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The Edge of Film

Breaking Through Barriers in Hollywood

March 28th 2014


Achieving success in Hollywood is difficult. For actors with disabilities such as hearing loss, it is even tougher, since roles for the deaf are limited.  A civil rights organization is celebrating the accomplishments of deaf artists in Hollywood who have paved the way for others.Natasha Ofili has read lips her entire life.

"I was born hearing. Then I had a high fever at 18 months and I lost my hearing at 18 months," said Ofili. Ofili is an accomplished fashion designer and an aspiring actress. She's having her picture taken hoping her photos will get noticed by casting directors. Her photographer, who's also deaf, tells her how she's doing.

"You know how you look and your stuff," said the photographer. "Awesome!" Ofili recently landed a lead role in a short film called "Words Not Spoken". She hopes it is the beginning of more work to come. "For me it's like art. Like fashion is art. And when I got into acting it was very emotional - the story connecting to the character. Like it drew me into it," she said. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Rare Violins Inspire Awe

March 27th 2014


When many of us think of precious objects, the largest gems or the most famous paintings may come to mind.  But certain rare violins inspire the same awe - and command the same astronomical prices - as these other treasures.

The “Vieuxtemps” violin played by American virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers is worth well over $16 million.  It was made in Italy in 1741 by Guarneri del Gesu and represents the pinnacle of violinmaking’s Golden Age. Meyers says it is unlike any instrument she’s ever played.

“The G string is so dark and rich. It really can sound like a cello…. the E string sounds like you are in a really sky high cathedral listening to music pouring out," she said.

The violin is dubbed “The Vieuxtemps” after Henri Vieuxtemps, the great 19th century violinist who once owned and cherished it.  It is only one of the ultra-rare antique instruments that pass through Paolo Alberghini’s showroom in Manhattan. Read more ..

The Way We Were

Second Century A.D. Papyrus Letter Deciphered

March 26th 2014

Click to select Image

A newly deciphered 1,800-year-old letter from an Egyptian solider serving in a Roman legion in Europe to his family back home shows striking similarities to what some soldiers may be feeling here and now.

Rice Religious Studies graduate student Grant Adamson took up the task in 2011 when he was assigned the papyrus to work on during a summer institute hosted at Brigham Young University (BYU).

The private letter sent home by Roman military recruit Aurelius Polion was originally discovered in 1899 by the expedition team of Grenfell and Hunt in the ancient Egyptian city of Tebtunis. It had been catalogued and described briefly before, but to this point no one had deciphered and published the letter, which was written mostly in Greek.

“This letter was just one of many documents that Grenfell and Hunt unearthed,” Adamson said. “And because it was in such bad shape, no one had worked much on it for about 100 years.” Even now portions of the letter’s contents are uncertain or missing and not possible to reconstruct.

Polion’s letter to his brother, sister and his mother, “the bread seller,” reads like one of a man who is very desperate to reach his family after sending six letters that have gone unanswered. He wrote in part: Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Palestinian-Israeli Romance, Conflict as New York Comedy: 'Peace After Marriage'

March 25th 2014

Brooklyn from the Air

In Peace After Marriage, Arafat is a lonely, neurotic, pornography-addicted 30-year-old living in Brooklyn, New York, with Palestinian immigrant parents who want him to find a suitable bride, preferably a girl from "back home." It's a broad, sexually-frank comedy that looks to Woody Allen's early films for inspiration, although the satire is softer-edged, and the romance less ambivalent.

Writer-director Ghazi Albuliwi, who also stars in the film, says it is semi-autobiographical, although he doesn't admit to some of the broader aspects of the comedy: trying to dispose of a suitcase full of pornography, for example, Arafat is apprehended by New York police who suspect he's hiding a bomb.

Albuliwi, who was born in a refugee camp in Jordan to Palestinian parents who later immigrated to the U.S., grew up in Brooklyn, with friends from various backgrounds, he says, not only other Arab Americans, but blacks, whites, and Latinos. Read more ..

Financing the Flames

Fourteen Jewish Groups Come Together in New Jersey to Hear Edwin Black on the New Israel Fund and BDS

March 23rd 2014

Edwin Black
Author Edwin Black

Fourteen local and national Jewish organizations and synagogues will gather in Englewood, New Jersey, at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 25, 2014, to confront the BDS movement and 501(c)(3) groups who finance the movement and make it work. The community-wide event, to be live globally streamed with audience participation worldwide, is called “Time to Unite.” The extraordinary event is the brain child of Unity4Unity leader Lee Lasher. “Time to Unite” was specifically called to hear revelations by bestselling investigative author Edwin Black whose latest book, Financing the Flames, has ignited international repercussions about the role of tax-exempt and taxpayer monies, as well as the human rights movement, in creating a culture of violence, confrontation, and terrorism in Israel. Black’s previous works include million-copy international seller IBM and the Holocaust and the award-winning JTA series “Funding Hate.” In Financing the Flames, Black spotlights American taxpayer-supported monies funding Palestinian salaries for terrorists in Israeli prisons, as well as the organic connection of the New Israel Fund to the BDS movement and the NIF's robust funding of “agitation human rights NGOs.”

Buy Financing the Flames
Learn More About Financing the Flames
see The Edwin Black Show

The fourteen Jewish organizations and synagogues supporting the event include Unite4Unity, Congregation Ahavath Torah, East Hill Synagogue, Temple Emanu-el, Temple Rishon, Temple Avodat Shalom, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun and The Glen Rock Jewish Center, as well as the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Cosponsors include the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, and the Jewish Virtual Library.

Last month, Black embarked upon a parliamentary tour of four legislatures in four weeks: The House of Commons in London, the European Parliament in Brussels, the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, and the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. At each stop along the way, Black astonished lawmakers with details of donor nation funding for specific terrorists under a Palestinian law called the Law of the Prisoner under the aegis of the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners. The author also spotlighted how the New Israel Fund has marshaled hundreds of millions of dollars to help establish the BDS movement, and to finance confrontation NGOs, which, according to Israeli Knesset leaders and a broad swatch of Israeli military men, seem devoted to destabilizing the Israel Defense Forces and erasing the Jewish identity from the state of Israel. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Hollywood Films Re-Imagined for Broadway

March 20th 2014


For many years, the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood went one way: from stage to screen.

But in the past couple of decades, some of the biggest Broadway hits have been adapted from films - think Hairspray or Kinky Boots. Four of the big new musicals opening this spring are based on movies, including Rocky: The Musical.

The show’s creators knew they faced challenges when adapting Sylvester Stallone’s Academy Award-winning boxing movie for the stage.

"If you speak to all of the authors and all of the creative team, their instinctive reaction, when first hearing about Rocky becoming a musical, ranges from incredulity to plain crazy," said Bill Taylor. 

Rocky presents a kind of double-edged sword; there’s a built-in audience that loves the film, but also has expectations. They'll hear Bill Conti’s iconic theme, but the rest of the score is by Tony Award winners Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Biblical Epics Flourish in Hollywood

March 19th 2014

Ten Commandments

It's been called the greatest story ever told, so it's not surprising Hollywood has turned to the Bible for inspiration for almost a century.

The trend toward these kinds of films remains strong; the movie industry expects to produce 16 faith-based movies this year alone. Many of them may be forgotten just weeks after their release, while others have the potential to become blockbusters.

So what makes religion-inspired movies successful?

Son of God, about the life of Jesus, opened recently and is doing very well at the box office. Churches around the country are renting movie theaters for their members to watch the film. American University Philosophy professor Martyn Oliver says films that offer a popular depiction of Jesus target Christian audiences. Read more ..

Book Review

An Immigrant Success Story

March 17th 2014

The Rise of Abraham Cahan

The Rise of Abraham Cahan. Seth Lipsky. Schocken. 2013. 240 pp.

Founded in 1897, the Jewish Daily Forward was a newspaper published in the Yiddish language when  in 1990 it added a weekly English version and hired Seth Lipsky as its editor. One of Lipsky’s predecessors was Abraham Cahan, the legendary founder and editor of the publication for half a century, and naturally, he was acutely aware of the significance of his new position. 

He discovered that reading Cahan’s writings helped reveal political positions with which he could readily relate, notably, staunch opposition to communism and support for the State of Israel.  In time, his interpretation of Cahan’s views became controversial as he was often accused of misrepresenting Cahan’s  opinions. In the process, Lipsky shifted the Forward politically from left to right.  In 2000, Lipsky moved on and revived an earlier newspaper The New York Sun as a conservative voice, which he edited for eight years.

Cahan first demonstrated an independent streak in his Czarist Russian homeland.  There he abandoned the Orthodox Judaism of his parents to become a “nonbeliever.”  Nevertheless, Lipsky notes, quoting Cahan’s friend and associate David Shub, he became a “warm Jew” who “preached tolerance for religious Jews.”  Long an ardent socialist, Cahan in time embraced capitalism, and as an anti-Zionist initially influenced in Russia by the General Jewish Labor Bund, he eventually became a friend of Israel..

Though his views changed over time, Cahan remained a fixture on the New York City scene.  He was in essence a newspaperman who built a journalistic beacon for the city’s Jewish immigrant community, which he attempted to Americanize.  In addition, he was a short story writer and novelist whose tale of an immigrant’s material success in the garment industry, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), became a classic that reflected his conscience as well as that of the community he addressed.  Lipsky generously quotes from this novel, as well as Cahan’s other works, including the novels Yekl: A Tale of the NewYork Ghetto, and The White Terror and the Red, short stories, an autobiography, andthe Forward’s human interest feature, A Bintel Brief.  The latter was a popular column that featured letters from readers who sought and received advice from the newspaper’s editor. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Although Peace Proves Elusive, Young Israelis, Palestinians Find Harmony

March 14th 2014


As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tries to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together on a framework peace agreement, a group of young Israelis and Palestinians is already working in harmony. They are the musicians of Heartbeat, a social movement using the power of music to transform conflict.

The young musicians performed at a Congressional office building in Washington to raise awareness of their vision of a better future for the Middle East.

Since 2007, Heartbeat has brought Palestinian and Israeli high school students and young adults together to talk, listen and make music. The songs they write weave traditional and modern Eastern and Western styles. The lyrics, in Arabic, Hebrew and English, reflect dialogue that takes place among group members and the often tense society they live in.

“We have this song which asks, ‘What’s the Wall good for?'" said Israeli Guy Gefen, 22, who has been with Heartbeat from the start. “I think when people are afraid, they put those walls. They put those physical and psychological walls and it makes it that much easier to be afraid; it makes it that much easier to hate. And I say there’s no need for that. You don’t need to be afraid, you don’t need to hate.” Read more ..

Book Review

Mr. Jefferson's Struggle to Save the University that Changed America

March 12th 2014

Rot, Riot and Rebellion

Rot, Riot and Rebellion. Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos. University of Virginia. 2013. 216 pp.

Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph memorializes him as “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”  In his last years, this paragon of the Enlightenment worked hard on that final legacy.  Architecturally and academically, his plan for his “academical village” was a model of balance and rationality: the campus near Charlottesville was geometrically exact, with pavilions for professors and rooms for students arrayed around a central library (not, as at other colleges, a chapel).  The curriculum would allow students a choice of studies, including secular and scientific fields not offered at the more traditional colleges that already dotted the landscape of the new nation.

Alas, it turned out that there was a worm in the apple of this intellectual Eden.  For two decades after its founding, the University was rattled, hammered, battered, and baffled by wave after wave of student violence.  Journalists Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos note that “in schools both of the North and the South, students looked for excuses to smash furniture, break glass, and resist authority.  Students often seemed glad to escalate confrontations with professors into riots.”  But at Virginia the outbursts were especially common and violent.   “What made the mayhem at the University of Virginia unique,” the authors add, “was the stakes; the school was new and experimental, unsure of the public’s support and uncertain of its own future.  No powerful church denomination backed the university, no well-connected alumni group stood ready to come to its defense.”  Indeed, many religiously inclined people devoutly hoped that the “godless” institution would fail.  If the University’s reputation sank low enough, the Virginia legislature might well be persuaded to cut off its vital annual funding. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Oscar-nominated 'Omar' Explores Love, Betrayal Under Israeli Occupation

March 11th 2014

Gaza aerial shot 2011

All five Academy Award contenders for Best Foreign Language Film deliver universal messages while immersing audiences in their distinct cultures.

One of these films, Hany Abu-Assad’s thriller Omar  from Palestine, is the first film to be endorsed by the Palestinian authority.

Omar is a Palestinian baker who routinely climbs over the Israeli separation barrier to visit his girlfriend Nadia and his childhood friends Tarek and Amjad. Both Omar and Amjad are in love with Nadia.  Her brother Tarek uses the rivalry and asks them to prove themselves by killing an Israeli soldier. Amjad does the killing but Omar gets arrested for it. Rami, an Israeli security agent, ensnares Omar with an ultimatum. Either he becomes a collaborator or he spends the rest of his life in jail. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Cambodian Americans Relive Khmer Rouge Horrors Through Oscar-Nominated Film

March 8th 2014

Vietnamese soldiers bring in the dead

Almost 40 years after the communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and embarked on a four-year reign of terror and genocide, many of those who survived are finally able to talk about it. That includes a film director whose documentary about the Khmer Rouge received an Oscar nomination - the first for a Cambodian film.

Some survivors living in the United States say the film brought back painful memories but helps in the healing process.

Long Beach, California, is home to the largest Cambodian community outside Cambodia. Life in the United States is a stark contrast to the life Chan Hopson escaped in Cambodia and depicted in the documentary, The Missing Picture.

”When I was watching the film, I relived my life from the beginning to the end," she said. "I saw these people in my village who were killed, died of starvation and were tortured.” Hopson was 34 years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power. She says they killed her husband and five brothers. Read more ..

Book Review

Toward a Revial of Midwestern History

March 4th 2014

The Lost Region

The Lost Region. Jon K. Lauck. U of Iowa Press. 2013. 206 pp.

In this volume for the series Iowa and the Midwest Experience, historian and attorney Jon K. Lauck makes an eloquent and passionate brief for restoring the history of the Midwest to a central place in American historiography.  Lauck observes that in contrast with regions such as the South, New England, and Far West, the Midwest has almost disappeared from the history classroom, monograph, and scholarly journal. Arguing that the Midwest is almost quintessentially American, Lauck insists that restoring the region to a more prominent place in the American history canon would provide a degree of unity to historical discourse which has been missing from recent scholarly emphasis upon the topics of race, gender, and class. Lauck also seeks to resurrect the historical reputations of Frederick Jackson Turner and other Prairie Historians of the early to mid-twentieth century, including John D. Hicks, Frederick Merk, and Clarence A. Alvord. Asserting that despite some shortcomings reflecting the times in which they lived, Lauck maintains that these scholars offer models of engagement which may prove useful to contemporary historians. There is considerable merit to Lauck’s contention that the Midwest, a more diverse region than often assumed, deserves more attention from today’s scholars; however, returning the Prairie Historians to the forefront of scholarship may be a tougher sale.

Borrowing from Turner’s definition of the Middle West in a 1901 essay, Lauck views the region as including the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, although the author acknowledges that he focuses upon the prairie Midwest as opposed to the areas more connected to forests and industry around the Great Lakes. In making his case that the Midwest plays a pivotal role in American history, Lauck writes, “The Midwest matters, in short, because it helps explain the course of foundational events in North America, the origins of the American Revolution, the political and social foundations of the American republic, the outcome of the Civil War, and the emergence of the United States as a world power that shaped global events” (14). Lauck goes on to argue that the settlement of the Midwestern frontier connects the region with the concept of American exceptionalism “or the view that the political and social development of the United States was unique and a decisive break from Europe” (25). While some contemporary American historians may question the concept of American exceptionalism and Lauck’s positive reading of American capitalism, there is considerable merit to his assertion that the Midwestern offers an avenue of inquiry into essential questions and events which have shaped the American experience. Read more ..

The Musical Edge

Music to Oscar's Ears

March 2nd 2014

Elizabeth Cleopatra Taylor

Sunday is Oscars Night in Hollywood.  And while the Oscar nominated actors and actresses have the larger fan base, insiders also will be paying attention to the five film composers whose work has garnered them nominations for Best Score.

The opening music for The Book Thief is just one small part of the varied and complex score John Williams composed for the film about a German family that hides a Jewish man in its home during World War II. The 82-year-old Williams has been nominated for an Academy Award 49 times, but his most recent win was 20 years ago for Schindler’s List.

Hollywood veteran Dan Carlin, who chairs the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at the University of Southern California, thought a Best Score Oscar for The Book Thief would be well deserved. He pointed to one musical sequence called "Revealing the Secret," in which the main character, a young girl who has been saved from the death camps, told her best friend about the Jewish man her family was protecting. "It just grabs your heart and rips it out.  It’s a very emotional cue.  And John can do that probably better than anyone else.  He’s amazing," he said. Read more ..

Book Review

Edwin Black Takes on the Non-Profit War Against Israel

February 27th 2014

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames. Edwin Black. Dialog Press. 2013. 288 pp.

Many books have been written about the financing of war, but Edwin Black’s latest book is about the financing of peace. That would seem like a positive theme, except that Black reveals that the financing of peace is really the financing of war.

Edwin Black has a history of writing investigative reports about the financing of conflict and Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel is firmly in that tradition. Black picks up where he left off with his investigation of the Ford Foundation’s bigoted Anti-Israel shenanigans at Durban to look at the left’s financing of the conflict in Israel.

Israel is a small country and most Israeli Jews and Arabs already know that the conflict is stirred up by interested parties. They know that rocks don’t just get thrown randomly at soldiers and confrontations between Jewish and Arab villages are often staged by interested parties who don’t even live there.

The conflict was always externally encouraged, whether it was the British and the Nazis playing spy games or Iran and the Soviet Union funneling money and instructions to terrorists, but the perpetuation of the conflict has interwoven a mesh of conflict profiteers into the country, from hordes of stringers and journalists looking for a conflict photo or terror interview to sell, and over to the networks of non-profit organizations stirring up violence on an even larger scale and for even uglier motives. It is this network of non-profits, some little known outside Israel, which is the topic of Black’s book.

The demonization of Israel, from the high range of official documents like the Goldstone Report to the low range of viral videos on YouTube, doesn’t just happen. It’s the for-profit work of non-profit organizations that finance a campaign that sometimes falls just narrowly short of open terrorism. Read more ..

Egypt After the Revolution

Iranian-Born Artist Explores Cost Of Egypt's Revolution

February 25th 2014

Tahrir square at night

The work of Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, whose photographs, films and video installations deal with gender, politics and religion in the Islamic world, has been heralded by art critics and collected by major museums.

Although Neshat has lived in the United States since the 1970s, her work has most often been focused on the lives of women in Iran, and more recently with the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt.
In 2010, a critic for The Huffington Post named her "Artist of the Decade," saying that Neshat's art reflects the struggle for human rights by "voiding stereotypes," revealing the "diversity within Islam and Iran." Neshat's 2009 film, Women Without Men, a magical-realist tale of women in Iran at the time of the 1953 coup, won the top directing award at the Venice Film Festival. Read more ..

Book Review

Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture

February 24th 2014

The Republic of Rock

The Republic of Rock. Michael J. Kramer. Oxford University Press. 2013. 304 pp.

With the considerable media attention being paid to the fiftieth anniversary of the February 1964 appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, it is rather obvious that the rock music of the 1960s exercised considerable influence over American culture during that turbulent era and continues to cast a large shadow down to the present. Acknowledging this impact, Michael J. Kramer, who teaches history and American Studies at Northwestern University, in The Republic of Rock examines the relationship between rock music and citizenship in the sixties counterculture. In this provocative academic book, Kramer probes deeply into the countercultural archives of art posters, underground newspapers, music, press releases, and interviews to establish how the rock music scene in San Francisco presented both a challenge to traditional values, while simultaneously embracing a hip capitalism which commercialized the counterculture.  Kramer argues that the acid rock scene in San Francisco became a community in which music was a primary avenue through which to address issues of citizenship in what eventually was known as Woodstock nation.

Then Kramer proceeds to take his readers on a “magical mystery tour” of sorts as he connects the San Francisco scene directly with the Vietnam War, asserting that the U. S. military promoted a sense of hip militarism by playing hard rock such as Jimi Hendrix on the official Armed Forces Vietnam Network, tolerating pirate soldier radio stations, and even promoting the formation of soldier rock bands with the Entertainment Vietnam program. The military sought to bolster morale through allowing soldiers to enjoy leisure time with favorite musical styles, maintaining a degree of connection with the world beyond the war in Vietnam. Although the themes introduced in much of the acid rock music were anti-establishment, the military programs never endorsed anti-war attitudes, but as Kramer notes, the strategy of hip militarism was a risky one as it encouraged soldiers to pursue their own definitions of citizenship. Kramer concludes, “The circulation of rock music between the city of peace, love, and flowers and the country of war, turmoil, and Napalm created a counterculture that pulsated with life-or-death questions of belonging, dissent, hope, and fear” (8). Read more ..

Book Review

The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man

February 21st 2014

The Snowden Files

The Snowden Files. Luke Harding. Vintage. 2014. 352 PP.

The Snowden Files, a fascinating and very readable book, is the first one out dealing with Edward Snowden’s stunning revelations about the National Security Agency’s domestic and foreign spying and the efforts to restrain and, if possible, arrest him. Luke Harding is The Guardian’s foreign correspondent and co-author with David Leigh of Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy and Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia.

In it, Harding adroitly chronicles the struggles of journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald who published the initial article about Snowden’s disclosures in The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper, Ewen MacAskill, a veteran reporter sent by the The Guardian to check out his veracity, and Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker of the Iraqi-centered My Country My Country, who says she’s been detained and questioned and her possessions taken from her about forty times by agents of the Department of Homeland Security. The trio met Snowden for the first time in a Hong Kong hotel room and then helped broadcast his exposés to the world. 

Harding spends time on his newspaper’s determination to publish the story despite the Conservative government’s threats and its destruction of the newspaper’s hard drives. He demonstrates how British spymasters, operating in a country without First Amendment protection or a written constitution, genuflected before Washington because Uncle Sam paid their bills, or as one cynic at Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to the NSA, told Harding, “We have the brains, they have the money.”

He also describes American pressure on The Guardian’s U.S. editor, the hard-driving Janine Gibson, and her small, computer-savvy staff, not to print Snowden’s leaks. She worried lest the material in her possession be stolen before portions appeared, as they later did, in the New York Times, Washington Post and Der Spiegel. Nevertheless, she published Greenwald’s article, which opened with: “The NSA is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top-secret court order issued in April.” Read more ..

Books and Authors

European Parliament Hears about NGOs that Fan the Flames of Mideast Violence

February 18th 2014

In a hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels, members of the deliberative body heard how a number of charitable organizations funded by public money are financing the flames that make peace in Israel more difficult.

The conference was organized by EP Member Michal Kaminski, who hails from Poland. The legislators heard from Edwin Black, an American investigative journalist and author of several books who specializes in human rights and the interplay between economics and politics in the Middle East.

Black presented his latest book on the subject, which shows how, instead of promoting peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis, a variety of taxpayer-subsidized organizations have funded a culture where peace does not pay, but warfare and confrontation do. In 'Fanning the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel', Black shows how tax exempt non-profits are actually funding terrorists and delegitimize Israeli authority.

Edwin Black said on February 12 of his investigation, "I was struck by the amount of money that’s going into the Palestinian Authority and the fact that it’s going to promote peace and reconciliation. But it’s actually accomplishing the opposite, funding a specific terrorism program which is actually administered by the Ministry of Prisoners in the Palestinian Authority, pursuant to a law, called the law of the prisoner, which creates monthly salaries for convicted terrorists which escalate by the number of people that are killed. This is open, it is known, it is not denied and they’re getting this money from the EU and from the United States tax payer." Read more ..

Book Review

How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency

February 17th 2014

The Man He Became

The Man He Became. James Toobin. Simon & Schuster. 2013. 384 pp.

In The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, James Toobin, who teaches in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami of Ohio, shows that, above all, Roosevelt’s is a great story, one full of drama, multiple what-ifs, incredible highs, and unfathomable lows. Toobin vividly brings FDR’s journey to life.

Yes, Roosevelt’s tale has been well told by a wide variety of accomplished historians. But Toobin’s book is unique in that it focuses on the crucial period following his 1921 polio diagnosis up until his election to the presidency in 1932. This is the story of not only FDR’s struggle with polio, but of the Democratic Party in the 1920s, and Roosevelt’s tenuous place in it.

How much did polio shape the essential character of the man? After reading this account, one can only come to the conclusion: a whole lot—and probably even more than anyone will ever know.

Everyone experiences setbacks in life. But Roosevelt’s was one of the most dramatic in American political history. Before polio, FDR had it all: health, wealth, charm, education, and an unlimited future. “Had he ever been unnerved, even seriously frightened?” (79) Toobin asks. Probably not, it is safe to presume. After the onset of polio, he would need assistance the rest of his life with everything that he did. When FDR was told he had polio, Eleanor Roosevelt recalled, his face took on an expression that she said she saw but one other time: when he was informed about the Pearl Harbor attack.

Yet as Toobin notes, polio might have, rather astonishingly, actually made him president; had Roosevelt remained in politics and public life in the early-to-mid 1920s, during the Republican ascendency, and during Al Smith’s reign as New York’s governor, he would have surely lost many elections. Timing is everything, and he had the good fortune to be elected governor of New York in 1928 and then reelected in 1930 just as the Depression began. The wilderness years actually benefited FDR, politically speaking. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Islamic Revolution Can't Upstage Iranian Cinema

February 11th 2014

Irainian Film Director

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran 35 years ago on February 11, Iran's filmmakers had good reason to worry.

The strict code of censorship ushered in by the Islamic Revolution convinced many that creativity and film were no longer compatible in Iran.

Yet today, despite the continuing strict censorship rules governing them, Iran's artistic films -- as opposed to the country's commercial-release films -- are universally acclaimed as among the most innovative and important participants in international film festivals.

The filmmakers' ability to overcome the suffocation of censorship, while still working under it, is one of the rare successes in the daily struggle ordinary Iranians wage to have greater personal freedom under an authoritarian regime. At the same time, the battle against censorship has had a great influence in forging the look and style of Iranian art films, which have earned a place of distinction in the eyes of film lovers worldwide. Read more ..

Film Review

Lone Survivor: A Classic War Movie

February 11th 2014

Click to select Image

Lone Survivor. Director: Peter Berg. Starring: Mark Wahlberg. Length: 90 mins.

After only six weeks in release, Lone Survivor is closing in on the box office record set last year by Zero Dark Thirty for movies about our post-9/11 wars. Yet it has received little publicity compared not just with Kathryn Bigelow’s film, which courted controversy with scenes of torture that portrayed the torturers sympathetically, but also with the string of anti-war flops that came before it. Hollywood and the media desperately wanted people to like those movies for the sake of their political agenda, but people didn’t like them and didn’t go to see them.

Zero Dark Thirty at least looked to people like it was pro-American. Lone Survivor, directed by Peter Berg, has carefully removed the (allegedly "right-wing") politics in the true-life account by the actual lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg), of a Navy SEAL operation in Afghanistan in 2005 that went badly wrong, and people are flocking to it. The critics and the media generally have taken a somewhat more sour view, sometimes supplying their own political subtext out of frustration with Mr Berg’s reticence. Richard Corliss’s clueless review in Time was headlined: "Why Are We in Afghanistan?"

The movie itself is the best argument for regarding that question as supremely irrelevant from the point of view of the SEALs and those, still the majority of Americans, who identify themselves with such brave men rather than the intellectually stateless moralists. Ever since the media and the film industry were captured by the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, it has been almost impossible for us to see war in the movies or on television as combat soldiers see it, which is with more or less complete disregard for the political or diplomatic side of things, except where that prevents them, as increasingly it does, from doing their job. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Fans Mark 50 Years of US Beatlemania

February 10th 2014


On February 9, 1964, the Beatles made their U.S. television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Millions of viewers rocked to the performance that sparked a musical revolution. In fact, Nielsen ratings say nearly half of all U.S. television sets in use at the time were tuned in to the broadcast of the variety show.

Fifty years after Beatlemania began, tributes to the band can be seen from the Capitol Records Tower in Los Angeles to JFK International Airport in New York, where the band first landed on American soil.

Karen Gromada, a teenager when the Beatles hit it big, showed up at JFK Airport with a poster of band member Paul McCartney in hand to celebrate the anniversary. "I was watching the TV that night on the 9th and taking pictures of the TV as a 13-year-old just rapt," Gromada said. "I've been a fan always." Others at the JFK anniversary celebration included John Lennon's sister, Julia Baird, and Jillian L'Eplatenier, one of the Pan Am flight attendants on the Beatles' first flight to New York. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Music Fans Still Search for Roots of the Blues

February 9th 2014

Elvis Costello

In the early 1900s, a sound came out of African-American communities in the southern U.S. states that came to be called the blues. Some of the deepest roots of the music come from the rich farming region known as the Mississippi Delta.

A little over a century ago, poor African-American laborers in Mississippi took up European instruments like the guitar and harmonica to play soulful and expressive music called the blues.

It was a time when the rich fields of the Delta region required many laborers. Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the Delta Blues Museum, was a transportation hub then, according to museum director Shelley Ritter. "With so many farms, there was an opportunity for a lot of work and then we had the river here and the railroad was here," she said.

One of the largest exhibits in the museum is the reassembled farm cabin where famed bluesman Muddy Waters once lived. He and other bluesmen honed their skills in Clarksdale, which offered workers music and more. "On Saturdays or on weekends, when the laborers were given time off, they would all come into town and avail themselves of all the vices, if you will, as well as the wares," Ritter said. Read more ..

Book Review

The Season in Black College Football that Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights

February 8th 2014

Breaking the Line

Breaking the Line. Samuel G. Freedman. Simon & Schuster. 2013. 338 pp.

First on this review’s agenda, a note to the publisher:  For many years, a common approach to nonfiction titles and subtitles was to have an attention-getting, but somewhat mysterious, phrase as the title, followed by a subtitle that explained what the book was really about.  Recently, however, the marketing departments have evidently taken charge, especially of the subtitle, and a remarkably creative lot they are not.  Little known people or events are invariably being hyped as “transformative,” as “changing the course” of history.  (This morning’s spam from Amazon.com about “New and Notable History Books” brought news of both Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America and Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World.) But you, Simon & Schuster, by using BOTH “transformed” and “changed the course” in your subtitle, have finally exhausted my patience.  Enough, already!  Stop it!

Samuel Freedman’s books—this is his seventh—don’t need that kind of crude hyperventilating.   His The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond  (1996)—note the non-bloviating subtitle-- was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The subtitle of Small Victories (1991), an engaging exploration of urban education, was helpful and modest: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School.

Freedman doesn’t try all that hard to deliver what the subtitle promises, and it’s just as well.  His story about the paths that brought Jake Gaither’s Florida A&M Rattlers and Eddie Robinson’s Grambling Tigers to the 1967 Orange Blossom Bowl, widely viewed as the championship of black college football, is well told.  But despite the author’s rhetorical gestures towards defining it as a turning point, it’s clear that the event, which drew a large crowd to Miami’s Orange Bowl, was just one more step on the long and winding road to black equality.  Indeed, Freedman tacks on a chapter about the Tampa Classic of 1969, which pitted Florida A&M against the all-white University of Tampa—and was arguably more of a turning point than the Orange Blossom Bowl:  “Such a contest had never taken place in the South.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI

February 7th 2014

The Burglary

The Burglary. Betty Medsgar. Knopf. 2014. 608 pp.

During and after World War I, and especially after the notorious Palmer Raids, the government and a legion of vigilantes went hunting for “subversive” left-wingers. Phones were tapped and postal workers opened mail, which led an old-fashioned traditionalist named  Henry L. Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, to close down the government’s cryptological section  in 1929 with a quaint warning,  “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” How charming, how innocent, how calming.

In late 1970, however, William Davidon, “a mild-mannered physics professor at Haverford College,” writes Betty Medsger, decided to issue a frontal challenge to government snoopers (full-discloser: I interviewed him several times about another case) and  “privately asked a few people this question: ‘What do you think of burglarizing an FBI office?’”

Davidon hated the Vietnam War and a draft which forced reluctant kids into the military, which he believed had helped make the country an imperial, warrior state.  Inspired by pacifist men of action Dan Berrigan and A.J. Muste, he wanted to do more than march and picket and lend his name to antiwar ads.

To do so, he recruited six like-minded men and two women who “were looking for more powerful nonviolent ways to protest the war.” Betty Medsger’s striking and well-paced investigative reportage in The Burglary, sympathetically describes the burglars, and unkindly to say the least, J. Edgar Hoover and his relentless pursuit of political opponents.

On March 8, 1971, ironically  the day of the epic and widely-viewed Ali-Frazier bout,  eight otherwise commonplace people, led by Davidon, forced open the door of an FBI office in Media, a suburb of Philadelphia, with a homemade crowbar and snatched about a thousand confidential files, which when publicized, sent Hoover and his supporters into shock.  Never before had the unchallenged FBI been so violated. The burglars’ unprecedented catch revealed what Hoover’s FBI had been up to for decades. As Medsger carefully outlines the raid and its consequences, she reveals that  Hoover had been running a “secret” and illegitimate FBI program called  Cointelpro, whose purpose was to destroy dissent and dissenters. The burglars also discovered a long-established “Security Index,” aimed at rounding up and detaining “subversives” in the event of a “crisis.” Read more ..

Film Review

The Invisible Woman: Love, Secrecy and Celebrity

February 5th 2014

The Invisible Woman. Director: Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander.

The epigraph to Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, adapted from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ellen Ternan, is naturally taken from Charles Dickens, of whom the latter was mistress during the last years of his life: "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other." The context, in the Tale of Two Cities, is of love and death. The "profound secret and mystery" is another way of expressing the individuality that we love, when we love, and that we mourn in those we love after their death — at least partly because the elusive promise of discovering the secret and plumbing the mystery must now be acknowledged as forever to be unfulfilled. 

How far that opinion was held by Dickens the man and not as a narrative or thematic convenience for the author is, perhaps, his own mystery, taken with him to the grave. But a fascination with and a need for secrecy itself becomes for Mr Fiennes the key to unlock the mystery of the great man’s love affair, which wasn’t generally known about until long after his death.

The trouble is that Felicity Jones, who plays "Nelly" Ternan to Mr Fiennes’s Dickens, is so lovely and charming that she makes the affair virtually self-explanatory and quite without any need for mystification of any kind. Why wouldn’t he want to possess her? And, as he already had a wife and ten children, not to mention a position of social prominence much like that of the celebrities of today, why wouldn’t he also want to keep their relationship a secret from the world? Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Broadway Celebrates Legendary Cotton Club

February 4th 2014

Jazz Singer Anita O'Day

From the early 1920s to 1940, Harlem’s Cotton Club was the showplace for African-American performers in New York.

Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith and the Nicholas Brothers are just a few of the artists whose work is interpreted in a new revue on Broadway called After Midnight.

New York University History Professor David Levering Lewis, author of When Harlem Was In Vogue, thinks the show does a pretty good job of recreating the legendary nightclub.

"I thought it captured the flavor of what would have been one night - the best ever - at the Cotton Club," he said.

After Midnight began as a collaboration between Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Jack Viertel, artistic director of Encores, an organization that puts on concert versions of old musicals. Viertel says they both feel close to the subject.

"I have a fixation with Harold Arlen, who started his career, or early in his career, wrote songs for the Cotton Club," Viertel said. "And Wynton has a lifelong obsession with Duke Ellington, and, while Arlen was writing songs for the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington was the house band of the Cotton Club." Viertel and Marsalis drew on old photographs, YouTube videos and classic recordings. The Cotton Club was owned by a Chicago gangster named Owney Madden as a way to sell liquor at inflated prices during Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol was banned. Read more ..

Financing the Flames

Author Edwin Black Addresses Three Parliaments in Three Weeks on Financing the Flames

February 2nd 2014

Edwin Black

New York Times bestselling author Edwin Black has departed for a un international parliamentary tour to brief legislators overseas about the revelations in his latest investigative book, Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel. Black is due to brief lawmakers in the House of Commons February 5, then the European Parliament in Brussels February 12, and finally the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem on Febnruary 19. Financing the Flames blows the cover off of U.S. tax-exempt, tax-subsidized, and public monies that foment agitation, systematically destabilize the Israel Defense Forces, and finance terrorism in Israel. In a far-ranging international investigation, Black documents that it is actually highly politicized human rights organizations and NGOs themselves—all American taxpayer supported—which are financing the flames that make peace in Israel difficult if not impossible.

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In his explosive revelations about non-profits and Israel, Black sheds new light on key charitable organizations such as the the New Israel Fund, the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, and many others, as well as American taxpayers as a group. Instead of promoting peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis, he writes, a variety of taxpayer-subsidized organizations have funded a culture where peace does not pay, but warfare and confrontation do.

Black chronicles how some rioting protestors are actually compensated by charitable organizations when they riot—riots that can and do occur on a scheduled basis in a highly orchestrated fashion. In this enterprise, sponsored American and European activists frequently provoke, incite, and harass Israeli soldiers as they video the choreographed riots, he writes. According to documentation in Financing the Flames, taxpayer money is being used to further entrench a human-rights double standard where abuses and mistreatment of Jews by Palestinians are tolerated, ignored, and even promoted. In this system, Jews are singled out for discrimination in their own country in a fashion that taxpayers would never tolerate in America. Read more ..

Book Review

The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism

January 31st 2014

The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

The Watchdog That Didn't Bark. Dean Starkman. Columbia Journalism Review Books. 2014. 368 pp.

In 1920 the New Republic ran “A Test of the News,” a special supplement to the magazine (published soon after as the book Liberty and the News) by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz showing that in the three and a half years since the Bolshevik revolution, the New York Times had reported “not what was, but what men wished to see.” On ninety-one occasions, the paper had reported that the new regime was on the verge of collapse, although the only real “censor and . . . propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors” themselves.

Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Public Opinion has never gone out of print, and it’s still easy to imagine elites at Davos telling one another that while “the people” should be consulted, ultimately they must be ruled. But what if the experts and media watchdogs can barely rule themselves? What if they haven’t kept faith with a public that responds more constructively to reporting and education better than what Lippmann encountered?

Ninety-two years later, the Columbia Journalism Review has outdone Lippmann’s indictments of both the press and the public—along with Dewey’s democratic response—with an excerpt of the veteran Wall Street Journal and CJR journalist Dean Starkman’s subtle, devastating The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. CJR first published the extensive survey that seeded Watchdog, “Power Problem: The Business Press Did Everything But Take on the Institutions that Brought on the Financial Crisis,” three years ago, but the book goes much farther than that. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Remembering Pete Seeger

January 28th 2014


Pete Seeger, the legendary folk singer-songwriter who fought for social change and played a major role in the American folk revival, died Monday at the age of 94.

For many, Seeger will be remembered as America’s most-famous, and infamous, folk singer.

Banjo player Tony Trischka first heard Seeger’s banjo-playing and singing as child and later became his friend. When he was 14 years old, Trischka wrote Seeger a fan letter. He didn’t have an address, so he just addressed it to Pete Seeger, Beacon New York and hoped that it would reach his hero.

“I wrote something to the effect ‘Dear Pete, I think you’re the greatest banjo player who ever lived.’ Two weeks later, I received a postcard back from Pete Seeger saying ‘Dear Tony, music’s not like a horse race, there’s no such thing as best, but I’m glad you like my music.’ And he signed it Pete Seeger, as you would, and he drew a little banjo. And that just became a relic, this iconic thing that helped inspire me,” he said. Read more ..

Book Review

The End of Russia and What it Means for America

January 27th 2014


Implosion. Ilan Berman. Regency Publishing. 2013. 256 pp.

It takes a certain chutzpah to write a book that announces something will—or won't—happen, and that if it does or does not happen the world will look considerably different than it does today—or not. This is not like predicting snow for Thursday. But Ilan Berman's Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America is up to the challenge. Berman reads economic, demographic and military trends to determine whether Russia will undergo its second major transformation in less than 100 years. Or not.

Either way, the trends provide a blueprint for policy makers who want to maximize American national interests in Russia, Eurasia and the Pacific. Part of the blueprint is translated directly from the Russian. The last 75 pages of this slim volume consist of "The Foundations of Russian Federation Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond," and the "National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020." Both are windows into current Russian thinking, particularly regarding the Arctic, which is covered in some detail in the body of the book.

A bit of history: The collapse of communism and the demise of the USSR was a surprise to a lot of people who saw the Soviet Union as an unstoppable juggernaut. Economist and demographer Murray Feshbach was not among them. Chief of the jaw-breakingly named USSR Population, Employment and Research and Development Branch of the Foreign Demographic Analysis Division of the Census Bureau for more than 20 years, Feshbach, who might have served as Berman's muse, toiled largely in obscurity. He noted rampant alcoholism, diseases (such as diphtheria) that had been eradicated in the West, abortion trends, and life expectancy in Russia. He took his findings to the Pentagon, where only a handful of people were interested in a back story to Soviet domination—but those who paid attention saw cracks in the mighty edifice. Then, seemingly in an instant —but not really—the USSR was gone. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Oscar-Nominated Film Examines Egypt Uprising

January 24th 2014

Tahrir Square 22 nov 2011

The Egyptian uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, a decades-long autocrat, is three years old.

An unusual documentary, The Square, takes an intimate view of the events and has been nominated for an Oscar, the first Egyptian film to receive this honor.

The uprising began in January 2011 with a burst of optimism. Thousands of Egyptians of all stripes converged on a central square, demanding the departure of the military-backed ruler.

After 18 days, the unbelievable happened; Mubarak stepped down.

The Square focuses on several characters who guide us through the joy in Tahrir Square and the rollercoaster that followed Mubarak's departure. Most, like Ahmed, are secular young people who launched the revolution. But there’s also Magdy, a Muslim Brother who joined early on, and Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, from the intellectual upper class. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Bruce Springsteen Gives Old Favorites New Twist

January 22nd 2014


On Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album, “High Hopes,” old favorites are given new twists and some previously unreleased songs finally see the light of day.

Fans will recognize the album’s title track from the live version performed in the 1996 film “Blood Brothers,” which documented Springsteen’s reunion with the E Street Band.

The new studio recording of “High Hopes” is a much fuller version of the song, complete with horn section and a chorus of background singers. It also features Tom Morello of the band Rage Against The Machine.

Morello played guitar on the Australian leg of Springsteen’s most recent tour, and quickly became an asset to the group. In his liner notes to the album, Springsteen goes as far as to call him “my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level.” Morello’s guitar is featured on eight of the 12 tracks, and he sings on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” trading verses with The Boss. The song was first heard as the title track to a solo acoustic album Springsteen released in 1995. Read more ..

Book Review

Avoiding Korean War II

January 21st 2014

Act of war

Act of War. Jack Cheevers. NAL Hardcover. 2013. 448 pp.

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a lightly-armed diminutive spy ship was boarded by heavily- armed North Koreans near the North Korean port of Wonsan and the American crewmen and their commander taken prisoner. The unpredictable North Koreans claimed the Pueblo had been in its territorial waters while the Pueblo’s officers and the US insisted it had not. In a new and mesmerizing book, Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo (NAL Caliber), Jack Cheevers, a former Los Angeles Times political reporter, painstakingly and dramatically describes the seizure of the ship and crew and how close the U.S. came to becoming involved in a second Korean War.

With no American ships or planes nearby, the Pueblo was literally abandoned. Unable to resist 57mm cannon and machine gun fire and desperate to save the lives of his crew, one of whom had been killed by the attackers, Commander Lloyd Bucher surrendered the Pueblo without a fight, for which a court of inquiry of admirals would later want him court martialed (John Chafee, Nixon’s Secretary of Navy, would eventually throw out the charge).

A few days earlier, on January 21, the traditional hostility between both Koreas was further inflamed when a North Korean raiding party managed to reach Seoul, trying but failing to kill the South Korean president, his family, and close aides in the Blue House, the presidential residence and executive offices. Seoul demanded that the U.S. join them in striking back at the North. Both Koreas began mobilizing for a fight and the U.S. reinforced its forces in the region and came close to fighting two Asian land wars simultaneously. “The greater the preparation for war, the greater the chances that war would break out, perhaps by mistake,” Cheevers shrewdly observes. Read more ..

Film Review

Anchorman 2: The Legend is Not Funny

January 19th 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Director: Adam McKay Starring: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, Steve Carrell. Length: 120 mins.

During the two very long hours of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, I think I chuckled three times. Meanwhile, all around me were cracking up. They, obviously, were more in tune with the general audience responsible for (at the time of writing) the $100 million in box office receipts earned by this sequel to the equally dreadful Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Not that I’m not used to being in the minority in my view of popular movies, but I can’t help asking myself why so many people think this one, which is by the same creative team of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay that produced the original, is funny when I do not.

I don’t think it can be because I lack a sense of humor, or that it has atrophied with age, since I do laugh at quite a lot of things. Scott Foundas, the critic for Variety likens the new Anchorman to "Network as directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Gene Wilder," thus comparing it to some movies that I do find funny. Does he, then, think they are funny in the same way as Anchorman 2?

I doubt this. The Brooks-Wilder team appealed to a common culture in a way that movies can’t anymore. Mr Foundas also calls the Anchorman franchise "a cherished cultural totem" — to which the only possible answer is "not in my culture." But then that’s the point. It’s the common culture that we’ve lost. In the days of The Producers or Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein the contemporary audience still imagined it was laughing at a plausible version of reality — even if it was only, as in the case of the second and third of these, a movie reality.

The old-fashioned Western (Blazing Saddles) or horror flick (Young Frankenstein) may have been an easy target for 1970s sophisticates who were not at all like their contemporary, Ron Burgundy, but they were enjoying Mr Brooks’s making fun of things, not originally intended to be funny, whose latent absurdity more or less everybody by then was able to recognize. Read more ..

Book Review

The First Conservative

January 18th 2014

Edmund Burke

Edmond Burke. Jesse Norman. Basic Books. 2013. 336 pp.

 In both Great Britain and the United States, it is something of a tradition for politicians aspiring to high office to polish their intellectual credentials by writing a book. Although often this results in little more than a series of wonky policy statements, occasionally things are different. Most famously, Profiles in Courage, written (sort of) by John F. Kennedy, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. On the other end of the quality spectrum, Sarah Palin’s Good Tidings and Great Joy recently fired an angry fusillade in the ersatz war over Christmas and included recipes for Rice Krispies treats.

Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: The First Conservative stands very much alone in what is undeniably a motley collection. Norman, described as a “Tory rising star” in the Huffington Post, is a Member of Parliament and a practicing Conservative politician. Holding a B.A. from Oxford and a doctorate from University College London, he has taught philosophy and written a number of political works, including one titled (bravely or foolishly, given the bad vibes that accompany the phrase in the post-George W. Bush era), Compassionate Conservatism.

His subject, Edmund Burke, was born in Dublin in either 1729 or 1730 (Norman says 1730; some sources give the earlier year), just as Jonathan Swift was responding to the latest human catastrophes in Ireland by publishing his (in)famous satire, “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that the solution to famine was to eat the babies. Thirty years later, Burke was well on his way to fame as a spokesman for more temperate, careful, even (yes) modest solutions to social and political problems -- solutions aimed at reforming, not rending, the fabric of society.

Although Burke served only briefly in Parliament, he was continuously involved, as pamphleteer and propagandist, in partisan battles. Best known for his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) -- Norman calls it his “masterwork” -- which warned of excesses that would inevitably result from France’s utopian fervor, he had already fought for better treatment of Catholics in Ireland (he was himself a Protestant), for limitations on monarchical power (he was an ardent defender of the settlement resulting from the Glorious Revolution of 1688), against the abuses perpetrated by the East India Company (which turned private enterprise into imperialism), and against the slave trade. In the United States, he still appears in U.S. history textbooks as an advocate for the American Revolution, which he viewed as a defense of traditional English rights: “This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies, probably, than in any other people of the earth,” he said. Read more ..

Film Review

Her: Disembodied Spirits in the Cyber Age

January 16th 2014

Click to select Image

Her. Director: Spike Jonze, Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson. Length: 90 mins.

Bodies are optional - and therefore dispensible. That has been the subtext of the utopian dream of rationalists from Descartes to the present day. The trouble is that we know it isn't true. We need our bodies. Without them, we are nothing, at least so far as we can know.

The rationalists nowadays, however, have become so confident about the advance of technology, and especially the technology of artificial intelligence, that they tend to take for granted that it is only a matter of time until "science" - perhaps, as disembodied as its future creations - is able to synthesize humanity itself.

To be up front about it, I don't think so. Humanity is embodied and, the advance of technology notwithstanding, it always will be. That is part of what humanity means - along with all that bodies imply about the inevitability of pain and loss and failing faculties and death, which are among the bugs that the rationalists seek to eliminate from our human software.

Yet we may imagine a world, as Spike Jonze has done in Her, in which computers have grown so skilled at playing what Alan Turing called "the Imitation Game" that the question of their humanity seems almost moot. If they are somehow less than human, they are so much like the real thing that whatever they lack of actual humanity, including bodies, is not missed by those who choose to treat them as human.

The latter, some might say, have themselves compromised their humanity by treating as human that which is not human, but then why would we suppose that they care any more about their own artificiality than they do about that of the creatures with whom they engage in human-type relationships? Read more ..

Film Review

American Hustle: Sexier and Funnier than the Real Thing

January 16th 2014

Click to select Image

American Hustle. Director: David O. Russell. Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper. Length: 90 mins.

The best line in American Hustle comes in an exchange between Bradley Cooper's FBI agent, Richie DiMaso, and Irving Rosenfeld, the small time crook played by Christian Bale who is bargaining with him to get a reduced sentence by helping to entrap several U.S. congressmen in what was to become known as the Abscam bribery sting. In the spirit of post-Watergate self-righteousness that must have affected the FBI almost as much as it did the media and the political Carterism that played to it, Richie tells Irving that he is the kind of person who is ruining America. Irving replies in high dudgeon: "No, you're the one who is ruining America. People just got over Watergate and Vietnam and you're going to s*** all over politicians again!"

Irving, of course, recognizes some sense of fellow-feeling with the politicians. "As far as I can tell," he says at one point, "people are conning each other all the time to get what they want" - the law and the FBI very much included. But he also has a point about how civic virtue and public service do not cease to be important when they become masks for baser motives.

The same point is made in a different way by Jeremy Renner's pompadoured Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, the most sympathetic of those caught up in the scandal, who says: "Everything I do is for the good of the people of New Jersey. Tell me I'm lying." Even Irving develops a conscience about Carmine's entanglement with the law which he has helped to bring about. It is tempting to ask what possible civic purpose can be served by the prosecution of such a man for attempting to smooth the way for Arab investment in Atlantic City casinos? Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Songs Against Slavery Used as Tool for Abolition

January 15th 2014

sharecroppers Depression

December 18, 2013, was the 149th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States.  The fight to end slavery did not begin with the American Civil War.  For more than 80 years before then, people used the tools at their disposal to fight for and against the enslavement of African-Americans.  One of those tools was music.

When the United States became a nation, African slaves weren’t just picking cotton in Alabama.  They were also cleaning houses in Pennsylvania and tending bar in New York City.  But by the early 1800s, Northern states largely outlawed the practice and were pressing the South to do the same.

“Get Off The Track”  was a song written and made famous by the most popular United States singing troupe of the 1840s and 1850s, the Hutchinson Family Singers.  Scott Gac wrote a book about the Hutchinson Family called “Singing for Freedom.” Read more ..

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