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  • Ralph Bakshi’s Urban American Folklore

    by Christian Niedan

    I’ve always loved folklore — well, the idea of it anyway. Though it can sometimes be an expression of bigoted hearsay, I am still fascinated by any story that can survive generations of telling and retelling, despite many tellers with differing versions. Moreover, these tall tales often evoke cultures that vanished before cinema, TV and the Internet became modern society’s myth-makers.

    Village of Idiots, currently airing on The Jewish Channel, is one such folktale. The product of Canadian animators Eugene Fedorenko and Rose Newlove, this animated short film tells the story of Shmendrik, his mythical town of Chelm, and evokes with humor the hard lives of Old World European Jewry — a subject that’s also influenced several American animators.

    Don Bluth’s 1986 film An American Tail is arguably the most widely recognized Jewish-subject animated feature to come out of the U.S. market. Taking place in 19th-century New York City, it features a Jewish family of immigrant mice — a plot point which upset cartoonist Art Spiegelman, because Maus used that same gimmick as a metaphor for Jews in the Holocaust. But while the talking cats of Maus were Nazis, the feline protagonist in Robert Crumb’s classic 1960s comic strip Fritz the Cat was a youthful hedonist. So when Ralph Bakshi animated Crumb’s work for the big screen in 1972, it received an “X” rating and promptly went on to become a smashing financial success. The clout Bakshi earned from this allowed him to direct a series of wide-release adult animated features whose plots draw heavily from the fine art of the folktale.
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    December 31, 2009 | No Comments »

    “Blossom” Star Mayim Bialik Meets “Blossom” Seder Doll

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    mayim_and_saraAh, the power of television and the internet to bring people (and their dolls) together.

    In our Modern Jewish Mom Passover Special, still airing on The Jewish Channel, we feature the quirky Barbie-doll-centered seder table centerpieces made by Helen Schwimmer, author and mother of creator Sara Schwimmer. Well, as Sara points out, one of the dolls, the one posed as Moses’ sister, Miriam, is not a Barbie but a “Blossom” — from the sitcom of the same name, starring Jewish actress Mayim Bialik, that ran on NBC in the early 1990s (remember Blossom’s best-friend named “Six” and the funny hats they both wore?).

    We thought that was just an amusing side tidbit to a fun segment, but the online clip caught the attention of none other than “Blossom” star Mayim Bialik herself! Tickled, Bialik emailed Sara Schwimmer through, and, long story short, the two met up recently while Bialik was in New York shooting an episode of the TLC network’s “What Not To Wear,” with the now famous Blossom-cum-Miriam doll that started it all in tow (see picture)!

    And Schwimmer was not disappointed by the meeting with her childhood doll’s real-life counterpart. “She’s so great,” Schwimmer told The Docent of Bialik.

    So the moral of the story is that while Barbie dolls represent an ideal unattainable by real live women, the real live “Blossom” easily surpasses the doll. (Though we are disappointed by the absence of a silly hat on both doll and human versions.)

    April 17, 2009 | 2 Comments »

    Non Sequitor: Female Action Directors

    by Christian Niedan

    The Tollbooth is the only feature film currently playing on The Jewish Channel whose director (Debra Kirschner) is a woman. The film is a comedy — a broad genre tackled by plenty of female filmmakers — but what about darker genres? How many women are directing wide-release action, sci-fi and horror? Well, as it turns out, not that many. But those that are, have produced some hard-hitting and innovative cinematic works.

    The American grande dame of action is Kathryn Bigelow. Back in 1978, while still at Colombia University’s film school, she directed The Set-Up — a deconstruction of film violence in which we hear two professors analyze a fistfight. In 1987, Bigelow earned critical notice for Near Dark, a genre-bending vampire western. Next came films like 1991’s Point Break, about thrill-seeking bank robbers; 1995’s Strange Days, about a near-future murder mystery; and 2002’s K19: The Widowmaker, about the doomed crew of Russia’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Her latest film, The Hurt Locker, tracks an under-fire U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq.
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    March 25, 2009 | 9 Comments »

    Everything But The Girl: Inside Haredi Cinema

    by Christian Niedan

    Say, when did you first learn about sex? How about profanity? What about the very existence of women on this planet? What tipped you off to them?

    Well, if you grew up watching feature films produced for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, then you wouldn’t find any of those subjects addressed on-screen — because none of them make the final cut.

    And who’s holding the scissors? That would be filmmakers like Yehuda Grovais and Shalom Eisenbach — who are the subjects of two fascinating documentaries playing on The Jewish Channel.

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    March 25, 2009 | 1 Comment »

    Band of Basterds: Jewish Soldiers in Film

    by Christian Niedan

    Audiences will see a group of Jewish-American G.I.’s turn the tables on the Nazis this summer with the release of Inglourious Basterds, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino. The plot sends a strike force — led by Brad Pitt’s “Lt. Aldo Raine” — deep behind enemy lines to kill members of the Third Reich with guns, knives, baseball bats and, well, anything else at hand…

    The film is in the tradition of 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, 1968’s Where Eagles Dare and (of course) 1978’s Inglorious Bastards — all three of which set their story in the midst of World War II, and where the focus was more on rip-roaring action than on what happened when the bullets stopped flying.
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    February 26, 2009 | No Comments »

    Adapting Saviors For The Screen

    by Christian Niedan

    Cinema loves a hero. But not all of life’s heroic tales make it to the big screen. At least, not right away. When the film Schindler’s List premiered in 1993, it introduced audiences around the globe to Oskar Schindler — the German industrialist who risked his life and fortune to save 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust.

    Schindler’s new celebrity status came almost 20 years after his death, but his brave actions were already long known. In 1963, Yad Vashem had named him Righteous Among the Nations — the first former Nazi Party member to be so honored — and an award-winning 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, would later serve as the basis for the Steven Spielberg film.

    Giorgio Perlasca, meanwhile, waited a bit longer to grant the world a cinematic close-up. Masquerading as a Spanish diplomat, he saved 5,000 Hungarian Jews in wartime Budapest. But when the war ended in 1945, he returned to a quiet life in Italy. It was not until 1987 that a group of Jewish survivors tracked him down, and he was honored as Righteous Among the Nations the following year. His deeds, which he had kept secret from even his family, were recounted in Enrico Deaglio’s 1993 novel, The Banality of Goodness, which was adapted for Italian TV in 2002 as Perlasca: The Courage of a Just Man.
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    February 17, 2009 | No Comments »

    Black Books and Commissars

    by Christian Niedan

    It was a film censored and shelved by the KGB for more than 20 years, because its favorable depiction of Jews didn’t jibe with Party doctrine. Based on the short story that launched Vasily Grossman’s Soviet literary career, 1967’s Commissar brought his 1934 tale “In the Town of Berdichev” to the big screen.

    For ten years, Grossman exploited his ability to publish works of striking realism on the plight of all Russians, including Jews, but with a patriotic style that satisfied Soviet censors. As Keith Gessen wrote in a 2006 New Yorker article, Grossman “understood the rules and he was going to play by them.”

    He was not alone. “The rules” had been beaten into fellow writer Olga Berggolts after she was imprisoned in late 1938 as part of Stalin’s Great Purge. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich had been publicly denounced in 1936, while the poet Anna Akhmatova was slapped with a 15-year publication ban on all of her work, and forced to hide her masterpiece, Requiem, which mourned Stalin’s campaign against his own people. Yet, when Hitler’s army besieged the city of Leningrad in 1941, all three took on the public mantles of Soviet patriots.

    To mark today’s 65th anniversary of the lifting of that siege, the Shorefront Y hosted the Dialogue Literary Theater’s presentation of “I Speak With You from Leningrad…”, a Russian-language performance taken from the music of Shostakovich and the writings of Berggolts and Akhmatova, both of whom weathered the brutal 900-day Leningrad siege, in part, through defiant artistic expression. Indeed, the title of the play itself is a quote spoken by Berggolts and others while broadcasting patriotic writings over Soviet radio from within the embattled city.
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    January 27, 2009 | No Comments »

    A Very Clooney Christmas

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    Actor Richard Kind tells us about the time his good friend George Clooney begged him for a Christmas tree and what Clooney did when Kind refused. Rapper Y-Love and New York magazine editor Jesse Oxfeld comment. It’s all part of the newest episode of Holy Dazed: Chanukah, now playing on TJC.
    Click here to watch in HD.
    Happy Chanukah!

    December 24, 2008 | No Comments »

    Funny, He Doesn’t Look Like a Christopher

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    In the film Circumcise Me, lapsed Catholic-turned-Orthodox-Jewish-comedian Yisrael Campbell shares the life story that inspired his hilarious comedy act, but on a recent trip to New York City, Campbell revealed some tidbits about his life that you won’t see in the film.

    We caught up with Campbell at his alma mater, the Circle in The Square Drama School, to find out how he went from being a struggling actor named Christopher in Los Angeles to a successful comedian named Yisrael in Jerusalem.
    You can also see the video at full size on your television screen as part of the latest episode of the TJC Original Series TJC Movie Talk.
    Host Alana Newhouse provides the voice over here.

    July 25, 2008 | 1 Comment »

    “Mama Mia” — ABBA Star’s Nazi Father

    by Christian Niedan

    While the smash-hit musical follows the lead character’s search for her father, in real life ABBA singer Frida didn’t know of her father’s existence until she skyrocketed to fame in her 30s.

    Her father was actually a Nazi, and she was actually conceived as part of Hitler’s program to propagate the Aryan race.

    Her shocking story, as revealed in Cover Up: Norway’s Nazi Secret, brought to you by The Jewish Channel.

    July 17, 2008 | 5 Comments »

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