Meditations on Mamele (1938) and Yale’s Yiddish Film Festival

I was fortunate enough to attend Yale’s Yiddish Film Festival this evening and catch the 1938 film Mamele, immediately followed by J. Hoberman’s fascinating keynote lecture. Mamele is about a young woman named Khavtshi, who, when her mother dies, takes on the responsibility of managing the home and taking care of her siblings. The entire family, however, is far from grateful to Khavtshi, and in fact, the more she sacrifices, the more they demand. When their dreamy musician neighbor — who is Jewish, of course — comes a-calling, will Khavtshi answer the door? Will she even realize he’s knocking for her? (You’ll realize it. Right off the bat. He’s not particularly subtle.) The light comedy of this film — a kind of Yiddish rom com, really — comes into conflict with its historical context, directly on the heels of the Nazi occupation of Poland. As convener Masha Shpolberg noted in her introduction to the film, this film is a portrait of a Jewish life that is soon to be lost — and as Hoberman addressed in his lecture, Yiddish films from this period are often best described as portraits of a “utopian Yiddishland” that, in fact, never existed in the first place.

The “utopian” vibe definitely comes through with a film like Mamele, the story resembling a fairy-tale more than anything else. When the lights came up in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium, the woman next to me said, “Cinderella story, huh?” (I would mention her by name, but I actually never met her. Thank you, stranger!) (Oh, and speaking of Cinderella stories, I want to put in a plug for my colleague Maya Cantu’s excellent book, hot off the presses: American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage.)

One of the things that makes Mamele a fairy-tale, and indeed, a Cinderella story, is that Khavtshi marries for love. Hoberman explained in his talk that, in Yiddish films, marriage is not usually presented as the product of romantic love but, rather, as a step toward maintaining tradition and continuing the Jewish community, which is to say, making Jewish babies. Mamele is not like this. At all. The two fall for each other in the typical musical fashion: by unwittingly singing a duet together about wanting to find love and, eventually, with him singing directly to her about love. It’s ostensibly not about the love he harbors for her but of course it is, you guys. And, in the end, the two marry and he presumably moves into the family home, so Khavtshi can continue to play the put-upon Mamele who at least is married now.

So what is a love match doing in a Yiddish film? I have a few theories.

The first is somewhat inspired by Stanley Cavell’s idea about a genre’s compensatory elements. Basically, what this means is that while every genre has a recognizable set of elements, not every example of that genre has every single one of those elements. That’s why we can recognize that a TV show like Firefly is a Western, even though it is set in space instead of West: because the plots, characters, and language is reminiscent of a textbook Western. You dig? Cavell is discussing 1930s romantic comedies when he coins this term to explain, for example, why It Happened One Night is a comedy of remarriage, even though the leading man and lady are not actually married until the… well, don’t let me spoil it.

So Mamele resolves with a love match and, I would argue, incorporates a critique of the more pragmatic approach to love. When Khavtshi’s glamorous younger sister Bertie finds herself newly single and bored, she decides she wants to marry Schlesinger. Khavtshi tries to hide her devastation and tells her sister, “But you don’t even love him.” Bertie responds that, according to conventional wisdom, the love comes later. In a different context, Bertie’s decision could be seen as a kind of maturity, a sadder but wiser move out of the Marjorie Morningstar playbook. But in this moment, the film makes Bertie seem selfish and greedy — she would just acquire Schlesinger as a husband just like she buys up dresses on her work breaks. Even audience members whose marriages were arranged were certainly rooting for poor Khavtshi, who deserves more than a husband but to marry the man she loves!

That said, there are other elements of the Yiddish play/film that are upheld in Mamele: the importance of family, the willingness of the mother to sacrifice for others, the disrespect that children show their parents (or mameles). We also know that, when they marry, Schlesinger will move in with Khavtshi’s whole family, and the Jewish lineage/traditions will be continued… partially or entirely subsidized by his salary. Schlesinger is a mensch, after all.

The other reason why a love match is not just acceptable but necessary to the plot of Mamele relates to the film’s status as a star vehicle. In his talk, Hoberman explains the tension between the humble origins of these independent films and the reality that many of these films, adapted from the stage, began as star vehicles. The star of Mamele, Molly Picon, was a popular Yiddish star on stage and on the radio; she had played this role for years before it came to the screen, such that, okay, it’s a little distracting that she is a 40-year-old woman with a small child who is somehow her brother. As Doberman told the audience, a musical number involving Picon playing a grandmother is a gentle joke at the unspoken age problem. (Reminds me of watching Bernadette Peters’ portrayal of the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, her dry delivery of the line “Them’s my brothers and sisters” and the uproarious laughter that resulted….)

I would argue that the romance plot is central to any star vehicle, because the film has to establish the star as lovable, as magical even. That’s how we know to love her too. It is as though the character of Schlesinger models for us how to appreciate, even worship, her, while nearly everybody else treats her like garbage.

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Bridezilla? Not on Khavtshi’s watch.

And to return to the Cinderella story idea, Schlesinger doesn’t just love her — he discovers her. While everyone else around her thinks Khavtshi is either invisible or, as she calls herself, an “old maid,” Schlesinger recognizes her for the “charming” and “clever” wife she can be. In that way, the finding of love is analogous to the discovery of the star, which sure is economical, considering that Mamele is a star vehicle and a love story invested in being both at the same time.

I highly recommend Mamele, which is available through the National Center for Jewish Film. Many thanks to Yahel Matalon, Zelda Roland, and Masha Shpolberg for organizing this event and to J. Hoberman for his lecture.

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Does Television Hate Itself?

Two shows I’ve been watching this spring/summer are FX’s The Comedians and Lifetime’s UnReal. The former was recently cancelled, the latter a critical and commercial success renewed for a second season. The former is a comic mockumentary, the latter a super-soapy melodrama. What do these shows have in common, besides their shared identity as basic cable programs? They are both set “behind the scenes” of a television show.

I can hazard a few guesses on why The Comedians failed to get an audience — perhaps we don’t believe that Billy Crystal is an ego-maniac actor, or maybe we just don’t want to, or maybe the show couldn’t decide whether to go full-Larry David or not. For those who watched the show,  which centered on a struggling FX show (“The Billy and Josh Show”) that lacked network support, the real-life cancellation seems like a meta-joke. In fact, part of me wonders if it is just the most genius publicity stunt, but it’s probably not. The season finale had very low ratings, after all….

Still, I’m almost surprised that FX pulled it, considering how The Comedians was free advertising for the network. Our first encounter with an FX executive — played by the infinitely talented Denis O’Hare — takes place in his office, with a poster for the FX show “You’re the Worst” hanging up in front of him. It’s a plug for the show but also a clever apology for such shameless self-promotion.

I’m sorry the show didn’t find an audience, because I felt it was getting better with each episode and really finding its voice.

UnReal, by contrast, is a highly addictive night-time soap opera about Rachel (Shiri Appleby), whose talent as a reality show producer may or may not stem from the fact that she may or may not have a conscience. Underrated actors Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko are there, alongside dreamy-sleazy Harry Potter alum Freddie Stroma playing the “Suitor” (the Bachelor) in a show called “Everlasting” (…Again, The Bachelor). Watching five minutes of the pilot with a friend, she turned to me with wide eyes and said, “This is intense.” You bet it is, unnamed friend! You don’t know the half of it!

If you aren’t watching it, you should be watching it. And not just because I say so. But because Emily Nussbaum says so.

When we get a fictionalized “behind-the-scenes” view of the television industry, it is never flattering. Never never never. Sometimes it is just somewhat icky, as in The Comedians, and sometimes it is morally bankrupt and criminal, as in UnReal. Still other times it makes you laugh with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach (see: The Comeback). But this self-critical, self-loathing streak television has when it talks about itself goes back at least as far as the 1957 episode of Playhouse 90 entitled “The Comedian.” Starring Mickey Rooney as a piece-of-work TV star, this script was written by Ernest Kinoy, a former writer for TV star Milton Berle. No one is saying that Rooney’s character is based on Berle, but then again, no one is not saying that either….

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Similarly, one of the creators of UnReal worked on The Bachelor. Is this why we want television to prostrate itself, to reveal itself to us? Because we want the inside dirt. Everybody likes a good tell-all.

Still, I would argue that when Hollywood movies reveal the industry in fictionalized form, there is an element of love or begrudging respect. In the 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful, three Hollywood professionals are wounded by the same callous, control freak director, played by Kirk Douglas. They vow never to work with him again… and yet the magic and romance of making a good film will lure them back in. Even Sunset Boulevard, a kind of grotesque display of the declining studio and star system, understands the pull of movies. Norma Desmond, as “Grey Gardens” as she is (read previous post), will still get her close-up. And no movie treats Hollywood as cruelly as the film Network depicts television: Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet sure did have an axe to grind, no doubt.

Television does not have illusions of its own grandeur, and perhaps it has never had the luxury, living under the glamorous shadow of cinema. There is no romance, no magic, to working in television… at least, according to television. It is a petty medium and a petty industry, period. For years, television has owned its second-rate status and turned it into something of a shtick: it apes humility, even self-loathing, as a kind of pre-emptive strike against itself.

Will our contemporary Golden Age of Television — in which all the cinephiles openly prefer quality TV to whatever is playing at the local multiplex — change all of that? So far, not so much.

An interesting counter-example: The Dick Van Dyke Show, about Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), the head writer of a comedy show (based on Your Show of Shows/Caesar’s Hour). It premiered in 1961, the same year that FCC Chairman Newton Minow condemned the lion’s share of television programming as a “vast wasteland.” In this moment of quiz show scandals and the visible decline of TV’s first “Golden Age,” The Dick Van Dyke Show is a kind of nostalgia for television of the previous decade, and for an industry that was still vital and dynamic.

It’s a Small Bowl After All

As I sit at my desk, staring at the empty bottle of “Cheap White Wine” sitting next to my external hard drive, my mind cannot help but wander to my wonderful European adventure. The last couple of weeks, I have had the pleasure of visiting Reykjavik, London, and Paris, sightseeing, visiting with friends old and new, and eating. Eating, in fact, with a capital E. 

So, as I gear up to eat leftovers for lunch, here are some of the culinary highlights of my trip. 

1. Lobster Soup at Saegreifinn (Reykjavik)

I wouldn’t call myself a “lobster person” but this soup is totally savory, creamy without being heavy, and is chock full of the most tender lobster I’ve ever had. Comes with a warm loaf of white bread. I wanted to take a picture of it, but I gobbled it up too quickly.

2. Anything you eat in a hot spring (Reykjavik)

The White Nights Tour, offered through GoEcco tour guides, is an enrapturing experience, even for an indoor cat like me. After a long stroll through a landscape of stinky geysers, greener-than-green-hills, and coy sheep, I probably would have devoured anything the guide gave me. I think it was a hard-boiled egg sandwich. I inhaled it, along with a healthy gulp of Brennivin. (Brennivin is like Sambuca that you can use to remove varnish from your furniture.) It just goes to show: atmosphere counts!

3. Chai at Dishoom (London)

London is known for its Indian food, so I took a London friend to Indian brunch at the Covent Garden Dishoom. While bacon and eggs on naan is certainly a treat, what I can’t get out of my head is the chai tea. My dining companion, who has visited India, assured me that what I was drinking was the “real thing.” Can’t ever say I’ve had chai like it: sweet but not too sweet, a touch spicy but still very easy to drink. Cheerio, chai tea. I miss you already.

4. Probably anything off the menu at Moro (London)

I knew we were in for a good meal when they brought the sourdough bread at the beginning (and I asked for seconds). Having sampled my companions’ dinners as well as my own, I can attest that the fish is great (especially if it is covered in yogurt, um, yogHURT, right?), as is the vegetable mezze plate that I ordered. Also recommended: the courgette-feta fritters as an appetizer and the yoghurt cake from the dessert menu. I’ve pretty much listed everything I tried there, and I suspect you can’t order wrong at Moro. I’m tempted to buy their cookbook, though there is no way I could ever re-create their culinary magic.

5. Crepes from Chez Nicos (Paris)

Okay, so it was one of the closest crepe stands to my hotel, but the citron presse was perfect. Check the Yelp reviews and you will see I’m not alone in my appreciation.

6. Soft-boiled egg appetizer from Cafe Constant (Paris)

A breaded hard-boiled egg… impossible, you say? More like improbable. I don’t know how they did it, but it was totally delicious. Go early, because Cafe Constant is a gem, but it is not hidden but in fact quite popular. Also recommended: Gazpacho, fillet of sea bream with pesto.

7. Passion Fruit Sorbet from Berthillon (Paris)

I found one stand on the Left Bank serving these glaces, and I was hooked. My favorite flavor is Passion Fruit, but it is not for the faint-of-TART. Get it? Yeah it’s super tart. I love it. The pistachio is also delicious, though it tastes more like a pistachio than the bright green pistachio ice cream I grew up with.

Happy eating! 

That Kind of Blog Post: Lena Dunham’s New Book Cover

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This cover art, which totally smacks of women’s lib aesthetic, has been compared to that of Jacqueline Susann; I got a more self-help-y vibe from it, but whatever, I see it. That said, Dunham is so much more of an Erica Jong than a Jacqueline Susann! Anyone who likes Girls should probably give Fear of Flying a try, though it would be really disheartening and sad to see paperbacks of Flying stamped with stickers reading “If you like Girls“. 

What I love about this cover — and I do love it — is that it gives a nod to the second-wave feminism that set America up for Girls, both in its ground-breaking gender politics and its problematics around the treatment of race and class. Neither Tina Fey nor Mindy Kaling’s books did that. So Lena Dunham wins this round.

The End of the College Essay? Or Just the Beginning?

As the New Year approaches, one of my main resolutions will be to blog more. This first post of the almost-new-year is about writing, in fact. I know. How meta. 

Around the time that I was submitting my students’ final grades, Rebecca Schuman posted her controversial essay “The End of the College Essay.” (Very worth a read.) In her piece, she argues that the college essay format does not actually teach students to write better so it should be thrown out and replaced with more objective examinations. I was shocked to read that Schuman has been harassed and her job has been threatened. It means, I’m guessing, that she has hit a nerve and maybe one that needed to be hit.

Don’t get me wrong: Schuman is off the mark. But  not entirely. She is what I’m calling “productively misguided,” as it opens up the conversation that maybe needs having…

As David McCullough writes: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.” He is not the first to come up with this idea, but boy does he write it clearly. If writing is thinking, then teaching writing is teaching how to think. It is not just that writing is a dying art that needs to be preserved or that writing is an undervalued transferrable skill, though both statements are true. Teaching our students how to write is teaching them how to communicate their ideas so that the ideas say something, do something. If I didn’t think writing produces knowledge and effects change, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher or a scholar.

That said, I have understand Schuman’s argument that the college essay is “broken.” This is not because some students plagiarize or because grade inflation is a rampant problem in higher education. The issue, in my view, is that the mechanisms of feedback are not sufficiently robust. My written comments, particularly for final papers, primarily serve to justify the letter grade more, and I wish that they could do more (or that I could do more). 

Papers don’t teach students. Teachers teach students. 

Maybe I’m a cock-eyed optimist to believe writing can be taught. Or maybe it comes to me genetically, as my grandmother wrote the writing textbook “Twenty Questions for the Writer” (now on its sixth edition!). 

My preliminary suggestions, then, would be as follows:

  1. Professors should test out new kinds of writing assignments beyond the modified (read: extended) five-paragraph essay. I TA’ed a film course in which the students were assigned movie reviews, and I was pleased to see how many of my students had clever, witty writerly voices that the traditional academic paper could not accommodate. What about conducting a debate in writing? Assigning a memo? Let’s open our imaginations to new ways of writing, because it might open the imaginations of our students.
  2. We should assign either more writing or less. If we assign more shorter writing assignments, students will have the opportunity to incorporate our feedback, experiment out new strategies and styles, and test out new subjects in writing. If we assign fewer assignments, it opens up the possibility for more drafts, even peer-led workshopping, and the chance for students to write work of which they are proud.

If writing is thinking, then let’s take the step of making all courses writing-intensive. The final aim might be that students will become as persuasive and incendiary writers as the possibly-unfairly-maligned Rebecca Schuman.

 

Here’s hoping my blogging habit helps me to become a better writer and thinker, with the help (of course) of all of your lovely feedback!  

The Power of the Woman Comedy Duo: Parkham and St Clair

In a world full of Mean Girls, women both Desperate and Devious, and titular Mistresses, it can be hard to find representations of real female friendships in film and television. Even Bridesmaids, which I totally loved, gave the audience a dose of girl-on-girl cattiness to help us wash down the unfamiliar taste of women who support, care for, and love each other.

If you’re like me, you actually like your girlfriends — and find it surprisingly easy to ignore or avoid those people who bait you or get your goat. Where does a person like me look for representations like that?

For some reason, ukelele duos are a good place to start. The Hazzards (formerly the Ukes of Hazzard) made a splash a few years back with their song “Gay Boyfriend,” but the group to watch now is Garfunkel and Oates. Youtube is blowing up with songs like “Pregnant Women Are Smug” and “Weed Card.” Not all of their songs are about men — though, to be fair, a lot of them are. And they’re pretty funny. May I recommend their performance at the Independent Spirit Awards (also on Youtube)? If you are a movie buff, and you like to watch movie professionals pretend to enjoy being made fun of, it’s the video for you. Extra bonus: Bryan Cranston is in it. It brings that special “Cranston-Factor,” ya know? (cr: Colbert’s rendition of “Get Lucky,” Cranston going full-on DISCO)

I’m losing focus. There really is too much to watch on the internet.

I just wanted to alert my lovely readers to Lennon Parkham and Jessica St. Clair and their comedy contributions. Their excellent sitcom, Best Friends Forever, was cancelled because NBC basically threw it out with the trash and publicized it all wrong. The show’s die-hard fans, of which am I am one, were not wrong to be crushed by the cancellation. The show had so much potential. It’s about best friends, played by Parkham and St. Clair, with Parkham’s boyfriend played Luka Jones. Jones’ role was originally supposed to be played by Adam Pally, which somehow makes sense, because if you loved the show Happy Endings, you need to watch BFF. There are only six episodes. They are free on Hulu. If you watch them all in one sitting, it’s like you watched a witty and funny movie. C’mon, don’t deprive yourself.

Well, it would seem that Parkham and St. Clair are getting a second chance at this whole sitcom thing, with Playing House premiering on USA next year. They play best friends again, and it is their improvisational stylings and their genuine chemistry that makes it worth tuning in.

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It’s time for a little TV BRA-mance, whaddaya say?