August 27, 2009

Goodbye, Irène...

Irène Némirovsky and her family, August 1939.
(Courtesy of IMEC)

Seventy years ago the Némirovsky family had no idea of the tragedy that the next years would bring. They were a family intact with successful parents and beloved daughters, who believed that they had every prospect of continuing as they were. The photo above captures the last moments of this family before the beginning of the war that would change everything.

On Monday morning, we will begin to take down our exhibition, Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française. If you haven't seen this exhibition, Sunday is your last chance. If you miss it, you will have failed to see one of the most profoundly beautiful exhibitions ever mounted. Just having the opportunity to see the handwritten manuscript of Suite Française would be worth the visit. Seeing it in the context of the richly illustrated story of Irène's life, is an unmatched opportunity.

I am obviously proud of this exhibition and filled with admiration for its curator (and my Deputy) Ivy Barsky and its designer, Amy Forman, and the many others who worked so hard on it, including Sarah Griswold (who was the assistant curator) and Henrietta Foster (who made the brilliant films). My thoughts also turn to Denise Epstein, Irène's daughter, who gave so much, and to our friends at IMEC, who were the best possible partners. The entire experience of creating this exhibition was a remarkable one for all of us -- the things we learned, the friends we made, and the irreplaceable feeling of satisfaction that we did something important and did it so well.

I always feel regret when we take down one of our exhibitions. So much effort goes into them, and they become, for a while, such an integral part of the Museum. This weekend, I will feel not only regret, but a deep sense of loss. Thankfully, we can focus on the good prospect of Woman of Letters opening again (in a modified form) in Paris sometime in the future.

August 23, 2009


Jonathan Wenk/Columbia Pictures

I saw "Julia and Julie" last weekend and was very moved. I suppose my reaction had much to do with my own relationship with Julia Child. I used to joke that I took Julia to bed with me most nights at college -- I meant the book, of course. I read both volumes cover to cover, and I cooked my way through most of the recipes. I also watched her various TV shows with rapt attention. My favorite was the Chicken Marengo show, when she butchered a chicken with a cavalry saber as she recounted Napoleon's victory in the decisive Battle of Marengo.

There is no doubt that memories of food and the social context of food -- preparing it and partaking of it -- are among the most potent that humans have. And I was reminded of this power as I reviewed the draft of a cookbook, Recipes Remembered, which will be published in association with the Museum some time next year. The author, June Hersh, interviewed a number of Holocaust survivors and others whose lives were disrupted by the Holocaust, and recounts their stories including one or more recipes of defining dishes. Altogether a charming project.

Getting back to the film. Meryl Streep's Julia is uncanny. She delivers a miraculous performance that captures Julia perfectly -- including Julia's saucy side. Streep is also a favorite of mine for many reasons, not the least of which is the magical job she did for us on our audio tour. She and Yitzhak Perlman accompany our visitors through the core exhibition with warmth and sensitivity.

August 18, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Francois Duhamel/
Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

We had a sneak preview of Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds, last week at the Museum. The screening was introduced by Harvey Weinstein, and Tarantino hosted a Q&A after the film joined by Melanie Laurent, the female lead.

I will confess that I was nervous about this screening given the nature of our audience and the distinct possibility that some might have come to see the film thinking it was a serious movie about a serious history. Well, it's not. I had seen the movie several weeks ago in a mid-town screening room. It is, in parts, stunningly violent, and it departs from historical fact in both intended and unintended ways.

By now, most people are aware of its premise: a rag-tag group of Jewish soldiers are dropped into occupied France to kill --and scalp -- Nazis in dramatically violent ways. The denouement involves the kind of revenge that some people dream about: A movie theater filled with Nazi leaders and the German High Command that is.... well, I won't spoil it.

Now, we were careful to warn everyone about the explicit violence and the fantasy nature of the film, but nevertheless, as I scanned the faces of the audience as they arrived at the Museum, I was concerned.

My worries were misplaced. With one or two exceptions, the audience remained throughout the screening, and the general reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive. I think Inglourious Basterds has every prospect of becoming a sensational success. It is brilliantly acted, with sharp and intelligent dialogue, and is chock full of subtle --and not so subtle-- film allusions. I also think that it will attract its share of criticism from those who will claim that it trivializes the Holocaust, champions revenge at the expense of morality, and devalues historical truth.

Harvey Weinstein anticipated such criticism in his introduction to the screening by saying the first words of the film are, "Once upon a time," emphasizing its fable-like character. And Quentin Tarantino responded to one critic during the Q&A by saying, "It's a war movie, dude." For my part, I am perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief -- and perhaps some of my better judgment -- in the face of such a thoroughly entertaining and well-made movie.

Quentin Tarantino, Rita Lerner, DGM, Ann Oster at the Screening
(Photo by Max Lewkowicz)