Monthly Archives: December 2005

"For him it is a movie. For us it is our life’s tragedy."

So said one of the widows of the ’72 Israeli Olympic team said after watching a special screening of Spielberg’s latest, Munich.

It’s true: movies are not life. Movies use life. Historical events, life’s details and debris, people and personalities, fantasies, intimacies–movies reframe and rearrange life into a visual narrative conveying a select, edited experience (or, as is inevitable for Spielberg, communicating a humanistic homily). Good movies, the best ones, reach their own truth in the process of reframing–the new creation accesses some understanding about the human condition that the assumptions and ruts and general miasma of daily life overwhelm. That’s what good movies do.

Most of the reviews about Munich are absorbed by the task of uncovering Spielberg’s message—is he pro-Isreal? Pro-Palestine? Morally ambiguous? Relativist? Pro-Peace? What is he trying to say? They miss the point entirely, which is that Munich says nothing, because it is a bad movie.

What is touted as political even-handedness is actually childishly simplistic analysis. The movie is too long, plodding, pointlessly slow; the last hour is a cascade of scenes that all feel like they should be the final scene, none of which, somehow, manage to end the damn movie. The dialogue is lumpen and melodramatic; the events and images cliched*; the “suspense” oddly disconnected; the characters and their psychologies seem two or three steps removed from actual people, as if they were derived from the world of Hollywood characters instead of the world.

But what completely strips Munich of any legitimacy is that it, in no way, traffics in truth: not the truth of historical events, not the truth of governmental or secret service procedure, not the truth of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and especially not the truth of national character (I can only speak for how far they missed the mark on how Israelis think and behave and communicate–and can only guess at similar missteps in portrayals of French and Palestinians).

Screenwriter Tony Kushner, in his epic Angels in America, successfully accessed the big metaphors of human experience through dialogue–because he knew his characters. In his very bones Kushner understands the spoken vernaculars and unspoken nuances of gay America, American Jews, American bureaucracy, various American drags, American fantasies of frontier and power. The script of Munich demonstrates a profound ignorance of what Israelis are like, and a profound ignorance of how Middle Eastern traumas–from military to terror to occupation–manifest themselves in the lives and behaviors of people.

Spielberg acknowledges in the opening credits that the movie is “inspired by true events.” But you wonder why he used those events when he seemed so assiduously committed to ignoring all the potent, provocative truths that emerge when such events are researched and explored.

If one is telling a story about an event that happened within our historical memory, it is imperative to sit back, put aside your assumptions of what “the story” is, letting it instead emerge from what the subjects tell you. To be humble enough to be a student to someone else’s reality, and then artist enough to reframe the story and return it to them.

Spielberg should have used the Munich story to portray a world in which two peoples, so alike and so divided, perform acts of horrific violence against each other because both find it crucial for their very survival. And no one ever has a moral qualm, because these acts are so necessary–even as they may damage nation and body and psyche. That’s the deadlock of the Middle East. That’s the damn story. (And by the way–Spielberg would never question the historical necessity of Americans fighting World War II–but of course he can imagine an Israeli Mossad agent wringing his hands over those deaths–what a fucking typical American Jew.)

Oy, Stevie. You’ve overreached your ability to understand and elucidate history. Go back to making Indiana Jones movies.

*I called the Twin Towers being CGI’d into the background from the very moment the final scene overlooking the East River began.

commercial tropes

Big ball player comes “back home” to the neighborhood. He plays a pick-up game, which is charming and funny either because a) isn’t it charming and funny that the big star is deigning to play like this or b) because somehow someone scores on him–wow, the big guy!–which brings his stardom down a peg and makes viewers feel good about being neighborhood folks and not the big star.

Magical Thinking

I picked up Joan Didion’s most recent work, The Year of Magical Thinking, last night and finished it this afternoon–devoured is more accurate. Partly because of the relief of reading this calculated, controlled thinker delve into the deepest, most impenetrable loci of grief–reading her write as a mother, as a woman, as a wife; partly out of that terrible impulse that has one looking for the sexy parts in a novel–searching out the points of greatest emotional punch, the revealing sections, the nakedness, the dirt. I’ll probably read it again from the top, more slowly and carefully, tonight.

Just that–I doubt there’s anything I can say about it than someone else hasn’t said better.

more dreams

Last night, in the middle of a longer dream involving bizarre desires between young blonde women and their grizzled, cowboy uncles (Brokeback Mountain? Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? I just don’t know)–it turned into a big American theater dream.

The production involved a train, circling through a small town, passing behind an amphitheater like theater. The train would be painted in such a way, and the backdrop arranged, that when the train ran by the theater, it would create a huge fabulous picture/tableaux–oh yeah, also, an actor would hang from the train, and at the moment of tableaux, be Jesus.

It was kind of like a Coen brothers movie, the town–quaint quirky small-town America that was anachronistically multiracial. Me and the guy posing as Jesus passed through the town a couple of times before I smartened up and realized that the actor himself didn’t have to hang off the train, just pose and wait for the train. By that time, the train had left for the day.


In 1999, I directed Pre-Paradise Sorry Now by Fassbinder, my first play in New York, at the now defunct Present Company Theatorium on Stanton. I loved that show, the process, the cast. One of my cast members asked me if I would direct her in Brilliant Traces, a two-hander from the 80s involving a rugged mountain man whose hermitude gets interrupted by the appearance of a neurotic city-girl in her wedding dress. I said no–the play seemed like clever but facile living room soap opera, and I wasn’t interested.

Two weeks after the show closed, I had the following dream:

Pre-Paradise had been extended. I went to see it–and it had been hijacked by these horrible arty schoolmates of mine who had jacked up the “experimental” quotient, having two actors shout to each other in German:


I was horrified–left the theater–but now the Present Company was a multi-space complex. The second theater was showing Brilliant Traces. I walked in and watched. The show was being performed true to its nature–as a silly but committed soap opera veering between the ridiculous and supernaturalistic. At one point, when the sexual tension got really hot between the two characters, all these scantily-clad performers began sliding down ropes from the flies, doing a sexy dance-type thing. Backstage, they created a bathroom backstage, part of the set the audience would see but no one else could–for an added touch had three different patterns of white toilet paper–such a precise and careful touch.

I was so impressed–envious, really. “Why didn’t I think of that?” I thought, as I watched this play being successful. The play (in my dream, of course) was successful simply by BEING WHAT IT IS–being itself fully, meaning occasionally against or beyond its own conventions.

I woke up thinking–that’s what directing is! You figure out exactly what a play is–not what you want it to be, what it is–then just do that. Not interpret over what the text allows, but realize the text–both on its own terms and in a larger context.

I need to keep that in mind as I work through Miss Saigon, which, surprisingly to me, is pretty water-tight. I have to figure out exactly what it is–with both its flaws and successes, and just do that.