Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 28, 2007

Bookshelf

• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.

Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”

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• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.

Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”

When not writing dialogue, Mamet’s prose style proves to be unexpectedly and unpleasingly coy, but once you get used to it, you’ll find Bambi vs. Godzilla to be as good a book as has ever been written about Hollywood, by which I mean that I rank it with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and David Thomson’s The Whole Equation. The chapter on film noir is worth the price of admission all by itself.

• Joan Acocella, who replaced Arlene Croce as the dance critic of The New Yorker, actually spends a fair amount of time writing on other subjects. Her last book, for instance, was about Willa Cather, and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon, 524 pp., $30), her first collection of New Yorker essays, is so wide-ranging that it barely makes space for dance at all. I can’t claim to regard it with perfect objectivity, since one of the pieces is a lengthy essay on H.L. Mencken occasioned by the publication of The Skeptic, my Mencken biography, so I’ll simply tell you that the other subjects of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Louise Bourgeois, M.F.K. Fisher, Bob Fosse, Primo Levi, Dorothy Parker, Philip Roth, Italo Svevo, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Stefan Zweig, and that Acocella has pithy and mostly unpredictable things to say about all of them. If you read these pieces when they first appeared in the New Yorker, you’ll find they hold up very well the second time around.

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The New New Left

One of the strangest features of the contemporary political landscape is the convergence everywhere of the Left with Muslim jihadis and extremists. Those who once protested against the installation of cruise missiles in Western Europe, say, now demonstrate against the war on terror. Those who praised the Soviet Union as peace-loving are now busy signing petitions and publishing articles to the effect that Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear weapons (if it comes to that) are a third-world success and nothing to worry about. Anti-Americanism has made bedfellows of people whose world views and values are ostensibly incompatible.

David Horowitz was early in pointing out what he called this “unholy alliance.” Now an English writer, Nick Cohen, has tackled this subject in a book with the title, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. His left-wing credentials are impeccable. His parents were Communists devotedly clinging to the party line, whatever it might be, and they brought him up with a “loathing” of conservatives. The Observer newspaper is the voice of the English Left, aimed at the intelligentsia, and he is its leading political commentator. He knew some Iraqi exiles, including Kanan Makiya, and from them he understood that Saddam Hussein was a fascist, pure and simple. For him, intellectuals—indeed all human beings—have to be against fascism everywhere and at all times, and that too is quite simple.

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One of the strangest features of the contemporary political landscape is the convergence everywhere of the Left with Muslim jihadis and extremists. Those who once protested against the installation of cruise missiles in Western Europe, say, now demonstrate against the war on terror. Those who praised the Soviet Union as peace-loving are now busy signing petitions and publishing articles to the effect that Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear weapons (if it comes to that) are a third-world success and nothing to worry about. Anti-Americanism has made bedfellows of people whose world views and values are ostensibly incompatible.

David Horowitz was early in pointing out what he called this “unholy alliance.” Now an English writer, Nick Cohen, has tackled this subject in a book with the title, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. His left-wing credentials are impeccable. His parents were Communists devotedly clinging to the party line, whatever it might be, and they brought him up with a “loathing” of conservatives. The Observer newspaper is the voice of the English Left, aimed at the intelligentsia, and he is its leading political commentator. He knew some Iraqi exiles, including Kanan Makiya, and from them he understood that Saddam Hussein was a fascist, pure and simple. For him, intellectuals—indeed all human beings—have to be against fascism everywhere and at all times, and that too is quite simple.

But what did Cohen find? Instead of reacting to Saddam and Osama bin Laden as the fascists they were, the Left devised justifications for them. Here was 1930′s appeasement all over again, compounded by hatred of self and of democracy. Millions marched in the capitals of Europe under banners proclaiming that war in Iraq was not to be fought in their name. They were thus denying to Iraqis the freedom they themselves enjoyed. Worse, they did not even recognize what they were doing, inventing conspiracy theories about grabbing other people’s oil or the long arm of Zionism. For publicly objecting to all this, Cohen has become, it is not too much to say, an unperson. He writes, “I learned it was one thing being called ‘Cohen’ if you went along with liberal orthodoxy, quite another when you pointed out liberal betrayals.”

Among other intellectuals who turned against Makiya and the liberation of Iraq he mentions Perry Anderson, a hardline Marxist and sometime editor of the influential New Left Review (which always had a soft spot for Stalinism). As it happens, I was at school with Perry Anderson, and well recall my amazement at hearing him as a teenager praising Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanisme et Terreur, a defense of Stalinism typical of a French philosopher in the cold war. Anderson is one of the few people I have met who I am sure would sign death warrants and go off to dinner afterwards without a qualm. In Cohen’s telling phrase, Anderson a few years ago let out in his journal “a piercing howl of regret for the lost world of his youth.” Like Karl Marx himself, history has left him “beached.” All the leftists whom Cohen is describing wrap hatred of self and of democracy into wider fantasies. Inability or unwillingness to recognize reality is what lines them up with fascists and makes them so inhuman.

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Marketing Mitt Romney

People already depressed about the low quality of debate in presidential primaries ought to avoid reading the terrific scoop in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the Mitt Romney campaign plan. The Globe has come across a 77-page PowerPoint presentation that outlines the former governor’s plan to “define himself” in the Republican primaries and, ideally, in the national election.

Like all such documents—and every candidate relies on them—it is filled with the grating jargon of modern marketing and the faux science of opinion polling. It addresses such synthetic issues as “Brand Romney” and how to “own the future.” The “blueprint,” as the Globe calls it, states that Romney needs to position himself as a “turnaround CEO governor and strong leader from outside Washington,” a phrase that was no doubt carefully focus-grouped among suburban, female outlet shoppers in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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People already depressed about the low quality of debate in presidential primaries ought to avoid reading the terrific scoop in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the Mitt Romney campaign plan. The Globe has come across a 77-page PowerPoint presentation that outlines the former governor’s plan to “define himself” in the Republican primaries and, ideally, in the national election.

Like all such documents—and every candidate relies on them—it is filled with the grating jargon of modern marketing and the faux science of opinion polling. It addresses such synthetic issues as “Brand Romney” and how to “own the future.” The “blueprint,” as the Globe calls it, states that Romney needs to position himself as a “turnaround CEO governor and strong leader from outside Washington,” a phrase that was no doubt carefully focus-grouped among suburban, female outlet shoppers in Reading, Pennsylvania.

It is easy to make fun of such strategy plans, but it is simply a fact that the selling of a presidential candidate necessarily shares many of the features of launching a new product or marketing a new movie. The truly depressing part is the absence of any set of ideas that Romney will advocate. Yes, there is much buzz about “America’s strength,” “global challenges,” and how the U.S. must not be like Europe. But in this campaign strategy document, like so many before it, what is conspicuous by its omission is a list of three or four ideas that the candidate will actually pursue as President. Instead, the pollsters and media advisors set out “themes,” framing the campaign and giving it only the faintest appearance of substance.

Curiously, the memo suggests that Newt Gingrich, should he enter the race, would become a serious challenge to Romney’s ability to attract the party’s conservative base. Could that be because Gingrich, for all his flaws, has built his career around rattling off specific, provocative policy ideas—which is exactly what this sort of strategy memo fails to do?

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“Progressive” Critics of Israel

Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” published in pamphlet form by the American Jewish Committee, continues to provoke discussion. Articles in the February 23 Forward by Chicago rabbi Ira Youdovin and New York media strategist Dan Fleshler represent responses to Rosenfeld’s essay by Jews who consider themselves politically “progressive” yet also “pro-Israel.” Both fear that Rosenfeld’s essay, even if such was not its purpose, will be used to silence voices like their own, voices that identify with Israel but are critical of many of its policies, especially in regard to the Palestinians.

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Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” published in pamphlet form by the American Jewish Committee, continues to provoke discussion. Articles in the February 23 Forward by Chicago rabbi Ira Youdovin and New York media strategist Dan Fleshler represent responses to Rosenfeld’s essay by Jews who consider themselves politically “progressive” yet also “pro-Israel.” Both fear that Rosenfeld’s essay, even if such was not its purpose, will be used to silence voices like their own, voices that identify with Israel but are critical of many of its policies, especially in regard to the Palestinians.

Now, criticism of Israel, as of anything else, is all a matter of context, and if the context, from a Jewish point of view, is acceptable—if, that is, the identification with Israel is clear in it—then the criticism itself, whether or not one agrees with it, is certainly permissible. The question really is then: when is “identification” clearly present and when isn’t it? Ira Youdovin, for example, wants to know what’s wrong with Rabbis for Human Rights, “an Israeli-based pluralistic organization that . . . advocates a two-state solution, even as it accuses Israel of violating human rights.” Dan Fleshler argues on behalf of Jewish activists who are “ideal candidates for addressing the [anti-Israel] claims of the far Left [because they] aren’t afraid to say publicly that the occupation is morally repugnant.”

This is curious language for someone who “identifies” with Israel. “Morally problematic?” I’d have no difficulty with that. “Morally injurious?” I’d sign to that, too. But “repugnant?” It’s obviously not the Palestinians who are being labelled “repugnant” here, but the Israelis—the same Israelis who (whether or not you think they should be) are living, at considerable danger to themselves, as settlers in the historic heartland of the Hebrew Bible and whose presence there alone can enable Israel to redraw the perilous 1967 borders to its advantage. How identified with Jewish history or Israel can you be if you find such people, or the army that is protecting them and preventing daily acts of terror aimed at Israel proper, nothing but “repugnant?” How “identified” are you if you see in all this only a “violation of [Palestinian] human rights” and not, at the same time, an upholding of Jewish rights?

Dan Fleshler argues that only “pro-Israel” Jews like himself who are on the Left can make themselves heard when debating with the anti-Israel Left. That may be, but it’s not much of a debate when you say, “Yes, you think the Israeli occupation is morally repugnant and I think so too—but don’t forget that I love Israel.” Love has to do better than that to demonstrate its existence. Context is everything—and if men like Youdovin and Fleshler refuse to provide it in making their criticisms of Israel, their “progressivism” indeed plays into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

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