the words “panic attack,” it is over: that thought will metastasize, it will be the only thing in your brain. “Don’t pass out” becomes a hopeless mantra, and you lose consciousness.

Or: you realize what is happening. You grab your coat, leave, try to find somewhere quiet to settle down. Your head is a weird combination of heavy and light, your vision blurs. Outside the theater I propped myself up on one of those green plastic boxes where they dispense brochures for the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. But I need to sit down, and the only thing I see are the snow-wet steps leading to the Anthropologie on the second floor of the Design Research Building at 48 Brattle Street. I’m not sure how long I sat on the steps, relaxing. Two girls passed me: one only said excuse me; one asked me if the store was closed. There was an ambulance almost exactly in front of the theater. If it was there before, I didn’t notice. I wondered if they watched me keel over on the plastic box, and if they thought to help. By then I was feeling closer to normal. Those thoughts meant that I was close to normal. I pulled out my phone, saw there was a bus coming, and left. I’ll have to go back in April to see the movie.

I never wanted to write about “Girls” because so much has been written about “Girls.” By now it’s even cliché to start a piece on “Girls” by apologizing for adding to the pile of writing on “Girls.” But I also had nothing to add. The only thing I ever wanted to say about “Girls” was that the media debate over its Whiteness was really a proxy for the general lack of diversity on TV, and even a proxy for the fact that middle-class college graduates still cloister themselves in racially homogenous social groups. But that idea was taken before an editor could respond to my pitch.

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Billy Eichner Is the Funniest Man on the Internet

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy of Fuse

Billy Eichner is tall, gay, Jewish, from Queens, with a hairline somewhere between receding and disappearing. All of these qualities fuel his comedy. They also make the act of watching him run around the streets of New York, offering ordinary people $1 to answer questions like, “Who’s better, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close?” (and then erupting into a heated and irrational fury when the answer is Glenn Close “by far,” to which he yells back, neck veins bulging cartoonishly, “No, that is not the truth!”) one of the most exhilarating comic experiences there is. These moments, when Billy turns on his “contestant,” almost make you believe that the game show was invented just so Billy could savage it. You at least want to believe it.

Structurally, “Billy on the Street,” which just ended its second season on Fuse, is an ordinary game show: Billy asks trivia questions, and contestants win money for answering them correctly. There are obstacle courses for people to complete, lightning rounds and special games where you have to give a certain number of answers in a limited amount of time.

But structure is where the resemblances between this and any other game show end. The third round of the main trivia game, “Quizzed in the Face,” is entirely subjective. In order to win, the contestant has to share Billy’s opinion. Lightning rounds devolve into Billy frantically shouting shards of language. “Miss,” he stops a woman, “Judd Apatow?” Her face can barely contain her scornful indifference and he dashes down the street, his voice trailing “Judd Apatoooowwwww????” Or, in Tel Aviv, on his way to see Madonna open her world tour, the question, “Miss, do you love a gay dancer?” hangs in the air unanswered just long enough for Billy to run to the next person and then the next, shouting “Gay dancers! Gay dancers!” all while offering people around him his microphone to respond. No one seems to know whether or not to take “Gay dancers” as an ominous warning or as a joke.

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The Cantor Who Was Actually Jesus

By Eitan Kensky

It’s not giving anything away to say that Lifetime’s new movie “Twist of Faith” ends with its mismatched romantic leads back together, embracing on the threshold of her home. Nor does it reveal anything to note that Music and the Power of Song connect Toni Braxton’s Black Gospel singer with David Julian Hirsh’s doubting, erstwhile cantor. And it certainly doesn’t spoil the movie to mention that “Twist of Faith,” which Lifetime calls an “interfaith love story,” begins with the horrific murder of the cantor’s wife and children on an ordinary bus, on an ordinary day, in an indeterminate part of Orthodox New York. This is a Lifetime movie: love conquers all and violence expresses the persistent vulnerability of women. None of this makes watching “Twist of Faith” any less surreal.

Courtesy of Lifetime

It’s the misnomer “interfaith” that makes “Twist of Faith” mildly uncomfortable. We’re used to seeing intermarriages on TV and in movies. It’s almost easier to count the number of times that the Jewish hero ends up with a Jewish woman than it is to count the times he ends up with the American gentile woman; the former is so infrequent.

But we’re used to watching intermarriages and inter-dating with couples that are only residually or ethnically Jewish. They eat bagels and lox, drop a few Yiddish words, and otherwise go about their lives. For that matter, their spouses are only residually or ethnically Christian: they sit down for Easter dinner and drink cocktails with their meals. Their lives are inherently secular. Chrismukkah for all!

What’s strange is that “Twist of Faith” is a story about believers, religious doubters, and those who care passionately about God. It’s a story about trying to interpret God’s will, and how we comprehend human suffering. In some ways it’s one of the most admirable attempts to talk about faith and piety ever seen on screen, and it is respectful to Judaism as a religion. Yet it’s also uncomfortably Christian: the only person who can heal the Jew’s suffering is the righteous Gospel singer, and the only community that embraces him as a full servant of God is the Black church. The cantor is only the object in a story about Christian mercy, the recipient of other people’s acts of kindness. Also: he is possibly Jesus.

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Why Philip Roth Will Keep Writing

By Eitan Kensky

We’ve reached a strange point in the ongoing saga, “Philip Roth: America’s Greatest Living Writer.” After releasing a new book every year from 2006 through 2010, he stopped without anyone noticing. In an interview with a French newspaper, partly translated by Salon on Friday, Roth announced that he was done writing novels. “Nemesis” would be his last book. He was satisfied with the body of his career. He plans to spend his time preparing his archives and helping his biographer, Blake Bailey, tell the story of his life. Roth is clear: no more novels.

I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”

The italics are mine. Roth is done with the novel and with making up stories. His comments leave no margin for another novel.

Which can only mean that Roth will be writing for years to come. There’s no reason to doubt what Roth says, no reason to doubt that the novel no longer enchants him as it once did. That is, there’s no reason except for the multiple books Roth wrote with “Philip Roth” as a character. In “The Facts,” Nathan Zuckerman sends a letter to Philip Roth castigating Roth for the terrible job he’s done narrating his autobiography. “Operation Shylock” is about an imposter Philip Roth who travels around Israel giving speeches about the need for Jews to leave Israel and return en masse to Eastern Europe. Could Roth be setting up a sequel? No evidence suggests otherwise.

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Art Spiegelman Struggles With Success

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy BJFF

Art Spiegelman just wants to be left alone. Or, rather, he would really like it if parts of his career and biography were minimized, and others celebrated more. The central tension, both in the long conversations he had with University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute, the germ and base level of “MetaMaus” (2011), and now in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s new documentary, “The Art of Spiegleman,” is the anxiety of success. Spiegelman is painfully self-aware that he will be forever known (and, often, only known) for the path breaking Maus (1980-1991); fearful that he will become the “Elie Wiesel of comics”; and worries that he cannot seem to escape the autobiographical voice. Somehow, some way, his career turned from the one he imagined and he’s never been able to get the old one back.

“The Art of Spiegelman,” now screening as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is a medium-length documentary. At 45 minutes, it’s perfect for television. Most of the movie consists of interviews with Spiegelman, though his wife and daughter become increasingly prominent as the movie progresses. There are photographs of Spiegelman’s early years, and archival footage of Spiegelman and his wife printing Raw, the legendary little magazine of what we now call sequential art, but really should just call comics.

Non-Spiegelmans, like the illustrator Charles Burns, make appearances, but they are there to tell personal stories and to contextualize Spiegelman’s life. Learned, bespectacled academics with receding hairlines are sadly absent. This is not a critical documentary devoted to analyzing the contributions Spiegelman made to either his field or the whole of arts and letters, but one that allows him to tell his own story. It is a good, entertaining documentary, though limited by everything just mentioned. Those who already know Spiegelman’s work will wish it cut deeper, while those unfamiliar with his art will only have their interest lightly piqued.

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Lunching With New Yorker Cartoonists

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy BJFF

Every frame in Rachel Loube’s “Every Tuesday: A Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists,” now screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, together with “The Art of Spiegelman,” threatens to dissolve into cliché. There is the premise itself: Every Tuesday, New Yorker cartoonists, young and old, submit their work, and then go for lunch. It is a beautiful, invisible New York tradition, the kind that Gay Talese would have celebrated in luxurious prose, the kind that the media is intent on reminding us no longer exist. The restaurant is appropriately shabby. The food scenes are all set to jazz.

There is no question that if “Every Tuesday” were any longer it would become unbearably familiar and impossible to watch. But at 20 minutes, it’s perfect. The cartoonists come alive in short bursts. Zachary Kanin, a Harvard Lampoon alumnus, is legitimately hilarious. Their very different apartments and workspaces quickly tell us about their different styles and approach to the craft. We watch some cartoonists revise and edit their work on imposing Apple Monitors, and others retrace their cartoons on top of a light box. Some aim for perfection, while others have started to embrace artistic imperfection. Wouldn’t it be better if a rectangle weren’t so rectangular?

“Every Tuesday” is everything you want in a short film: It brings you into a unique world, gives you enough information to make you feel like you understand the key issues, and leaves you absolutely wanting more.

Watch a teaser for ‘Every Tuesday’:

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Jerry Seinfeld's New Show About Nothing

By Eitan Kensky

Jerry Seinfeld, a famous comedian, used to be the star of “Seinfeld,” a sitcom about a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld and his friends. Larry David, a less-famous comedian, was a writer and co-creator of “Seinfeld,” and now stars as Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a show about the daily life of Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld.” In the fourth season of “Seinfeld,” Jerry Seinfeld and his best friend George Costanza create a TV show called “Jerry,” a sitcom about a comedian, his friends, and a guy sentenced by a judge to be the comedian’s butler. In the seventh season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry agrees to participate in a “Seinfeld” reunion in the hopes that doing so will lead to a reconciliation with his wife. Jerry Seinfeld guest-starred as “Jerry Seinfeld,” the actor who played “Jerry Seinfeld” on “Seinfeld.” He is meaner and nastier than the character — meaner and nastier even than Larry — though no one seems willing to acknowledge this, or in any way recognize that Jerry is not the same person as his character.

Crackle.com

All of this subtext plays an important role in the first episode of comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s new web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” It is among the most accurately titled shows in the history of shows — or is at least intended to be. Larry’s refusal to drink coffee is an important “plot point” in the episode, and, according to Larry, a key factor in the dissolution of his marriage. You would be forgiven for mistaking this banter for dialogue from “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

But the intent is to give you exactly what the title promises. In the pilot, Jerry Seinfeld drives a blue 1952 VW Bug, meets his friend Larry, and the two journey across town to drink coffee and eat pancakes. Later episodes only change the car, the comedian and the coffee shop. So long as we continue to make cars and continue to birth comedians, the formula is endlessly repeatable.

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Slideshow: Yiddish Communist Magazines

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy of Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

In conjunction with its conference on “Jews and the Left” (see our story here), the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has prepared an outstanding exhibition called “Shades of Red: Yiddish Left-Wing Press in America,” curated by Krysia Fisher and on view until September, 2012. Among the highlights of the exhibition is a series of arresting covers for the Communist monthly Der Hammer, many of them by William Gropper (1897-1977), one of America’s most significant social realist illustrators and painters.

Gropper’s is a classic Jewish American story. His immigrant parents settled on the Lower East Side and worked in the garment industry. He lost an aunt in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which some scholars cite as the reason for his politics. Though, as the conference demonstrated, radicalism was a vibrant part of Jewish life at the time.

Gropper studied art in public school and a portfolio of his work led Frank Parsons to admit him to the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons The New School For Design). Gropper worked as an illustrator for Yiddish and English publications including The New York Tribune, The Liberator, The Masses, The New Masses, Vanity Fair and, of course, Der Hammer.

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Why ‘Magic City’ Is Missing the Magic

By Eitan Kensky

Image courtesy of Starz/Greg Williams

Here is a list of things that I like (and some that I love): Mad Men; “The Godfather Part II” villain Hyman Roth; “Bugsy,” “Once Upon a Time in America” and other visualizations of Jewish gangland; Miami Vice; Saul Bellow, Meyer Levin, and the early fiction of Bernard Malamud; Deborah Dash Moore’s “To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and LA”; film noir, but especially neo-noirs like “Chinatown” that shifted their focus from the decaying cityscape to the darkness only superficially bleached away by the sun; “Body Heat” (though really anything with a young Mickey Rourke and/or William Hurt); tales of unbridled Jewish ambition from “The Rise of David Levinsky” to “What Makes Sammy Run?” and “The Social Network”; lounge music; and long, lingering shots of people smoking.

So I absolutely should have loved “Magic City,” the new Starz show about late-’50s Miami Beach, the luxurious Miramar hotel, and the moral compromises its Jewish hotelier, Isaac “Ike” Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is forced to make to hold on to power. But through two episodes, the show is distinctly less than the sum of its parts, little more than an exercise in style. Admittedly, it’s unfair to judge a show on its first few episodes, but “Magic City” is clearly in danger of becoming a missed opportunity.

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Jewish Humor on 'Treasure Island'

By Eitan Kensky

Treasure Island!!!
By Sara Levine
Europa Editions, 172 pages, $15.00

There are as many Jewish humors as there are funny Jews, which is to say that there are 12 — and half of them haven’t been good in years.

Many essentialist definitions of Jewish humor, such as the comedy of outsiders, or the comedy of the oppressed and dispossessed, have been put forward over time, but these have turned out to be little more than heuristics — momentary explanations, useful only until they are not. The humor of the Marx Brothers and the humor of the Apatow troupe are not the same humor, though we persist in calling them both “Jewish,” and hunt for the spiritual link between them. (See, for example the many disparate comedians and styles covered under the Jewish Humor category in Saul Austerlitz’s “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” reviewed by The Arty Semite here.) The idea of a monolithic Jewish humor is more myth than fact.

Still, it is rare to find a comic, or film, or even a book (yes, books can be funny) that manages to feel both completely new and simultaneously connected to Jewish cultural life. Yet this is exactly what Sara Levine has accomplished in her new book, “Treasure Island!!!”, whose comic brilliance derives not from participating in, and extending, the tradition of Jewish humorists, but from making a mockery of Judaism, and the idea of textually derived truth.

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Where Is the Occupy Wall Street Sitcom?

By Eitan Kensky

Getty Images

“Selling New York,” HGTV’s hit show about luxury real estate and boutique brokerage firms, largely succeeds as escapism. When it isn’t affirming the idea that New York real estate is still one of the most Jewish professions on the planet, “Selling New York” takes viewers into fantastic, glimmering spaces that they would otherwise never get to see: classic wood-paneled nine-room apartments on the Upper East Side; converted spaces with unique fixtures; sleek steel and glass condos with amenities like in-house massage services. The apartments and homes on the show — and the astronomical prices they fetch — are so far removed from the national real estate market that you can watch “Selling New York” and escape into a world where the solution to the problem of “How do I sell a $23.5 million apartment in DUMBO?” is to throw a fabulous cocktail party.

But lately I’ve found it almost impossible to watch the show without thinking of that great New York real estate story of the past few months: the tent city of Occupy Wall Street and the transformation of the previously obscure Zuccotti Park into an international landmark. Certainly, Zuccotti Park is shorthand for many Americans’ anger at income inequality and the collective frustration that the biggest beneficiaries of the subprime boom have gone unpunished while millions of people have lost their homes to foreclosure. But what happens next? When Occupy Wall Street ends — whenever that is — how will the story of Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park be assimilated into the larger narrative of New York City? Will Occupy Wall Street become just another way of selling New York, a distinguishing feature for brokers to point to when they show apartments in the financial district? Will Zuccotti Park become Union Square in miniature?

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Friday Film: Movies That Make You Want to Read

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy of JSL Films

Both Jonathan Lee’s “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” a biography of the now obscure New York Intellectual, and Pony Brzezinski and Lina Chaplin’s “Writing as I Should,” a documentary about the late Israeli author Batya Gur, make you want to read more of their subjects’ work, though for opposite reasons. The two films screened November 3 as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which was the initial grounds for comparing them. But watching these two very different takes on two very different writers made me wish that there was a dialogue between them — that “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” had some of the revealing nearness of “Writing as I Should,” and that “Writing As I Should” had more of an outside perspective on the meaning of Gur’s work.

“Paul Goodman Changed My Life” tries and fails spectacularly at capturing every nuance of Goodman’s multifaceted career. The film introduces us to Goodman the poet, Goodman the novelist, Goodman the anarchist, Goodman the social theorist, Goodman the teacher, Goodman the charming guest on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” Goodman the bisexual, Goodman the not-always-affectionate father, and Goodman the jilted elder statesman of the New Left.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Writing as I Should, Paul Goodman Changed My Life, Pony Brzezinski, Paul Goodman, Lina Chaplin, Jonathan Lee, Film, Boston Jewish Film Festival, Eitan Kensky, Batya Gur

How Larry David Creates a Jewish Universe All His Own

By Eitan Kensky

Jessica Miglio/HBO

Larry David is a clown. Or the last schlemiel who found a way to make Jews the uncomfortable outsiders again. Or a man whose “imbricated” sense of humor “challenges essentialist categories of comic performance,” as well as the tenets of Judaism and Christianity. (By the way, I agree with that take.) And the series’ new season again finds the character Larry David (played by Larry David) as the unlikely vehicle for pursuing moral questions, such as, “Is it ever appropriate for a man to help a young girl getting her period for the first time?” Or, “Is it ever acceptable to hire a gentile attorney?”

But the eighth season premiere, “The Divorce,” which aired July 10 on HBO, highlights what many fans have known all along: The show works because of the richness of its secondary characters. While these characters, from Larry’s manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin) to the environmentalist do-gooder Ted Danson (Ted Danson), have individually received praise for their performances over the years, the series itself is remarkable for the sheer number of memorable figures and standout cameos its creative staff has devised. No character given the power of speech on “Curb” ever wastes that speech. An Asian-American cleaning woman doesn’t just get to shoo Larry away from her boss’s front door — she’s given the opportunity to dismantle both his logical reasoning and his class-blind understanding of contemporary society.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Divorce, Television, Ted Danson, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Garlin, HBO, Eitan Kensky, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheryl Hines

Of Beastie Boys, Kafka, and the Hot Sauce Academy

By Eitan Kensky

Getty Images

I imagine the hot sauce committee to be a studious and dour group, as dispassionate in their judgment of peppers and spices as the academy is of Red Peter the talking ape in Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy.” Which is to say, that if the Beastie Boys are not quite the heir to Kafka’s fantastical humor, they are at least a multimedia Marx Brothers, deviously pushing absurdity to new heights with each of their albums.

How else can we explain their latest project, “Fight For Your Right Revisited,” a 25-minute sequel to “Fight for Your Right (to Party)”? Released to accompany their new album, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,” the aesthetics of “Revisited” are perfect: There are the boys in their Adidas track suits and chunky gold chains leaving a party for a day-lit street that looks like the “Paul’s Boutique” album cover. Only instead of appearing themselves, the band cast Danny McBride and Seth Rogan as fatter, less whimsical versions of MCA and Mike D, and Elijah Wood as an even more awkward Ad-Rock, whose cherubic face hides his dark core.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: To the 5 Boroughs, Seth Rogan, Run DMC, Paul's Boutique, Music, Observe and Report, Mike D, MCA, Hip-Hop, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, Fight For Your Right Revisited, Hello Nasty, Elijah Wood, Eitan Kensky, Danny McBride, Check Your Head, Adrock, Beastie Boys

On NCIS, the 'New Jew' Is Much Like the Old

By Eitan Kensky

Courtesy CBS
Cote de Pablo as Ziva David on NCIS.

I can’t help but think that NCIS officer Ziva David is not what Max Nordau had in mind when he developed the concept of Muskeljudentum (Muscular Judaism). Living in an environment of anti-Semitic discourse that saw the Jewish male as sickly and weak, Nordau advocated a physical Judaism that would challenge anti-Semites by carving a new Jewish body, lithe and muscular and capable of fighting back. His ideas enjoyed wide support in the early decades of the 20th century, and became a major ideological component of the Zionist “New Jew.” If Muscular Judaism didn’t quite dispel the image of the intellectual Jew incapable of harming a fly, it at least created a counter-image: the strong, aggressive Sabra, unafraid of combat.

This is certainly the role played by Ziva (Cote de Pablo) on NCIS, the popular CBS procedural about a Navy Criminal investigative agency. Ziva, who joined in the third season, is the unit’s resident killer, and the only officer other than the team leader Gibbs (Mark Harmon) capable of routinely disarming and capturing suspects. Though played by a non-Jewish actress, Ziva is our most prominent televisual Israeli, helping, in her own way, to spread awareness of Israeli culture: She sports a Star of David necklace, listens to the popular band Hadag Nachash, and if she sometimes pronounces “layla,” the Hebrew word for night whose first syllable rhymes with “eye,” like the Eric Clapton song, her dialogue with other Israeli characters likely exposes the audience to more Hebrew than they’d otherwise hear in a lifetime.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Veronica Mars, Ziva David, Sofia Coppola, Television, New Jew, NCIS, Muskeljudentum, Muscular Judaism, Mossad, Modern Family, Max Nordau, Mark Harmon, Lost in Translation, Gibbs, Feminism, Cote de Pablo, Eitan Kensky, CBS




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