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PEN America, facing criticism over its response to the Mideast war, gathers for annual gala

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PEN America, facing criticism over its response to the Mideast war, gathers for annual gala
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PEN America, facing criticism over its response to the Mideast war, gathers for annual gala

2024-05-17 12:39 Last Updated At:12:51

NEW YORK (AP) — Like a political convention held amidst an intra-party rift, Thursday night's PEN America gala was a call for unity, dialogue and a renewed sense of mission at a time when PEN's priorities have been called into question.

“Our assembly is disassembling,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel acknowledged Thursday night. “People of good intention and staunch conviction are wracked by a wrenching conflict. We are haunted by destruction, death and suffering that has caused some to question PEN America’s words, deeds and purpose.”

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Candace Bushnell attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Like a political convention held amidst an intra-party rift, Thursday night's PEN America gala was a call for unity, dialogue and a renewed sense of mission at a time when PEN's priorities have been called into question.

Seth Meyers attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers, left, and Suzanne Nossel, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers, left, and Suzanne Nossel, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Suzanne Nossel, left, and Andrea Mitchell, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Suzanne Nossel, left, and Andrea Mitchell, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Suzanne Nossel, Andrea Mitchell and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Suzanne Nossel, Andrea Mitchell and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Andrea Mitchell, left, and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Andrea Mitchell, left, and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Leo Greenberg, Suzanne Nossel, Eliza Greenberg and David Greenberg attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Leo Greenberg, Suzanne Nossel, Eliza Greenberg and David Greenberg attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

The literary and human rights organization has faced ongoing criticism over its response to the Israel-Hamas war, with hundreds of writers alleging that PEN showed limited concern over the suffering of Gaza residents and the deaths of Palestinian writers and journalists. PEN has already canceled its spring awards ceremony after dozens of nominees withdrew and its World Voices festival after hundreds signed an open letter saying they wouldn’t participate.

Some had wondered if the gala would take place, but the event is the organization's major annual fundraiser, with more than $2 million coming in from Thursday's event, and key donors remained. All five major New York publishers — Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan — were listed as sponsors, along with organizations ranging from Bloomberg and Barnes & Noble to the National Basketball Association and the David Geffen Foundation.

“There was zero discussion about us not attending,” Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Many attendees had to clear three checkpoints before entering the American Museum of Natural History; if dissenters were inside, they were not speaking out. Nossel received a standing ovation, and she was among several speakers who emphasized common PEN goals such as opposing book bans and the imprisonment of writers, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia. PEN President Jennifer Finney Boylan stated that PEN America was “determined to amplify the voices of all writers at risk — from Israel to Ukraine, from Palestine to Russia, from Florida to Texas.”

Seth Meyers, the evening's host, joked about the “super chill and laid back” moment for PEN. One honoree, Paul Simon, consoled with words and music. Simon, this year's winner of PEN's Literary Service Award, brought an acoustic guitar to the stage, and performed a gentle, even fragile version of his 1973 classic about a generation's strife and exhaustion, “American Tune.”

“There are songs that can inhabit two eras and speak truth to both,” he said, adding that the “mood today is uncomfortably similar to those days.”

Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour was presented the Business Visionary Honoree Award and dedicated much of his speech to Gershkovich, saying he was being held in Russia simply for doing his job and noting the hundreds of other journalists in similar peril worldwide. “The grim reality is that there are scores of Evans everywhere,” he said.

Authors at the gala included Candace Bushnell, Jay McInerney and Andrew Solomon, a former PEN president who joined Salman Rushdie, Jennifer Egan and other onetime PEN officials in publishing a letter in April urging “writers to keep faith in the community that we have built together so that PEN America can continue to evolve in ways that serve and elevate the writers as a vital force within society.”

Around 650 were in attendance, roughly 100 less than 2023, according to PEN. Some who came acknowledged ambivalence.

“I won’t say it didn’t occur to me about whether I should go,” said novelist Dinaw Mengestu, a PEN vice president who has been highly critical of the organization. “But I feel it’s important that we can continue to move forward and try and learn and change.”

Protests against PEN have continued, and writers have publicly clashed. On Thursday night, around 20 protestors stood in front of the museum, calling out names of Palestinian civilians killed and chanting “Shame!” as gala attendees arrived. Earlier this month, Author-journalist and PEN board member George Packer condemned what he called the “authoritarian spirit” of PEN critics, alleging in The Atlantic they were pressuring others not to back the organization. Mengestu responded on Instagram by alleging that Packer's essay “perverts and distorts the legitimate and necessary criticisms against PEN” and trivializes the Gaza war.

Last week more than a dozen writers who withdrew from PEN events held a benefit reading at a church in downtown Manhattan, with proceeds going to We Are Not Numbers, a youth-led Palestinian non-profit in Gaza that advocates for human rights. When the opening speaker, Nancy Kricorian, referred to the PEN cancellations, audience members shouted and clapped. Another speaker, writer-translator and “World Voices” co-founder Esther Allen, criticized PEN for continuing with the fundraising gala while calling off the awards and World Voices.

“The priorities could not be clearer,” she said.

Two honors Thursday night were dedicated to those under siege in the U.S. and abroad.

PEN's Freedom to Write Award, for imprisoned dissidents, was given to journalist Pham Doan Trang of Vietnam. Accepting on her behalf, her friend Quynh-Vi Tran praised Trang as a “symbol of bravery and perseverance, inspiring countless young people to envision and strive for a Vietnam where freedom and human rights are upheld.”

PEN's Courage Award was presented to Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter, "Shaye” Moss, both of whom faced violent threats after President Donald Trump falsely accused them of manipulating ballots for the 2020 election.

“I still struggle with fear. It has a way of just rearing its head and interrupting my life. I would love for it to stop, but what I want most is for people to understand the truth that has been buried beneath so many lies,” Moss said.

“But here tonight, with all of you, I’m filled with hope again.”

Candace Bushnell attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Candace Bushnell attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers attends the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Protestors gather outside the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers, left, and Suzanne Nossel, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Seth Meyers, left, and Suzanne Nossel, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Suzanne Nossel, left, and Andrea Mitchell, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Suzanne Nossel, left, and Andrea Mitchell, right, attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Suzanne Nossel, Andrea Mitchell and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Suzanne Nossel, Andrea Mitchell and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Andrea Mitchell, left, and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

Andrea Mitchell, left, and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Leo Greenberg, Suzanne Nossel, Eliza Greenberg and David Greenberg attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

From left to right, Leo Greenberg, Suzanne Nossel, Eliza Greenberg and David Greenberg attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

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Movie Review: A new generation drives into the storm in rousing ‘Twisters’

2024-07-18 01:15 Last Updated At:01:22

We have a complex relationship with disaster movies. Just look at the discussion about a “ Twisters ” poster, which became a perfect encapsulation of our love-hate tendencies.

In the promo for the film, in theaters Thursday, actors Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell and Anthony Ramos are standing in front a massive, menacing cyclone. It not only contains various objects swirling in mid-air, from houses to trucks, but also appears to be on fire. Some people wondered why the stars weren’t looking at said tornado. Others said if you’re asking questions like why the tornado is on fire, this movie isn’t for you.

Both lines of thought can be true though. Maybe their coexistence is essential. This makes no sense! Also, sign me up immediately! Disaster movies are almost required to be graded on a curve. And filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s entry into the canon is perfectly paradoxical.

It might not be fair, or rational, but there is something about the genre that inspires otherwise reasonable moviegoers to giddily give themselves over to a wild premise — the more ridiculous and illogical the better. There is something to be said about the joy of collective laughter where there wasn’t an intentional joke, or a spirited post-movie debate about the flawed logistics of a plan and exactly how many people have died from being sucked into a tornado. These are the movies that are hard to see clearly the first time but tend to become sneaky favorites over the years.

Such is the case with “Twister,” Jan de Bont’s film about storm chasing and remarriage. The modern collective love for it would probably surprise even the critics who reviewed it favorably in 1996. Part of that is certainly the fact that in the 28 years since it was released we lost both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Paxton. But it’s also just fun to watch with fresh eyes, to see the internet remember (or realize for the first time) that one of the storm chasers was played by Todd Field, the man who would go on to write and direct “Tár.” I re-watched it recently on plane and had a blast. I’d forgotten the insane opening but remembered Dusty’s impassioned foot chant.

There’s been a lot of cautious optimism surrounding “Twisters” that’s felt different from a lot of the reboots and “new chapters” (anything to avoid calling it a sequel) that have come and gone in recent years. Audiences are craving something big and fun, but worried that it won’t live up to their idea of what it should be. This is inherently flawed because “Twister” has earned its reputation, its quotability, across many viewings and many years. “Twisters” we’re just meeting. It’s hard to get too excited about a first date.

But Chung, a filmmaker best known for the comparatively small “Minari,” has made a solid film with escalating action sequences that look great on the big screen. There is once again a crazy opening that gives Edgar-Jones’ tornado-obsessed Kate a trauma origin story. Her hubris in thinking she could “tame” a tornado with science backfired and people died; But five years later her old friend Javi (Ramos) convinces her to come back to Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley to attempt a different kind of study.

The story is credited to Joseph Kosinski (who was once going to direct) and the screenplay to Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) and none of them can get the original out of their heads. Yes, these are all new characters (including Powell’s YouTube star storm wrangler Tyler) and the only real connection to the first movie is that the Dorothy technology exists. But it is so referential as to be distracting: Literal lines of dialogue (“I’m not back”); An attempt to make Tyler’s crew a gang of Dustys (which underserves actors like Sasha Lane and Katy O’Brian); Making David Corenswet wear what’s essentially a recreation of Carey Elwes’ baseball cap and earpiece. Don’t they want us to think of “Twisters” on its own terms?

But Chung clearly also had a vision, attempting to ground the insanity in a real place with regionally appropriate styles and music, and deeper characterization. The supporting players were thoughtfully cast. Its leads, Powell and Edgar-Jones, are endlessly watchable with palpable chemistry, even as they’re monologuing about sodium polyacrylate.

I wish I had the ability to know how “Twisters” will play 28 years from now, in 2052. Will the 12-year-olds seeing it this weekend go back to it as a comfort watch? Will it feel like it was part of the good old days of big studio movie making? Right now, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s destined for that kind of longevity. And I’d love nothing more than to be wrong about that.

“Twisters,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “intense action and peril, injury images, some language.” Running time: 122 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Sasha Lane, left, and Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Sasha Lane, left, and Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones, from left, Anthony Ramos and Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones, from left, Anthony Ramos and Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, from left, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Maura Tierney in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, from left, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Maura Tierney in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Harry Hadden-Paton in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Harry Hadden-Paton in a scene from "Twisters." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Brandon Perea, from left, Harry Hadden-Paton and Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Brandon Perea, from left, Harry Hadden-Paton and Glen Powell in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, left, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones, left, and Anthony Ramos in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Daisy Edgar-Jones, left, and Anthony Ramos in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, right, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Glen Powell, right, and Daisy Edgar-Jones in a scene from "Twisters." (Universal Pictures via AP)

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