Inglourious Basterds and the power of Cinema

by Joshua Gardner (Coordinator for the Washington Jewish Film Festival, which runs December 3-13, 2009)

Inglourious BasterdsAs coordinator of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, I have seen my fair share of Holocaust films, but I can say with certainty I have not seen anything like Inglourious Basterds before. It’s part tense World War II thriller, part over the top gore-fest and a one hundred percent Jewish revenge fantasy. Ok so maybe not yours or mine, but unmistakably Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy. Which other filmmaker could center a pivotal scene in a World War II film to David Bowie’s Cat People

For those unfamiliar with the premise of the film, Inglourious Basterds focuses on a rag-tag group of Jewish-American soldiers getting revenge against the Nazi’s and a young French-Jewish survivor also searching for vengeance. These separate story-lines collide when the Third Reich decides to hold a lavish movie premiere at the very cinema the French-Jewish woman owns. The film ends with a bang with the whole cinema, Hitler and all, being mercilessly destroyed. If I remember my High School history class correctly, this isn’t exactly how it happened.

I am part of the final generation that will get to experience a Survivor’s first hand story. I think for this very reason we are seeing resurgence in Holocaust film, a final push before the wounds of time slowly heal. I think Inglourious Basterds puts itself on this very edge of Holocaust filmic history, a challenging movie that puts forth the idea that film shapes history.  After first-person narratives fade away, the Holocaust will live on through Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful for a generation who never gets to meet a survivor. Who’s to say Tarantino’s version of history won’t be equally prolific for legions of young Jews in the future, an entertaining exercise in “what-if” theorizing.

Tarantino’s spin on the end of World War II is a cathartic re-envisioning; his ultimate ode to the power of cinema. And for all of the implications this film brings up it still manages to be one of the most disgusting, edge of your seat, World War II comedies I have ever seen. Suffice to say: it’s one for the history books.

A Token of Affection from Ty Pennington

By popular demand, here it is:

In truth it is more of an upper-arm band/choker, but this was Ty's present to Erica.

In truth it is more of an upper-arm band/choker, but this was Ty "The Shaggable Shaygitz" Pennington's present to Erica. She was last seen going to lurk outside of Ty's trailer.

Report from the Set of the DC-area Extreme Makeover Home Edition

by Erica Steen, Director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service

After meeting the “Extreme Team” location staff last week, they enlisted our Behrend Builder volunteers to construct the plywood floors for the food tents (craft services for those of you in “the biz”). Sunday was the day and what a day it was! My colleague Randy Bacon (Behrend Builders’ Director) and I took a group of 18 volunteers to help out the Location Crew on the sets of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It was a day to remember. We arrived at registration where we all received our hard hats and bright blue Extreme shirts. We grabbed our tools and were off to work.

There was a lot of “hurry up and wait” at first since our supplies weren’t there yet, but our drills and saws were charged and we were ready to go. It only took our rockin’ group of volunteers about an hour and a half to build the first floor that was housed under the VIP food tent. And then we waited again. What’s with these TV people anyway? Don’t they do this over and over and over again?

Ty Pennington

He Likes Me?

It was OK, we got more than we bargained for in a good way! In the sun and heat we waited and waited for the second round of supplies…meanwhile we watched Ty Pennington and his crew film the demolition of the Trip family house. It was pretty cool cheering the big honkin’ excavators.  Double-bonus, it seemed the other volunteers for the day hadn’t made it, so when the film crew needed extras…GO Washington DCJCC! Yes, we were there to step in. Our volunteers really do whatever we need of them. At one point though I did get in a bit of a kerfuffle with the guy in charge of extras. Our supplies had finally arrived and he just didn’t understand that we needed to build a floor and didn’t have so much time to mill around (yes, those were our directions) and be on camera. In the end, we got to do both. But, I don’t think he was so happy with me.

Now, there’s no telling if we’ll make air or end up on the cutting room floor, but sometime in November, you might just see a familiar Washington DCJCC volunteer or staff face on ABC.

So, I had a very busy Sunday. Together we built 3 ply-wood floors, cheered on two demolitions and helped put up a tent. Four of our volunteers filmed a scene with Paulie  (they’ll be acting like fish…watch for them) and we all counted down from 10, three different times so that they could get the best count-down for the demolition scene. And yes, for those that are interested…I did meet Ty Pennington and he made me a bracelet of twigs and leaves. I think he likes me.

The Celebrity I’ll Miss the Most: Celebrating Linda Posell

This weekend the Washington Post ran an article mourning all the celebrities who have passed away during what has been coined The Summer of Death. And while the deaths of people like Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Karl Malden and Les Paul may have had an impact on our national culture, they did not affect me the way the loss of Linda Posell did.

lindaLinda had a personality that seemed larger-than-life, and her personal history was nothing less than cinematic (although for her it would have to be an indie film). She was not a celebrity per se, except that no one who ever met her could forget her. And when I would run into her, on 17th Street perhaps, or coming out of a film or performance, you couldn’t help but feel that for that moment you were in a movie. Her movie. The kind of movie she loved so much, without a Hollywood plot or orthodox three-act structure, but episodic, with characters that felt real and whom you loved being around, and who kept you in rapt attention wanting to know who they would bring into their orbit next and what random experiences they might have.

Let me back up. I met Linda in 1996 when I first started working for the Washington DCJCC (this was before we finished the renovation of our current building at 16th and Q) on the Film Festival. She was a volunteer and the Festival was in one of those classic crises, where we had finally grown beyond our ability to operate an in-house box office off a voice-mail account. We made the desperate decision to transition to an outside ticketing agency in the middle of sales, and Linda came in to help clear-out a maxed-out voice mailbox and then return the phone calls and try to salvage the customer relationships in light of our massive screw-up.  It is only thinking back on it now, that I realized that with Linda calling those people to re-route their ticket purchases, not only did they not feel we had screwed-up, Linda probably made them feel like it was us doing them the favor.

When we moved into the building at 16th and Q, Linda joined our staff and it was there that I truly got to know and love her. She was the perfect colleague and a mother-figure on a staff consisting mostly of people her daughter’s age. She was the perfect person to run into in the hallway when you were having a bad day. We would share a smoke together on the 16th Street steps and she would regale me with her stories of Berkeley in the 60s, the wild journey that was her life, the crazy internet boom and how her son Jordan (she was proud to tell you) was at the center of it, her daughter Rachel’s fitness studio which she was dedicated to (and which she managed not to make a conflict with our own fitness center). We would talk about indie and foreign films and what was going to be playing at the free Hirschhorn series or what she had seen at the Key Cinema Club. She would give advice about what you should really be doing with your life. I remember her being especially fond of a New Yorker article about an entrepreneur who believed it was important to change careers every three years or so. She was passionate about finding a bargain and giving to others. She was a great representative for our Community Service programs and she loved talking about them.

Little things about her I loved and will miss: that she had a partnership with her best-friend from Junior High that they called “The Scribble Sisters.” That she could say, “I really hate her!” and smile. And make you smile. That she always called me “Joshy.” That she always looked amazing. That she was a permanent part of the neighborhood and that losing her feels like it should affect the quality of life here, even for people who didn’t know her.

Last Friday, the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater at the Washington DCJCC was filled with the over 200 people who did know and love Linda. To remember such an extraordinary woman in the building where I knew her best was her final gift to me, this agency and the community to which she gave so much.

She was a special woman. Our hearts go out to Gerry, her daughter Rachel, her son Jordan and her many, many grandchildren whom she adored.

May her memory be a blessing.

Sometimes I Wish I Worked for The Man

The other day I started a post musing on the difference between being a nonprofit professional and a Jewish communal professional—wondering, is there one? Both positions are certainly overworked and underpaid; however, they also hold the greatest potential for reward in that you are truly able to see the difference you make each day. Both fields also attract some of the most passionate workers you’ll ever meet in your life.

And here’s where I petered out of idealistic reflections…both also require an absolute commitment to what you do and who you serve, as well as a willingness to “get your hands dirty.” Sometimes this requires participating in, and struggling with, the organizational dialogue.

We here at the J are lucky enough to organize programs that facilitate discussion and encourage open exchange . Why then, does it come as such a challenge (at least for me) to participate in that larger organizational conversation? Because sometimes it’s just easier to be handed down a decision from on high; to not have the opportunity to contribute at all.

Then it hit me: what we do every day is making a contribution to the community. And that attitude—that we’re building something together—carries through to the professional relationships we develop with each other, and the relationships we build with those who patronize our programs. This really, truly invaluable, exhilarating (and yes, sometimes frustrating) experience defines my work as a nonprofit/Jewish communal professional.

So, while sometimes I wish I worked for the man, that’s why I’m glad I don’t—and even if I did, that need to contribute would push me somewhere, to do something, to help . How do you contribute?

Love in the Comment Box

From the comment box in the fitness center:

“The best thing about the DCJCC for us is that we met here on February 22, 2005 and are getting married this weekend, August 15, 2009. Thanks JCC gym! — Katie and Michael ”

– Katie was volunteering in the membership office and Michael came in for a tour.

We wish Katie and Michael a glorious wedding weekend, many years of happiness and remind them that in-addition to a gym, we also have a Preschool. Not to pressure you or anything.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition Comes to the Washington DCJCC

by Erica Steen, Director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service

ExtremeMakeoverWaddyaknow? They actually do get the house built in 7 days. I’m not sure I would have believed it before. With all of the lights and cameras for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition I assumed they cut and spliced their way through a month or so of building and just made it look like a week. But, a week it really is. Better than that, you can see for yourself if you  join our group from the Washington DCJCC to volunteer at the Extreme Makeover work site in DC between August 22 – September 2. However, the registration deadline is Monday, August 17 at 4pm, so if you’re reading this after that, you’ll have to catch it when it airs.

The producers, builders, sponsors, donors and even some volunteers of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition had a rally yesterday in the Washington DCJCC’s  Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater. Yes, we hosted the pre-show rally that brought everyone together. It was pretty cool.

For years I watched the show and it always brought me to tears. I finally stopped watching. I thought this is ridiculous; it’s reality TV that has been scripted. Well, I don’t know anything about a script, but from just sitting in our theater and listing to Conrad, the show’s Executive Producer, I was yet again in tears hearing about the difference each build makes.

As the Director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service I know that sometimes we make just as much of an impact on our volunteers as we do on the people we are trying to help. For some reason I hadn’t thought about the impact that this show also makes. The fact that whole neighborhoods pitch-in, that volunteers are literally used around the clock (yes, 24 hours a day) and that a home, or in DC’s case, a home and community center are rebuilt, touches the lives of so many.

For a show I stopped watching because I wondered how much was true, I am back to supporting it. I look forward to getting our volunteers involved and can’t wait to be a part of making a difference and doing what we do, volunteering.

And if Ty Pennington needs help applying sunscreen to his washboard abs, I’ll gladly make myself available.

Waiting for Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s World War II revenge-fantasy isn’t in theaters for another week and a half, but Jeffrey Goldberg has a great article (Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger) about the film and Tarantino in The Atlantic. Perhaps as interesting as the eminently quotable director is the light shed on the psycho-sexual allure of the film for cast-member Eli Roth and his role as Tarantino’s Jewish consultant:

The horror-movie director Eli Roth—his film Hostel is the most repulsively violent movie I’ve ever seen twice—plays a Basterd known as the “Bear Jew,” whose specialty is braining Germans with a baseball bat. Roth told me recently that Inglourious Basterds falls into a subgenre he calls “kosher porn.”

“It’s almost a deep sexual satisfaction of wanting to beat Nazis to death, an orgasmic feeling,” Roth said. “My character gets to beat Nazis to death. That’s something I could watch all day. My parents are very strong about Holocaust education. My grandparents got out of Poland and Russia and Austria, but their relatives did not.”

There’s more than a little truth to this wishful power inversion. And perhaps, pornography is the perfect analogy — titillating, unrealistic, demeaning, exploitative, a poor substitute for the real thing, but alluring and potentially habit-forming.  However, Roth also relates a crucial turning point in the development of the script at his family’s seder where Tarantino was a guest:

I was his Jewish sounding board,” Roth said. “‘Would a Jew do this, would a Jew do that?’ He kind of didn’t have an ending. But after the seder, he said, ‘I’m going home to finish.’ He understood that we are still pissed off about things that happened to us 3,000 years ago. At the end of the seder, we talked about how the Jewish thing was to remember, that there was no absolution.”

And that’s where I start to get nervous(er). If what you take away from a Passover seder is that we’re still pissed about slavery, well then… it’s like coming away from the 4th of July thinking Americans would like nothing better than to shove a firecracker down the throat of Queen Elizabeth’s corgi.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a part of me that is very excited to see this film. As much as I know the brand of sadism it peddles is probably not healthy either for Jewish or American culture (especially in a post-Abu Ghraib world), Tarantino films provide a kind of testosterone-boiling fun that I don’t want to miss out on just because of my Jewish scruples. I’ll be interested to see if that rush of adrenaline provided by the gore and profanity leaves me feeling I’ve enjoyed $10 well-spent, or just gory and profaned.

So, are you planning to see the film?

Where do you think you are? In Moscow? In Paris? Where do they think they are? America?

When I was on vacation in California (home state, represent), I struck gold. My friend in LA had extra tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.  Now, I saw the show when I was in high school in San Diego, at a bad theater, but starring the great Theodore Bikel. I was excited, as he was one of the 3 big Tevyes, but to be honest, the show wasn’t all that great.

So I decided to give it another shot. And here is where the gold comes in. The show starred Topol! That’s right, Topol, the original Tevye (at least in my eyes) – the guy from the movie! I read his bio in my little Playbill, and honestly, it didn’t matter to me what else he’d  been in, because Topol IS Tevye the Milkman. And lucky for me, I got to see him on his “Farewell Tour.”

Topol Farewell Tour of Fiddler on the RoofWatching the show, I was in awe of how he lit up the stage. His voice has  aged since the film was made, but he was still magical. He danced, he sang and he was funny! He really brought the show to life, I mean, I had tears in my eyes when he tried to give his daughter Tzeitel to Lazer Wolf!

Halfway through the show (the very, very long and quite slow show), I started wondering what other people in the audience thought of the plot. There were people of all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities there. I started wondering how they view this classic Jewish story. I wondered how other Jews viewed the story. Do people think that the lifestyle and opinions of Tevye are just in the past? Do they view the ancient traditions as ridiculous pieces of history? And my biggest question: when Tevye rejects Chava for marrying a non-Jew…do people think Tevye is a bad man who can’t keep up with the times?

Though clearly not the best of musical theater, Fiddler on the Roof has always been very meaningful to me. I remember watching the double VHS set at my Bubbe and Zayda’s house all the time. It was either that or E.T., and that little alien voice totally freaked me out. But beyond sentimental meaning, the story itself carries a great deal of weight about Jewish culture, past and present.  In just three [brief?] hours, Tevye’s family single-handedly defies Jewish tradition.

And beyond defying tradition, they uphold tradition, too. There are scenes that I could pull out of my own life. But would other people watching this show even imagine that these traditions still exist? Picture the wedding scene: all the men are dancing up to Motol and the women are dancing around Tzietel. I had the chance to see this (and participate in it) first hand at my friends’ wedding earlier this summer. Watching Fiddler on stage, it struck me how lasting our traditions are. Whether they are religious traditions or not, we’re still going strong, doing the hora in 2009 and doing the hora in 1905 Tsarist Russia. And that’s only 100 years back – I think we can do even better than that.

But back to my most important question of the night: what do people today think of Tevye when he rejects Chava, his middle child? As a little girl watching the film, I was always frightened when Tevye appears in the field with Chava, yelling “there is no other hand!!” He then tells his wife that Chava is dead to them. This scene is fairly shocking, considering that up until this point, he has weighed both sides of the debate for his older two daughters’ situations. You expect that he’ll give in to “the other hand” and accept Chava back into his life. But this is the straw that breaks Tevye’s horse’s back (I mean, the horse was injured to begin with, right? Of course I’m right).

It’s too much change for Tevye to handle. And I dare say anyone in his position would feel the same way. Take out the whole religious aspect of things: parents often flip out when their kids make drastic changes to their life – or decisions parents feel are terrible ones. But  then add that whole religion thing back into the equation; don’t you feel a little  bad for Tevye? His daughters are all showing him that they don’t need him, that his role in their spiritual and religious lives is not as important as it used to be. That despite how they were raised, they’re going to do whatever the hell they want.

I think all Jews (and non Jews too) should revisit this classic tale. Watch Fiddler on the Roof again, with the stunning performance by Topol, and try to find the parts of it you relate to. You may not find a whole lot, but I’m sure if you look close enough, you will find a richness in this story that you may not have recognized before.

Right? Of course I’m right!

At the Washington DCJCC we’re bike friendly

Looking for a community organization in DC that is bike friendly? Look no further my friend.

From the CommuterPageBlog:

Last night I biked to the DC Jewish Community Center (JCC) for a volleyball league match. Upon arriving at their plentiful bike parking, I found that I had left my bike lock at home. What to do? A return trip home to pick up the lock and come back would have made me late for the night’s match as well as a bit tired from racing. I explained my predicament to the parking attendant who was walking by and he notified me that the Center has bike locks at the front desk for this. I ran inside to borrow a lock and learned they have not one, but four locks. Me and my closest three friends could have biked here and left our locks at home.

As a cyclist I’d never heard of an organization having extra locks for this situation. More organizations following the JCC’s lead would encourage cycling and create a more bike-friendly town. Kudos to the JCC. (You can read the full post here).

Thank you, Paul DiMaio of BikeArlington for noticing what we’re doing to encourage people to bike (as well as walk, take mass transit and ride-share) to the Washington DCJCC.

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