Commentary Magazine


Topic: actress

Mel Gibson’s Innovative Anti-Semitism

Lest you thought that you’d heard everything bad you could have heard about Mel Gibson and his views of Jews — from his rant to the Malibu cop that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” and asking a reporter who asked him about that, “I take it you have a dog in that fight” — comes this detail from the actress Winona Ryder (née Winona Horowitz):

“Fifteen years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk,” Ryder tells the January issue of GQ. “I was with my friend, who’s gay. [Gibson] made a really horrible gay joke. And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about ‘oven dodgers,’ but I didn’t get it. I’d never heard that before.”

Oven dodgers. Maybe Ms. Ryder had never heard that before because the formulation might have simply arrived in her ear fully formed from the inside of Gibson’s own vicious, repugnant, evil brain.

Lest you thought that you’d heard everything bad you could have heard about Mel Gibson and his views of Jews — from his rant to the Malibu cop that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” and asking a reporter who asked him about that, “I take it you have a dog in that fight” — comes this detail from the actress Winona Ryder (née Winona Horowitz):

“Fifteen years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk,” Ryder tells the January issue of GQ. “I was with my friend, who’s gay. [Gibson] made a really horrible gay joke. And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about ‘oven dodgers,’ but I didn’t get it. I’d never heard that before.”

Oven dodgers. Maybe Ms. Ryder had never heard that before because the formulation might have simply arrived in her ear fully formed from the inside of Gibson’s own vicious, repugnant, evil brain.

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Stone Drops Rock on China

Today, Christian Dior announced it is removing its advertisements in China featuring Sharon Stone “due to some customer reaction.” The French fashion house also released an apology from the star: “Due to my inappropriate words and acts during the interview, I feel deeply sorry and sad about hurting Chinese people.”

And how did the “Basic Instinct” actress manage to do that? “I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” she said last week at Cannes. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought: Is that karma, when you are not nice that the bad things happen to you?”

Ms. Stone, by making her remarks, joins a long list of people who are not considered good friends of China. In fact, she is not a good friend of anyone, at least according to Beijing’s Xinhua News Agency. The official media outlet today called her the “public enemy of all mankind.” Stone’s words may have been ill-considered–the quake struck a predominately Tibetan area. But they hardly put the actress in the same league as, say, Hitler, Stalin, or–dare I day it?–Mao.

I was sad to see Sharon Stone retract her comments. She was, after all, only expressing heartfelt (if confused) sentiments about abhorrent leaders. Although Beijing has been successful in intimidating virtually every world leader these days, it cannot change people’s innate sense of right and wrong. If there is any justice in this world-and I for one believe there is-events will eventually hold Chinese autocrats to account. It may not be karmic, but it will happen nonetheless.

Today, Christian Dior announced it is removing its advertisements in China featuring Sharon Stone “due to some customer reaction.” The French fashion house also released an apology from the star: “Due to my inappropriate words and acts during the interview, I feel deeply sorry and sad about hurting Chinese people.”

And how did the “Basic Instinct” actress manage to do that? “I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” she said last week at Cannes. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought: Is that karma, when you are not nice that the bad things happen to you?”

Ms. Stone, by making her remarks, joins a long list of people who are not considered good friends of China. In fact, she is not a good friend of anyone, at least according to Beijing’s Xinhua News Agency. The official media outlet today called her the “public enemy of all mankind.” Stone’s words may have been ill-considered–the quake struck a predominately Tibetan area. But they hardly put the actress in the same league as, say, Hitler, Stalin, or–dare I day it?–Mao.

I was sad to see Sharon Stone retract her comments. She was, after all, only expressing heartfelt (if confused) sentiments about abhorrent leaders. Although Beijing has been successful in intimidating virtually every world leader these days, it cannot change people’s innate sense of right and wrong. If there is any justice in this world-and I for one believe there is-events will eventually hold Chinese autocrats to account. It may not be karmic, but it will happen nonetheless.

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Send the Torch Back to China

Actress Joan Chen, writing in today’s Washington Post, traces the arc of her native land. “Since the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s,” she writes, “I have witnessed unimaginable progress in China.”

For her, human rights groups in Washington are “anti-China.” But it’s time to move beyond criticism, implies Chen, who became an American citizen in 1989. “Times are changing,” she argues. “We need to be open-minded and farsighted. We need to make more friends than enemies.”

Chen is evidently concerned about the Olympic torch protests in the streets of San Francisco. The demonstrations, she fears, will antagonize the Chinese people and anger their government just as their country is joining, in the words of Steve Clemons, “the blue chip end of the international order.” As the New York Times noted in an editorial this morning, “Given the country’s mighty economic power, nobody really wants to antagonize Beijing.”

That’s especially true when people like Chen and Clemons believe that China will continue its current course. Bill Gates assumed it will when he spoke on Friday in Miami at a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank. “The fact that China is getting rich is overall a very good thing,” he said. “If you care about the human condition, really then a richer China is better.”

All of us want a better China. Yet the way to a better China is not to see the country the way we wish it to be—as Chen, Clemons, and Gates want us to do—but as it actually is. When we fail to speak out about the reality of the modern Chinese state, autocrats in Beijing feel emboldened. The real story behind the protests accompanying the Olympic torch relay is not how noisy or unruly the demonstrations were—it is that China’s leaders actually thought that ordinary people in the West would gather in their own streets to cheer the display of the Olympic torch, which Beijing has made a symbol of Chinese authoritarianism. Beijing’s rulers thought that way because Western presidents and prime ministers have almost always played along with China’s notions of its own grandeur.

Members of the International Olympic Committee will meet on Friday to consider ending the international leg of the torch relay. That is an excellent idea. The Chinese government might be embarrassed by a premature return to China of the Olympic flame, but it is time that we reject further abhorrent celebrations of their repression in our free lands.

Actress Joan Chen, writing in today’s Washington Post, traces the arc of her native land. “Since the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s,” she writes, “I have witnessed unimaginable progress in China.”

For her, human rights groups in Washington are “anti-China.” But it’s time to move beyond criticism, implies Chen, who became an American citizen in 1989. “Times are changing,” she argues. “We need to be open-minded and farsighted. We need to make more friends than enemies.”

Chen is evidently concerned about the Olympic torch protests in the streets of San Francisco. The demonstrations, she fears, will antagonize the Chinese people and anger their government just as their country is joining, in the words of Steve Clemons, “the blue chip end of the international order.” As the New York Times noted in an editorial this morning, “Given the country’s mighty economic power, nobody really wants to antagonize Beijing.”

That’s especially true when people like Chen and Clemons believe that China will continue its current course. Bill Gates assumed it will when he spoke on Friday in Miami at a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank. “The fact that China is getting rich is overall a very good thing,” he said. “If you care about the human condition, really then a richer China is better.”

All of us want a better China. Yet the way to a better China is not to see the country the way we wish it to be—as Chen, Clemons, and Gates want us to do—but as it actually is. When we fail to speak out about the reality of the modern Chinese state, autocrats in Beijing feel emboldened. The real story behind the protests accompanying the Olympic torch relay is not how noisy or unruly the demonstrations were—it is that China’s leaders actually thought that ordinary people in the West would gather in their own streets to cheer the display of the Olympic torch, which Beijing has made a symbol of Chinese authoritarianism. Beijing’s rulers thought that way because Western presidents and prime ministers have almost always played along with China’s notions of its own grandeur.

Members of the International Olympic Committee will meet on Friday to consider ending the international leg of the torch relay. That is an excellent idea. The Chinese government might be embarrassed by a premature return to China of the Olympic flame, but it is time that we reject further abhorrent celebrations of their repression in our free lands.

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And the Oscar for Biggest Hypocrite Goes to. . .

The most interesting thing the French actress and new Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard said in a recent interview is not that she believes 9/11 was an inside job. There are plenty of big names in American entertainment who’ve said the same. Willie Nelson, Charlie Sheen, and Mos Def, for example, have brought their extensive political and engineering backgrounds to bear on the “question” and have determined that the perceived attack was really a flawlessly executed succession of high-tech tricks in a global Rube Goldberg scheme intended to . . .who knows? Something about insurance, gold, Israel, PNAC, and Iraq, I think.

No, the most interesting thing this successful, famous and wealthy Academy Awards winner said is that she’s not interested in prestige or riches, more specifically that she has no “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” Presumably, she was forced into a profession in which all that cumbersome money and adoration gets heaped upon those who make it. Furthermore, she must have been dragged kicking and screaming to the Academy Awards and forced, when her name was called, to cry and gasp and swoon as she did (or perhaps she was genuinely distraught to be the beneficiary of so much Anglo-Saxon recognition.)

Ms. Cotillard’s anti-Anglo-Saxonism and her painful paradox made me think instantly of the following passage from Walter Russell Mead’s book, God and Gold:

The true Waspophobe hates America because it is an insolent sea of vulgarity in which a triumphant and unrestrained rabble heedlessly treads underfoot the complex and subtle achievements that only the cultivated minority can support; he also hates America because it is a land of hideous inequality where the all-powerful plutocrats trample the silently suffering and impoverished masses into dust . . .The American must be hated because he is indifferent to the world, wrapped up in his own concerns to the exclusion of all else; he must be resisted because he is inflexibly and permanently determined to impose his values on the rest of the world. One despises America as a contemptible, exhausted, decadent society; one resists it because it is voraciously dynamic and expansive.

The weeping Oscar-winner hates America because it is the culmination of everything she wishes she did not desire.

On a related note, it’s worth commending a particular American actress who has come to an unpopular conclusion after surveying a much-criticized theater of “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” After visiting Iraq, Angelina Jolie wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part of the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.

It seems to me that now is the moment to address the humanitarian side of this situation. Without the right support, we could miss an opportunity to do some of the good we always stated we intended to do.

I wonder: Does Marion Cotillard think Angelina is in on it, too?

The most interesting thing the French actress and new Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard said in a recent interview is not that she believes 9/11 was an inside job. There are plenty of big names in American entertainment who’ve said the same. Willie Nelson, Charlie Sheen, and Mos Def, for example, have brought their extensive political and engineering backgrounds to bear on the “question” and have determined that the perceived attack was really a flawlessly executed succession of high-tech tricks in a global Rube Goldberg scheme intended to . . .who knows? Something about insurance, gold, Israel, PNAC, and Iraq, I think.

No, the most interesting thing this successful, famous and wealthy Academy Awards winner said is that she’s not interested in prestige or riches, more specifically that she has no “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” Presumably, she was forced into a profession in which all that cumbersome money and adoration gets heaped upon those who make it. Furthermore, she must have been dragged kicking and screaming to the Academy Awards and forced, when her name was called, to cry and gasp and swoon as she did (or perhaps she was genuinely distraught to be the beneficiary of so much Anglo-Saxon recognition.)

Ms. Cotillard’s anti-Anglo-Saxonism and her painful paradox made me think instantly of the following passage from Walter Russell Mead’s book, God and Gold:

The true Waspophobe hates America because it is an insolent sea of vulgarity in which a triumphant and unrestrained rabble heedlessly treads underfoot the complex and subtle achievements that only the cultivated minority can support; he also hates America because it is a land of hideous inequality where the all-powerful plutocrats trample the silently suffering and impoverished masses into dust . . .The American must be hated because he is indifferent to the world, wrapped up in his own concerns to the exclusion of all else; he must be resisted because he is inflexibly and permanently determined to impose his values on the rest of the world. One despises America as a contemptible, exhausted, decadent society; one resists it because it is voraciously dynamic and expansive.

The weeping Oscar-winner hates America because it is the culmination of everything she wishes she did not desire.

On a related note, it’s worth commending a particular American actress who has come to an unpopular conclusion after surveying a much-criticized theater of “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” After visiting Iraq, Angelina Jolie wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part of the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.

It seems to me that now is the moment to address the humanitarian side of this situation. Without the right support, we could miss an opportunity to do some of the good we always stated we intended to do.

I wonder: Does Marion Cotillard think Angelina is in on it, too?

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Oscar Predictions

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

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Nepotism is Good

Back in 1992, with a group of other Americans scholars, I had a lovely visit to North Korea to talk about world politics with our counterparts at a Pyongyang think tank. Kim Il Sung, the legendary “Great Leader” was running the show back then, and it was already obvious that his son, Kim Jong Il — known then as the “Dear Leader” — was the heir apparent.

I pressed our hosts about the succession issue, and how the dynastic principle could fit within the Marxist-Juche framework, the official ideology instilled in every North Korean man, woman, and child at birth. Their replies — each of the scholars said exactly the same thing in exactly the same words — made it very clear that their brand of Marxism was exceptionally supple; it could explain and glorify anything and everything that Kim Il Sung ever decreed or did.

Kim Il Sung managed to transfer power to his son upon his death in 1994. But how will Kim Jong Il, at age 66, fare?

USA Today has a highly informative story today, introducing us to the cast of characters “in North Korea’s ‘My Three Sons.’” Unless the regime collapses, one of them is likely to assume power at some point in the next decade or so.

Kim Jong Nam, 36 is Kim Jong Il’s eldest son. According to USA Today, this “would seem to give him an edge in a Confucian society that values seniority. But his pedigree is tainted by illegitimacy. His mother was Song Hye Rim, an actress who had a lengthy relationship with Kim Jong Il but never married him.” What’s more, Jong Nam is obese and unruly. In 2001, he was apprehended attempting to enter Japan with a fraudulent Chinese passport — under the Chinese name Pang Xiong, or “Fat Bear” — with the intention of visiting Tokyo’s Disneyland.  

Kim Jong Chul, 26. would seem to be the front runner. A cult of personality has already developed around his mother, one of several of Kim Jong Il’s wives. USA Today reports that Jong Chul has been educated in Switzerland and was seen attending an Eric Clapton concert in Germany last year. Has his exposure to the West made him soft? Let us hope so. 

Kim Jong Woon, 23 or 24,  may be young, but evidently he is also ambitious. South Korean media reports say that his mother has “ordered high-ranking North Korean officials to start calling him ‘the Morning Star General’ in an apparent bid to put him in the succession race.”

When are the fireworks likely to start? Life expectancy in North Korea is reported to be 72, which seems far too high, given the famines and other afflictions that have descended on the country in recent years. Of course, Kim Jong Il is well fed and well-tended to, so the average North Korean figure is irrelevant as far as he is concerned. But even if his personal life-expectancy is more like the South Korean average of 78, the succession issue will inevitably be upon him before too long.

Succession is a always a weak link of dictatorships, especially Marxists dictatorships. The classic study of the problem is Myron Rush’s Political Succession in the USSR. In North Korea’s case, the risks of running such an absolute Marxist monarchy would seem to be great. But so undoubtedly are the perquisites. If Kim Jong Nam gets the slot, he wouldn’t have to travel incognito to Disneyland; he could make an official visit, or better yet, build his own.

 

Back in 1992, with a group of other Americans scholars, I had a lovely visit to North Korea to talk about world politics with our counterparts at a Pyongyang think tank. Kim Il Sung, the legendary “Great Leader” was running the show back then, and it was already obvious that his son, Kim Jong Il — known then as the “Dear Leader” — was the heir apparent.

I pressed our hosts about the succession issue, and how the dynastic principle could fit within the Marxist-Juche framework, the official ideology instilled in every North Korean man, woman, and child at birth. Their replies — each of the scholars said exactly the same thing in exactly the same words — made it very clear that their brand of Marxism was exceptionally supple; it could explain and glorify anything and everything that Kim Il Sung ever decreed or did.

Kim Il Sung managed to transfer power to his son upon his death in 1994. But how will Kim Jong Il, at age 66, fare?

USA Today has a highly informative story today, introducing us to the cast of characters “in North Korea’s ‘My Three Sons.’” Unless the regime collapses, one of them is likely to assume power at some point in the next decade or so.

Kim Jong Nam, 36 is Kim Jong Il’s eldest son. According to USA Today, this “would seem to give him an edge in a Confucian society that values seniority. But his pedigree is tainted by illegitimacy. His mother was Song Hye Rim, an actress who had a lengthy relationship with Kim Jong Il but never married him.” What’s more, Jong Nam is obese and unruly. In 2001, he was apprehended attempting to enter Japan with a fraudulent Chinese passport — under the Chinese name Pang Xiong, or “Fat Bear” — with the intention of visiting Tokyo’s Disneyland.  

Kim Jong Chul, 26. would seem to be the front runner. A cult of personality has already developed around his mother, one of several of Kim Jong Il’s wives. USA Today reports that Jong Chul has been educated in Switzerland and was seen attending an Eric Clapton concert in Germany last year. Has his exposure to the West made him soft? Let us hope so. 

Kim Jong Woon, 23 or 24,  may be young, but evidently he is also ambitious. South Korean media reports say that his mother has “ordered high-ranking North Korean officials to start calling him ‘the Morning Star General’ in an apparent bid to put him in the succession race.”

When are the fireworks likely to start? Life expectancy in North Korea is reported to be 72, which seems far too high, given the famines and other afflictions that have descended on the country in recent years. Of course, Kim Jong Il is well fed and well-tended to, so the average North Korean figure is irrelevant as far as he is concerned. But even if his personal life-expectancy is more like the South Korean average of 78, the succession issue will inevitably be upon him before too long.

Succession is a always a weak link of dictatorships, especially Marxists dictatorships. The classic study of the problem is Myron Rush’s Political Succession in the USSR. In North Korea’s case, the risks of running such an absolute Marxist monarchy would seem to be great. But so undoubtedly are the perquisites. If Kim Jong Nam gets the slot, he wouldn’t have to travel incognito to Disneyland; he could make an official visit, or better yet, build his own.

 

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Piano Teachers

The Piano Teacher, by Julia Cho, which opened recently at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway to mixed reviews, features a haunted keyboard pedagogue with nasty secrets to hide. The Vineyard Theater production benefits from the presence of the veteran actress Elizabeth Franz in the title role of an isolated, shunned teacher who is only marginally more sane than the sado-masochistic piano teacher incarnated by Isabelle Huppert in the 2001 French film of the same title, based on a perverse novel by the Austrian Nobel-Prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek.

The reiterated imagery of peccant piano instructors is so ingrained in our culture that a Google Search of “piano teacher” by anyone actually trying to learn to play the instrument will bring up references to Jelinek’s book and film, first and foremost. The world of music education as represented by such writers belongs to an earlier, less psychologically acute era. It is a relief to escape such querulous and indeed unmusical paradigms and look at today’s real world of superb piano teachers, who represent a vastly more intriguing, mysterious, and gratifying accomplishment.

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The Piano Teacher, by Julia Cho, which opened recently at the Vineyard Theater off-Broadway to mixed reviews, features a haunted keyboard pedagogue with nasty secrets to hide. The Vineyard Theater production benefits from the presence of the veteran actress Elizabeth Franz in the title role of an isolated, shunned teacher who is only marginally more sane than the sado-masochistic piano teacher incarnated by Isabelle Huppert in the 2001 French film of the same title, based on a perverse novel by the Austrian Nobel-Prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek.

The reiterated imagery of peccant piano instructors is so ingrained in our culture that a Google Search of “piano teacher” by anyone actually trying to learn to play the instrument will bring up references to Jelinek’s book and film, first and foremost. The world of music education as represented by such writers belongs to an earlier, less psychologically acute era. It is a relief to escape such querulous and indeed unmusical paradigms and look at today’s real world of superb piano teachers, who represent a vastly more intriguing, mysterious, and gratifying accomplishment.

Juilliard’s Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, the Tel Aviv-born chair of the school’s piano department, also teaches in the Pre-College division, where some of America’s most astonishing prodigies are currently thriving. One such is Conrad Tao, a pianist and composer born in Illinois in 1994, whose live recordings on CD and video convey a sense of musical line (with the entire score evoked in every measure of a given work) as found only in the greatest musicians. Tao is also a characterful, accomplished composer of charm and nuance; his early compositions on CD sound more adult, individualistic, and masterful than those by any preteen composer I have heard, including Mozart.

One of the most admirable aspects of Tao’s musicality is his collaborative acumen, and another outstanding Kaplinsky pupil, the Chinese pianist Peng-Peng Gong, born in 1992, often plays with Tao, in addition to his solo performances. Such brilliant students are allowed to flower into musical maturity in a healthy, non-neurotic way. Encouraging, rather than stifling, prodigies allows them to develop as artists and human beings, instead of condemning them to becoming the stunted, frustrated, unhappy leftovers, some of whom are alas still present on the concert scene today.

Another outstanding Juilliard piano teacher, Oxana Yablonskaya, is helping to guide the destiny of Alice Burla, born in Toronto in 1997. In such challenging works as Chopin’s “Variations brilliants,” Burla displays the suavity and maturity of an adult musician, quite apart from her fabulous technique. Tao, Peng-Peng, and Burla already are more accomplished artists than a number of adult pianists who trudge around the concert circuit; the challenge for their teachers is clearly not to spoil or discourage their inborn talent. This custodial task of wonderful young talent is far more thrilling than any fictional elaboration of a pathological teacher.

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Jolie’s Journalism

The current issue of the Economist, a special edition entitled, “The World in 2008,” includes essays by a variety of well-known figures including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Dalai Lama, and . . . actress Angelina Jolie.

The thrust of Jolie’s piece—calling upon the international community to bring the perpetrators of the Darfur genocide to justice—is admirable, if a bit naive, the first quality an unusual one for the political pontifications of celebrities, the second nearly universal. She writes:

I hope that the Sudanese government will hand over the government minister and the janjaweed militia leader who have been indicted for war crimes by the ICC, and that the teenager I met in Chad will get to see the trial he seeks. I hope that those responsible for the atrocities in Darfur will be held to account, not only for that young man’s sake, but for the world’s.

But what are the actual chances of this happening? The Sudanese government has supported the continuation of this conflict for years, and the international community has been able to achieve little—despite the heady warnings of Ms. Jolie.

The phenomenon of celebrities attempting to shape foreign policy is not a new one (think Jane Fonda), but it has become de riguer of late. Despite their fame and popularity, however, it seems that celebrities are usually unable to achieve their goals in the international realm. Daniel Drezner has an excellent cover story in the latest National Interest entitled “Foreign Policy Goes Glam,” explaining why this is the case, and it applies to the specific example of Jolie:

A deeper problem celebrities face is that the implicit theory of politics that guides their activism does not necessarily apply to all facets of international relations. The goal of most social activism is to bring greater attention to a problem. The assumption is that once people become aware of the problem, there will be a groundswell of support for direct action. This is not how politics necessarily works, particularly in the global realm. Any solution to a problem like global warming, for example, involves significant costs. As people become more aware of the policy problem, it is far from guaranteed that a consensus will emerge about the best way to solve it. It is therefore not surprising that celebs have had their greatest successes in touting humanitarian causes and almost no effect on ending militarized conflicts.

The current issue of the Economist, a special edition entitled, “The World in 2008,” includes essays by a variety of well-known figures including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Dalai Lama, and . . . actress Angelina Jolie.

The thrust of Jolie’s piece—calling upon the international community to bring the perpetrators of the Darfur genocide to justice—is admirable, if a bit naive, the first quality an unusual one for the political pontifications of celebrities, the second nearly universal. She writes:

I hope that the Sudanese government will hand over the government minister and the janjaweed militia leader who have been indicted for war crimes by the ICC, and that the teenager I met in Chad will get to see the trial he seeks. I hope that those responsible for the atrocities in Darfur will be held to account, not only for that young man’s sake, but for the world’s.

But what are the actual chances of this happening? The Sudanese government has supported the continuation of this conflict for years, and the international community has been able to achieve little—despite the heady warnings of Ms. Jolie.

The phenomenon of celebrities attempting to shape foreign policy is not a new one (think Jane Fonda), but it has become de riguer of late. Despite their fame and popularity, however, it seems that celebrities are usually unable to achieve their goals in the international realm. Daniel Drezner has an excellent cover story in the latest National Interest entitled “Foreign Policy Goes Glam,” explaining why this is the case, and it applies to the specific example of Jolie:

A deeper problem celebrities face is that the implicit theory of politics that guides their activism does not necessarily apply to all facets of international relations. The goal of most social activism is to bring greater attention to a problem. The assumption is that once people become aware of the problem, there will be a groundswell of support for direct action. This is not how politics necessarily works, particularly in the global realm. Any solution to a problem like global warming, for example, involves significant costs. As people become more aware of the policy problem, it is far from guaranteed that a consensus will emerge about the best way to solve it. It is therefore not surprising that celebs have had their greatest successes in touting humanitarian causes and almost no effect on ending militarized conflicts.

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I’m Not There—Until They Hand Out Oscars

Midway through I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’s soon-to-open film fantasia in which Bob Dylan is played by six different actors to signify different phases in the life of the Bard of Hibbing, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett pops up—and as was the case with her appearance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, Blanchett makes it immediately clear that this is an Oscar™ role.

Though Blanchett is strenuously coiffed and made up to look like Dylan, with a frizzy wig and Ray-Bans and loose-fitting shirts, never for a moment do you forget that this is Cate Blanchett Acting The Hell Out Of This Role. The clatter of Blanchett’s acting drowns out everything around her.

Within the cubist style of the movie, it isn’t particularly surprising to see a woman play Dylan—he’s also played here by a black kid calling himself “Woody Guthrie.” To have a black kid portray the larval Dylan makes a kind of sense, since, as a troubadour in training, young Robert Zimmerman cooked up a Guthrie-like legend for himself to hide his shame over his white middle-classness while singing about Blind Willie McTell. But there is nothing feminine about Dylan in this movie.

And yet, Blanchett’s wisp of a figure and porcelain cheekbones make it impossible to forget this is a drag performance. In a scene in which her Dylan chases an Edie Sedgwick-like object of obsession around a park, she doesn’t seem remotely masculine. She gives off no sexual hunger, no sense of need. In the end, all Blanchett ever needs in any film is our rapt attention.

Midway through I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’s soon-to-open film fantasia in which Bob Dylan is played by six different actors to signify different phases in the life of the Bard of Hibbing, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett pops up—and as was the case with her appearance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, Blanchett makes it immediately clear that this is an Oscar™ role.

Though Blanchett is strenuously coiffed and made up to look like Dylan, with a frizzy wig and Ray-Bans and loose-fitting shirts, never for a moment do you forget that this is Cate Blanchett Acting The Hell Out Of This Role. The clatter of Blanchett’s acting drowns out everything around her.

Within the cubist style of the movie, it isn’t particularly surprising to see a woman play Dylan—he’s also played here by a black kid calling himself “Woody Guthrie.” To have a black kid portray the larval Dylan makes a kind of sense, since, as a troubadour in training, young Robert Zimmerman cooked up a Guthrie-like legend for himself to hide his shame over his white middle-classness while singing about Blind Willie McTell. But there is nothing feminine about Dylan in this movie.

And yet, Blanchett’s wisp of a figure and porcelain cheekbones make it impossible to forget this is a drag performance. In a scene in which her Dylan chases an Edie Sedgwick-like object of obsession around a park, she doesn’t seem remotely masculine. She gives off no sexual hunger, no sense of need. In the end, all Blanchett ever needs in any film is our rapt attention.

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A Mighty Heart

So respectfully does A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s film about the death of the journalist Daniel Pearl, treat its subject that criticism seems indecent, like rebuking someone for their tears at a funeral. It depicts Pearl’s kidnapping in January 2002 and the anguish of his French wife Mariane—then six-months pregnant with their first child—waiting in torment for news of him. The outcome of this vigil is no secret: Pearl was beheaded a week after his kidnapping, although another three weeks would pass before the videotape of his murder was recovered. Mariane’s book about this experience, Un coeur invaincu (literally, “an undefeated heart”), serves as the basis for Winterbottom’s often poignant film.

One can see why the story appealed to Hollywood, or—to be precise—to Angelina Jolie. It is difficult to imagine a better role for an actress aspiring to real gravitas. Mariane Pearl has become, in the years since her husband’s death, a kind of secular saint. (Slate’s review aptly called the film “a hagiographic chronicle of the martyrdom of Mariane Pearl.”) In the wake of her husband’s murder, Mariane refused to stoop to public hatred or to become a shill for any political cause, devoting her energy instead to creating the Daniel Pearl Foundation, a philanthropic organization of deliberately ecumenical scope. But if Mariane Pearl eschews politics of any color, the film about her does not, to its ultimate detriment.

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So respectfully does A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s film about the death of the journalist Daniel Pearl, treat its subject that criticism seems indecent, like rebuking someone for their tears at a funeral. It depicts Pearl’s kidnapping in January 2002 and the anguish of his French wife Mariane—then six-months pregnant with their first child—waiting in torment for news of him. The outcome of this vigil is no secret: Pearl was beheaded a week after his kidnapping, although another three weeks would pass before the videotape of his murder was recovered. Mariane’s book about this experience, Un coeur invaincu (literally, “an undefeated heart”), serves as the basis for Winterbottom’s often poignant film.

One can see why the story appealed to Hollywood, or—to be precise—to Angelina Jolie. It is difficult to imagine a better role for an actress aspiring to real gravitas. Mariane Pearl has become, in the years since her husband’s death, a kind of secular saint. (Slate’s review aptly called the film “a hagiographic chronicle of the martyrdom of Mariane Pearl.”) In the wake of her husband’s murder, Mariane refused to stoop to public hatred or to become a shill for any political cause, devoting her energy instead to creating the Daniel Pearl Foundation, a philanthropic organization of deliberately ecumenical scope. But if Mariane Pearl eschews politics of any color, the film about her does not, to its ultimate detriment.

A Mighty Heart begins on what was to have been Daniel Pearl’s last day in Pakistan, as he heads off for an interview with a certain Sheikh Gilani, who may know something about the shoe-bomber Richard Reid. The interview was a ruse; from this moment we never see Pearl again—just as Mariane never did—other than in flashbacks. We remain with her in her rented house in Karachi as the storm gathers around her. American and Pakistani intelligence officers descend, followed by colleagues from the Wall Street Journal.

Two of these unwanted guests come to loom large. One is the chief American intelligence officer, a creepy but genial presence played by Will Patton (whose geniality makes him all the creepier). The other is the Captain, a cryptic Pakistani security chief, at once an enormously sympathetic and shockingly brutal figure (we see him routinely slapping citizens who fail to answers his questions quickly enough). They alternately question Mariane and comfort her, making her house a kind of combination war room and support group.

Given Mariane’s essentially passive role, the principal challenge in playing her is convincingly to convey her emotional state. And this Jolie does exceptionally well, offering not so much an imitation of anguish as a simulacrum of it. She falters only once. When Mariane learns the fate of her husband, she withdraws into her room and gives up an agonized scream. It is a jarring, near-histrionic note in a film otherwise unfailingly low-key. It is not, however, the excesses of Jolie that mar this film, but those of its director.

In a sense, A Mighty Heart is two films. There is Mariane Pearl’s own story, the first-person account drawn from her memoirs. Although it is re-created with a large cast, the point of view is entirely solitary. Our perspective is identical to hers: we watch with her as her Karachi home fills with well-meaning strangers; we experience her remoteness and detachment. But this first-person story is embedded in another film, one that depicts the desperate police search for the sender of the e-mails that entrapped Pearl. Though the search takes up considerable screen time, it is no mere police procedural. Winterbottom’s framework consists of an impressionistic montage: we see shards of interrogation and vignettes of broken-down doors and midnight arrests, but not in such a way that we can follow the investigation’s track. Of course, we can hardly expect Mariane, who was not privy to police matters, and who in any event was in a state of shock, to provide a forensic account of the investigation. It is therefore not surprising that these scenes refuse to come into focus, and remain as dreamlike as the flashbacks of her husband.

From a dramaturgical point of view, these scenes are a necessary counterpoint to those with Mariane, which are bereft of explicit action; one can see why Winterbottom felt his film needed them. But in his treatment of the investigation, Winterbottom shows scenes and events that Mariane could not possibly have witnessed. Which raises a question: to what end did he interpolate them?

The fact that the most egregious of these scenes is one of torture may point toward an answer. A hapless low-level conspirator is suspended by his hands, while the enigmatic Captain quietly asks him questions, nodding his head slightly from time to time, requesting something that causes the captive to scream. The situation at this point is urgent—could information be extracted that might reveal Pearl’s whereabouts before he is killed?—but the Captain is unhurried, even ominously gentle. The scene is framed carefully so that we see neither the tormentor, nor precisely what he is doing, which is as it should be, from both a moral and an artistic point of view.

If any political moral is to be drawn from this film, it is to be found in this scene. What precisely is Winterbottom saying here? That such proceedings, appalling as they are, are a regrettable necessity? Far more accurate is Manohla Dargis’s observation, in the New York Times, that “Mr. Pearl would have probably been appalled that this outrage was committed on his behalf; the point is, we should be too.”

While Winterbottom feels free to show a scene of police torture, he refrains from even an oblique depiction of Pearl’s death. He doubly insulates the viewer from it, showing only the faces of Pearl’s friends as they watch his death on video. This omission may have been intended (partially, at least) as a kindness to Mariane Pearl. But its political overtones cannot be missed: Winterbottom assigned the film’s most disturbing images to the American and Pakistani investigators seeking to free Pearl. Pearl’s actual murderers are given no visual presence whatsoever. The most we see of them is a few of their cringing and pathetic flunkies, caught up unwittingly in the madness of contemporary global politics. We see them only, in other words, as victims themselves—as we see Mariane and Daniel Pearl.

In the end, A Mighty Heart belongs to the same moral universe as Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center, which looked sympathetically at the victims of terrorism—but could not summon up the stamina to look honestly at the terrorists themselves. For Winterbottom, one of the most talented filmmakers alive, and one of the most concerned with moral complexity, this omission is all the more glaring.

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Another Grey Gardens

What makes two addled society ladies into legends? Being the subject of a classic film certainly doesn’t hurt. The 1976 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, took as its subjects the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie (known as Big Edie and Little Edie), respectively an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived in a decaying East Hampton mansion, from which the film drew its title. Grey Gardens features the pair squabbling and good-naturedly chatting with the filmmakers, pleased to have, finally, an audience for their narcissistic monologues and atonal warbling of nightclub tunes. The opposite of intrusive paparazzi, the artful Maysles brothers actually provided the Beales an opportunity for self-validation; Grey Gardens developed a cult-like following. And now a Broadway musical—recently nominated for ten Tonys and newly available on CD from PS Classics—based on the film has become the latest radical transformation of Big Edie and Little Edie for public consumption.

The musical Grey Gardens, which opened last November after an off-Broadway run, stars Christine Ebersole (Little Edie), who possesses a brilliant voice, an astonishing gift for mimicry, and razor-sharp timing. The veteran stage actress Mary Louise Wilson, as Big Edie, expresses the hopeless fierceness and comic triviality of a Samuel Beckett character. Their extraordinary performances are bathed in subtle lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski, a design in stark contrast to the harsh and unforgiving light in the Maysles’ film, which exposed the Beales’ every wrinkle and bodily flaw.

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What makes two addled society ladies into legends? Being the subject of a classic film certainly doesn’t hurt. The 1976 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, took as its subjects the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie (known as Big Edie and Little Edie), respectively an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived in a decaying East Hampton mansion, from which the film drew its title. Grey Gardens features the pair squabbling and good-naturedly chatting with the filmmakers, pleased to have, finally, an audience for their narcissistic monologues and atonal warbling of nightclub tunes. The opposite of intrusive paparazzi, the artful Maysles brothers actually provided the Beales an opportunity for self-validation; Grey Gardens developed a cult-like following. And now a Broadway musical—recently nominated for ten Tonys and newly available on CD from PS Classics—based on the film has become the latest radical transformation of Big Edie and Little Edie for public consumption.

The musical Grey Gardens, which opened last November after an off-Broadway run, stars Christine Ebersole (Little Edie), who possesses a brilliant voice, an astonishing gift for mimicry, and razor-sharp timing. The veteran stage actress Mary Louise Wilson, as Big Edie, expresses the hopeless fierceness and comic triviality of a Samuel Beckett character. Their extraordinary performances are bathed in subtle lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski, a design in stark contrast to the harsh and unforgiving light in the Maysles’ film, which exposed the Beales’ every wrinkle and bodily flaw.

Playbill candidly informs us that the events of the musical Grey Gardens are “based on both fact and fiction.” The show’s website may be less than accurate in proclaiming: “Meet Jackie O’s most scandalous relatives!” (Surely the Kennedy relatives who have been accused of felonies surpassed the Beales’ unhappiness in love or failed attempts at singing careers?) The website also somewhat disingenuously introduces the Beales as the “delightfully eccentric aunt and the cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” The journalist Gail Sheehy, who in 1972 published a groundbreaking article about the Beales, recalled Grey Gardens’ floors as “lumped and crusty with old cat feces; the roof punctured with raccoon holes.” “Delightfully eccentric” indeed! But the musical’s greatest departure from the film is, of course, its filtering of the Beales’ tremendous weirdness through the great skill of two gifted and seasoned actresses, rather than showing them warts and all.

In the musical, Big Edie’s father castigates her for being an “actress without a stage.” If anything, the Beales’ posterity looks likely to contain too many stages: another movie—this one fully fictional and minus the songs—starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange is reportedly in the works. Still, the reality of the Beales’ lives may continue to dwarf any efforts at interpretation on stage or screen. After all, in 1979 Little Edie—who would die in 2002 at age 84—sold Grey Gardens to former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, who laboriously restored it and currently rent it out for most of the year. What screenwriter could have concocted that anticlimactic coda to the Beales’ improbable tale?

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