Monday, May 19, 2014

The "Greenberg" Movie and Me

For a couple of years, I have been reluctant to comment in print on Noah Baumbach’s movie, Greenberg (2010), which loosely is based on the relationship between my younger brother, Roger, and me.  As you may recall, the major characters in the film are Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, and Ivan Schrank, played by Rhys Ifans. The movie is set in Los Angeles in the contemporary period and follows their relationship as Roger recovers from a psychiatric condition and wants to do “nothing” and Ivan is uncomfortably struggling with issues of love and work.  The two characters, who once were close friends as musicians in a band, had not seen each other in a while. 
            Neither Roger nor Ivan in the film strictly is based on the real-life Roger or Ivan. But, Noah has created composite characters, drawing upon aspects of our personalities and life histories.  I have an older brother Michael in real-life and he, too, makes a cameo in the movie as the older brother of the Stiller character who has left country with his family on a vacation.  In fact, my older brother Michael often was absent from the real-life Greenberg family and had left the country for an extended period to study medicine overseas.  The real-life Michael never had close relationships with his two brothers, while Roger and me had a very close relationship for a long period.
            I have been reluctant to comment on the movie for a number of reasons.  First, I did not want to draw attention to myself or my family for strictly personal reasons.  It is highly unusual for a director to use the names of living people in a fictional film, and to base the movie in part on them.  Second, I did not want to interfere with Noah’s creation.  That is, I did not want to add a new layer of meaning to the film by exposing his characters, and making an association, with living people and their lives.  However, by now the movie is history, and no longer is a subject of conversation, so the time seems ripe to offer some comments on the ways the movie is true to real-life and also on the ways that the movie has impacted my life. I offer some “behind the scenes” details as well.  I hope Noah does not take offense at these comments, but it does not really matter since he never asked permission to use the Greenberg names in the film. Nor did he tell the Greenbergs about the film before it appeared.
            But I got wind of it ahead of time.  It was inadvertent, and something initially of a shock.  My girlfriend at the time, Nancy, had spent a Friday night at my apartment in the Bronx. In the morning, she went online on my computer to read the newspaper and several of her other favorite sites.  As a guilty pleasure, she occasionally would peruse the website of celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton.  She called it her “escape.”  Nancy is an American history professor, who studies immigration and ethnicity.  Her following of celebrity news is very far afield from her usual interests. 
            “Hey Ivan,” she says to me.  I am sitting in a lounge chair across from her in my bedroom.  “There is a movie coming out named Greenberg.
“What do you mean?” I respond.
“It is in production.  I am reading Perez Hilton,” she says sheepishly.
“What? What is it about?” I ask.
She says the director is Noah Baumbach.
I am surprised. “Noah Baumbach? I know him.”
Nancy begins to read the article out loud to me.  Perez reports the plans for the movie, which will star the actor Mark Ruffalo in the main role.
“There is a picture of Ruffalo,” she says. “He looks like you.”
I walk over to the computer and peek at the screen.  “Oh shit,” I say.  “There is an obvious resemblance.  I have seen some of Ruffalo’s movies.  I like the type of off-beat characters he often plays.
“Who else is in it?” I ask.
Nancy tells me, “They haven’t chosen a co-star yet.  It is set in L.A.”
“What’s the plot?” I ask. “Is Noah making a movie about me?” 
Nancy says, “There is a character named Ivan in the movie.”  She is in shock.  “Also Roger. Roger Greenberg.”  She knows that my younger brother is named Roger, although she has yet to meet him.
“Who plays Ivan?” I ask.  She tells me it is Rhys Ifans.  She relays his movie credits. Apparently, he has a big fan following, but I do not know his work well.
“Are you sure the name of the movie is Greenberg?
“Yes. Greenberg. One word.
“Oh my God,” I say.  “This is news to me.  I haven’t seen Noah in at least a decade.” I then begin to describe how I know Noah.  “You know, the name Ivan appeared in one of his other movies, as did the name Greenberg.  It was his film, The Squid and the Whale.”  Nancy, who I had been dating for about a year, is excited.  My emotions are mixed. What is happening?  What is the movie about?  What does the character Ivan say and do?  Roger and me?  I wonder if my brother knows about it.
            Noah’s parents and my parents used to be close friends while I was growing up during the 1970s.  My mother, Dolores, met Noah’s father, Jonathan, while they were undergraduates at Brooklyn College, CUNY, during the early 1950s.  At the time, my mother was married and my parents formed a lasting friendship with Jonathan that was solid for many years. Noah’s father and my parents earned doctorates and became college professors in the CUNY system.  Jonathan taught writing at Brooklyn College.  Dolores taught American history at Hunter College.  My father, Robert, taught English literature at Queens College.  They moved in the same intellectual circle in New York City.   When I was young, our families often got together socially, and the children became friends. Noah was several years younger than me and he was closer to my brother Roger.  Still, we had many dinners together and I must have impressed Noah in some way.  
            Over the years, Noah and I had very little contact, although Roger remained in touch with him.  Apparently, Noah heard details of my life from a close friend of my mother’s, Pat, who also remained close to Noah.  So my connection to Noah was made through Pat.  My mother used to tell me about Noah as she heard gossip from Pat.
            So, after I hear that the Greenberg movie is in production, I call both Roger and my mother to ask if they had heard about it.  No, they say. In fact, Roger, who had become a lawyer, was startled that his full name was being used.  He soon emailed Noah to inquire about the content of the film.  After Noah told him about the film, Roger reluctantly went along without making a fuss.  In fact, Roger, in a nod to me, asked Noah a favor.  My son, Andrew, was an undergraduate at UCLA not far from where the movie was being produced.  Could Noah let him visit the set or intern on the movie?  At first, Noah resisted this interference but eventually let Andrew come to the set and put him in the film as an extra, with some of his friends, in the long party scene at the end of the movie. Actually, Noah asked Andrew if he could round up ten of his friends to pose as party-goers in that scene.  He got paid $20 an hour and the long scene took a week to film.  My son was thrilled to be in the movie.
            When the movie premiered in New York, Noah asked Roger if he wanted to attend a special screening.  My brother turned down this invitation.  Why I'm not sure.  I have not spoken to Noah since the film came out.   
            My mother asked me if I liked the film and how I felt about my name and select details of my life being used.  I told her, “As long as the movie is first-rate, I don’t object. I don’t want to be associated with a mediocre film.  This is a first-rate movie.”  My reaction made its way back to Noah, probably via Pat, and I heard that Noah liked my response.
            In American culture, Hollywood movies often become bigger than real-life.  While Greenberg resembles an indie film more than a Hollywood film -- indie in content and sensibility, but Hollywood in its casting – its impact on my life has been curiously substantial.  I have been treated differently by friends, lovers, and work peers because of the film.  Now, I rarely discuss the film with people, but word of mouth gets around and, when I do discuss it, there often is that cliché of a reaction – “wow, you were in the movies…you are a star…are you more like the Ben Stiller or Rhys Ifans character?, someone made a movie about you.” 
            In real-life, I earned a doctorate in American history, taught college for a decade, and recently wrote two nonfiction books on civil liberties in America. Among my professor-type work peers, I have tried to hide any association with the film.  High-minded scholars probably would frown on such a film, and misunderstand me, since no character in Greenberg is an intellectual. Greenberg is not a film about, or for, intellectuals, although it is a very smart movie.  Noah already addressed in a critical way the intellectual world of writers and professors in The Squid and the Whale, which in large measure is a critique of his parents.  However, among my friends I have mentioned Greenberg and was interested in their reaction to the film.  I heard diverse responses.  Some friends liked the film and could not believe the movie explored the relationship between my brother and me.   Again, it is the Hollywood syndrome. “Wow, you are mentioned in a movie – how cool is that.”  Some friends were competitive or jealous and voiced negative reactions.  They did not like the film and wondered if I was angry that Noah had depicted Stiller as a former “mental patient.”  Another common reaction was for people to notice that my personality in real-life was a little bit of both Stiller and Ifans in the film – how could it be both?  I would explain these are composite characters and if someone asked Noah about them, he probably would deny they resembled either me or Roger in real-life.  There have been times when I acted in some way and a person says -- “Yeah, that is exactly what Stiller would have done.”  People compare me to the fictional creation.  They seem to see me as closer to the Stiller character because of Stiller’s practice of writing angry complaint letters and his anti-corporate attitude.           
            Noah's focus on my relationship with my brother rings true in some ways. For many years we were close – Roger and I used to drink together, go to Knicks basketball games together, and socialize at times with the same people.  That was when we were much younger.  Today, Roger and I have had a serious falling out – in much the same way the fictional characters have a falling out at the end of the movie.  But, my break with Roger came after the movie and was unrelated to it.  The tension between us got so bad that at one point that Roger even told his two young children that I had died.  What an extreme response.  When I told a close friend what Roger had done -- and said that I had passed -- she commented, “Oh, that is what Ben Stiller would have done.”  I laughed.   

Friday, May 2, 2014

On Privacy and American Intrusions

     Recently, the issue of personal privacy has come to the forefront in my scholarly studies and in the consideration of important issues facing my personal life.  I have written two critical books on surveillance and civil liberties in America -- and privacy has been a subject I considered only in a secondary fashion. Now, I want to begin to address it in more depth. 
    To begin, advances in technology within the last 20 years have put enormous strain on the preservation of privacy because government intelligence agencies (FBI and NSA) have demonstrated little hesitancy to eradicate individual privacy.  In their view, Americans have no inherent right to privacy.  Privacy easily can be swept aside as government gathers vast amounts of  information on the people.  
      I  surprise many of my peers by not owning a smart phone.  I never have purchased one.  Why?  In order to protect my privacy since smart phones can function too easily as a surveillance tool. Smart phones store so much information about people and their network of relations that it seems offensive to endorse this supporting apparatus of the Surveillance Society.  I insist to stand outside the Surveillance Society.  It is the same reason I never have used GPS technology in my car.  I would rather get lost than give up data to government about my movements.   
     A few days ago, I was sitting at a table drinking coffee in Whole Foods in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, and took out my cell phone to answer a call.  A person nearby noticed the phone was not smart, and remarked: "He must be a Fed."  Consider that comment.  Silver Spring shares the border with Washington, DC, and many people living there work for the federal government.  I hear from good sources that workers in sensitive positions in the U.S. government are not allowed to own smart phones because it is deemed a security risk.  I guess the person seated near me thought I was one of them.  But if he looked more closely, he also would have noticed that I sport a tight beard on my face.  No one who works for the federal government is allowed to have a beard.  I guess beards are viewed as subversive to law and order and a Godly society.          
     Let me try to define Privacy so the dimensions of this inquiry are clear. Privacy can be defined as “acting without being observed in any way” or the “right to be let alone.”  It also involves the individual’s control over their personal information and how it is communicated to others.  When government spies on people and groups, it invades their private space and makes part of it visible. How much becomes visible depends on how much surveillance is directed at subjects.  FBI and NSA spying, due to dramatic technological advances, can eradicate a great deal of privacy.  The government can snoop into many spheres of people’s lives, including online spaces.
            Individual freedom and autonomy is at stake.  When privacy is under attack, liberty suffers as subjects of surveillance are forced to live in closed, visible spaces with little place to hide from the outside world.
            Of course, the problem of surveillance and the loss of privacy and freedom is not new.  In the past, totalitarian and authoritarian governments imposed surveillance in order to maintain their power and control.  However, we do not expect democratic governments also will impose surveillance in such a way as to threaten the autonomy of the individual. 
            Why would constitutional democracies, where government rule is based on the consent of the people, spy on the public in massive ways?  Policymakers often say privacy is invaded in order to achieve security.  They argue that striking the right “balance” between privacy and security is a legitimate goal.  At the present moment, they say, the balance is tilted toward security because of the high level of danger facing the nation. This argument is insufficient because today’s Surveillance Society, itself, is thoroughly unbalanced.  In fact, this balance metaphor has become a rhetorical device used by mainstream political leaders to maintain and enhance their power. Today, many of America’s elected politicians hold widespread suspicion of the people.  This suspicion is based on fears the people will rebel and kick them out of power; that is, the people will cast aside existing power arrangements in favor of new ones.  Government uses suspicion to maintain the status quo, suppressing popular sovereignty.  The stated reason for official surveillance – to fight terrorism – is a cover for these other control goals. 
            America is a class society with the highest level of economic inequality in the world.  There are very rich people and very poor people and a shrinking middle class straddled in between.  The Surveillance Society formed in America at a time when the class divide was expanding. This is one reason the ruling class, more than others, fears Edward Snowden.  His whistle blowing has the potential to unsettle the exercise power in America.
            No one wants their data to be showing.  But just as people with wealth have more free speech than others, the privileged economic class, too, has more privacy.  While it is true that bulk "metadata" collection makes few distinctions based on class because it conducts a broad sweep of everyone, the follow-up security investigations that are subject-based, once authorities locate “suspicious” patterns, are more likely to cast lower income people as suspects for their political activity.  The struggle against surveillance, and to preserve privacy, should become an urgent priority for everyone.  How long before we all live in a dystopian world.  Not just me, but you, too. .