Filmmaker Liz Garbus is responsible for numerous powerful and award-winning documentaries: “The Farm: Angola USA,” about Louisiana’s infamous maximum security prison; “The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust”; and “Killing in the Name,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary about Islamic terrorism.
Therefore, the emotional intensity of her latest, “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY,” doesn’t come as a surprise. The title has nothing to do with salary or benefits. In fact, “a good job,” according to one of the fire fighters interviewed, is “a really tough fire.” And “good jobs” are a recurring theme in the film: a 1966 conflagration in which a dozen fire fighters died; the Happy Land Social Club fire (87 victims), and of course 9/11.
A number of fire fighters — including early women and African American members of what until recently was an almost exclusively male and white fraternity — are interviewed. What’s surprising is how little swagger or arrogance they display. Despite the constant peril of the job, they don’t look at their work much differently than an office worker whose greatest risk is a paper cut. Their answers to interesting questions posed by the filmmakers are thoughtful, intelligent and moving.
Garbus partnered on the project with actor Steve Buscemi, who worked as a New York City fire fighter for five years before pursuing a career as an actor. Garbus, 44, spoke to the Forward about how the two met, Buscemi’s contribution, and how making her first documentary got her kicked out of her high school physics class.
Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in the film?
Image courtesy of HBO
When is a terrorist not a terrorist?
That’s the question asked and answered in the important HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which debuts July 21 at 9 p.m.
It’s been over five years. Still, many people are likely to remember how a joint terrorism task force arrested four men before they could bomb a Bronx synagogue and JCC, and fire a missile at military aircraft at Stewart Airport in upstate New York.
The government gratuitously went through the process of a trial, but the men, who became known as the Newburgh Four, had already been convicted in the media.
However, an investigation by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner suggests that the four men were not terrorists, but dupes in an elaborate plot set up by an FBI informant.
Following 9/11 (which the FBI missed), the Bureau set up a network of informants to root out home grown terrorists. Most (if not all) of these informants were set loose on mosques. This certainly isn’t politically correct, and no U.S. mosque has yet ben implicated in any kind of terrorist plot. But the FBI seems to have adopted a “We screwed up and now we have to catch up” attitude that made its agents willing to overlook such niceties.“The rules are off,” was a common refrain in FBI offices.
Important, too, these undercover informants were financially rewarded. Previous criminal activity was overlooked. So, if they couldn’t find genuine terrorists, they were potentially motivated to create them, or else lose their jobs. And that seemed to be the case here.
Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, is an impoverished community. Shahed Hussain, an informant and shady character, visited the local mosque and asked the Imam if he knew anyone interested in Jihad.
The Imam suggested congregants stay away from him, but Hussain kept showing up in fancy suits, fancy cars (plural) and flashing wads of cash.
To paraphrase a famous fundraising slogan, a mind is a terrible thing to watch wasting away.
But that’s what filmmaker Alan Berliner does in his moving and lovingly motivated documentary, “First Cousin Once Removed,” premiering on HBO September 23.
Berliner’s subject is his cousin, Edwin Honig (1919-2011), the noted poet, translator and teacher, who spent the last years of his life suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
Berliner filmed Honig five or six times a year over the last five years of his life and his decline is heartbreaking. Towards the end, he doesn’t recognize images of his younger self, his mother or his children.
But in the midst of his decay he occasionally becomes lucid, spouting poetic phrases both playful and profound. When Berliner asks if it is okay to film him Honig replies: “Mirror, mirror on the wall; you can be camera and I will be all.” At another point in the movie, he comments on the trees outside his apartment, “Leaves very still. But in the stillness there is movement. A moving painting.”
Berliner spoke to The Arty Semite about his relationship with his cousin, the difficulty of watching his deterioration and his propensity to make very personal documentaries.
Curt Schleier: How close to Edwin were you?
The thing about “VICE” — the new HBO show by the magazine-cum-media empire of the same name — is that it’s strangely un-VICE-like. The first episode, which aired April 5, features reports on political violence in the Philippines and suicide bombing in Afghanistan. It’s shallow in a “dude this sh*t is crazy” kind of way, but it’s also very earnest. In the introductory voiceover we hear that “the world is changing… But we’ll be there uncovering the news, culture and politics.” In the words of CEO and on-screen personality Shane Smith to NPR, “We’re going to turn our cameras on something that we think is important… Because we’re part of the Fourth Estate and that’s our job.” Well, ok, but isn’t this supposed to be VICE? What about the hookers and blow?
I assume we’ll get some of that as the season continues. But it seems like VICE — which brought us productions like “The VICE Guide to Shagging Muslims” and “I Gave a Handy at Jew Camp” — is trying to signal a newfound moral seriousness. The show overflows with sympathy for people whose families have been killed in political assassinations and terrorist attacks, and it condemns leaders who use children as soldiers and suicide bombers. So far VICE’s ethics seem to be that war is bad, violence is bad, and the use of children as suicide bombers is especially bad. Agreed, obviously, but a habit of wanton offensiveness doesn’t easily accommodate the gravitas of warzone reporting. VICE wants to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work.
In a recent piece by Lizzie Widdicombe in The New Yorker, VICE founder Gavin McInnes (who is no longer with the company) described the magazine’s formula like this: “My big thing was I want you to do stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way. So if you’re going to Palestine, try to find a good burger joint…. Conversely, if you’re gonna do a thing on farts or poo… Be super-scientific and get all the data.” A 2010 article in The New York Times attributed the same philosophy to another VICE founder, Suroosh Alvi, and I once heard it from a friend who did a stint as a VICE intern. It’s a brilliant, cynical recipe for creating a compelling and consistent voice at the expense of any subject. And pursuing it undermines any moral pretense VICE might have.
Phil Spector’s life could be summed up in four words — musical genius, eccentric and murderer.
Playwright David Mamet’s HBO film “Phil Spector,” which airs March 24, makes the most of all of them but his take on the 2007 murder trial of the record producer has split opinion as much as the crime itself.
Al Pacino plays the bombastic, multi-wigged, gun-obsessed creator of the 1960s “Wall of Sound” recording technique in the weeks before his first trial in Los Angeles for the 2003 shooting death of struggling actress Lana Clarkson.
The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. Spector, who pleaded not guilty and never took the witness stand, was convicted of second-degree murder after a second trial in 2009.
The 73-year-old is serving 19 years to life in prison and did not collaborate on the project.
Neither documentary nor pure fiction, Mamet’s film begins with a puzzling disclaimer saying that it is “a work of fiction … not based on a ‘true story.’”
HBO has released a trailer for its upcoming Phil Spector biopic, about the legendary record producer and convicted murderer. The film, written and directed by David Mamet, stars Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as his defense attorney. Based on the trailer, though, the main attraction seems to be the many phases of Spector’s hair. Take a look:
Today, there are any number of ways one can make it in America, yet generations of Jews still gravitate toward the shmatte business.
HBO’s “How To Make It In America,” which starts its second season October 2, is the story of a Fashion Institute of Technology dropout named Ben Epstein (played by Bryan Greenberg), struggling to break into New York City’s ultra-competitive fashion scene. He and his Dominican sidekick, Cam Calderon (Victor Rasuk), hustle their way through gangsters, designers and Manhattan nightlife in hopes of making a name for their budding denim and t-shirt line, Crisp.
“Ian Edelman, the creator of the show, is Jewish,” noted Greenberg, who was raised Conservative. “I think he was just fascinated with the story of Ralph Lauren — a Jewish guy from the Bronx who changed fashion, and changed it so much that he became a fashion icon.”
Courtesy of HBO
Dick Cavett calls Mel Brooks more than a comedy star; he’s a “super nova.”
Mel Brooks calls Dick Cavett “spectacularly gentile.”
The two share the stage on the appropriately titled HBO special, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,” an hour-long, anecdote-filled, hilarious love fest debuting September 9 at 9:00 p.m.
Brooks was a frequent guest on Cavett’s various talk shows, and the two clearly admire one other. It’s not clear what the occasion was, but the two reunited last December on a Los Angeles stage.
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.
Male midlife crisis is apparently a cross-cultural phenomenon. The television comedy “Traffic Light,” an Israeli import, is enjoying critical acclaim on the eve of its February 8 debut on the Fox network. Sitcom humor just may be able to cross the Israel-U.S. divide.
The show centers around three 30-something buddies, each of whom is at a very different stage of life when it comes to relationships with women. One has just moved in with his girlfriend, another is married with a toddler, and the third is a swinging bachelor who can’t commit to one girl but who has a very meaningful relationship with his dog. The comedy has enjoyed two successful seasons in Israel and its creator and star Adir Miller recently won an International Emmy award for best comedy.
At the Golden Globe awards last night, winners included “Boardwalk Empire” for best TV drama (discussed in the Forward here and here); Al Pacino for his turn as Jack Kevorkian in HBO’s “You Don’t Know Jack” (discussed in the Forward here); Paul Giamatti as best actor in “Barney’s Version” (here and here); Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” (here); and David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin for best director and best screenplay, respectively, for “The Social Network,” which also took home the prize for best drama.
Speaking of Hollywood, will “war and terrorism insurance” help lure American production companies to Israel?
Greet “Kehilah,” a new online magazine for Jews of color.
If you drown a Jew while trying to baptize him against his will, are you anti-Semitic? That was the discussion brewing in the blogosphere after the penultimate episode of the HBO hit series “Boardwalk Empire” aired on November 28. The show, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, follows the people who run the city and the Federal Agents trying to enforce Prohibition.
Agent Van Alden, played by Michael Shannon, grew increasingly fanatical as the episodes aired — he flagellates himself and talks to his wife about signs from God. His assistant, Agent Sebso (Erik Weiner), is Jewish — he understands the Yiddish spoken by Simon, a suspect in a bootleg robbery, when Van Alden revives him with cocaine in the third episode. Sebso is also, as Van Alden suspects, working for the other side. But it was in the eleventh episode, “Paris Green” (written by playwright/screenwriter Howard Korder), that Van Alden’s true crazy emerged, as he submerged Sebso in front of an African-American congregation.
At the “Boardwalk Empire” panel at the New York Times Arts and Lesiure Weekend on January 9 I asked showrunner Terence Winter if Van Alden was intended to be anti-Semitic.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Tonight treatment will start for three new patients in the third season of HBO’s “In Treatment.” This season will depend entirely on American scriptwriters, and according to Hagai Levi, who created the show that was originally an Israeli hit, that will only help the program.
“There was something in previous seasons that seemed like cross-breeding, since the source of the early seasons was so Israeli. Now the scriptwriters are entirely American, and it’s like watching an infant learn how to walk on its own,” says Levi. “It makes me happy to see that not everything moves according to the rules of globalization — that is to say, every place has its own problems. It’s impossible to use the same scriptwriters any place in the world. In my opinion, this will be the best season the series has had so far.” The Salon web magazine is expecting it to be “the darkest and gloomiest season yet.”
With his film “My Trip To Al-Qaeda” on HBO in September and his one-man show, “The Human Scale,” about to open in New York City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright has a lot going on. During a short window between memorizing his lines and beginning rehearsals, he found time to answer a few questions about “The Human Scale,” which is based on his experiences in Israel and the Gaza Strip last year. Directed by Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, the play opens on October 2 at The New Yorker Festival and will continue its run at 3LD Arts and Technology Center until October 31.
Zohar Tirosh-Polk: How did this play come about?
Lawrence Wright: I had a done a one-man play before, “My Trip to Al Qaeda.” That was anomalous to start with, and I thought I would never do that again. Then I went to Gaza for The New Yorker in July 2009, and when I came back Karen Greenberg at the Center on Law and Security asked me to give a speech about Gaza. The more I thought about it, I realized it was very familiar to the people of that region, but here people are so unacquainted with it. I thought maybe I would try another one-man presentation, so we assembled all this video and we did a reading last December at the 3-Legged Dog theater, and it was during that time that Oskar Eustis at the Public got interested.