Idol Chatter

This week the History Channel is celebrating Ancient Week (kind of like Shark Week at the Discovery Channel, but with no sharks). In honor of Ancient Week, they premiered a hokey, but ultimately interesting, TV documentary called “The Exodus Decoded,” produced by none other than James Cameron.

The show aims to prove scientifically the cause behind the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea; provide a new historical estimate for when the Israelites were lead out of Egypt by Moses; and archaeologically trace the route of the Exodus and location of Mount Sinai, challenging all previous speculation on these subjects.

The use of special effects is distracting and, at times, disorienting (no surprise there, though, given the fact that James Cameron is behind the production) and the narrator, Simcha Jacobovici, is rather corny in his attempts to build suspense. But the contentions and new explanations the team of researchers and scholars provides about the Exodus is fascinating–perfect for viewers who love all things “Bible: Decoded.”

It airs again tonight at 8:00 p.m.

Dear Daniel,

Our time together at the Geneva Convention was nothing short of magical… the way we “released international tension together”.. back when you were just a little nameless country called “Jewlandia,” and I a poor naïve Palestine, when the U.N. threw us together in the same convention booth. How did it all go so wrong? When did our Middle East passion become so muddled, all over “that stupid thing with your country being declared at the expense of my country’s autonomy”?

“If only we’d sat down in a Starbucks and written a statement of mutual agreement,” if only we had made a pact that day to never let anything come between us, so much fighting could have been averted. I don’t regret our time together that night, but have regretted every warring moment since, and thought you should know.

Passionately yours,

The above letter, while a fabrication by this blogger, could easily have been part of the play “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy,” an official selection of the New York Fringe Festival. As the play’s title and the above letter indicate (quotation marks indicate direct quotes from the script), the show imagines Israel and Palestine as a man and woman, respectively, who meet and fall in love at the Geneva Convention, only to have their brief union destroyed by the declaration of the State of Israel. As is the case when countries mate, there is post-affair awkwardness, which manifests as regional turmoil and violence. And of course, there are musical numbers.

The play’s fearlessly “out-there” concept–typical of the annual Fringe Festival (which this year also included shows with titles like “Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather” and “Reservoir Bitches”)–comes courtesy of its Iranian-American birth mother, Negin Farsad, and her partners in writing, Alexander Zalben, and in acting, John Flynn. The show has a madcap, high-energy feel and, if just for a moment, makes us wonder, “Why can’t those two wacky kids work things out?”

When the wacky kids in question are Israel/Daniel and Palestine/Suha, we all know it’s not that simple. But the tropes of relationships gone haywire are surprisingly appropriate. When Suha complains that Daniel “can’t balance a healthy relationship with nation-building,” she needs to find an outlet for her anger. Her epiphany: “I’ll take all the hatred and anger I have and use it constructively to destroy Israel!”

Over the course of the play, the actors get to play with different styles and characters. While some seem a little random (Israel and Palestine do a rap battle! Or a tango! Suha goes on reality show “Blind Date”!) others serve analogies straight up and nuclear.

Farsad plays the petulant student who is also, in the show’s conceit, Iran. She wears a baseball cap and a teenager’s surly and disobedient grimace. She’s called into the principal’s office because he’s found enriched uranium in her locker. “Iran” whines and blame-shifts. “I totally saw Pakistan and India making nuclear warheads under the bleachers during recess…” The principal (playing the role of U.N.) cautions her to wait before launching an attack, reasoning that “waging war is so much better with a standing army that you love.”

Love and war, two areas in which all has been deemed fair. And the line between love and hate is often hard to discern. It takes a rare and inventive imagination to set a region plagued by strife as a romantic musical comedy. If only political unrest and centuries of violence could be erased by a comedy from the fringe.

Has all of the couch jumping and Suri speculation finally caught up with Tom Cruise? In a surprise announcement yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Viacom exec Sumner Redstone claimed that Paramount–Viacom’s movie arm–is terminating its 14-year business relationship with Cruise’s film development company.

Seems Redstone believes mega pics like “Mission Impossible III” would have done much better at the box office if Cruise hadn’t scolded Matt Lauer for being glib about Scientology or chastised Brooke Shields for taking pills for her post-partum depression. “As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal,” Redstone has been widely quoted as saying. “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”

Hollywood–not to mention the media–is all-too eager to lap up this party line. But as in all juicy Hollywood break-ups, there are two sides to the story. Cruise’s partner, Paula Wagner claims that negotiations to renew a development deal between Cruise and Paramount had stalled in recent weeks anyway, so Cruise has decided to solicit funding to head up his own independent film production company. Wagner claims Cruise has made more money for Paramount than any other movie star, and that Redstone’s comments are unprofessional and unnecessary.

We’ve all had fun watching Cruise spin out-of-control for a long time now, but I am not convinced that Paramount’s unceremonious dumping of Cruise is motivated by religion as much as it is by greed. With Cruise commanding an exorbitant salary of $20 million and other incentives per film, plus a reported $10 million a year overhead, Cruise’s Scientology craziness gave Paramount the easy “out” they needed to cut costs. The move comes on the heels of a New York Times report that major movie studios are increasingly concerned about slumping box office and “have waged war on actor salaries.”

On the other hand, Cruise might want to give Mel Gibson a call. I am sure there would be a lot for them to talk about as they are standing in the unemployment line.

Despite fellow blogger Charlotte Allen’s rather icy assessment of my recent posting in praise of Madonna’s crucixifion act and my defense of a woman’s right to image the divine on the cross, my NPR commentary on the same topic was controversial enough to catch the attention of one of the most famous gossip-columnists in America, Liz Smith. Yes, I’ve made the tabloids!

In her New York Post column on Monday, headlined “A Thorny Issue,” the queen of celebrity (and, apparently, NPR) gossip writes:

“MADONNA IS doing Christians a favor. She is performing a woman’s right to stand in Jesus’s place… as a Christian, I know that one of the most important spiritual tasks asked of me is to see the crucified Jesus in each and every person I encounter… it offends only because our imaginations are so impoverished.”

So says teacher/author Donna Freitas, about the controversy of Madonna on the cross in her latest concert. Freitas spoke on the NPR program “All Things Considered.” (As the world knows by now, while suspended on the cross, wearing a twinkly crown of thorns, Madonna sings “Live to Tell.” Images of AIDS-stricken African women and children flash on the giant screen above her.) La Ciccone has insisted, “I don’t think Jesus would be mad at me.”

Well, I don’t try to fathom what Jesus would think. But maybe being named Madonna gives you special privilege.