The Jewish Guido

Mazel!

Mazel!

If the guys I went to school with were movie characters they would be Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street and Irving Rosenfeld of American Hustle.  Two smart, charismatic and fast-talking Jewish guys from Queens, NY with morally questionable values, especially where money is concerned.  A stereotype, you say?  Uh, not when you consider how many Jewish male lead characters there have ever been in big major studio movies aside from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  And besides — what major film studio heroes aren’t a bit, um…iconic.  In fact, those of us who are or could have been them prefer the word iconic.  Especially if it means – we’re the LEAD!

The truth is – you gotta start somewhere.

Martin Scorsese has spent half of his career immortalizing similar types of New York Italian guys in the movies but they are usually in the more tough talking form of Manhattan street thugs in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas – men who were certainly charismatic and street-wise but, on the whole, a lot tougher and muscular.  Plus, they could at least duck into Church for confession when things got dicey rather than eat themselves up from the inside out over anxiety.

Those kind of leading men tend to bleed into the aforementioned characters in our current crop of awards contenders.  Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wife-beater clad muscle head in Don Jon; Bradley Cooper’s co-lead detective Richie DiMaso in American Hustle; or even anti-hero Pat Solitano in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook.  Not to mention all the leads in The Godfather and Moonstruck.

There's gotta be an award out there for these curlers...

There’s gotta be an award out there for these curlers…

Which means if you put all the current Italian and Semitic boys from the boroughs together – which often happens in real life, not to mention in my own personal one – they comprise what I think of as a new ethnic stereotype I and my many childhood compadres from Queens have long awaited to be included on in film: The Jewish Guido.

(Note: See I can say that because I am one of them…well, sort of).

Who are we?  We are everything and more of what the major Hollywood studios think of as colorful and morally questionable.  No, we are not a Woody Allen character or Roberto Benigni from Life Is Beautiful.

Nope, not this Guido

Nope, not this Guido

We are a much more down and dirty, messy type of working/middle class person – a little crass, not afraid to speak our minds and, to put it bluntly: pretty good in bed – which is why we’re often a romantic lead who gets the girl at some point even if we can’t keep her.  You might not want to have us at a fancy dinner party or as your permanent spouse (Note: the latter is still in flux and debatable) but you most certainly want to include us if you aspire to learn how to rise up in the ranks of life or enjoy some unbridled, down and dirty fun.  In short, we have dreams and we’re not afraid to go for them in quite unorthodox and entertaining ways – even if there are overwhelming odds of failure or the likelihood that we will not have the best decorating sense once we achieve those dreams and have the cash to acquire whatever nouveau riche items you or we may crave.  Our reasoning:  if we don’t take that chance we’ll be stuck in Queens forever and, as we all know, with the right amount of money we can hire all the Waspy female decorators we want with taste and eventually charm them into at least having an affair with us after they’re done hanging the drapes.

Okay, so I may have exaggerated just a little bit.  But so are our personas.

This all started several weeks ago when I found myself thoroughly enjoying both    WoWS and AH while many of my friends insisted they reeked of disappointment, misguided storytelling and just plain unsympathetic, despicable characters.  Really?  I hadn’t noticed.  Isn’t this sort of the scrappy, exaggerated way Waspy movie characters behave, albeit with less money and more curse words?  No, claimed my Jewish guy friends from upstate New York, southern California and the Midwest.  They’re just awful people in uninvolving movies.   And those Waspy characters you are referring to are usually the villains, not the hero.

Did someone say Wasp?

Did someone say Wasp?

Well, okay.  Still, there is something to be said for seeing a version of you onscreen, even if it is a slightly unpleasant one.  If there is enough humanity and humor in the characterization you can get away with a lot of political incorrectness.  Enough elements of truth can counterbalance harsh generalities about the neighborhood or plot holes that you can drive a Miata through.  In addition, if you give these guys a little bit more of the macho power you craved when you were younger, or even last week, the fantasy is complete.  At least for some of us.

I can’t say I’m particularly proud of two Jewish guys from Queens being portrayed as people who swindled others out of money in order to lift themselves out of the doldrums of their own lower/middle class existences (Note: though if I had a choice I’d take the fictionalized Rosenfeld in American Hustle, who mostly stole from rich bad guys and didn’t kill people or cause them to kill themselves).  But now that Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss are no longer leading men and only act sporadically, not to mention the total lack of movie roles for Steve Guttenberg in the last 20 years, you can’t blame me for binging a little on these types of recent and very public inroads. (Note: Yes there is still Jessie Eisenberg, born in Queens and raised in New Jersey – but c’mon, there is just nothing boroughs about him or any of his characters).

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

My notesfromachair co-hort Holly Van Buren suggested to me that the emergence of the Jewish Guido might have something to do with our current economic climate and the fantasy of the everyday working class man with the accent becoming victorious.  Not a bad thought.  It’s the boroughs way and certainly is a fine counterpoint to the seemingly omnipotent top 1%.  I mean, it takes a little bit of the crude and in your face in order to cut through all of that upper crust steeliness, right?

Plus, both Wolf and Hustle are period pieces from the seventies and eighties.  Clearly, enough time has passed where rather than championing a Gordon Gekko kind of financial wizard we can indulge in a more in-your-face punk upstart who beats the elite at their own game by any means necessary using the logic gleaned from a tougher life lived.

Still, there seems an even bigger factor – time.  American society may have grown more polarized these days but certainly its people have overall become far less homogenized.  There is ethnicity everywhere – so much so that is unusual for a day to go by on Fox News or right wing radio where the previously dominant White Male patriarchy, particularly in the south and Midwest, don’t wax nostalgic about the good old days and whine about losing their grip on power and the social and moral traditions (Note: one questions what they consider those were) that once made our Great Country great. This and the fact that same country, which less than two centuries ago legally enslaved all of its African American citizens in more than half of its states, has for the last six years had its first African American president presiding over everyone.

Yep.. and still the President.

Yep.. and still the President.

Those factors of time and ethnicity might also be responsible for the emergence of two other crossover major studio films about the African American community this year – 12 Years A Slave and Lee Daniel’s The Butler.  It is certainly no coincidence that as directors and other artists emerge in a position of power – like Steve McQueen and Mr. Daniels – the more chances there are of movies that reflect the history and/or experiences of their particular ethnic groups.  (Note:  Not that they can’t do anything else – both men have worked on “white” films).  It is also no accident that both of these directors have also earned money and acclaim in their recent past that have enabled them to do larger and more mainstream films with African American characters in the leads.  This is just the way it goes as long you can produce massive income with your often larger than life product.  Decades before Spike Lee had a certain degree of power among the major studios until his movies began underperforming at the box-office and the cache he was given by the powers-that-be to make his type of movies began to shrink. (Note: Mr. Lee also came of age at a time where there were far less non-white leads in films than there are today, making his road somewhat tougher).

Interestingly enough, all four aforementioned major films this year – Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler – are also historical pieces that take place far and very much farther into the past.   There could simply be a certain drama to looking at events from a backwards lens.  Though surely it also provides a special kind of safety that gives the Hollywood community and its studio system a specific type of perfect cover.

the current state of Hollywood

the current state of Hollywood

Which all begs the question – why with all of the many, many male Jewish writers and directors working in the movie industry over the decades – not to mention that the studios themselves were founded by a large group of New York Jewish salesmen – have there statistically been such a lack of Jewish male characters as major studio leads on the big screen. I mean, if the African-American model holds, shouldn’t it follow that….?

Well, I have no provable idea.  But even in accounting for time and some evolution of thought, it is still worth noting that American Hustle’s David O. Russell is half-Jewish while Wolf of Wall Street’s Scorsese is very famously Italian.  So, at least in terms of the Jewish Guido, well — you do the math.

Or, to put my take on the whole thing another way, here is what Woody Allen’s quintessentially non-Guido/very Jewish character of Alvy Singer said when he first met his very ethnic-looking first wife Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) in the 1977 classic, Annie Hall:

Woody-Allen-and-Carol-Kane-620x310

Alvy: You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings…and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper…stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself

Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

Alvy:  Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.

A Matter of Fact

By now everyone but three people in the world (and you decide whom) have heard this expression:

“Assholes are like opinions, everybody’s got one.”

But are there differences between opinions and beliefs?   Or a belief system?  And what about facts?  Where do those pesky critters enter into it in today’s world?  Because there are any number of statements that I would have sworn were facts a mere 5-10 years ago that are now considered opinions, beliefs or feelings in opposition to a belief system.  Or something far  more blasphemous worse.   (We’ll get to the latter in a bit).

There was a time many decades ago, when movies were truly worth arguing about and not just lamenting. I would get into heated discussions with friends and colleagues about the merits and failings of the hot or cold film of the moment.  Sometimes these debates would actually escalate into shouting matches, personal insults and, in the case of one first date that I had who didn’t think Woody Allen was particularly funny, the end of what I’m sure would have been just another in a series of dysfunctional relationships I seemed to so enjoy at the time.  (Note: FYI, the Woody and dating life I’m talking about were many decades ago – just in case you were wondering).

You know nothing of my work.

Aspiring Missouri Senator Todd Akin thinks women have something in their biology that shuts down pregnancy and Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election, said just a few days ago that medical technology has evolved to such an extent that it is now physiologically impossible for any woman to die due to childbirth, thereby ostensibly ending any legal right on the part of said woman to end her pregnancy.

Of course, neither Mr. Akin nor Mr. Walsh’s facts are correct.  But one can’t argue.  Because each of these middle-aged white men (I can call them that because I AM a middle-aged white man) will somewhere, someplace, find a pseudo “expert” (and chances are the expert will be another middle-aged white man) to back them up.  This is much the same strategy my friends and I would use to defend our favorite movies – the corralling of mass “expert” opinions (or, perish the thought, box-office grosses) inside the industry in order to disprove anyone who would even consider voicing “facts” to the contrary.  It is also interesting to note that the data could be used to support the argument any way you wanted to.  For instance, the lack of box-office for a particular film could be used as evidence of its genius (I even tried this strategy as late as 1995 to support the merits of Claude LeLouche’s quite original take on “Les Miserables”) just as movies that set record-breaking numbers could be seen as either inferior mass pabulum (sorry “Forrest Gump” and “King’s Speech”) or confirmation of its value and true emotional depth (“E.T’’s success on all levels simply cannot be disputed).

Who… me?

The artistic merit of a film has implications for the creative community.  Those include who will get meetings and future work, as well as how movies, as a whole, are viewed by the public at large.  Also, how it will survive to either inspire or repel future generations of filmmakers who will choose to either build on ideas that came before them or use the perceived inferiority of said film to be bolder and more original than any one filmmaker of the past, particularly the one perceived to be inferior, could have ever imagined.

Certainly there is value to all of this.  But let’s face it – the fact that I wasn’t bowled over by “Argo” last week despite its “A” plus Cinemascore, rave reviews and box office numbers, doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.  Not only because I don’t exert much public influence except over my blog readers (and certainly that’s debatable), but because – as Alfred Hitchcock once reportedly told Ingrid Bergman when she was fretting over something while shooting one of his films:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

This, however, is not the case with, let’s say for argument’s sake, politicians, who have feelings or opinions that they all too frequently nowadays try to masquerade as facts.

For instance, perhaps scarier than potential Senator Akin or Congressman Walsh’s view of the female anatomy are several congressmen presently on the House of Representatives SCIENCE committee.  Case in point — Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who is also a medical DOCTOR, believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” partly because he can’t fathom that his “lovely” wife was descended from an ape and partly due to the beauty of the world, which he believes could only have been created by a superior being in the space of a week.  I also don’t want to leave out my own state of California, one of whose representatives, Dana Rohrbacher, another sitting science committee member, eschews today’s overwhelming evidence on global warming, suggesting that having this thought is akin to believing that temperature fluctuations millions of years ago were due to dinosaur flatulence.  (Rachel Maddow explains it far better than I can, if you want more, click on her)

click for full video

Never mind that critical ice levels in the Arctic Ocean melted at record rates this summer (which will in turn affect global temperatures) and that another MSNBC’er, Chris Matthews, reports that many Alaskans at a recent science conference he attended say that ships will soon be able to pass easily over the North Pole.   Two very powerful members of the science committee seem to deny climate change and overwhelming evolutionary evidence based on the actual bones of animals from millions of years ago not on facts and physical evidence but on a belief system rooted in theology.  Which is fine for them but perhaps not so fine if you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a religious person who likes to keep God between you and your Goddess of choice.  Or a scientist seeking funds to save an overheating Earth from extinction or medical researcher hoping to fund a new drug protocol instead of the old tried and true method of bloodletting to cure cancer.  On that note, I suppose we can at least take solace in the fact that Congressman Broun is no longer a practicing physician and will not be prescribing the biblical remedy of leeches if you happened to come into his medical office seeking treatment for a 2012 heart condition.

’nuff said

The issue is not whether any of the white middle-aged men mentioned are right or wrong but how much their personal opinions and feelings affect public policy of a committee that is responsible for potentially billions of dollars in research grants and the general direction of medical and scientific exploration for the world’s greatest superpower.

I’m all for anyone believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to make me believe it or use those beliefs to further their own agenda and thwart mine.  For example, when several friends proclaimed the brilliance of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” to me last year I was happy to accept that as their opinion because I was confident in the fact that their enjoyment couldn’t literally prevent me from waxing poetic over, say, “Bridesmaids.”  However, when they told me I HAD to at least admire “The Tree of Life” as a piece of cinema I felt a line had been crossed.  I mean, if I wanted to admire a purposely obtuse film that didn’t work I could have saved the $12 ticket price and just imagine what would have happened if the sloppily constructed, somewhat indecipherable second screenplay I had ever written had actually gotten filmed.

Speaking of dinosaurs… “Tree of Life” screenshot

Or I could have saved the admiration for my auteur du jour, Paul Thomas Anderson and his much-maligned (in some circles) “The Master.”  PTA’s even the type that might write 2012 bloodletting into a medical office scene, though at the very least I can rest assured that he is not going to require said medical “procedure” as part of the admission price to said film in the future.  (…or…might he?…)

As we approach the presidential election and the release of a slew of movies being touted for Oscar contention this year, it might be worth considering the differences between opinions, feelings, belief systems and facts.  One way to do this is to accept what is the official 2012 definition of one of these words.

Fact – –

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.
  2. a. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: (Genetic engineering is now a fact). b. A real occurrence; an event.

Using these rules:

  1. How one feels about a movie is an opinion.   It is not fact.
  2. The precepts of one’s religion are part of a belief system.  They are not facts.
  3. The temperature of the earth at a given location, the workings of the female reproductive system and the evolution of man based on fossils, ruins and solid scientific research, according to our 2012 definitions, are facts – or at least the best facts we have at the time until, like the centuries old medical technique of bloodletting, they are proven wrong.

Anyone who chooses to deny or confuse these facts for the benefit of themselves or their belief system as a way to influence public policy, could quite fairly, by 2012 definitions, be considered an asshole.

And that is one last fact.