As I think the “film critic” John Podhoretz would agree, a high-end Sunday brunch buffet can try even the most disciplined soul.
Between the automatic donut maker, which looks like a stainless steel version of a first-generation laser printer, what with its price and size, in addition to its motors, mixers and tracks, yielding trays of hot and high-fat delicacies in lieu of TPS reports; between this machine and the nearby carving station, where a chef uses a handsaw to cut thick slabs of prime rib, the kind a superintendent would throw to lions or tigers during feeding time at the San Diego Zoo; between the Willy Wonka-like display of pastries and palettes of Irish and French butter; between the pan of mashed potatoes, white as snow and as viscous as napalm; between all of this, one may experience the urge to consume everything.
A lesser buffet would be, like Podhoretz’s film reviews, the leftovers from a DMV worker’s retirement party—hardened crullers, Hostess Fruit Pies oozing their artificially colored versions of edible plasma, as well as assorted Ding Dongs, Zingers, Cupcakes, and (of course) Twinkies.
Let us now praise the Twinkie—stick with me here—that “Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling” for what it is: Our very own madeleine, whose crumbs (when mixed with tea) are more potent than any tab of acid, whose taste touches the tongue and invades the body, whose exquisite pleasure reveals memories from long ago; of John Podhoretz as a VISTA volunteer, an anthropologist in training, who visits the shantytowns of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the ghettos of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on behalf of his study of black families.
How else to explain Podhoretz’s review of “Jerry Maguire,” which he calls the best picture of 1996 (the same year as “Fargo,” “The English Patient,” “Secrets & Lies,” and “Shine”), citing its “astonishingly sensitive and unusually honest depiction of a black family”?
That would be the fictional family of a fictional wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, whose four-word catchphrase is a refrain worthy of the Scriptures and worth the entirety of the movie’s script: “Show me the money!”
Put aside, for a moment, that the average NFL salary is $1.9 million.
Put aside, too, that that figure is as honest a depiction of a black family as any episode of “Good Times,” the 1970s TV sitcom about a husband and wife and their three children, with an honorary fourth (played by Janet Jackson) across the hall from the doorway of their apartment in what is, ostensibly, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green; a since-demolished housing project of the worst form of Brutalist architecture. The show never refers to the 15,000 tenants living in squalid and segregated conditions, not when a fast-paced theme song is as good an anthem as any in the United States of Amnesia, while the only memorable thing the eldest child, James “J.J.” Evans, Jr., says is: “Dy-no-mite!”
Perhaps Podhoretz arrives at his conclusion from his study of the seminal tracts on race; chief among them, an essay whose commentary is as prescient as its prose is providential; a must-read piece that rivals the rhythms of a great king and exudes the righteous outrage of a democratic republican, because it reflects the content of the author’s character.
Thus does this rhetorician teach his son how to recognize the presence (or lack thereof) of the high art of criticism.
Podhoretz’s critique is fair–until he politicizes things.
By mocking RFK’s attempts to speak extemporaneously, Podhoretz says the late senator’s grammar is “poor enough to make George W. Bush seem like Strunk, or maybe even White.”
An interesting observation, given Podhoretz’s inclusion of Bush alongside FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan for “elevating a nation through the power of his discourse and the passion of his conviction.”
Compare that with RFK’s poverty of grammar, as he speaks without notes—as he makes note of one tragedy and does his best to maintain his composure, as the crowd notes where he speaks of a personal tragedy too heavy to bear—as all absorb the news about the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Maybe that speech is an aberration, despite the stubbornness of facts and in spite of Senator Kennedy’s stubborn refusal to deliver prepared remarks, during his campaign to win the 1968 California Democratic presidential primary.
From an open car, with the sun shining on his face and the people cheering at his feet, RFK stands like an open target, speaking of a new America. We know what happens next.
We are the ones who lack the words, because we lack the grammar, to eulogize this man.
We can, however, join John Podhoretz in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.
We can guard the door, while he raids the freezer so he may grieve by bemoaning the loss (at his hand) of each gallon of 31 flavors, before he mourns the fate of his fellow tribesmen.
For omertà rules the movies, according to Podhoretz, forcing Gentiles—including the “very Italian” Robert De Niro and the “very WASPy” James Woods—to play Jews, while forbidding Jews from playing Jews.
As for those Jews, observant or otherwise, who get to play Jews, the list has fewer household names than any minyan from “Schindler’s List.” Kirk Douglas in “Cast a Giant Shadow”; Paul Newman in “Exodus”; Richard Dreyfuss in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”; Topol in “Fiddler on the Roof”—bums, the lot of them.
Here, again, is Podhoretz the anthropologist and ethnographer; separating the Italians from the very Italian Italians, save James Caan and Abe Vigoda, while Woods—a former altar boy—reads the Book of Common Prayer.
I leave it to the astronomers at MGM (“More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”) to explain the two TV docudramas about the Israeli rescue mission in Entebbe, Uganda, with Dreyfuss playing Colonel Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s older brother, in “Victory at Entebbe”; and Woods playing Captain Sammy Berg in “Raid on Entebbe,” which also stars Yaphet Kotto, a “Jewish Negro,” as Idi Amin.
From Israel to Little Italy, Podhoretz is on the case.
He sees plots and counterplots, politics everywhere.
Even “The Godfather,” by Podhoretz’s reckoning, has a single flaw: the anachronistic exchange between the newly minted Mafia chief Michael and his future wife in 1947 when she protests, “Senators and governors [sic] don’t have people killed,” and he responds, with Nixon-era cynicism, “Now who’s being naïve, Kay.”
By my reckoning, then, “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” is a tragedy about a hazing gone horribly awry, while the crucifixion is an OSHA-inspired fable about the dangers of practicing unlicensed carpentry.
Before we fade to black, let us go back to the future.
In his recent review of “Blade Runner 2049,” Podhoretz calls the original “Blade Runner” confused, messy, and wrong in every particular.
“The world is not awash in acid rain (an environmentalist fad subject of the early 1980s),” he says.
It’s a theory, anyway. Ridley Scott, the director of “Blade Runner,” offers this weather report:
Well, the fact that we were shooting at night was certainly a helpful factor. But Warner’s backlot isn’t that big. So if we hadn’t filmed ‘Blade Runner’ at night, you would have been able to see beyond the margins of our sets to all those small hills which surround the Warner Brothers’ studio. That’s also the reason it’s raining all the time in ‘Blade Runner,’ you know. To disguise the fact that we were shooting on a back lot.
There you have it.
Or, as Dean Vernon Wormer might say: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go to the movies, Mr. Podhoretz.”