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I first saw Laurence Olivier’s ‘oysters and snails’ speech to Tony Curtis, not in Spartacus itself, but rather in The Celluloid Closet. In that scene, Olivier argues to his slave that sexuality is a matter of taste, rather than of appetite, and being a matter of taste, is not a moral consideration. “It could be argued so, Master” says Curtis. The Celluloid Closet was part of a queer studies class I took as a junior in college, at which time my own preferences had already ossified. ‘Skinny Jewish intellectuals’ was my taste, rather than a moral judgment on chubby Gentile fools.

***

Years later, I was in New Orleans with my skinny Jewish intellectual, for a conference. He had never eaten raw oysters before, his father having instilled in him the fear of Vibrio vulnificus, rather than Leviticus. We sat at open-air bar at Felix’s, and, around us, was the sultry autumn air, the sound of granular ice, and quick-fingered men with shucking knives and chain mail gloves.  “OK,” he said, “I’ll try one,” and several dozens later, the area was around us a denuded shoal, a mother-of-pearl graveyard.  “Oh, I’ve missed out on so much,” he bemoaned. “I lived in Boston and never had any oysters.”

***

Censors suggested replacing ‘oysters’ and ‘snails’ with ‘artichokes’ and ‘truffles,’ but even after Kubrick reshot the scene, they cut it, leaving audiences, presumably, to wonder why Curtis’ slave has a sudden attack of drapetomania. And while could be argued that the scene dealt with sexuality in a progressive way, for 1960, it might be that the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, conceived of the scene much differently.  According to Howard Fast, the author of the novel, the more abstract decadences of starvation or slavery were inconceivable to Hollywood types.  But sexuality—this was a decadence that Hollywood could understand.  Most people in Hollywood either knew someone who indulged in it, Fast says, or indulged in it themselves.

***

Matthew and I know oysters. We know the different types: the briny ones from Maine, the mineral tang of those from Prince Edward Island, the creamy flesh of Puget Sound breeds. We don’t slather them in cocktail sauce, but opt instead for a shallot-champagne mignonette or, if that’s not available, a squeeze of lemon and a dab of horseradish. Escargot is fussy: handling the little forks, and maneuvering the shells out of that specialized divoted pan. No, when we feel decadent, it’s much easier to slide an oyster whole into your mouth, liquid and all, even if ‘decadence’ is relative, and, of course, a matter of taste.

***

I learned recently that the ‘oysters and snails’ scene is a reconstruction—the audio long since lost. Tony Curtis, almost 30 years later, re-recorded his lines, and Anthony Hopkins was brought in to dub Olivier’s. Kubrick supervised via his fax machine from England. But even in its cobbled-together state, it still has a delicious charge to it: filmed from behind a gauzy curtain, the two men half-naked and oiling each other up.  “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Olivier says, before concluding: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

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My across-the-street neighbor, S___ came home yesterday, and everyone along the block knows:  she has come home to die.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last December, and although she was responding to treatment, a week ago, her condition deteriorated, and, since then, her house stood empty.  Her husband’s cars were nowhere to be seen, except, probably, at Christiana Hospital.  Then, yesterday, a van pulled up to her house, and a triangular sign warning visitors about in-use oxygen appeared on her front door.

Weeks, I understand.  A few months at most:  her platelet count is down to 40,000; 100,000 is the minimum necessary to continue chemo.  The other day, her grown daughter swept out the living room, preparing to convert it into a bedroom; S___’s mother was also there.  They are the start of it, the parade of friends and family paying their respects, as if their presence can make her more comfortable.

Death, in Cries and Whispers, is both frightening and horrific.  Agnes, suffering from an unspecified cancer, has long fits where she can’t breathe.  Her torso contorts as she gasps.  She clutches her skin from the pain.  Her sisters, emotionally distant and self-absorbed, are unable to cope and refuse to comfort her.  The visuals themselves are uncomfortable:  the scenes are drenched in a hyper-sanguinated red, a color which, to Bergman, represents “the interior of the soul.”  The walls: red.  The window treatments: red.  The carpet: red.  The screen fades to red.  When death comes, Bergman seems to say, everyone’s soul is laid bareIsn’t that what you’ve come to see?

The drapes covering the living room window where S___  sleeps were once red, but, after years of constant battle with the sun, are now vermillion.  Paper cut-outs of numbers and letters are taped to the glass, reminders that S___ once ran a daycare out of her house.  Those, too, have faded; no one can remember what color they once were.

“I’m at peace,” S___ said.  “A lot of children have been in and out of my house.  I’ve touched a lot of lives.”  She still had hair when she said this.  When I last saw her, her head was wrapped in a bandana, and she was bloated.  She didn’t seem to be in pain, but this was what I saw on the outside.

Cries and Whispers ends on a note of grace:  Agnes, in her diary, describes walking with her sisters and coming upon a swing, the three of them together again, and happy, for a moment.  So I end with this moment with S___:  a summer night, when she had just finished a ride with her ladies’ motorcycle club.  The smell of exhaust dangled in the humidity.  S___ sat on her stoop with her then-neighbor and motorcycle buddy, and when the two of them saw Matthew and me returning home, they called us over.  They had an iced pitcher of margaritas at the ready.  And despite the insects swarming around our exposed skin, despite the obnoxious cruisers zooming down the street at unsafe speeds, we were, for a moment, happy.

Part I

In 1996, while I was at Johns Hopkins University, a student I knew committed murder.  He shot another student — once in the head, then once in the chest — before surrendering himself.  This happened on campus.  At the time, I worked as an editor for the school paper, the News-Letter.   Someone rushed into the office — it was the middle of Wednesday evening, and we were laying out the paper — and announced the news, and our editor-in-chief started shouting, “What happened?  What’s going on?”

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I seeks to explain, perhaps, how a person becomes ruthless.  Ivan, at first, doesn’t seem so terrible.  Ivan is horrified when the Tartars shoot down the captives Ivan has strung up on the battlements than surrender them to “the uncircumsized ones.”

Eisenstein suggests three things that may have prompted the change:

Ivan is beset on all sides by sinister profiles, all German Expressionistic shadows and angles.  When Ivan, nearly dead from illness, asks the boyars to pledge allegiance to his son, they turn away, one by one, and this betrayal is almost too much to bear.  The illness itself may have affected his brain.  Or perhaps it was the death of love — his wife, Anastasia, poisoned by politicking boyars, though, historically, her actual cause of death is unknown.

We may never know what drives someone over the edge.

Part II

In the months after the shooting at Hopkins, psychologists diagnosed the killer with numerous personality disorders.  In going through the emails of the two young men, the police found an odd, quasi-Victorian formality to them:  “We once again revealed and expressed ourselves to deeper levels and found profound joy in our bond.”  It was strongly hinted, but never proven, that the two had had some sort of sexual contact.  Months before the murder, the killer sent a message to his victim:  “I’ve cried out for your assistance, presence and help…. You know I’m a private person, very much an introvert, and when finally I wish to talk, to be silenced by one’s friend really hurts.”  And, on the day of the killing, he wrote in his journal, “This was a violation of me, my rights, and my dignity.  But I was embarrassed and kind of humiliated and afraid, and I didn’t want to destroy a good friendship over some act [in] which he overstepped his bounds.”

Ivan the Terrible, Part II sees Ivan succumbing to loneliness.  His movements are arch; he extends and cranes his neck like a bird, pecking at crumbs.  He draws his oprichniks close — his iron band — but they only aid his spiral into paranoia, isolation, summary executions.  Stalin, upon screening the film, summoned Eisenstein.  “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel,” Stalin told him.  “You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel.”

Eisenstein died of a heart attack before he could complete the trilogy.

I wonder if the answers are in that third film:  how a man becomes cruel, how he becomes a killer.

Part III

Hinkley High School didn’t offer AP Chemistry, so every morning, my friends Steve and Dan and I piled into Steve’s black vintage Thunderbird and trekked to Gateway High.  The front seats were stuck in ‘recline,’ and since Dan was taller than I, I took the backseat.  For the fifteen minute ride, we talked about day-to-day mundanities that seem important at the time, but fade as years accumulate:  Did you get this answer on the homework? Who are you taking to prom?  Which colleges have you heard from?

But the times all three of us were groggy or belligerently silent, Steve, a Peter Gabriel fan, put on music.  So and Shaking the Tree were our soundtracks.  Every so often, he’d slip in Passion:  Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, and I imagined that the drive down Chambers Road was a desert journey:  police sirens and ululations; car tires thrumming over potholes and African talking drums.

We knew of The Last Temptation of Christ because of the controversy, another shot in the endless culture war, whose targets would eventually encompass Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Chris Ofili’s “Black Madonna,” and David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly.”  But what makes something sacrilegious?  When an upscale dessert spot opened in Cherry Creek a few years ago, members of my parent’s temple were offended by a Buddha statue placed in front of the bathrooms.  They asked the management to move it.  Similarly, in Philadelphia, my sister huffed when we passed Buddhakhan, a yuppie-favored restaurant that features a gilded, oversized Buddha.

“We should,” my sister said, “open a theme restaurant with a big, honking Jesus overlooking everyone.”  Sample menu:  holy blood pudding, Disci-pulled pork, Communion wafer cookies.  The bar would serve nothing but rusty nails.  The name of the restaurant:  ‘The Last Supper,’ of course.

In the Last Supper scene of The Last Temptation of Christ, Willem Dafoe, as Christ, is calmly resigned to his fate.  This the same man (God?  Son of God?) who, earlier in the film, doubted his own divinity.  Did his doubt redouble his faith, or does faith exist only in the absence of doubt?

Dan, Steve and I also had English together, and our teacher presented a Bible-as-literature section.  In it, a classmate and I performed the first act of Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business.  We also gave presentations on other religions:  I wore my sister’s Norma Kamali dress and silvery bangles and drew, on the chalkboard behind me, extra arms to represent Shiva, dancing the world into destruction.

Dan, a Mormon, showed a videotape re-enacting the history of Mormonism.  Shot PBS-style, with a baritone narration over sepia-tinted images, the film droned on, a pioneer Western stripped of its outlaws, Indian raids, wild shoot-outs.  But when the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written were taken back to heaven, we erupted: What?  How’d that happen?  Did they get shipped Fed Ex?

Daniel, eyes flickering with visible agitation, remained silent, his faith unshakable.

Towards the end of The Testament of Orpheus, two children feed autographs of two “intellectuals in love” into the mouths of a three-headed statue.  Cégeste, the resurrected poet from Orpheus, explains that the statue is an “instant-celebrity machine” that guarantees “fame for anyone in a minute or two.”

“Beyond that,” he continues, “of course, it becomes more difficult.”

After devouring the autographs, the machine spews forth long strips of paper:  “novels, poems, songs and so forth,” Cégeste says.  “It stops until it’s fed by new autograph hunters.”

In the room that Matthew and I refer to as the ‘library,’ I have more than 100 signed books stashed in a corner unit that we bought off the street.  Back home, in Colorado, I have about 300 more.  I’ve been to readings where the bookstore staff handed out tickets for signings that went into the high four-hundreds.  I’ve been to readings where I felt the need to act extra-enthusiastic to make up for the vacant seats around me.

I’ve recruited friends to wait with me when the line proctor for Salman Rushdie announced, Only five books per person.  I’ve chased Orhan Pamuk down the National Mall after ending up on the wrong end of his cut-short signing line.  I’ve stood behind the rare-books dealers wheeling book-laden luggage with them, pulling out ARCs and foreign editions, first-editions with dust jackets lovingly Mylared — Signature only, they say.

Book dealers have a financial incentive to have their books signed.  My modest collection, on the other hand, would yield only a meager retirement account.  When asked if I want my books personalized, I waffle mentally before answering, Sure — not that I intend ever to sell my books.

Paul Bloom, in How Pleasure Works, suggests that, on a basic, cognitive level, people “assume that things in the world — including other people — have invisible essences that make them what they are.”  Works of art, in particular, have an essence that is “rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation.”  A painter signs his work to validate it; the signature embodies this essence of the work.

When I gave Matthew an inscribed copy of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, he was speechless.  He, of course, had already read it many times, but the fact that, at some point, Arendt had touched this book, held it, rendered him speechless.  Her essence now mingled with his.

There’s an old canard about how certain African tribes ban cameras because they believe that photographs can capture their souls.  Is this any different than the baseball memorabilia collector who believes that part of Joe DiMaggio resides in his glove?  Does he smell DiMaggio’s sweat in the creases of the leather?  If the collector slips his hand into the glove, does he taint DiMaggio’s essence or does DiMaggio’s essence infuse his hand?

I am a lepidopterist, pinning an author’s name into his own work.

Actual question from the 2008 All Souls College (Oxford) entrance exam: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”

I reply:  Yes, it does.  (Though, really, why are they wearing anything at all if it’s an orgy?)

Simply because a person is libertine in his sexuality does not mean that he exhibits moral turpitude in other aspects of his life.  This includes the ability to be offended by Nazi uniforms.  Let’s rephrase the question this way:  does the moral character of a “native and colonial” costume party change when Prince Harry shows up with a swastika armband?

Speaking strictly of the orgy, Nazi uniforms introduce an unsettling power structure.  The ‘conceit’ behind an orgy, if you will, is that everyone gets some.  Since the question overlooks the specifics of the orgy (round robin?  Roman free-for-all?  bukkake?  Wheel of Fortune?), one must assume that everyone approaches the orgy on equal footing.  Nazi uniforms introduce a master/submissive dynamic, which necessarily upsets this balance.

(One could argue, of course, that Nazi uniforms are role-playing, akin to ‘stern professor/naughty student’ or ‘football coach/star quarterback’ scenarios.  But Nazism is acknowledged to be beyond the pale.  Case in point:  many years ago, I rented a — oh, how shall I put this? — a ‘romantic comedy’ called Honorable Discharge.  In one scene, two men cycled through various military uniforms.  “Sailors suck,” the costume aficionado says to the other.  “Soldiers fuck.”  After their encounter, the costumier asks the jejune Lejeune [played by Chuck Barron], “Which would you like to be next?  The Nazi or the Jew?”  Barron, the viewer’s stand-in, gapes in disbelief.)

Which brings us to The Night Porter.  (Corollary question:  does watching the Night Porter the day after Yom Kippur make one a bad Jew? Answer:  Don’t ask me.  I’m not Jewish.)  While I can’t say that I enjoyed the film — the way one does not ‘enjoy’ Salò; or the 120 Days of Sodom — I will say that it’s provocative in examining not only the psychology of Nazi perpetrators, but of its victims too.  I do wonder the film errs in placing too much emphasis on Dirk Bogarde’s suave, murderous SS officer Max and not enough on Charlotte Rampling’s suffering Lucia.  Her psychosexual journey — concentration camp victim to survivor, respected citizen to masochistic prisoner — is the moral heart of the film.

(Here, I’d like to point out my fondness for ‘Naziploitation’ films [Love Camp 7, the Ilsa series], though I haven’t yet had a chance to read any Israeli Stalags.)

Does the moral character of The Night Porter change when Lucia takes charge of her sexuality while performing topless, in Nazi regalia, for a group of SS officers?  Or when she reclaims that sexuality when voluntarily chained in Max’s apartment?  Director Liliana Cavani doesn’t offer answers.  In this way, she’s like the Oxford test-givers, showing how there’s no easy entrance into this world.

My sister had a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales — a gray hardcover with watercolor illustrations for each tale.  I devoured them repeatedly (except for “The Snow Queen,” which seemed exceptionally long).  Fairy tales, in my mind, were supposed to be short and aphoristic — and the Brothers Grimm were certainly so.  Hans Christian Anderson was different, though:  his tales were moody.  In the film version of The Red Shoes, impresario Boris Lermontov describes the end of the titular tale as follows:  “Oh, she dies.”

Well, not quite:  in the version I remember, the cursed dancer begs a woodcutter to chop off her feet, and after he does, the shoes dance away with her severed feet still in them.  And then she lives happily ever after.  As a nun.  Repenting.

Powell and Pressburger transform a cautionary tale about vanity (the girl insists on wearing her red shoes to church) into one about artistic imperatives, but, to me, “The Red Shoes” will always be about vanity.  To wit:  my own pair of red shoes.  They weren’t ballet shoes — my ankles would crack long before first position — but a pair of Airwalks.  (Nowadays, everyone wears has a pair of Day-Glo Pumas, but I bought mine over 10 years ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C.)  The red had a metallic sheen, the type of color you see on a Ford Taurus to make it ‘jazzy.’  On the soles of the shoes was a design of interlocking arrows, like a dance pattern.

Those shoes were my first statement of sartorial personality.  Before that, shoes were simply a vehicle to protect your feet.  It was OK if they were from Payless Shoe Source made your feet stink.  It was OK if they stained your socks when they got wet, because they didn’t signify anything.  All this changed, of course, when I found that first pair that I loved.

How I held myself changed; how I moved changed.  The shoes were the first things my former beau, R____, noticed about me.  You walked in wearing your ruby red slippers, he’d say, recounting our meeting.  I wore those shoes while I DJed:  I had to be on my feet all night and sometimes danced in the booth.  After my shift had ended, I moved over to Badlands, where the dancing continued.  My shoes didn’t glow when the lights hit them (and they certainly didn’t have the luminous quality of three-strip Technicolor), but when the music was right, they could have been dancing me, for all I knew.  One night, the DJ at Badlands grew annoyed at the requests for Madonna’s “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” and proceeded to play the Pablo Flores mix of the song continually for 45 minutes straight.  Good times.

But the more you love something, the more it falls apart.  The sheen on my shoes cracked and flaked off from overuse.  I staunched the damage by painting the cracks with nail polish, but it didn’t look quite right.  The shoelaces, after years of mangling by DC Metro escalators, frayed.  The arrows on the soles melded into one another.

No need to cut off my feet or to leap in front of a train — I knew it was time to retire the shoes.  But my feet kept dancing nonetheless.

To me, fishing is one of those all-American activities in which I’ve never taken much interest.  (See also:  hunting, tent-pitching, fire building.)  Men who fish, in my mind, are Raymond Carver archetypes:  stoic, beaten-down, hard-drinking.  Men who chill six-packs of beer in the river.  Men who don’t stop fishing even when they find a corpse in the water.

And although the idea of fishing appeals to me — patience; sitting out in the sun; yummy, yummy fish — I can’t imagine yanking at something with a hook in its mouth.  I prefer to imagine, instead, that fish, of their own accord, jump out of water, filet themselves and swim into a pan full of butter.

If anything, Fishing with John highlights the homosocial component to fishing:  John Lurie asking Jim Jarmusch, “Do you want to see my penis?”; Tom Waits sticking a red snapper in his shorts; Willem Dafoe suggesting that he and John zip their sleeping bags together; the narrator announcing, “Both fishermen are covered with sores and boners.”  No gay subtext here.  Whatsoever.

Fishing as male bonding:  on the wall of our garage (the repository for the detritus of the Dinh family) was a pegboard, and lying across the top pegs — the way one would display a samurai sword — was a red fishing rod.  Whenever I got out of the car, I saw it above my head.  It was something that was always there, something that would always be there, like air.

Maybe my father intended to fish more than he did, but I remember us specifically going fishing only once.  I would never be a fisherman myself — my attempts at casting brought the hook perilously close to my own face — but I could at least help my father with the bait.  We had jar of green-neon garlic-flavored marshmallows, a jar of cherry-red salmon eggs.  I threaded them on the hook as if preparing a shish-kebob.  Afterwards, my fingers smelled like a poisoner’s lunch, but I loved pulling the lead teardrop weighing the line.  The whole contraption bounced like it was waving hello.

As I rinsed off the odor, minnows darted in the shallows.  I tried scooping them up, but they were too quick.  I splashed around until my hands turned numb in the sun-dappled water.  I hopped from rock to rock, venturing as far into the river as I could without getting wet.  Occasionally, the current would catch one of the pebbles at the bottom of the riverbed and send it tumbling downstream.

I decided:  it wasn’t necessary to fish to enjoy the peacefulness of fishing.

In any case, my father only caught three six-inch brown trout that day.  Not a rainbow among them.  Nonetheless, he brought them home proudly — as any man would after providing a meal.  He had prepared a whole cooler of ice for them.  They lay on top like bottles of Coke.

My mother brought down the hammer on future fishing expeditions.  After all, she was the one who got the privilege of gutting, cleaning and preparing them.

“It’s easier,” she said, “just to buy the fish at the supermarket.”

For someone who dislikes moving, I end up doing a lot of it.  For a five-year period (2003-2007), I moved every single year, schlepping my net worth across the country:  Houston to Denver, Denver to Minnesota, Minnesota to Denver, and finally, Denver to Delaware (not counting a final, intra-Delaware move from Newark to Wilmington).  I briefly befriended 10-foot U-Hauls, turned down the optional insurance, and went about transporting whatever crap I had accumulated during the year.

I’ve never been as efficient as Matthew at packing — he subscribes to the “no wasted space” philosophy.  I don’t fold clothes to pack for a trip; they sort of just bend themselves.  Matthew, with Tetris-like precision, carefully distributes weight in the truck, balancing crates full of books and CDs with mattresses and furniture as the truck sinks lower and lower onto its tires.  I sit back and act exhausted.

Once I step into the cab of the truck, however, I feel a surge of energy.  In that moment, I’m elevated above lesser, weakling passenger cars.  I’ve got diesel-powered brute force.  So if Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear seems overly masculine, I understand the impulse.  It takes balls to drive a truck — the bigger, the better.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the scene when Yves Montand jumps out of his hammock clad only in underwear.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to contend with ravaged South American dirt roads (though parts of I-70 can be rough), and I’ve never transported anything as volatile as nitroglycerin.  But, just in case, I turn up the music in the cab.  It drowns out the whinnying of the engine.  It gives me a certain pace at which to drive.  But most importantly, it smothers the sound of things shifting behind me:  the muffled crashes, the thumps of objects falling from great heights and spilling open.  Items shattering and tinkling or splintering and ripping.  With each move, I try (for a few hours, at least) not to become too attached to anything — an on-the-road moment of Zen.

There’s only been one moment during a move when I feared for my safety.  On the Houston to Denver leg, in Southern Colorado, the wind blew as if it were shifting the desert from one side of the highway to the other.  I slowed to forty miles an hour.  I saw “slowed” but actually, it was as fast as I could drive.  The truck strained against what felt like a hand pushing against its side.  Going up hills and crests, my speed dwindled to thirty, twenty-five, and I struggled to hold the wheel steady.  And while I really never believed that the truck would tip, occasionally I wondered.  Against my will, the truck shunted left and right across the road, like in the final scene in The Wages of Fear.  But with more abject terror and less maniacal glee.  We both had things to look forward to on our respective arrivals:  for Yves Montand’s Mario, a spinning and passed-out Vera Clouzot.  For me:  a bed, a pillow, and possibly a cat or two, in a home that I didn’t think would be temporary.

Problematic Jews:  Shylock; Bernie Madoff; Charles Krauthammer; Matt Drudge; Henry Kissinger; Ayn Rand; Rabbi Yehuda Levin; Dracula; Ariel Sharon; Bill Kristol; Watto from Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace; Richard Perle; Michael Savage; Barabas; Kyle Broslofski; the woman at the deli who makes you pay for her fat thumb every time she weighs out a pound of brisket; Caspar Weinberger; Berine Goldberg; Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb; Norman Podhoretz; militant West Bank settlers; David Horowitz; Geraldo Rivera; Ahasver; the international cabal of bankers and entertainment executives planning the takeover of the world financial system; Douglas Feith; that scruffy haired Jesus of Nazarene fellow.

And, of course, Fagin.

I approach Oliver Twist with trepidation, because I have difficulty processing racist stereotypes.  And while Alec Guinness doesn’t overtly identify Fagin as a Jew, he does have an unfortunate habit of pronouncing Oliver “Oy-iver.”  Plus:  the fakest nose in the history of cinema, only recently surpassed by Nicole Kidman’s proboscis in The Hours.  (Describing a Jew as having a “hook-nose” is one thing, but attaching a wedge of Brie to their face is another.  Also worth noting:  Fagin runs a gang of young boys living together — sort of how I imagine the goings-on in the Bel Ami house.  But with fewer rags.  And no artful dodging.)

I’m of two minds on how to engage with literature and films with racist depictions.  On the one hand, you can’t ignore the real damage that these stereotypes have done.  The Shylock and Fagin-type figures, in particular, have been used to perpetrate systemic discrimination — and worse, obviously — against Jews.  (Yes, some Jews do have those sharp hawk noses, but that just means that you have to tilt your head more to kiss them properly.)  On the other hand, you want to forgive one element in otherwise engaging and important works.  I adore Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, despite the feeling that Mickey Rooney is going to hell for his portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi.

This is a long-winded and roundabout way, I suppose, of cautioning myself not to ingest my media blindly.  Given that art is already an imperfect medium, it doesn’t hurt to attach an asterisk.  Thus:  Triumph of the Will is a stunning film.*  Listening to Wagner will stir your soul.**  Middlemarch is a really long book.***

So, as my huge asterisk in talking about Oliver Twist, I duly note that Dickens, in later revisions of the novel, removed references to Fagin as “the Jew.”  He also later took pains to include positive portrayals of Jews in Our Mutual Friends.  I haven’t seen the Roman Polanski’s recent version of Oliver Twist, I understand that Ben Kingsley did his best to make a full character out of Fagin.  Also, I have never seen any iterations of Oliver! — but this is less my avoidance of Fagin-related materials and more that I don’t really like musicals.  Hey, we all have to resist our stereotypes and caricatures somehow.

*if you don’t mind all the dancing Nazis.

**especially if you blot out the anti-Semitic elements.

***written by a chick in drag!

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