Book Chat: Austenland

By Hannah Lee

“Jane Austen fever” is heating up, as the Bank of England has announced plans to feature the image of the beloved female novelist on their ten-pound note. The auction of a ring with Austen provenance prompted a public outcry, and the British Minister of Culture stopped its sale to the American singer Kelly Clarkson. The movie premiere of Austenland has rolled out in Los Angeles and New York last Friday. There are no dates for Philly showings yet, but I am preparing by taking the 2007 novel off my bookshelf.

Written by Shannon Hale, winner of a Newbery Honor medal for Princess Academy, the novel is about a single New York career woman, Jane Hayes, with an obsession for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or specifically, Colin Firth’s depiction of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation. When her great-aunt bequeaths her an all-expenses-paid vacation, to a resort where the regency world of 1816 rules, the heroine accepts the gift, with the hope of getting her obsession out of her system.

Pembroke Park is where cell phones are banned, and modern garb is switched for Empire-style gowns, bonnets, and garters (although mascara and modern toilets escaped the rule of authenticity). Going further than your typical costume ball and fan convention, this is a place where patrons live out their fantasies of a bygone world of servants, carriages and horses, and games of whist. The added bonus of a romance — under strict regency guidelines on modest behavior — detracted from the innocence of the fantasy play. The predicament for the heroine is assessing what is real and what is acting.

What was difficult for me was the concept of patrons paying for romance, which falls just within the legal boundary. What about the players who embody the regency characters they meet? This is no mere acting gig, because they spend days and nights with their roles.

Humorously drawn are the cast of characters, including the proprietress Mrs. Wattlesbrook, who grills her patrons on the proper regency rules of conduct; the charming Amelia Heartwright, who returns for a repeat vacation; and the farcical Miss Charming, embodying the tone-deaf patron, who sprinkles her language with the anachronistic “what, what” and “jolly good.” The male players include Colonel Andrews, with “a decent set of shoulders;” the disapproving Mr. Nobley; and the gardener Martin, with a taste for American basketball, although it is off-limits and out-of-time.

The $4 million film was produced by Stephanie Meyers, who channeled her earnings from her successful Twilight series of book and film. In a highly unusual move, the advance screenings are shown to women only, following the Sundance Film Festival, where women viewers praised the movie, and men trashed it.

While I am waiting for the movie to arrive in my neighborhood, I can review my copies of An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. I would learn much, without any complicated plotting.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3445/book-chat-austenland

 

 

 

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3445/book-chat-austenland

Film Chat: The World is Funny

By Hannah Lee

This year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia opened this past weekend with the 2012 box-office hit, “The World is Funny.” The gala weekend included a visit by the director/screenwriter, Shemi Zarhin, for a Q&A session with Sunday’s audience.

Nominated for a record-setting 15 times by the Israeli Film Academy for its Ophir Awards (and won for one), “The World is Funny” is set in Tiberias, the birthplace and muse of its director. It has a stellar cast, including Assi Levy, who won a Best Actress Ophir for her starring role in the 2006 film “Aviva, My Love” (Aviva Ahuvati), also written and directed by Zarhin. This film also is graced by the presence of an Israeli legend, Yeshayahu “Shaike” Levi, whose career with the Gashash HaHiver comedy trio spanned 40 years and won the Israel Prize in 2000. (My favorite Zarhin film remains the 2007 “Noodle,” in part because of the Israeli cheerful bravado spirit and the Chinese actors.)

“The World is Funny” is narrated by a young woman, Tsephi, who cleans houses (although she doesn’t need the income) while seeking out interesting stories for the writing workshop that she attends at the library. Her duties bring her into the lives of three estranged siblings: Yardena, whose daughter died while serving in the Israeli Army; Meron, whose wife died in a car crash and whose teen son has awakened from a 8-year resultant coma; and Golan, whose sweetheart is dying from cancer.

In a testament to the writer’s craft, the film is not depressing. The director livens up the mood with comic depictions of the student writer’s scenes, including a man who falls in love with the goat he’s raising for slaughter for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration, and an assassin who only reveals his true face during his deadly assignments.

“Is the world funny?”, asked Zarhin during the Q&A session. “Well, it’s not so funny; it’s actually sad. But, it’s up to us to make it funny, because we need it to be so”, he answered.

Israeli films succeed when they are “communicative,” when they touch people, and not subjects. Zarhin concludes, “Life is a story we’re telling to ourselves — especially in Israel — and it always has a happy ending, but in Israel, it’s always too late.”

Shemi Zarhin is in front, second from the right

After the opening weekend, which included “The World is Funny,” “By Summer’s End” and a collection of short films, Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with “Life in Stills,” “Out in the Dark,” “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, and “The Flat,” concluding with “Fill the Void,”  on March 17th and a farewell reception at Zahav.

 

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3098/film-chat-the-world-is-funny

 

Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

By Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2980/film-chat-from-swastika-to-jim-crow

 

Film Chat: Les Misérables

By Hannah Lee

I’ve never attended the first showing of a blockbuster movie, but I saw the premiere showing of Les Misérables at noon on the 25th, along with the other Jews in the area. By the time the credits were over (I always stay for the credits to show respect for the crew), the lobby was mobbed and the line outside was down the block.

The movie was very well done, maybe over-the-top for some tastes, and if the Oscars had a separate category for musicals, I would vote for it as best, but Lincoln, followed by Argo, are still my top choices. It’s been a strong year for films.

In early 19th century France of author Victor Hugo (who published the book in 1862), there is no support network for the poor and the film vividly portrays their wretchedness. The budget for dirt in the film must have been significant. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis objected to the ardent religiosity of the film, compared to the screenplay, but I appreciated its role in explaining how the embittered Valjean, paroled from 19 years of hard labor for the theft of bread for his nephew, could turn his life around by his love for the orphaned Cossette.  Alas, he is perpetually hounded by Inspector Javert, with a singular passion for the law, because Valjean broke his parole. Both Les Mis and Lincoln deal with the issue of slavery and the desire for freedom; the former depicts how fear and obsession could also imprison a soul.

The director Tom Hooper made the unusual decision of filming the actors live, instead of dubbing in their singing voices later. Thus, the sound quality was not as ideal as possible in a recording studio, but the acting looked raw and vibrant. Anne Hathaway was stunning, in voice and acting, in her portrayal of the doomed Fantine, who loses her job unfairly and later her purity and dignity trying to provide for her young daughter, Cossette. Hathaway lost 25 pounds for this role, amidst concern by the director. It may not have been the best role for Hugh Jackman, but he keeps his clothes on (in contrast to his role as the Wolverine in the X-Men series) and as a Tony winner (for The Boy from Oz), his voice is fine for the role of Valjean. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were marvelous as the despicable innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and their duet “Master of the House” was a comic farce of how guests may not leave their inn intact.

The Englishman Eddie Redmayne was excellent as the young revolutionary (with a wealthy family) Marius as well as Samantha Barks as the lovelorn Éponine (whose voice was deemed the best in the film according to my opera-loving friend). There is an indelible scene in which the doomed leaders of the failed rebellion of June 1832 are shot and the leader Enjolras falls out the window still holding their flag and his legs are tangled in the air. The young English boy Daniel Huttlestone playing the role of the brave Gavroche had the signature British accent for most Les Mis stage productions; Sacha Baron Cohen had the only discernible French accent for this French tragedy. Amanda Seyfried is beautiful as the teenaged Cossette in a role that does not demand much, but she has a lovely soprano voice and she thrills her notes.  Russell Crowe ably filled the role of the obsessed Javert, a character that defies my understanding.

New York Times critic Dargis objected to the heavy-handedness of the director, but I thought it was a fabulous production as was his previous film, The King’s Speech (my Oscar pick from last year). The opening scene was absolutely awesome, even knowing it was computer-generated, with the hundreds of prisoners hauling in the battleship with Javert astride the deck. The mooring lines gradually rise with their efforts and the men become discernible from the water. As Dargis noted, Valjean becomes the Christ figure with his hoisting of a broken mast and I do not object. Hooper was aptly kind to the Catholic church, which was the sole savior for many souls in that time period.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2911/film-chat-les-mis%C3%A9rables