CultureJew: From Irving Berlin to the Murdoch Clan

Science Fair” was the audience favorite at Sundance and SXSW and it’s not hard to see why. It’s the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen in a long time.  About a bunch of super nerdy kids who are competing in the International Science and Engineering Fair, the film focuses on nine teens from the U.S., Brazil, and Germany competing in the largest pre-college science fair in the world. The kids are amazing–super smart, curious, competitive, and charming. They vary in gender, ethnicity, personality, work ethic, and every other way imaginable, but you’re rooting for each of them by the middle of the documentary. Directors Cristina Costantini (who competed in ISEF herself) and Darren Foster do a great job presenting the teens as real people and maintaining a crisp pace.

As dynamic as these young people are, someone else almost steals the documentary from them. Dr. Serena McCalla is the research director at Jericho High School in Long Island, and her primary goal is to prepare her students for the ISEF and make sure they win. She’s astonishing, and her high school is a science-fair powerhouse. “Science Fair” is as irresistible as many other competition documentaries are (think “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom”) but this time the competitors are doing something really important. Great to see a positive portrayal of teenagers too.

Emmanuel Finkiel’s “Memoir of War” is adapted from the writings of Marguerite Duras, whose 1985 work “La Douleur” was based on her World War II diaries. In the film Duras, played by Melanie Thierry, is awaiting news of her Resistance-fighter husband, who has been arrested by the Gestapo. When she makes the acquaintance of a French collaborator, she thinks that he may give her information as to whether her husband is still alive, and so she begins a mild flirtation. She is also in the midst of a relationship with one of her husband’s Resistance colleagues, which remains murky. An older Jewish woman is housed in Duras’s Paris apartment with her, also waiting to hear news of her disabled daughter. The war is winding towards its close, and people are starting to return from the camps.  

This is much more of a character study than your standard World War II movie, but Finkiel does manage to create significant suspense. Most of the action takes place in Duras’s mind as she struggles to resolve her feelings about her husband and his absence. Does she still love him? Has her grief taken the place that he once held in her life? Thierry does a good job, and the production values are excellent, but this isn’t for those looking for aa action war movie.

A One Man Play About Irving Berlin

The first thing that draws your eye in the handsome set of a posh New York apartment at the 59E59 theater is the empty wheelchair. A slim, straight-backed Hershey Felder addresses an invisible “curmudgeon” in the chair, urging him to welcome the carolers who appear every Christmas at his door and tell them the stories behind the songs he has written. Imagining the audience as the carolers, Felder introduces himself as the younger Irving Berlin, perhaps the most American of American composers and songwriters, and promises to share the backstory of his familiar and beloved songs. By the end of the show, he will be in that wheelchair, stooped and frail, having transformed himself into the 100-year-old Berlin.

It’s a clever conceit and Felder uses it successfully to tell the astonishing life story of the renowned songwriter. It was a life filled with hardship and terrible loss as well as unimaginable success and worldwide fame. Throughout his long career, Berlin wrote an estimated 1500 songs, the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films. Many of his songs, such as “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “Happy Holidays,” and especially “God Bless America,” are more than songs; they are an integral part of American culture.   As composer Jerome Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no part in American music, he is American music.” Berlin was a shrewd businessman too, buying up the rights to all his early songs as soon as he became a success.

Born in czarist Russia, Berlin arrived in the U.S. at five years old with his mother, father, and siblings. They were very poor, like so many other immigrants at the time, and all the children went out to work, bringing their earnings home to contribute to the household. A cantor in Russia, Berlin’s father became a meshgiach in America, and his mother found work as a midwife. Irving, or Israel or Izzy, as he was called then, may have inherited some of his father’s musical talent. He had no formal training and never learned musical notation. All his composing was done in his head, and as he sang his songs, assistants would write down the notes.  

When Berlin was 13, his father died and the boy soon left home to make it on his own. At first, he sang on street corners while selling newspapers, and eventually graduated to becoming a singing waiter. Berlin’s first published song was “Marie from Sunny Italy,” from which he earned 13 cents in royalties.  In 1911, he wrote his first stupendous hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He was 23 years old.

An accomplished pianist and respectable singer, Felder incorporates Berlin’s songs seamlessly into his script so they feel organic to the show. Encouraging the audience to sing along with the most popular songs, he underlines how deeply Berlin’s music is embedded in our culture. His comic timing is excellent, as well, and he captures Berlin’s faintly Yiddishized New York accent.

Berlin was a great patriot and loved America with an immigrant’s passion. Felder accentuates Berlin’s immigrant past and the struggles that many immigrants face adapting to a new country. That’s surely not a coincidence at a time when many Americans are turning away from any celebration of the country’s immigrant history. Of course, they weren’t so welcoming when the millions of Jews and Italians and Irish arrived at the turn of the century, either. Now the descendants of those people feel they are the real Americans, somehow different from the Mexicans and Indians and Koreans arriving now. Berlin’s direct and sincere faith in the ideals of the country he embraced as his own poured out in many of his songs, and it is affecting and inspiring to hear them now.

Peak TV and Not Peak TV

I can’t wait to dive into the second season of “The Deuce” on HBO, but I have to finish “Succession” first. This show takes a while to get going, but I’m hooked now. Starring Brian Cox as an aging media mogul, the show explores the intrigues, betrayals, and conniving that goes on among his four children as they consider the possibility of taking over the empire. Obviously based on the Murdoch clan–or the Trump family–there’s no end of greed, callousness, ambition, mendacity, and whatever else we like to imagine motivates people like that. They are a loathsome bunch, for sure, but as the season has gone on, there are glimmers of humanity. The acting is superb and the writers have an interesting approach to great wealth–they make it seem kind of icky, not anything you want to get too close to.

I’m almost through the second season of “The Sinner” too. This show is far from peak TV but it’s entertaining on its own terms. The first season starred Jessica Biel as a woman who suddenly stabs a stranger to death on a beach while her horrified family looks on. The rest of the season uncovered the motive for the murder, which was not as interesting as it should have been. So this is not a who-dunnit but a why-dunnit. The wonderful Bill Pullman starred as the emotionally fragile detective who figured it out. He’s back for the second season, and this time he’s trying to understand why a 13-year-old boy would poison two adults taking him on a vacation to Niagara Falls. This time, there’s a cult and a lesbian police officer who is guilt ridden over abandoning her friend when they were teenagers. Actually, everyone in the show is feeling guilty for something or other. Lots of tortured glances and repressed feelings here and just a modicum of investigation. The biggest surprise is Tracy Letts in the cast.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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