Academic Writing

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sesame Street

Like I’m sure many people were, I was confused and surprise when I heard the news that the beloved public television TV show, Sesame Street would be moving over to premium HBO.  Sesame Street, home to childhood favorites like Big Bird, Snuffy, Bert, Ernie, Elmo and Grover (and others I know) taught generations of kids their numbers, letters, how to share, how to be nice and inclusive to other children, showed scores of videos of real kids doing real things alongside cartoons of a more whimsical nature.  We sat in front of that TV for a full hour, mesmerized.  It was a comfortable place we could both learn and be entertained.  For me, watching it in the 80s and early 90s, we didn’t keep coming back because of the technological achievements or for the critical acclaim.  We came back because that’s where we could find familiar friendly faces with whom we sang and enjoyed spending time.

When the news came that Sesame Street would be moving to HBO along came the announcement that the show would be shortened to a half hour and would focus mainly on Elmo, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, and relative newcomer Abby Cadabby.  Having a 15-month old daughter who is already obsessed with Elmo, I was relieved that Elmo would still be around, but saddened by the omission of so many of the other beloved characters that are getting pushed to the side for what – marketability?  Merchandising?  

I’ve been watching the HBO version with my daughter and for comparison sake have also been going back to the older episodes to make sure my nostalgia for the original format isn’t taking over my sensibilities.  That being said, this new version of the show is a far cry from where it originated.  The 1/2 hour format feels very rushed and compressed.  It starts with a 10-15 minute segment that takes place on Sesame Street, usually featuring Abby and Elmo and 1-2 human counterparts.  Then there’s a song that features all of the characters singing about what the letter of the day will be (it’s a total earworm, I don’t recommend listening to it unless you want to be kept up at night because you can’t get it out of your head) and then maybe another small sketch, and then a song with The Count and the rest of the cast of muppets singing about the number of the day (another, less offensive earworm) and then the show generally closes with either Elmo’s World or Elmo the Musical.  It's a nice neat, predictable package that doesn't veer too much outside of it's schedule.

This new format leaves much to be desired, and feels, essentially, like a dumbed down version of the original.  First of all, the letter and the number of the day are largely irrelevant to the viewer.  Whereas in the longer format version of the show would be introduced to a letter and a number and those would both be repeated in nearly all segments, there are so few segments now that even if it were repeated it would only happen 1 or 2 times.  Second, since the premiere there have yet to be any sketches that I’ve seen (and again, I watch with my toddler so full disclosure I’m occasionally distracted) that show real kids interacting in real and meaningful ways that the viewers can emulate. 

I lament the lacking educational component on this new shinier version of the show as what used to be on public, educational television is now on an entertainment channel vying for subscribers.  PBS will get second run-rights to the show after the 9 month exclusivity window closes, but the format will remain the same.  In the meantime, my daughter and I are watching both the PBS and the HBO versions.  The differences are still stark.  Even though PBS has shortened the show to a half hour, probably to prepare for the switch in a few months, they still manage to pack more education into each episode, ensuring that Murray gets around town teaching kids the “word on the street” or having a character interact with a celeb of the day to learn about the word of the day.  There’s more focus on counting and learning numbers during the heart of the show.  

True, television viewing habits have changed, and are constantly evolving, but don’t we owe it to our kids to give them the opportunity of longer attention spans instead of forcing the shortened spans of their parents’ on them right off the bat?  I know funding is tight for public television, and unfortunately this merger was probably essential for the show’s survival, but with that comes HBO’s creative input and rather than leaving the creativity and the education to the masters who have been entrenched in it for decades and who have the actual educational degrees, it seems as though that has been sacrificed for pure entertainment value.  No doubt HBO is a programming master and knows how to create and market quality television, but something about public programming moving to the premium pay space just doesn't sit so well with me.  Let me be clear, the new version of Sesame Street isn’t bad, it just isn’t as rich as it once was, or as it could be. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Son of Saul

Son of Saul is one of those haunting films that stays with you long after the credits begin to roll.  As you think more about it and your 107 minutes spent with Saul Auslander more questions and revelations about his story creep into your mind.  Who was this man?  What was his history? 

Set in Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII, Son of Saul follows 2 days in the life of Hungarian Sonderkommando, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig).  Responsible for collecting the dead after slaughtered in the gas chambers, cleaning said chambers, and bringing the bodies for cremating Saul goes through his duties expressionless.  Shot mostly in close up, the audience is there with Saul.  Much of the background is blurred out or obstructed from our view, we focus on Saul.  This changes when he comes across the body of a young boy who he takes as his son and seeks to have buried properly.  His mission and his will to live suddenly change as now he has a purpose.  He becomes totally obsessed with finding a Rabbi to do a proper preparation for and subsequent burial according to Jewish law.  This is all against the backdrop of not just the horrors of Auschwitz, but also as he and the other Sonderkommandos prepare a revolt against their captors. 

Throughout the less than 48 hours spent with Saul not a lot is learned about him.  We get bits and pieces throughout the narrative, but even those are questionable.  Is the child really his son?  If not, what is his motivation for obsessing over this child’s burial?  Did he have children at all?  Was he married?  We do meet one woman, who has a different last name as him, that he clearly has some past with, but what is that past?  Was he religious or is his preoccupation with finding a Rabbi for this child his way of honoring the shred of his humanity that is left.

The cinematography is also fascinating.  The first three shots of the film are very long takes, focusing in on Saul as he performs his duties.  They are from behind and from the side, not focusing in on his face.  These takes set the scene, they draw the viewer in.  Subsequently the camera mostly focuses in on Saul’s face.  In contrast to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the close ups here don’t serve to highlight specific expressions, rather they highlight lack of expression.  Paired with quick takes and cuts it creates a chaotic sense of claustrophobia that is uncomfortable for the audience.  We cannot look away.  We cannot escape.  We are disoriented and unsure of our surroundings.  We are Saul, stuck in the mire of the horrors of the camp. 

In the final scene (don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending but you might want to skip this if you don’t want any hints to the ending) Saul offers, for the first time, a new expression, followed by one of, if not the, widest shots in the entire film.  Its meaning is also ambiguous, although I took it to mean peace, the scenic shot and new expression on Saul’s face offer a different aesthetic from the rest of the film and even though the ending was not what we were hoping for there is value in the conclusion.

On a separate note, this film represents something that is valuable to what I call the “Jews on screen” narrative.  Since WWII, Holocaust films have been abundant.  Both about the Jews as they suffer at the hands of the Nazis, or in the PTSD era of how they had to cope with the horrors they lived through while many of their families did not (The Pawnbroker, for instance).   Traditionally, the narrative has been “Jews as victims” and only recently has it morphed into “Jews as heroes.”  Recently, with films such as Defiance, Inglorious Basterds, The Debt, No Place on Earth and others, the Jew as hero narrative begins to emerge.  Jews are not people who are mere victims, unable or unwilling to take charge of their own destinies.  They won’t lie down and take what is being given to them.  They will fight back, physically or emotionally. 

What I find to be really fascinating about this shift is that it comes at the same time that Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, but now it’s disguised as anti-Israel sentiment.  Jews are being celebrated on screen for defending themselves, but when they do it in “real life,” they are disparaged.  While Palestinians murder Jews in the streets of Israel and in their homes, the world is calling for boycotts of Jewish goods from Judea and Samaria, not to mention the insistence that Jews leave their homes in that area.  When the IDF or the Israeli police retaliate and neutralize (kill) the murdering terrorists or when they return the rockets that are fired from Gaza, the world cries out that Israel is not showing restraint and they should react with “proportionality.”   Jews can be masters of their own fates on screen but when it happens in reality there is a disconnect and people don’t know how reconcile that.  How can those who celebrate strength and honor in the face of imminent destruction decry the same strength and honor in another scenario? 


Son of Saul brings up all of those questions through focusing in on a short time spent with one man in a horrific situation.  Maybe through these on screen Jewish heroes during their darkest time, the world can translate that to modern day and honor the actions of Jews today as they live and defend their rightful homeland, the one place in the world where they can be safe from the horrors that the world wishes to impose on them.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Black-ish

Blackish, the new show on ABC offends me. Not on the basis of race, as many people assumed it would be, but based on how incredibly immature and selfish the adults in this show are. 

Blackish was originally marketed as a show which would buck stereotypes and show a thriving, affluent black family with two professional parents living in a nice house on a nice block.  They have 4 kids who go to a good school. 

Aside from the fact that the frenetic pace of the show and the dad's obsessive preoccupation with his kids being "black enough" makes it practically unwatchable, the parents utter selfishness just compounds it. 

Father Andre and mother Bo force their children to conform to their wants and needs. In one episode rather than taking pride in his son's social and academic achievements, Andre laments his son's disinterest in subscribing to black codes and notes that are largely irrelevant to his life. It's one thing to build in a love of ones heritage into a child's upbringing, it's another thing entirely to force it down their throats after the fact. And even another still to do it for your own reasons because of your own guilt and needs and not really for your kids. 

This is a running theme throughout the show. The parents time and again insist on their children behaving in certain ways because it's what they want, not because it's best for their kids.  This seems to be a growing trend in TV parents overall. There's an infantilization of parents and adults throughout TV these days.  It's hard to say or understand exactly why, but it seems like networks are pandering to their target audience - 25-54 year olds - and if they keep them feeling young they'll keep tuning in. Maybe that means it's not a problem with the shows, but rather with this generation of young adults who aren't ready to grow up and who aren't being told that they have to grow up. I'm not excluding myself from that group, it's scary to grow up and to be told that we have real responsibilities, but ignoring them and sidestepping them will not benefit anyone - not ourselves and not our children. Our children need mature adults to look up to and to learn from. They don't need to grow up emulating parents who look out for themselves and the best interests above all else. 

Media has always been a lens that both reflects and in turns influences our culture and society. Do we want to project the best or the worst of what the parents of the next generation will be. Do we want our children growing up to emulate parents who look out for themselves or for their children's needs. 

I won't be turning in to watch more of Blackish. It's too upsetting and frustrating to see what parenting has become, or expected to become. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Patriotic Cognitive Dissonance

How do you reconcile two diametrically opposing feelings? I've been struggling with many emotions since the horrific news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. Even more emotions have piled on since the devastating news of their deaths crept out in the news.  Sad and angry for the senseless deaths. Pain for the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins and friends who are directly enduring this loss. Sadness for a nation who weeps at the loss of three young innocent souls whose only crime was following in their parents' footsteps of fulfilling the promise made to our forefathers of inhabiting the land designated to the Jewish people. Sadness for a culture who swears "never again" but slowly sees antisemitism rearing it's ugly head under the guise of anti-Zionism and pro-Palestinian sentiments.

Piled on top of those overbearing emotions is the disappointment and upset I feel towards our US leaders. How could president Obama remain silent for 18 days? How can he continue to fund a government that is known to be backed by an internationally recognized terrorist organization? How can the nation I live in and love for it's freedoms of human rights be so callous to say that both sides should show restraint when one celebrates by handing out candies and cakes upon hearing the news that Israelis have been taken?

Therein lies my internal conflicting feelings. I voted for president Obama twice, admiring his domestic policies. True liberal ideals, equal rights for all - gay marriage, women's health, universal health care, raising the bar on educational standards, etc. Even with many of his the overseas policies I agreed as he vowed to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He promised to be a continued friend to Israel. And now, the president who I trusted with the country in which I live has torn my heart out regarding his attitudes for the country in which my heart lies. As a Jew living in the United States I feel marginalized. I feel all of a sudden like a second class citizen without equal rights. The hundreds of tweets, letters, and calls he received on this matter (many of which from me) fell on deaf ears. He ignored his own people who were pleading their needs to him. He avoided responding to the cries of a people who had sought out this country when their countries oppressed and slaughtered them.  Now as it's happening in the country of our homeland he's silent.  How can I on the one hand be proud of the domestic issues he tries to push through into policy and be shamed in how he's so mishandled issues regarding Israel.

Never did I think the day would come where being an American and being a Zionist would conflict, but the day has come. How do I support  a president whose policies on Israel are so antithetical to my belief system yet his American policies are so in line with what I would wish for for this country? I'm split in half and grappling with this tremendous weight. 

How has being a supporter of Israel become something that is split on party lines?  At a recent Shabbat meal when I said I was a liberal and an Obama supporter, the first question from a staunch republican was - "But do you think Obama's been good for Israel?"  Why are the republican Senators and pundits, who make me sick when they talk about US policy, the only ones who have said anything in support for Israel in the past few weeks?  Where is the outrage from Democratic leaders over the hypocrisy and violations of human rights by Hamas?  Why does a vote in support for US ideals mean a betrayal for my devotion to Israel?  When did it mean you are anti-Israel if you are Pro-choice in this country? 

These are the issues I've been facing of late.  I love both of my countries. That of my communal people and that of my personal history and place. How can my chosen leader betray me so?  I've been grappling with this since his first moments of deafening silence 18  days ago, I continue to grapple with it today and likely for days to come. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Power of Nostalgia



You might have seen the recent buzz surrounding LeVar Burton's Kickstarter campaign to resurrect Reading Rainbow.  As he explains in the accompanying video, he is hoping to raise 1 million dollars over the course of the month of June in order to be able to fund a reboot of the series and make it available to all children across all media for free.

In less than one day he reached his monetary goal of 1 million dollars.  By 4:30 on the second day he has already surpassed the 2 million dollar mark.  How did that happen so fast?  Why were so many people (over 45,000 people thus far) happy to open their wallets and make donations to fund this project?  To me, this exemplifies the power of nostalgia.

Reading Rainbow is a powerful brand to those of us who grew up watching it, and while he's done plenty of well know and important work (Roots, Star Trek), for many of us, Burton is mostly known as "the guy from Reading Rainbow."  We grew up in an age where cable TV was not as pervasive as it is today, and even if you had cable, the best children's programming was on PBS.  It was educational, empathetic, interesting, smart, and most of all, it didn't pander to the lowest common denominator of attention grabbing.  (See: Any of The Disney Channel's current line-up to see what I'm talking about).  Children were spoken to with the assumption that they were smart and excited to learn new things be it Reading, Math, how things are made, or even social skills (Thank you Mr. Rogers, 3-2-1 Contact, Square One).  The value of educational television for children on that level seems to have been lost in the bombastic ratings-grab game of the 21st Century.

Are people yearning to give today's children what we had back then? Are people excited to be able to relive a piece of what we grew up on?  Burton offered incentives for large donations - private dinners with him, etc - maybe that's what spurred some of the donations, but overall it's clear that like generations before us, we believe that the good old days were in fact the good old days and are willing to open our wallets to bring even a taste of it back.  I just hope that the things we valued then are adapted appropriately and functionally to this brave new world and can impart good into it, rather than being watered down and bastardized to fit our current frenetic pandering media landscape.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Normal Heart

Devastating. Tragic. Heart-wrenching. Infuriating

These are just some of the words that come to mind when trying to describe how I felt while watching The Normal Heart, airing on May 25 at 9 PM on HBO.  

Brought to television and starring some pretty big Hollywood hitters, this film tells the story of the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York when gay men were suddenly coming down with a mysterious disease that was, as one character puts it, killing of a generation.

Written by Larry Kramer as a semi-autobiographical play in 1984 and premiering on Broadway in 1985, these issues were still fresh and ongoing.  President Ronald Regan hadn’t even publicly said the word AIDS when Kramer began writing this.  National research funding was very limited, and thousands of people were dying every year from something that was killing off an entire generation of young men.

Starting in 1981, The Normal Heart, opens on a carefree Memorial Day weekend trip to Fire Island. Ned Weeks (the Kramer figure, played by Mark Ruffalo) joins his friends for partying and having a good time, but that carefree enjoyment soon turns to tragedy when one of their friends, Craig (Jonathan Groff) mysteriously collapses on the beach in a coughing fit.  The joy turns to concern for this individual and this is the moment the film turns into a horror story.  No one yet quite understands the more global problem that this seemingly isolated event represents.  Until this point the “only” hurdle gay men had to face was social and political disparagement, little did they know they would be faced with something far more sinister.

This initial scene lays the groundwork and foreshadows much of the narrative from that point on.  In an era where until that point, love was free from fear and the gay community was just starting to mainstream, comes a danger that lurks underneath that carefree attitude.  Not only their lifestyles were marginalized by society, but their sex lives now had real life and death consequences.

As the story goes on, Ned observes more and more of his peers falling ill and dying, including his lover Felix (Matt Bomer, who proves he’s more than steely blue eyes and devilishly good looks in one of the film’s strongest performances).  He endures the lack of respect and acknowledgement from leading political figures like Ed Koch and family members like his brother, Ben (Alfred Molina).  He finds one ally in Dr. Emma Brookner (an unusually dowdy Julia Roberts), a polio stricken doctor who has been in the front lines of the burgeoning epidemic as she has treated hundreds of dying men to this mysterious illness.

What is so painful for Ned, and in turn for modern audiences watching in 2014, there doesn't seem to more public outrage on the hundreds and thousands of deaths.  This disease didn't have a name yet, it was still referred to as Gay Cancer, as it tore through New York and the US.  Ned insists on being that voice of outrage – despite the resistance he gets from his family members and friends.  He, along with a few friends, found The Gay Men’s Health Crisis as a nonprofit to spread the word about AIDS awareness.  Even within the group there’s a schism over how they should plead their case.  Ned is a loud, sharp voice who wants to scream and yell to get heard, but there’s also the closeted Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch, having shed all of his Tim Riggins persona) and Tommy Boatwright (a strong Jim Parsons) feel like they’ll catch more flies with honey.  Nevertheless, despite the differing ways they feel will be most effective in how to get people’s attention, the film, as did the play before it, capture the real sense confusion and urgency of action at this time.  They didn’t know what to do, but they knew something must be done.

What is so fascinating about this story is how little people under the age of 35 actually know what went on in those early days.  Despite films like Philadelphia and And the Band Played On, there has been limited public and widespread presence to this issue of the early days in our popular culture, and unfortunately without the knowledge of our past, we are destined to relive it.  In one impassioned  plea to Felix, Ned decries what would have happened if the Jews in America and in Europe had spoken up and out against the Nazis.  Moreover, Emma states that “People once died from Polio” to say that this too could be curable, if people paid attention to it.  In these instances, Ned and Emma are not only the voices of their generation and "his people," but he’s also the voice of future generations who will need their voices heard on their important issues.  Above all else, The Normal Heart is a warning of what happens when people don’t stand up to social justice issues - either for causes that directly effect them or for injustices they see going on in the world.  This happens to be a great film with stellar acting and impressive direction, but it’s most important element is it’s truth.

The truth is that today the big fight is about gay marriage and equal rights which is a huge step from 30 years ago when politicians wouldn't even recognize the gay community of deserving equal health care.  The fight for equal rights for this minority group has evolved, but it still continues.  In fact, the fight for equality for all minority groups continuities and the importance of The Normal Heart is important not only to know the history of this historic fight, but as a lesson for the future on how we treat people in our societies and to ask ourselves, what side of history do we really want to be on?  And, if the outrage isn't there and you think it should be, sometimes, in order to win a war, you have to be willing to start one.




Monday, March 10, 2014

The Normal Heart Trailer

On May 25th, HBO's film version of Larry Kramer's Tony winning play, The Normal Heart will hit the airwaves.  The Normal Heart tells the grim story of the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City.  It implicated doctors, politicians and every day citizens in covering up the crisis and not taking it seriously as a national and global epidemic.

The Normal Heart stars Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch and it is directed by Ryan Murphy.  It is sure to pack a punch.  Here is the first trailer promoting the film.  I highly recommend watching it and saving the date to watch the whole film on May 25th on HBO.