Monthly Archives: February 2015

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Contempt comes dressed in the garments of objectivity. To hear it expressed after ninety minutes of weasel words comes a relief. “Know your place, woman!” barks the chief magistrate of a rabbinical court to the title character of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem seeking a divorce. The shock is what a shock those words remain, despite incontrovertible evidence that the system is rigged in favor of the husband. Israel’s entry in the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film has itself the ruthlessness of a close Talmudic reading as sibling writer-directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz show in grinding cross-examinations the near impossibility of an Orthodox woman’s getting justice. Except for a sop to suspense conventions in the last twenty minutes, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is designed to rattle the audience. It works.

After a twenty-year marriage that has produced four children, Viviane (played by Ronit Elkabetz herself) has had enough. She no longer loves him. The court, comprised of three members who take turn projecting grey bearded wisdom, remind the petitioner that they can do nothing unless her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) grants her request. He will not. Assured the law is on his side, Elisha often doesn’t bother appearing in court. He’s right. The judges threaten to revoke his driver’s license and freeze his credit cards (he doesn’t drive and uses cash). Complicating matters: Elisha’s brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai) acts as defense attorney — too clever, too beholden to paternalistic notions about not picking on the fairer and weaker sex, except when he dangles the possibility that she may have gotten coffee with Viviane’s weary lawyer Carmel (Menashe Noy) during the months (eventually years) of separation. Each time a title card announces “Two weeks later,” “Six months later,” “Four months later” prompts audience laughter. By the time the proceedings crawl into their fifth year, the case starts to look like Bleak House‘s Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Whether the film is rigged for the prejudices of Gentile or secular audiences is a legitimate question. At Viviane’s lowest point she reminds the court that in the United States her husband would have been jailed for not appearing and given her papers immediately; I can imagine applause from a festival audience in Europe or an Academy members in his Malibu pad nodding. The Elkabetzes eschew background info (we memorize the courtroom’s yellow stained walls, three rickety extra chairs, and wobbly lectern). Each claims sexual neglect. Viviane says the presence of Elisha and Simon’s mother started the freeze, and from what I’ve seen daughters in law require special dispensations anyway. Elisha claims Viviane was a shrew. While the film doesn’t embrace the Renoir adage “everyone has his reasons,” the temptation to make Elisha more than the man with a fish-eyed stare of boredom never occurs to the Elkabetzes: a smart choice, for Shimon and the justices become the proxy targets of audience rage. Viviane wants her freedom, this should be enough, the film says. The testimony of the couple’s spice merchant neighbors provides the most fraught moment. The discovery that the wife — played by Dalia Berger as a charming woman whose clothes intimate pride in her husband’s modest income — was coached rattles the judges; they want happy marriages, each fulfilling a duty, not a sham.

Makeup artists age the principals subtly — people don’t change in five years as to become unrecognizable, especially for a group meeting in the same spot. Indeed, as month after grueling month passes something like a rapprochement happens between Viviane and Elisha. The hearing becomes a mechanism wrenched from the man and woman at its center; it’s happening apart from them. I won’t spoil the ending of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, but what looks like an act of final revenge is actually more poignant and hence devastating. Justice is served, according to the participants’ definition: fairly and mercilessly.

Spock as multicultural hero

Because Spock is one of those pop culture touchstones visible behind every bush but these bushes aren’t in front of my property, I’m looking for good retrospectives. Matt Zoller Seitz, whose obit has a polish that tickles my suspicion (“do you think Seitz had that [partly] in the can?” a poster wondered on ILE). He posts Spock as a minority hero:

But he also became immensely popular with African-American, Latino, and Asian viewers (including Bruce Lee, reportedly a huge fan of Spock); all of whom had more than theoretical experience with trying to be — to paraphrase Groucho Marx — part of a club that wouldn’t have somebody like them as members. The sense of belonging yet not belonging, to both the dominant culture and one’s own, was especially acute among mixed-race viewers, and Spock struck a powerfully resonant chord with them. In More Than Black: Multiracial Identity and the New World Order, G. Reginald Daniel writes of his trepidation at contemplating his own mixed-race heritage while reading an Ebony article about “mulattoes … Like Mr. Spock on Star Trek! Like twilight, that zone between day and night that we all pass through at dusk and dawn.”

Nimoy and Spock inspired many such “Eureka!” moments; this made him, in a strange but vivid way, as much of a “minority” character in the original cast as George Takei’s Japanese-American Lt. Hikaru Sulu, or Nichelle Nichols’s Swahili-named Uhura, a character so symbolically important that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King talked the actress into staying on the show when he learned that she was thinking of quitting. The show’s affinity for Shakespearean flourishes is well-documented, but in in a sense, Spock himself might be the most Bard-like character of them all: He’s a green-blooded Othello who has to be twice as good as the full-blooded human officers to earn their respect, and who must tamp down his natural passions despite constant racist needling and doubts about his loyalty.

It’s, as Frank Black once sang, educational. All I remember about the deadly The Search for Spock is Judith Anderson as a Vulcan, casting a cold eye on Laurence Olivier’s thundering, nimbus-anointed performance as the Father of the Gods in Clash of the Titans, shouting gibberish to Shatner and his embalmed men.

But anyway — now I understand a little Zachary Quinto’s attraction to the part.

Leonard Nimoy – RIP

As I do with sports, I’ve always let friends love “Star Trek” more than I should. For people born before I was, Mr. Spock made benign intelligence look cool. An elementary school teacher admitted as much. After exposure to a handful of “Star Trek” episodes, I can see the attraction, not to mention the special talent for holding a scowl without rupturing a brain artery. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, often considered the best of the original run of films, is probably my favorite, although Leonard Nimoy is the least interesting of the characters before his deathbed avowal of friendship with a shattered Kirk. He used his unsmiling mien to self-parodic effect in The Voyage Home, in which the Enterprise crew descends to Earth in 1985 and is fascinated by Walkmans, fluorescent shorts, and whales. Spock learns to curse. He’s also well cast in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the director’s 1978 reimagining of the horror classic for a bean curd and mud bath-obsessed L.A. middle classSan Francisco natives. As a New Age guru in impressive turtlenecks, Nimoy projects leaden menace — an odd phrase, I know, but, really, fans will know what I mean, I hope. He was more alien playing non-Spock roles.

Nimoy was all over my childhood: the voice of Galvatron in Transformers: The Movie (created by Unicron, the robot planet voiced by Orson Welles); director of Three Men and a Baby; the chauffeur in the Bangles’ cover of “Going Down to Liverpool.” I love this quote: “I went through a definite identity crisis. The question was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realize now that I really had no choice in the matter. Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn’t anything that I could do to change that.” Cary Grant made a similar observation (“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person”). The hollow ears grew over the real ones.

Singles 2/27

Let the scores show that I had a good week: excellent as-the-world-churns Burial track, a Spanish track that blasts every time I visit Best Buy and is by far the best use to which a producer has put Marc Anthony, and a Courtney Barnett track that scraped and howled. Hours before the weekend, I’m even softening towards Joey Bada$$’ “Scenario” tribute. But I awarded my first zero for a terrible guitar track that’s part of the Death Cab strand of mouse-voiced intimacy. Also, there’s a band called Cage the Elephant recording songs commensurate with their name.

Thanks to my colleagues for explaining the Silverchair phenomenon.

Click on links for full reviews.

Burial – Temple Sleeper (7)
Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best (7)
Romeo Santos ft. Marc Anthony – Yo Tambien (7)
Mike Mago & Dragonette – Outlines (7)
Maria Dragneva – Kato Nas’n (6)
Joey Bada$$ – No. 99 (5)
Daniel Johns – Aerial Love (5)
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Ballad of the Mighty I (4)
Death Cab for Cutie – Black Sun (3)
Echosmith – Bright (3)
Yelle – Ba$$in (3)
Molly Sandén – Phoenix (2)
Cage the Elephant – Cigarette Daydreams (1)
Mew – Satellites (0)

Oppressed neo-Nazis be oppressed

To belong to a besieged minority is no small thing. A course offered by Arizona State University’s English department called “The Problem of Whiteness” has got neo-Nazis miffed:

TPM recently spoke with the leader of a white nationalist group that’s leading the charge against the “problem of whiteness” class, an effort they have dubbed “Operation Bad Teacher.” The leader of the group, Angelo John Gage, argued that Bebout’s course was “racist” and a sign of what he said was the increasing oppression of white people in the U.S. He insisted on speaking to TPM via Skype because he said he wasn’t comfortable giving his phone number to people he didn’t know.

He also insisted that his group was not the one behind the threats to the professor.

Gage is an ex-Marine from New Jersey who chairs the National Youth Front, a youth-oriented arm of the white nationalist organization American Freedom Party. The group used to be known as the American Third Position, or A3P, that had had ties to racist and anti-semitic figures. The A3P attempted to be an ultra-nationalist political party that fielded candidates in various elections and ultimately changed its name following the 2012 election.

Gage said his group has been particularly upset about the “whiteness” course being taught in Arizona and recently distributed fliers on ASU’s campus targeting Bebout as being “anti-white.”

“We’re pressing on [the university] because what they’re doing is completely racist and hypocritical,” he said, later adding that, in the spirit of equality, he would expect the school to also offer a “blackness problem” or “Jewishness problem” class.

I checked: ASU has an African and African-American studies program. Jewish studies too.

‘Mobile wireless is for data sipping, not gulping’

As I said the other night, the shifting of tectonic plates beneath acceptance of net neutrality have startled the telecom world. Tim Wu:

It may have been the unexpected effectiveness of Internet-based activist groups, who protested the F.C.C. and helped convince millions of people to write and send comments about the potential rules. It may have been the White House and the personal involvement of President Obama himself. Or maybe people just misunderstood the character of the F.C.C. chairman Tom Wheeler. Whatever the explanation, the most pessimistic theories of lobbyist power clearly need be revised….

…Yet the moment that Tom Wheeler announced his plans for strong net-neutrality rules, on February 4th, broadband stocks jumped, and they have stayed buoyant. This has confused experts. Craig Moffett, whom I consider to be the smartest telecom analyst around, was forced to blame the market. “I think it just shows you that the market doesn’t really understand these issues,” he said.

When corporations with deep pockets like Netflix are in the same side as members of the middle class, excuse me for remaining skeptical. Paul Waldman may be right: this victory, along with vetoes of the Keystone pipeline bill, suggest that the Obama administration responds to pressure from the left so long as it’s no longer on the ballot (the choice of Wheeler to head the FCC inspired little confidence at the beginning). But it’s clear millions organized on behalf of a concept that at best boasts a jargon-indebted name and at worst reminds them of the misery of calling Comcast on a weekend night to complain (I like this line from the NYT story: “Mobile wireless is for data sipping, not gulping”).

The bus rides and the nowhere to go: Sinatra

Shuja Haider’s preface before his ranking of Sinatra’s great albums:

Sinatra is the most authentic interpreter of these songs because his voice and personality, iconic as they are, exist only in service to them. He sounds so familiar now it’s hard to hear his innovation, but give some of of the less distinguished pop singers of the era a listen and his vision becomes immediately clear. Gene Lees has suggested that the uniqueness of his vocal approach has something to do with Italian-American vernacular English, given that Irish tenors were so prominent at the time. But there’s something even deeper to it: you might say that while lesser singers sang the melodies, Frank sang the words. Thanks in part to the technology of the microphone, which he was one of the first singers to incorporate into his technique, he rendered lyrics as speech. He borrowed improvisational ideas from jazz singers not to add ornamentation, but to make a highly structured piece of music seem as natural as a conversation.

I’d rank Come Fly With Me higher: a throwaway, complacent even; Sinatra after his Oscar and king of Las Vegas, buoyant and smug-free anyway. His point about the multiplicity inherent in what we call the Great American Songbook — what we’d call “diversity” in 2015 — is as strong an argument as any for the value of a monoculture requiring constant testing, reevaluation, and expansion. We can agree on nothing but about the greatness of Frank Sinatra because the notion that a songbook required a phenomenon like Sinatra to adduce its multifoliate Americanness has vanished. Anyway, we have Kim Gordon.

But the albums. Listen to the contempt sliding off the sibilants in “A Long Night,” the song I posted above, my favorite song off 1981’s She Shot Me Down, a worthwhile sequel to “One For My Baby.”