I recently watched the 30th anniversary DVD edition of the film “The Message,” which is Moustapha Akkad’s groundbreaking Hollywood production of the story of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In addition to including both the English and Arabic versions of the film, the new DVD edition also has English and Arabic audio commentary from Akkad, as well as a short documentary on how the film was made.
The Prophet’s story has always been my absolute favorite. I have read his biography dozens of times, listened to tapes about his life, and have heard countless lectures and Friday sermons about his life and his struggles to bring Islam to the world. Watching “The Message” was a dream comes true.
The film truly takes you back into that time and makes you understand what it was like at the very beginning of the mission of the Prophet. It made me truly understand how painful it was for Ammar ibn Yasser, one of the Prophet’s companions, who saw his parents killed before his eyes and then buckled under the pressure of unbearable torture and cursed the Prophet. And the scene of the Prophet entering Medina on his emigration, with all the joyful believers singing and dancing, always brings tears to my eyes.
And this is why my soul burns with anger when I think how Akkad, who did a great service to the world by making this film, died recently in the terrorist bombings of Amman, Jordan. This man, even though he was better known for making the “Halloween” series, had a truly noble goal: to help the West better understand Islam. He knew that the best way to do so was through the silver screen, and that’s why he made this marvelous film. And he was killed by “Muslims” who murdered him in their quest to “defend the sanctity of Islam.”
What shame, what madness.
My anger grew even stronger when I listened to his audio commentary on the DVD. He explained how difficult it was trying to get this movie shown in theaters across the Arab and Muslim worlds, as well as in America. He worked so hard on this true jihad–spiritual struggle–for the sake of Islam. And he was killed by “holy warriors” who call their satanic act of murder “jihad.”
Joining a long line of less-than-memorable sequels based on movies that shouldn’t have made as much money as they did the first time around, “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” opened last weekend just in time to entice kiddies on Christmas break. Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt return to slapstick their way through parenting 12 kids, as the family takes one final family vacation together. At their cabin on Lake Winnetka, overly-competitive dad, Tom, starts a rivalry with the dad of another family, the Murtaughs. Will Tom’s family quit squabbling long enough to pull together to beat those nasty Murtaughs? Will they learn to better appreciate each other along the way?
Oh, and then there’s the biggest question of all: Why should anyone watching this movie care? “Cheaper by the Dozen 2” is mind-numbing entertainment at best, but sadly I predict it will do reasonably well at the box office in spite of numerous negative reviews. Why? Because the few positive reviews it is receiving are coming from conservative Christian organizations with large subscriber bases that tout the movie for its “family friendly” qualities–i.e. there may be no storyline, or decent acting or anything else to commend the film, but hey, it’s also completely inoffensive to our easily offended sensibilities.
Don’t get me wrong. Even though I am not a parent, I understand the desire of parents to be able to take their children to a movie without worrying about lots of profanity or gratuitous sex or other objectionable content. But I think this movie presents a strong case in point for making a cultural paradigm shift in how a “family friendly” movie is defined. Does this family even remotely resemble any family I have ever met? No. Are they dealing with any of the difficult issues a real family would be dealing with? Not a chance.
And what message are groups like Focus on the Family sending when they give praise to this movie in the same breath as the excellently-crafted “Chronicles of Narnia,” while completely panning other family dramas such as–and I am going back a couple of years, I admit–the brilliant, Oscar-nominated “In America”? And why aren’t they getting the word out about recent inspirational indie hits, such as “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which are completely appropriate for the whole family? It’s time for the church community, which so vehemently wants to have a say in Hollywood, to expect more than “Cheaper” family entertainment at the theater–unless you are just counting the days until you can go see “Cheaper by the Dozen 3” at a cineplex near you.
We Jews often whine about the supposed lack of good Hanukkah music. The Hanukkah songs most Jews learned as kids don’t hold a candle (so to speak) to such memorable tunes as “Little Drummer Boy” or “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Nor do you see Jewish celebrities lining up to make Hanukkah albums, a la the steady stream of Christmas albums by the likes of Regis Philbin and Jethro Tull. Adam Sandler, of course, tried to remedy the situation with “The Hanukkah Song,” a witty ditty that was laugh-out-loud funny the first few times I heard it, but which has now been overplayed to death by radio DJs hoping to inject a little diversity into their month-long marathon of Christmas music. (Personally, I think many traditional Hanukkah songs are as beautiful and meaningful as the best Christmas carols, but since they’re in Hebrew, they’re not about to be played on mainstream radio.)
This Hanukkah, however, how about trying something new? Introducing “The Leevees,” a duo comprised of indie rockers Adam Gardner (Guster) and Dave Schneider (the Zambonis). Their debut album, “Hanukkah Rocks” features original songs all about the Festival of Lights–and has received attention by the likes of RollingStone.com and Entertainment Weekly. In sound and lyrical sensibility, their music is reminiscent of a Judaized Barenaked Ladies, with whom The Leevees have toured. The music is catchy, fun, and, well, good. The words are funny without being self-mocking, good-naturedly presenting a celebration of Hanukkah that is neither secularized nor preachy, accessible while still being traditional, and able to laugh at itself without becoming a Borscht Belt self-parody.
“Applesauce Vs. Sour Cream” tackles the ancient potato-latke condiment debate, while “Latke Clan” paints a portrait of a family Hanukkah celebration as sweet and loving as anything Regis dishes out. “Goyim Friends” pokes fun at Jews’ envy of Christmas gift-giving and scrumptious holiday feasts (“We will march on, with General Tso and egg foo young…”) while also reveling in the abundance of Jewish holidays year round. When was the last time you heard a pop song reference Simchat Torah and Tu Bishvat?
So this Hanukkah, after lighting those candles and frying up those latkes, put away the Adam Sandler, stop whining about how Christmas music is so much better than Hanukkah music, and crank up The Leevees.
As if I even need to remind you…. today is Festivus! The fictional holiday made famous by Jerry Stiller’s character Frank Costanza in a 1997 episode of “Seinfeld” is–yes is–observed nationwide by many who crave “a Festivus for the rest of us.” Fed up with the commercialism of Christmas–and the toy store battles he found himself embroiled in–Frank defined the holiday with such rituals as the “Airing of Grievances,” in which people tell loved ones how they’ve disappointed them over the past year, and “Feats of Strength,” where the head of the household has to pin the other members of the family. There was no Christmas tree necessary: Festivus revelors gather around an unadorned aluminum pole to perform their rituals. Don’t have yours yet? Worry not, the website ChosenCulture.com sells a miniature pole that is perfect for table or desktop. Stiller himself is even involved in the life-imitating-art-imitating-life (“Seinfeld” writer Dan O’Keefe’s father is said to have invented the holiday in the 1960s). A new book features a forward by Jerry Stiller, as well as Festivus recipes, history, and other surprises.
Would Frank Costanza object to this new commercialization of his beloved Festivus? A good question for debate over pole-skewered shrimp at the Festivus meal, perhaps.