What if "A Serious Man," the wickedly funny comedy by the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers that uses their memories of growing up Jewish in Minneapolis, were to strike some Jewish audience members as anti-Semitic?
Believe me, such things happen.The Coen Brothers are not exactly world renowned for their tender sensitivities. And wasn't Philip Roth, after all, early in his career often on the business end of charges he was anti-Semitic? (It's a case, even today, some are no doubt prepared to make.)
Not everything about suburban Midwestern Jewish life in 1967 is presented prettily. That's for certain. But this is probably the most affectionate Coen Brothers comedy since "The Big Lebowski." It's true that nobody can be more smug than the Coen Brothers, but have no fear: real human hearts beat somewhere beneath those smirking faces. Critics and industry types at the Toronto Film Festival loved "A Serious Man."
It's a good thing, too, because the festival already ran into a fusillade of criticism from the other side of things for selecting Israeli films and Tel Aviv for a new program of City to City films to be featured. One Canadian documentary film-maker withdrew his film from the festival in protest.
Things got worse from there: A bunch of people, including some prominent movie types (such as Danny Glover, who has a film here, and Jane Fonda, who doesn't), signed a petition condemning the Toronto Film Festival for succumbing to Israeli efforts to "re-brand" an apartheid society. Things got even worse when it was revealed that one of the signatories is Viggo Mortensen, who stars in one of the festival's most prominent and awaited films,"The Road," based on Cormac McCarthy's novel.
I sat next to a Toronto Jewish Film Festival official at the screening of Jason Reitman and George Clooney's "Up in the Air" (more about that next Tuesday in the Life and
Arts section), and she admitted regret that more Palestinian films weren't from Tel
Aviv and in the festival.
No one has ever figured out a way to keep politics out of art and to ease ethnic sensitivities to art, and they never will.
At the same time, it's the art, ultimately, that matters. That's why people still revere Ezra Pound's service to modern poetry while at the same time knowing he was both an anti-Semite AND a traitor during World War II. That's why men like Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim conduct the Nazis' favorite anti-Semitic composer Wagner in Israel. It's simply beautiful music. That's why film students still study "The Birth of a Nation" (based on the novel "The Klansman") and the works of Nazi cinematic propagandist Leni Reifenstahl.
Everyone — EVERYONE — with films in the Toronto Film Festival wants someone to look good, if only just themselves. It is the very all-inclusive history of the festival that makes the brickbats look so errant.
On the other hand, it was educational to discover that there's a minority showbiz Left eager to call Israel an "apartheid state."
And education, too, is a huge part of a film festival's function.
It wouldn't be much of one, after all, if juices weren't stirred, fears aroused and feelings expressed.
Me? I haven't seen anything bad yet. For a fuller report, see Tuesday's News Life and Arts Section.
Above: an excerpt from Paul H-O's show, "Gallery Beat," which serves as a teaser for his documentary, "Guest of Cindy Sherman."
Cindy Shermanhas never been one to step in front of the camera -- unless it's her own. The Buffalo-bred artist who rose to art world eminence after decamping to New York City in the mid-70s has long been the subject of intense fascination and adulation in the art world, not to mention endless volumes of art criticism. As protective of her privacy and personal time as Madonna, Sherman has remained happily enigmatic for the bulk of her life and career.
That is, until she met Paul H-O, a popular denizen of the New York City art world in the 1990s who produced the low-budg cable access show "Gallery Beat." The show, revered by the figures who populated New York's flourishing gallery disctrict in SoHo at the time, has become a respected record of a bygone age.
Myung Mi Kim, the Director of the University at Buffalo Poetics Program and a leading thinker and voice in contemporary poetics and other innovative writing forms, will read from and sign copies of her new collection Penury(published by Omnidawn Books) in a book launch event sponsored by Talking Leaves Books this evening at 7 p.m. at UB's Anderson Gallery, One Martha Jackson Place (off Englewood Avenue near Kenmore Avenue).
Ms. Kim, whose family emigrated to the United States from South Korea following the Korean War, and earned her MFA at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, has been professor of English at UB since 2002. Her previous books include Under Flag (Kelsey St. Press, 1991), The Bounty (Chax Press,1996), Dura (Sun & Moon Press, 1999), Spelt (a collaboration with Susan Gevirtz, (A+bend Press, 2000), Commons (University of California Press, 2002) and River Antes(Atticus/Finch, 2006).
Following the reading, Michael Basinski, Curator of the UB Poetry Collection will lead a tour of the exhibition “Discovering James Joyce: The University at Buffalo Collection” which debuted at UB Anderson Gallery on June 14th in conjunction with "Eire on the Erie: The North American James Joyce Conference" and will close next Sunday, September 13th.
"Always in the broken story there is more to tell," writes Kazim Ali in Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, his ground shifting, genre-crossing, time reversing lyric memoir newly published by Wesleyan University Press. Written in what he describes as an "accretion of sentences" with "a little autobiography littered on the surface" rather than paragraphs of conventional prose narrative, Bright Felon consists of fifteen sections, each corresponding to a city Ali has lived in as "a poet, a Muslim, and [person] of a particular persuasion" in receding order from the present to his youth.
Ali--who teaches creative writing at Oberlin College and at the University of Southern Maine--was born in London, England to Indian parents of Muslim heritage, and spent a significant portion of his youth and teen years in the Buffalo area, where much of his family continues to reside. Over the past decade, he has quietly emerged as one of the indispensable voices of our time. No writer now working within the constraints of postmodern poetics is more adept at articulating a mystical, beatific spirituality equally rooted in his Islamic faith and the concreteness of the secular world.
In two previous collections of poems The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions) and The Far Mosque (Alice James Books), and his novel Quinn's Passage (BlazeVox), Ali's deeply meditative, language-centered, and profoundly self-questioning work stands as an eloquent refutation to the simplistic misrepresentations of Islam in the mainstream media and affirmation of what it means to be a practicing Muslim in the contemporary world. "What is my war?" he asks in this volume. "Not the one you think."