CultureJew: Yiddish Fiddler, Tarantino, and Lots of TV

I finally saw the Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” and enjoyed it so much. Someone had the inspired idea to do a Yiddish production of this  show; the source material is Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye, so the actors are speaking and singing in the native language of the characters. Despite the acting being somewhat uneven in the performance I saw, what really makes this work so well is Joel Grey’s direction and the stripped down production. Barely any set, simple costumes, that wonderful score, which sounds just as good in Yiddish, no over-the-top spectacle–all prove that a powerful story and a cohesive concept are all that’s necessary to make a successful play. There are supertitles in English and Russian, so language is no barrier. A young African-American couple were sitting right in front of me and loved the show. 

There hasn’t been much good stuff at the movies so I’ve been watching a lot of TV. I have found Russell Crowe riveting as Roger Ailes in “The Loudest Voice” on Showtime, and that makeup job is beyond amazing. The seven-part series follows Ailes from 1995 when he sets up Fox News to his downfall in 2016 as a result of sexual harassment charges.  A monstrous combination of political and cultural shrewdness, egomania, and paranoia, Ailes created the most watched cable news network in the country and arguably got Trump elected president. Crowe is surrounded by a terrific cast, which includes Sienna Miller as his wife and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson, but his huge presence overshadows everyone. He captures Ailes’s reptilian charm and brilliant grasp of television’s power and effect, as well as his matter-of-fact assumption that all the women at Fox News were his playthings. A lot of the reviews criticized the show for not delving more deeply into Ailes’s personality, but I found the hints about his abusive father and his hemophilia enough to explain his deep anger, and a visit to his Rust Belt hometown does a lot to illuminate his politics. I could have done with less lurid detail on his relationship with Laurie Luhn; that’s one part of the show that felt exploitative. 

I’ve enjoyed this season of FX’s “Pose” despite its soap-opera elements, particularly Billy Porter’s powerful performance as Pray Tell. Set in the late1980s, this show highlights the New York City ballroom culture and the black and brown gay men and transsexuals who created it. Marginalized by definition, these folks constructed a flamboyant art form out of costumes and dance moves and moxie. The characters Electra and Blanca compete with each other at the balls but support and help each other when necessary. Each woman is the mother of a house, which means they provide housing and care for an assortment of needy, homeless young people. The showrunners have deftly avoided the freakshow trap and most of the numerous characters in the show are presented as multidimensional human beings. (The exception is the white men who look to the transwomen for sex. They are mostly cartoons.) In the second season, the show focuses more tightly on the trans characters, more of whom have contracted HIV, and there is a lot of emphasis on the disease and the terror it inspired.  Sandra Bernhard plays a nurse and she gets to deliver most of the health-related info.  Porter’s portrayal of a middle-aged HIV- positive gay man is deep, real, and moving. Despite the characters’ sketchy circumstances and frightening prospects, the show maintains a positive, even joyful outlook. The fantastic costumes and music at the balls contributes to that, as well as Patti LuPone’s over-the-top portrayal of an evil Leona Helmsley-like landlord. She must have giggled her way through that gig just as much as we do watching her. 

If you’re longing for cosmic weirdness and head-scratching complexity, try the German-language series “Dark” on Netflix. We’re into season 2 now, but I had to rewatch all of season 1 to figure out what was going on. And even then, I’m really not sure. A time-travel sci-fi thriller, the series begins with the disappearance of a boy in 2019 from the small town of Winden, which happens to border a forest. (Don’t they always?) We soon realize that the boy has stumbled into a portal inside a cave that leads back to 1986. Of course, the boy’s parents are frantic to find him, and the local police chief begins to suspect that there’s something funny going on with the town’s nuclear plant. And then there’s the fact that the missing boy’s father lost his younger brother in similar mysterious circumstances 33 years earlier. What makes the series so convoluted is that we have to follow a lot of different characters from the present back in time, keep track of who is who both in the present and the past and eventually in the future, since the portal goes forward as well as back. That’s a lot to keep in your head, in German no less. It’s really well done, though, and worth the effort. The show has a moody, melancholy vibe, the performances are good, and sometimes it’s useful to give your brain a workout.

Not in the mood for cerebral pushups? Check out “Unit 42,” a Belgian cop show on Netflix that features a cyber crime unit. Somehow every murder in Belgium is associated with a cyber crime. The unit is made up of a reformed hacker, Billie, who is searching for her lost love; the widowed Sam, who is mourning the loss of his wife and struggling to care for his three children; Nassim, a gay Muslim who is really good with computers; and Bob, the longtime cop who seems to be there for comic relief. There’s also an attractive deaf pathologist who wants to help Sam get over his grief. Each episode is a separate story, so you don’t need to remember what happened before, and these guys manage to do things on their computers in two minutes that would take anyone else at least 12 hours. It’s not remotely plausible if you stop to think about it, so don’t stop. An easy, fun watch that requires you to read the subtitles and not much else. 

One Good Movie, One Not So Much

I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan and I loved his latest, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” (That’s the one really good movie I’ve seen in months.) Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are in top-notch form, and there are a ton of great cameo performances from Bruce Dern, Timothy Olyphant, Damien Lewis, Brenda Vaccaro, and Al Pacino. You’ve probably read all about the plot and the surprise ending but I hate spoilers so no detailed synopsis. DiCaprio stars as an actor, Rick Dalton, who has seen the best of his career in the rear view, but still works regularly, and Pitt is his stunt double and general all-around gofer. The men share a form of friendship based on widely differing levels of wealth, status, and prestige. It’s a relationship built on expediency, but that doesn’t mean it’s insincere or without value. 

The movie is a tribute to the craft of filmmaking, but especially to the art of acting. A less-than-brilliant actor, Dalton still takes it seriously and works at it, and Tarantino asks us to appreciate how hard it is to do well.  Dalton happens to live down the road from Sharon Tate, and Pitt’s character has run into the Manson family at the ranch where they are living. The violent ending of the film underscores why we love the movies–that’s where the random horror and brutality of life is given meaning and purpose. It’s a lie, of course, but it’s also deeply satisfying, a satisfaction we can all share. 

“Three Peaks” is a French/German psychological thriller that’s half family drama, half horror movie. Aaron (Alexander Fehling) is trying to establish a bond with his girlfriend’s son Tristan. He seems to be succeeding even though the boy fantasizes that his parents will get back together. When Aaron and Tristan go hiking together in the Dolomites, and the boy disappears, Aaron’s plans go sideways. The movie felt well made but manipulative to me, and I foresaw the end well in advance. Not a good thing in a thriller. 

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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