(Cinema of Talmud) Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar)

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Riffing gently off the title of Pasolini’s essay “Cinema of Poetry,” let’s call Joseph Cedar’s most recent release an exercise in the “cinema of Talmud.” To be sure, Norman has to be viewed with an eye towards the narrative arc. But it’s the form of the film that matters. What makes a film Talmudic in structure I will hazard to say is a particular conjuncture. It consists of [1] a peculiar sense of the real coupled with absurd and accidental deviations along with [2] an alternate sense of the present in [3] a tight warren of constricted social and mental spaces through which a [4] a bizarre sense of the possible and [5] the quiet apparition of sublime glory flit through at unexpected juncture points. To borrow an idea from Menachem Feuer at Home of the Schlemiel, the cinema of Talmud reveals the large in the very small. My mother saw Norman twice, once without me and once with me. She objects to the subtitleThe Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” Indeed, the rise is in a certain way immoderate and the fall is more complicated than simple. Cedar’s film is a fable about destiny, in which all the disparate parts are brought together, improbably.

A schledpedik figure, a schlemiel par excellence, Norman is a fixer who can’t fix. He is shown early in the film always after the company of powerful people, sucking up to them, following possible human connections always promising them connections to money and influence which he can’t possibly deliver –until that precise point in the film at which, now, he suddenly can. Throughout the entire arc of the film, he lies to everyone. He lies to the real Jewish money-men who shun him, to a rabbi of a struggling synagogue with whom he’s on friendly terms, to a low ranking Israeli politician, a deputy minister named Amir Eshel. He will humiliate himself more than once. The plot twists quickly around Norman’s relationship with Eshel, whom Norman finds at a low point in his career, at the nadir of his ambition and confidence, alone and slightly lost on a government junket in New York. Norman follows him, believes in him, connects to him, buys him a pair of expensive shoes, insinuates himself in his life, loves him. And Eshel seems to love Norman, confides in Norman, and remembers Norman, raising him up in the world, after his own election to the improbable rise to the very top of the Israeli political pyramid. There’s a political scandal hatched by the political enemies of the new Prime Minister with the improbable ambition to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Come the inevitable fall, the scandal, we the viewers understand before anyone else, is based on nothing, even as it carries forward with its own peculiar logic.

As a character sketch, Norman is himself nothing. An improbable and utterly implausible figure, he is shown to have no home, no real occupation, no family. From the looks of it, he barely owns a change of clothes. Am I misremembering this point? Does Norman wear in almost every single scene the same sort of sad camel coat and light brown plaid hat and scarf? It’s not definitely quite clear where the money comes from, only that it is not anywhere near enough to deliver on the promises he proffers. Norman is not a macher. An anti-hero, Norman is an anti-macher who makes things happen, but everything that he makes happen happens by accident. Like a dog, he is intensely loyal. In his review in the NYT, A.O Scott gets the basic character right with this description, that there is, indeed, “something almost selfless in Norman’s hustle. He doesn’t want wealth or power as much as he longs for proximity to them, for entree into a world where important things happen. He calls himself a businessman or a consultant, but he is really running a kind of social pyramid scheme, promising extravagant returns on small investments of kindness and courtesy.”

[[You might want to stop reading here if you have not seen the movie already and don’t want me spoiling the punchline of the movie.]]

Eshel’s ascent to the Prime Ministry is the moment at which the plot comes together. Norman waits with his nephew at a reception line to greet the newly elected Prime Minister at the AIPAL (sic) conference. He’s not sure Eshel will remember him. The Prime Minister looks up, instantly recognizes Norman, call him out spontaneously by name and warmly embraces him in front of bank of news photographers. We’re now in on the joke; the heavens open up. Norman, the schlemiel, is suddenly the man of the moment. Does he truly have the Prime Minister’s ear or is the relationship between the two men only sentimental? It’s unclear, but now, in the moment, Norman has been moved as if by fate into the center of everything until he goes back under, all over a pair of shoes. Norman, it seems is the unlikely figure at the center of the bribery scandal, as if he were some billionaire buying the Prime Minister with expensive gifts. Norman’s fate is sealed by nothing more than that pair of shoes.

The other joke in the movie involves the synagogue that Norman wants to support. In part, he needs the rabbi to perform a wedding for his nephew who is marrying a young Korean woman. But Norman has something of a real relation to the place. He is in and out of the synagogue on a regular basis, but always alone, at night when the old wooden pews are empty, up in the dark sitting up in the balcony resting while the congregational choir practices. The synagogue is both elegant and rundown. The congregation needs fourteen million dollars to save the building. Norman claism to have secured the money, which he has failed to do. Only late in the film, after the funds are finally secured based on inside information about the bribery scandal in Israel, are we shown that the balcony is where the choir performs. It’s only at the end of the film that we are given to understand that Norman habituates the transformed shabby place where angels now sing.

The fundamental premise in Norman is that our political and religious life is built on a foundation of delusions and lies. Its sense of place is one in which nothing is real. New York resembles a larger scale version of the army position in Beuafort, Cedar’s movie about the Lebanon War, or the academic libraries and reading rooms in Footnote. Always shot from the inside, the city streets, rooms, and tunnels are dark and claustrophobic. Outside the lighting is overcast in a perpetual winter with snow on the ground. In these narrow spaces, in this constricted place of exile, anxiety and desire will gradually build into panic and paranoia. Norman who pursued power is now pursued by power; to be precise, by two kinds of power, one which is this worldly, and the other unexpectedly revealed as otherworldly. That all of the intricate plots hatched by Norman and by Eshel actually pan out in the end is the comedic miracle of the movie. But this comes at a price, or is it a reward? Revealed in the last minutes of the film are these disguised figures: a prosecuting attorney, the angel of death, an act of martyrdom, a vision of the heavens, a divine chorus, the providence of an omnipresent God who, faceless, remains hidden from view.

 

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Talmud & Culture & Nature (Note from Conference at Bard College)

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Representing “philology,” Shai Secunda presided over a truly special day of talks at Bard College devoted to the theme of Talmud and its place in relation to the humanities. Excellent papers and presentations by junior and senior colleagues brought Talmud into relation with such themes as “the sound of religion,” ritual and urban performance art, process, ethnography, animals, reading, writing, mosaics, and visual studies.  “Imagination” was the connecting tissue. Faculty and undergraduate students (!) from religion, anthropology, and performing art weighed in after each presentation. Not to be missed, alas, I had to scoot and missed the concluding panel. “Nature” was central to Beth Berkowitz’s paper on animals and animal studies in Judaism and to Galit Hasan-Rokem’s reflections on Byzantine art and her own work as a poet. As a third conceptual term, what one could draw from the day was the “natural” fit between “Talmud” and “culture,” or perhaps the idea of the “culture” of “Talmud”  in “nature.” Its only now in retrospect that this occurs to me a related, deeply to Herman Cohen’s modelling of aesthetics as relating to the generation of “the nature of man” and “the man of nature” [sic]. At high speed, the drive down from the Catskills, over the Hudson twice, and then alongside the East River was dark green, exhilarating.

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(Conference) Make Talmud New (Bard College)

 

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“Make it New” New Possibilities for Classical Jewish Texts in Scholarship and Culture

Bard College, April 26, 2017

Sponsored by Bard Jewish Studies, Religion, Hebrew, Anthropology, Historical Studies, Literature, Theater and Written Arts Programs, with the generous support of the World Union of Jewish Studies

New Connections: The Talmud and the Contemporary Humanities  – a Workshop I

 Location: Bertlesmann Campus Center, Yellow Room 1:15pm-2:45

Chair: David Nelson

Shai Secunda: “Opening Remarks: Talmud and the Liberal Arts”

Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “What Does Religion Sound Like? An Exploration of Rabbinic Sources.” In a dialogue with Tehseen Thaver; student response: Katherine Buonanno.

Yair Lipshitz, “Urban Performance in Times of Crisis: Rabbinic Acts, Contemporary Reactivations.” In dialogue with Miriam Felton-Dansky; student response: Emmet Dotan.

James Adam Redfield, “The Ethnographic Present of Early Rabbinic Law.” In dialogue with Jonah Rubin.

 

New Connections: The Talmud and the Contemporary Humanities  – a Workshop II

 Location: Bertlesmann Campus Center, Yellow Room 3:00-4:15pm

Chair: Zachary Braiterman

 Beth Berkowitz, “The Clever Ox, The Escaping Elephant, and Other Rabbinic Animalities: Critical Animal Studies and the Talmud.” In dialogue with Yuka Suzuki; student response: Zoe Morgan-Weinman.

Moulie Vidas, “The More Humane Letters: Talmud, Non-scripture, and Scholarly Culture.” In dialogue with Dominique Townsend; student response: Rajdeep Dosanjh.

 

“Make it New”: Classical Jewish Texts and Artistic Imagination

 Location: Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation Auditorium

4:45pm-6:15pm

Chair: Ruby Namdar, Novelist, author of Ruined House (Hebrew, 2015)

Nicole Krauss, Novelist, author of The History of Love (2005) and Great House (2010), “Creating the World: Reflections of a Novelist.”

Adam Kirsch, Poet and critic; most recently author of The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature (2017), “Swimming Against the Current in the Ocean of Talmud.”

Galit Hasan-Rokem, Scholar of folklore and Hebrew literature, poet, and translator, “Moments and Hours in Research, Suspended between Imagination and Learning.”

Discussant: Shai Secunda (Bard, Religion)

Jewish Studies and the Liberal Arts: Institutional Possibilities

 Location: Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation Auditorium

6:30pm-7:30pm

Chair: Cecile Kuznitz (Bard, History)

Leon Botstein, (President of Bard College), “Jewish Thought and the Undergraduate Curriculum in the 21st Century.”

Bruce Chilton, (Bard, Religion) “Counter-cultural Theology: Twenty Years at Bard College.”

Alan Avery-Peck, (College of the Holy Cross), “Teaching Talmud to Secular Christians: A Report from a Small, Jesuit, Liberal Arts College.”

 

PARTICIPANTS

Alan Avery-Peck is the Kraft-Hiatt Professor in Judaic Studies at College of the Holy Cross.

Beth Berkowitz is Ingeborg Rennert Associate Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion at Barnard College.

Leon Botstein is President of Bard College.

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University.

Bruce Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bard and director of Bard’s Institute of Advanced Theology. Miriam Felton-Dansky is Assistant Professor of Theater & Performance at Bard College.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University.

Galit Hasan-Rokem is a poet, translator, and Max and Margarethe Grunwald Professor of Folklore and Professor of Hebrew Literature (emerita), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic.

Nicole Krauss is a novelist and author of Man Walks Into a Room (2002),

The History of Love (2005), and Great House (2010)

Cecile Kuznitz is Associate Professor of Jewish History and Director of Jewish Studies at Bard College.

Yair Lipshitz is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Theatre Arts in Tel

Ruby Namdar is a novelist and author of Ruined House (Hebrew; 2015). David Nelson is Campus Rabbi and Visiting Associate Professor of Religion at Bard College.

James Adam Redfield is a Mellon Fellow at the Stanford Humanities

Center (2016-17).

Jonah Rubin is Visiting Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Bard College.

Shai Secunda is Jacob Neusner Associate Professor in the History and Theology of Judaism at Bard College.

Yuka Suzuki is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Bard College.

Tehseen Thaver is Assistant Professor of Religion/Islam at Bard College. Dominique Townsend is Assistant Professor of Religion/Buddhism at Bard College.

Moulie Vidas is Assistant Professor of Religion and the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University.

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Talmud & Philosophy Grad Conference (Yale)

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Kudos to the conference organizers and participants including the graphic design genius who put The Thinker inside the gates of the now-iconic frontispiece of the Babylonian Talmud.

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Post Industrial Salt Marsh (Richard W. DeKorte Park)

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Went on an ex-urban hike through the ecological ruins alongside the northern parts of the New Jersey Turnpike. What remains a sublimely wasted industrial, post-industrial landscape is now complemented by a group of parks and trails forming a wet-green lung. Plans for the Meadowlands are to create a vast park system, about which you can read here. The work goes back to the creation of the former New Jersey Meadowlands Commission,  about which you can read here.  The website explains that the commission “was set up by an Act of the State Legislature in 1968 (N.J.S.A. 13:17-1 et seq) and tasked with a three-fold mandate: to provide for orderly development of the region, to provide facilities for the sanitary disposal of solid waste, and to protect the delicate balance of nature.” A part of that ecological infrastructure is Richard W. DeKorte Park. Trails thread through wetlands, over old dikes and service roads that have since been re-purposed for the park. No dead-zone, the area is full of aquatic and avian life nestled comfortably alongside the New Jersey Turnpike with views of the Pulaski Skyway and New York City out in the distance.

There’s nothing inevitable about ecological apocalypse, but it takes work, money, and organization to get fix the world. A regressive thinker, Heidegger would not have understood a place like this composed of variable velocities, some fast and some slow, where the views alternate seamlessly between the natural and the industrial. This is a Deleuzian landscape, or something out of Bruno Latour. Trucks, cars, trees, bridges, electric pylons, birds, crabs, a church in the distance, grasses, roads, reeds, concrete, watery confluence, the big city, and so much more all hold together. Parts of the park were built on a re-purposed landfill. A place like this is the hard work of restoration.

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(Memory and Lonely Mood) Maine Landscapes (Marsden Hartley)

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After long sojourns away from the place of his birth, Marsden Hartley returned to Maine in the last six or seven years of his life. Now on view at the Met Breuer, the exhibition Marsden Hartley’s Maine touches upon internationalism and regionalism, the meeting up of European modernism and American Transcendentalism in early to mid twentieth century American art. Over the whole thing broods the darkening confluence of landscape, memory, and mood. What adds to that distant auratic moodiness is the temporal stratification between today looking back towards an origin point of the American modernist tradition. Does that temporal divide improve upon the quality of the work? I’m including below in the slideshow the pictures that caught my eye. In his review, Holland Carter makes a mild complaint that the focus on Maine is too narrow a prism with which to view Hartley’s work. But I think that narrow focus on this singular place captures the dimming-light effect that carries through the work and its exhibition. American, the entire milieu in Maine is isolate and lonely. I’m citing Carter for his sense of the mood. You can read the complete review here:

“We return to our childhood home at our peril. The familiarity may be comforting; the contact with ghosts, consoling. But the inevitable, entropic pull back into old patterns of thinking and feeling we spend a lifetime trying to undo can touch off anxiety and despair. Many of Hartley’s late Maine paintings ride these mood swings. Their subjects may be “scenic,” but their atmosphere is fraught.

The tumbling woodland cascade in “Smelt Brook Falls” looks like a knot of twisted bedsheets. The floating cut tree trunks in “Logjam (Backwaters Up Millinocket Way No. 3)” could be a funeral pyre. The steeple in “Church at Corea” tilts as if about to fall. Waves breaking on rocks in “Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine” rise like monsters from the deep. This is a Maine of fevers, fears and decrepitude, a place where all that is solid is fated to go away.”

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(Conference) Expanding Jewish Political Thought (Penn)

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