If you thought that the Board of Eduation in NYC was largely responsible for a malfunctioning school system, here’s an incident showing the improbable actions of our justice system in reversing a ruling that reflected rare common sense and discipline. Two female teachers in their thirties were found on the floor in a classroom at Madison High School in Brooklyn; they were topless and the room was dark on an evening when a student performance was taking place in the auditorium. Witnesses reported seeing the women undressed - one of them described seeing one of the teachers kneeling between the legs of the other one. The teachers were both fired.
After learning that the attic space at Gracie Mansion had once been occupied by Mayor Koch’s chef, Chirlane McCray, First Lady of New York City responded to the question of how the de Blasio’s might use it: “I can tell you with confidence, there will not be a servant living there.”
The New York City Council will not be marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade because gays can not wave the LGBT banner on this occasion. I’m curious about Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s decision to limit her outrage to the gay issue when she also might have insisted that marchers be allowed to wave banners about their support for abortion rights and universal insurance for birth control. As a New Yorker who is neither Irish nor Catholic, I wonder how the council which supposedly represents all New Yorkers became monolithically concerned about the feelings of the gay population, one which actually has its own designated parade. Of course, as Mayor de Blasio’s toady, Ms. Mark-Viverito made the ultimate obsequious choice, raising the ante one degree higher than her boss who declined to march himself but thought it was fine for city workers to march in uniform.
Based on a true story about an Indian soldier admitted to the Meninger Clinic after World War 11 for treatment of symptoms which we now call PTSD, ”Jimmy P” is an absorbing blend of psychotherapy and cultural anthropology. Jimmy’s malady has stumped the staff and an unusual man named George Devereux has been summoned from New York to treat him. The French actor Matthieu Amalric plays the expatriated European doctor with the same panache older viewers will associate with Paul Henreid; he is charming, innovative and though well versed in Freudian precepts, equally familiar with Indian tribal lore and customs. Through a relationship that borders as much on friendship as doctor/patient status, Devereux encourages Jimmy, persuasively embodied by Benicio del Toro, to strip away the layers of time and denial in order to confront his primal fears and learn to successfully manage them. Devereux is a brilliant and insightful man, reluctant to rely on pat categories and always ready to apply his knowledge of Indian culture to understand this specific patient and his background influences.
So the Dalton School has decided that satire is not an acceptable form of comment in their rarified academic cloister. After getting some flak from students who watched “CSA: The Confederate State of America,” a pseudo-documentary of the U.S. had the south been victorious in the civil war - the administration immediately apologized for its insensitivity. Rather than using the opportunity to teach the unique, historic value of satire in the arts, the school chose to beg for mercy from the parents of those wounded students. How many of the parents and students have been to see “The Book of Mormon” and laughed comfortably through its skewering of Mormons? How many of the parents also went to see “The Producers,” making light of Hitler and the Nazis? Both of these plays were award-winning box-office mega-hits geared to the same demographic group that sends its children to New York’s elite private schools. Yet the doyens of our politically correct culture have deemed it ok to spoof certain topics but not others. Slavery is sacrosanct though genocide is not. Women and gays are; white men not. Palestinians and Muslims protected; Israelis and Jews - fair game.
There are possibly no more discordant pairings in our national history than the numbers 9/11 with the words gift shop and cafe. Yet this is what the eminent directors of the 9/11 Memorial Museum have decided to create at the museum built below the main plaza. There will be an admission fee of $24 for everyone but relatives of the victims, with appropriate discounts for seniors and students. Assuming that the museum fulfills its stated function of offering a somber history lesson for America and other nations, why would we want to discourage attendance by charging for it? Why would we want to sully the point of this visit by hawking souvenirs and refreshments? At a museum that is partly equivalent to visiting a killing field, the proper emotions we should be summoning are sorrow, anger, reflection and mourning.
The new season of Downton Abbey opened with a two hour segment Sunday night. In it, Julian Fellowes constructs a loving and politically incorrect portrait of the Granthams and their relatives, our favorite upstairs aristocrats, portraying them as people who are truly noble as well as members of the nobility. And continuing with currently unpopular themes, it is the downstairs people who show their petty jealousies and vindictive natures. Mayor de Blasio, intent only on punishing the wealthy in order to provide for universal kindergarten, might want to start watching Downton and expanding his mind to allow for rich, good-hearted citizens of Gotham, as well as Edwardian English Granthamites.
New Yorkers who watched the inauguration ceremonies of Bill de Blasio saw something quite extraordinary take place - the conversion of the Big Apple to the Apple that is Rotten to its core. Not one speaker came to praise our city - all were there to bury it and focus only on its racism and indifference to social justice. Starting with Harry Belafonte, a singer from Trinidad whose career was internationally launched from this country but who espouses anti-Americanism at every opportunity, we heard a litany of our many sins, notably our treatment of the black man. Instead of using his time at the podium to inspire his black brothers to stay in school, stay off drugs and marry before reproducing - he seized on New York’s stop and frisk law which has already been modified and needs no further comment. Instead of chastising his black brothers to stop murdering (mostly their own brethren), he bemoaned the fact that our country has the largest population of black prisoners in the world. On to the Reverend Fred Lucas Jr. (chaplain for the Dept of Sanitation), dressed in an elegant coat, scarf and hat, who referred to New York as a plantation but failed to say which massah gave him the fancy threads.
The movie that purports to tell the tale of how Mary Poppins’ disagreeable author, P.L. Travers, succumbed to giving Walt Disney the rights to turn her creation into a studio blockbuster is strangely mis-titled. The story presented involves a sensitive young girl growing up in the Australian boonies with an alcoholic father leading his wife and three daughter family into a tailspin of misery and financial ruin. Played by Colin Farrell, the father is handsome, dashing and adventurous - except when he’s a falling down drunk who gets fired from every job and leaves his bewildered and vulnerable wife on the verge of suicide. Strangely, the little girl who is meant to be P.L. Travers never manages to identify with the mother’s plight even as she grows into middle-agehood. Instead, she remains stuck in the muddy memories of having let down her profligate father - a guilt so intense that it carries forward a traumatic memory involving some dropped pears - much heavier in every way than Proust’s madeleines.
The conceit of HER, Spike Jonze’s highly praised film is that as humans become more and more dependent on the increasingly sophisticated programs in their tech devices, the programs become more dependent on the humans as well. It’s a clever concept and would have made an amazing shorter film with its elegiac mood set off by tinkling piano keys and a nuanced performance by Scarlett Johansson’s voice. Its problem is that the loneliness and sadness of Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, become attenuated to a repetitive series of sad-sack scenes, most of which seem more appropriate for a much younger character. I was reminded of a regular feature on Saturday Night Live years ago called “Deep Thoughts,” a parody of tendentious emotional outpourings.
Almost everything that is wrong with the Times’ sensationalized front page story, “Girl in the Shadows,” (12/9/13) is foretold by the explanatory caption in the passive voice: “As New York has been reborn, children like Dasani have been left behind.” The implication is that we New Yorkers, under the spell of our old imperial mayor, have cruelly abandoned the poor children of our city.
In the annals of world literature, there are some very long books: Tolstoy’s War and Peace clocks in at 1,440 pages and Hugo’s Les Miserables beats that at 1,488. Now comes Part 1 of a biography of Barbara Stanwyck by Victoria Wilson: at 1,044 pages, it’s more than twice as long as three combined biographies of John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, infinitely more important screen icons than Ms. Stanwyck whose name would not be familiar to most people under 50. If Volume 2 of this devotional work is the same length as its predecessor, it might be longer than both the Old and New Testaments, a sobering and distressing thought. Fortunately, we can rely on the marketplace to correctly balance Ms. Wilson’s idee fixe with the realities of consumer interest, if not the subject’s proportionate merit.
The NYTimes of Nov 27th devoted one and a quarter pages of text and an oversized, inflammatory front page picture of an Israeli’s woman’s breast revealing a scar and the top of her nipple under a tattooed Star of David. The shorthand association reads: Israel, Jews, cancer. Is this another disease caused by the same people who brought on the black plague in the middle ages? Has Bibi spurred the spread of breast cancer? Is this a further extension of Israeli occupation? By contrast, there is no photograph of a partially exposed penis accompanying the story on page 4 of the NYT of Nov 28th concerning the rapid rise of unprotected sex among gay American men. The Times tiptoes through the statistics saying only that the rate of unprotected sex had risen 20% from 2005 - 2011 and that infection rates are highest among young black gay men. Here are some of the statistics that the Times didn’t include in this delicate treatment of a disturbing subject.
Bruce Dern’s default countenance is that of a dour man. In “Nebraska,” he plays the part of an exceedingly dour man - one who is also bitter, withdrawn, resigned, stubborn, taciturn, partially demented, alcoholic and very difficult. The plot of the movie hinges on Woody Grant’s determination to get to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to cash in on a Publisher’s Weekly type flyer promising that he could be a winner of one million dollars - the last opportunity in his collapsed life to regain some pride in himself and some measure of autonomy. Though we can believe that this character might set his clouded mind to undertake this fool’s journey from Montana to Nebraska, it’s harder to believe that his younger son, David, would decide to drive him there. There has been virtually no relationship between Woody and his sons throughout their lives and we discover, as David does, that before he was born, his father was involved with another woman and contemplating divorce from his wife. Yet, despite a serious accident and other difficulties that his father gets into en route, David is determined to keep going in order to satisfy the old man’s demands.
New Yorkers have prided themselves on cleaning up Times Square, routing out the sleazy movie theaters and massage parlors, creating pedestrian streets and bringing more family-friendly theaters and events to the neighborhood. A Madame Tussaud wax museum, a humongous toy store, various traveling exhibitions including King Tut and Lego constructions have all inhabited the area, encouraging parents to bring children to that part of the city. So it was with a great deal of surprise that I observed the topless women on Broadway and 44th street smiling cheerfully as people photographed them and stared at their body-painted torsos. One was a well-proportioned young woman standing in the pedestrian designated street nonchalantly handing out fliers for some event. The other was a middle-aged woman - topless and strumming a guitar on the sidewalk. Passers-by, including children and tourists couldn’t stop gawking at the unexpected nudity on a late September day.
At the risk of being a critical minority of one, I have to point out that “Blue Jasmine” is a movie in which we are asked to take seriously and empathize with characters who are mostly cardboard paste-ups. Ginger, the sister of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, is a divorced mother who works as a bagger in a San Francisco supermarket yet lives in a 3 bedroom apartment filled with furniture and tchotchkes. Lest you think that she is being supported by her ex-husband, we learn that he has lost all his money and is planning on going to Alaska to work on the pipeline. Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, is a blue collar creation who looks like she wandered in from Fred and Ethel Mertz’s apartment yet somehow grew up in the same household as the super-svelte, formerly nouveau riche Jasmine who almost became an anthropologist. One can envision Carol Burnett and Vicky Lawrence pulling this off as brilliant parody many moons ago but “Blue Jasmine” has pretensions to serious drama, evoking the ghost of Blanche DuBois along with all the trappings of “A Streetcar Named Desire” - the feral sexuality and boisterous alcoholism of Ginger’s Kowalski-esque boyfriend, the gentleman caller, Jasmine’s precipitous fall from grace and resultant breakdown, the bluesy soundtrack, the mixed bag of pretension and pipe-dreams that are meant to turn dross into something vaguely more meaningful.
In the new Danish film “The Hunt,” Mads Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten teacher named Lucas who is wrongfully accused of sexually abusing the students. What begins as an offhand comment by Klara, a little girl whose feelings are hurt by his perceived rejection of her affection, soon escalates into the proverbial witch hunt, made worse by the fact that the people in charge believe that they are doing what is necessary to protect the children - always remember what paves the road to hell…. Despite the numerous times when viewers are hard pressed to understand why Lucas, a demonstrably sensitive man, can’t instantly guess which child made the accusation and why, the charges take on a life of their own, gaining in intensity that we are forced to accept as a given. Lucas’ life takes a nightmarish turn as he is dismissed from his job, alienated by his colleagues and most of his friends and considered a degenerate pariah by the entire community. His personal life is thrown into turmoil as his teenage son leaves the mother who is divorced from Lucas and comes to live with him , attempting to defend him and putting himself in harm’s way in so doing. Eventually, Lucas descends into a personal breakdown, confronting the father of the young accuser in church on Christmas eve. This symbolically crucified man does not turn the other cheek.
For more than half its running time, “The Attack” is an absorbing film about an outstanding, prize-winning Palestinian surgeon working in Israel and clearly meant to represent the hope of moderate Jews and Arabs living together peacefully and productively. We see Amin’s competence under the intense pressure of saving victims of a recent suicide bomber attack; we see his friendship and ease with his Israeli colleagues; we see his solicitude for a family member to whom he extends his open hospitality. And mainly, we see in flashback, his loving relationship with his graceful and sensual Palestinian wife who is Christian and who is suspected of being the bomber.
Something must happen to sound judgment at high altitudes. In Colorado, the state’s civil rights division has ruled that a six year old boy who dresses as a girl must be allowed to use the girl’s bathroom The state ruled that “compartmentalizing a child as a boy or a girl based solely on their visible anatomy, is a simplistic approach to a difficult and complex issue.” This is an interesting conclusion which can be rephrased as stating that a six year old’s personal evaluation of his own gender and sex is more accurate than the biological evidence of same. Even more to the point, it implies that the willingness of parents to give in to the demands or supplications of a very young child, or for them to shape those demands willfully or unconsciously, must be valued above biological facts. In the photograph accompanying the news story in the NYTimes of Jan 24th, the mother is wearing pants that are several inches longer than her legs. Perhaps her own dysmorphic disorder has her believing that she is six feet tall and needs to dress accordingly; is this someone whose judgment about how to dress her own son should be automatically trusted?
So the state has imposed a new evaluation system for NYC teachers in which 20% will depend on their students’ test scores. If a teacher happens to work in a marginal neighborhood where students start school already years behind in their vocabulary, their grasp of basic concepts, their attention levels, their ability to sit still and follow instructions - the teacher will be held responsible as soon as these same children start being tested and fail to produce adequate results. Our politically correct society refuses to place the blame for school failure where it most squarely belongs - in homes lacking a father, lacking parental attention to children’s needs, lacking economic security, structure, consistency, monogamy, lacking the maturity and responsibility that are the sine qua non for parenthood. Blaming the teacher for a student body coming from homes that are damaged and deficient is just blaming the messenger for bad news.
If you’re a movie buff of a certain age, you’ll remember a film called The Mouse That Roared, in which a tiny, debt-ridden country declares war against the United States in order to gain all the benefits that would be showered their way as the losers. It was a sharp little satire that unfortunately persists in ringing true to this day. It comes to mind not only with respect to foreign policy, but also with how we deal with criminals and terrorists. In today’s paper we learned that the state of New Jersey continued to pay 23 million dollars of entitlements and benefits to incarcerated people who were not entitled to any of it while in jail. This should aptly be considered “criminal negligence” and heads should roll all the way to the diminishing hulk of the governor. More disturbing in today’s news is the ongoing saga of Nidal Hasan, the Muslim army psychiatrist who shot 45 people at Fort Hood in 2009, killing 12 and severely injuring the rest. It is four years later and though Hasan is incarcerated, he has still not been tried for this heinous act of terrorism. During the past years of legal stalling, he has collected $280,000 of salary, because according to our American system of justice and the vagaries of military protocol, he is entitled to his money until proven guilty. No matter that there is no disputing who pulled the trigger each time during his rampage - the only thing to be determined at trial is what degree of murder this fits and what the appropriate sentence will be. If common sense prevailed, would a terrorist still get paid?
I’ve been wondering what makes some disorders sexy and worth confessing while other remain embarrassing and permanently in the closet. It’s ok to be bulimic, for example, even though that conjures up horrible images and smells but you won’t hear Christine Quinn come out about her hemorrhoids or bunions. All sorts of addictions are “in” - drugs, alcohol, sex, compulsive shopping - even shoplifting, but ulcers, diabetes, psoriasis, emphysema, gum disease, irritable bowel syndrome - you can’t find any public figure admitting to one of those.
In January of 2011, Delta Airlines announced its support of Saudi Arabian Airline’s application to join its Sky Team global airline alliance. Delta’s vice-president had this to say: “We are honored that Saudi Arabian (airline) has chosen to link its future growth and success with Delta and our SkyTeam partners.” We should remember that word “honored” in light of Delta enforcing the rules that pertain to the Saudi Airline and Kingdom: No Jew can enter Saudi Arabia. This means that no Jew can board a plane on American soil headed for Saudi Arabia. Let’s be more specific: no American Jew can board an American Delta plane on American soil that is jointly operated by Saudi Air. When pressed on this disgraceful practice, Delta blames it on the Saudis, saying that they (Delta) are merely following the dictates of the country of destination. We should keep in mind that Delta voluntarily entered into this partnership with eyes wide open regarding Saudi policies and mouths watering for the increased income that 35 additional Middle Eastern destinations would provide.
So the Tsarnaeva bombers’ mother had shoplifted $1600 worth of clothing from Lord & Taylor a year before her “alienated” sons decided to integrate into American society by maiming and killing as many innocent people as their nail-studded bombs could reach. Fleeing to Russia rather than face a penalty for her crime, the head-scarved matriarch now denies that her boys did anything wrong and wails about coming to America to begin with. Zubeidat wonders what she was seeking here - protection for her boys and obviously some capitalist clothing - a la Ninotchka with her silk stockings. Not for her the sturdy burlaps of Dagestan or the coarse wools of Chechnya - the lady yearned for the frivolous fare of America’s designer shops and off she went to steal some - Allah be praised.
Germain, a disaffected French teacher, exasperated by his dull students who not only can’t write but seemingly can’t experience anything loftier in their spare time than pizza and t.v. discovers a genuinely talented and sensitive young man in his class. Claude submits a story about his gaining entry to the home of his classmate and friend Rapha who has everything that Claude lacks - a two-parent family, a lovely house and a sensual mother who becomes the lure that beckons Claude to keep coming back and continue his serial tale. Germain shares each episode with his wife, a frustrated gallerista who also becomes intrigued by the inherent voyeurism and sexuality of the boy’s story. This leads to numerous complications as Claude becomes more daring and aggressive in his desire to insinuate himself into the lives of his chosen prey. With each submitted chapter, Germain similarly becomes more addicted to the tale and more reckless in his desire to please the student who has threatened to stop writing.
In Thomas Friedman’s op ed on the Boston marathon massacre (Bring On the Next Marathon, NYT 4/17), the boldface caption insists “We’re just not afraid anymore.” Perhaps this is true for a traveling journalist who doesn’t use the subway daily or who isn’t forced to spend all his days in the 9/11 city of New York, but for most thinking people who work and live here, there is a great deal to fear. We live in a porous society where criminals roam free yet politicians complain about the “discriminatory” stop and frisk policies of the police, even though they have successfully reduced crime precisely in the neighborhoods that most affect the complaining minorities and their liberal champions. If you ride the subways, you know how many passengers wear enormous back-packs, large enough to conceal an arsenal of weapons. These are allowed to be carried into movie theaters, playgrounds, parks, sports arenas, shopping centers, department stores and restaurants with no security checks whatsoever. On the national front, immigration policies are more concerned with politically correct equality than with the reality of which groups are fomenting most of the terror around the world today. Our northern and southern borders are infiltrated daily by undocumented people slipping in beyond the government’s surveillance or control.
There was a time, before the sixties, when the function of a university was to act in loco parentis, offering guidance, direction and discipline to students seeking to benefit from older, wiser minds. After that decade’s watershed capitulation of authority by administrators and faculty empowered to know better, nothing has been quite the same. The latest kerfuffle to illustrate this abandonment of reason is the one currently unfolding at Cardozo Law School. The editors of the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution have chosen Jimmy Carter as the recipient of their International Advocate of Peace Award. This has angered many people, especially alumni, since Cardozo is a part of Yeshiva University, a school singularly dedicated to the support and well-being of Israel. Jimmy Carter, a long-time beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s payroll, has been unsurprisingly and selectively critical of Israel, characterizing its policies towards Palestinians as apartheid.
There are two big problems with Robert Redford’s new film about the 60’s Weathermen who became fugitives from justice. The first is the casting of himself as someone just three decades removed from that period of time; sadly, Redford has aged quickly and badly and looks every minute of his actual late 70’s which would have made him a student activist in his mid 40’s. Even Brendan Gleeson, never a matinee idol, would have been a more logical choice for the main character of Nick Sloan, a man with an assumed identity, a career as a lawyer in Albany and a pressing responsibility as a recent widower who is now the sole parent of an 11 year old daughter. Since there are far too many close-ups of the strawberry-blonde septuagenarian, we can’t escape the essential hole in the story - how to believe that grandpa was just a young idealist (or radical ideologue) only thirty years before.