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Friday, August 31, 2018

Who will write our history

Jewish life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto was remarkably recorded and preserved by one history teacher, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, and his cadre of dedicated friends who created the Oyneg Shabbes (i.e., “Joys of Sabbath”) Archive. It comprises 60,000 pages of writings, posters, announcements, photographs, product labels, doodles and other memorabilia. This film is based on historian Dr. Samuel Kassow’s book on the archive.
Dr. Ringelblum’s project undertook to record the minutiae of the Jewish people’s lives in Warsaw, from their prewar cultural richness, through the suffering under the Nazi occupation, to the tragic defeat of the uprising. “Will the Germans write our history,” he asked, “or will we?” Leaving it to the Germans would have left the Jews to be eternally defined by German propaganda.
  The intention grew from recording the day to day lives of the Jews in Warsaw, then detailing the gathering storm of persecution, and finally providing evidence for the postwar prosecution. The amassed material was buried in three caches in a cellar bellow a cellar. Recovering the two we have was like an archaeological probe under the ruins of Warsaw. Ironically, a church spire was used to locate the right ruins. Throughout the film, such poetic moments ruffle the wash of horrors.
Though this film is commonly labelled “documentary,” it actually interweaves documentary footage (in black and white) with dramatic reconstruction of scenes (in colour). Polish actors play the historic figures, with American actors (e.g., Joan Allen, Adrien Brody) doing the English voice-over. The  actors read the diaries from the Archive, but they’re still actors playing roles. That certainly does not diminish the realism of the drama, nor its significance and emotional impact.
The film was shot in Poland, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Its languages are English, Polish and most pointedly Yiddish, the momma loshen threatened with extinction. 
It was written and directed by the American, Roberta Grossman, who has worked in film and TV documentary for around 30 years. Her titles include In the Footsteps of Jesus (2003), Women on Top: Hollywood and Power (2003), Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action (2005) and Hava Nagilla: The Movie (2012). Her own career suggests she may have found some identification with the character who brings us into the film’s world, from the opening narration to the epilogue: Rachel Auerbach, a Warsaw social and arts critic whom Ringelblum persuaded to stay in Warsaw to help run a soup kitchen.  
There’s a curious touch in the title. Dr. Kassow’s book asks the question that inspired Ringelblum’s project: “Who will write our history?” The film drops the question mark. For now we know the answer. The Oyneg Shabbes heroes managed to write the history. This film passes it around.
     We should also observe how timely this history proves to be. It appears when Poland has been attempting to evade its historic responsibility for the Warsaw horrors. Worse, it recalls the kind of racist dictatorship that seems to be stirring itself back into life today.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Eighth Grade

There are so many beauties in this heart-breaking glimpse into contemporary adolescence.
It opens on Kayla’s YouTube video — a halting advice to kids to “be yourself.” Whatever that is, however to be it, that is the mystery engaged. These videos afford Kayla the appearance of confidence, self-knowledge, poise, success, in which her real life falls short.
Kayla’s day begins with her following a make-up instructional video to put on her face. Only then does she video herself waking up (“Ugh!!”). In scene after scene we watch her facial acne gradually reappear under her fading make-up. The film is about preparing a face to meet the faces that we meet. 
It’s also an anthropological record of the smart phone generation. The teens seem constantly plugged in, whether it’s Kayla at dinner or in her bed or the snotty Kennedy and her friend together/apart in the school halls. This constant connection betrays a tragic alienation. 
  Kayla’s scenes with her “shadow,” the four-years-older Olivia and her friends, replay that dynamic at another level. Olivia needs Kayla to be “cool,” “awesome,” to confirm herself. Riley’s backseat seduction attempt is a harsher version of the needy pretending to be strong. Kayla’s humbling there ends her YouTube pretence to grace. 
Her crush Aiden is the wouldbe bad boy, with his cool swagger, mouth-farts and rep for demanding sexy photos. Happily, Kayla abandons her training to give blow jobs and instead settles into the more civilized dinner party with Kennedy’s much nicer cousin Gabe. Over chicken nuggets and fries, across a long dining room table, Gabe and Kayla self-consciously attempt something so old-fashioned, a conversation.  
  This wonderful scene balances the pool party where they met. Kayla didn’t want to go to the party that Kennedy didn’t want to invite her to. The insistence comes from Kayla’s father and Kennedy’s mother. 
At the party Kayla’s slow approach to the pool conveys her excruciating fear, her sense of inadequacy, indeed shame. Her disastrous bathing suit emphasizes the inferiority she feels around those carefree, buoyant beauties. She seems to be trying to hide from that suit. Only Gabe shows any interest in her. He challenges her to a breath-holding competition, then shows off his pool handstand. Their dinner date is a hopeful parallel to this scene.  
As Kayla’s second “time capsule” box suggests, the struggle for a confident identity doesn’t end at any point in school — or any time soon after, as we elders know. Kennedy’s mom’s apparent interest in Kayla’s dad suggest these needs and ploys continue past puberty into adulthood, if not indeed adultery.
  As the film examines Kayla’s age-appropriate self-centredness we don’t learn much about the other characters. In her scenes with her father he tries to connect and she snappishly rejects him. 
They finally connect when he helps her burn her old box of dreams. Sensing her despair, he pours out his own emotions. He recalls his old fears about how he would raise her when her mother left them. He tells Kayla how much he loves and respects her and how confident he is in her ability to handle herself. She leaps into his embrace.   
      This connection should sustain Kayla — until her next everyday challenge. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Red Cow

Red Heifer would be a more appropriate title. It would replace the implication of bovine insentience with the tribal impulse to eliminate — the ennobling euphemism is “sacrifice” — something natural but irregular. That murder nominally serves the socially constructed “natural”. 
The obvious victim is the freakish red heifer, which is to be sacrificed on Rosh Hashannah to fulfill some biblical injunction. It will be killed, then burned, on the grounds that something unusual must be killed to protect the rather proscriptive version of God’s nature. 
  The other — more central — victim is the 15-year-old heroine Benny whose emerging sense of her lesbianism and increasing political awareness alienate her from her widowed father, Joshua. The first shot fills the screen with Benny’s cascading blonde/red hair. This introduction defines her in sensual, luxuriant terms. This is the natural beauty that here evolves into her lesbian passion, her sympathy for the pent and doomed heifer, her need to escape her father’s strictures and her own inhibitions. In the first shot she is starting to emerge from sleep (i.e., girlhood).
There’s another coming-of-age twist here. Joshua leads a radical movement against the Jewish ban from Temple Mount. As the film is set on the eve of Itzhak Rabin’s assassination, it prefigures Israel’s national shift of consciousness from its initial harmony into a new, internal violence.  
When Benny ultimately flees to Tel Aviv to make her own life amid that liberal modernity, where poems crop up around the corner, her personal quest reflects Israel’s potential shift away from archaic rituals into modern humanism. In contrast, the heifer stays put in its pen, even after Benny has offered her freedom. The question is whether Israel will turn modern or revert to its harsh orthodoxy. 
Though the woman writer/director Tsivia Barkai Yacov properly focuses on Benny, she makes Joshua an equally intriguing figure. He was widowed at Benny’s birth, so perhaps has made her too important a figure in his life. There are shots where his gripping her hand seems too firm. In naming her Benny he has made her his son (Ben) as well as daughter. In that spirit he lays the ritual teffilen with her, a rite not normally accorded women. He is remaking her in his image. 
Joshua admits to her his unfulfilled longing since his wife died, confirmed in his early morning cold bath in the cave. After his bath he first covers his privates, then puts on his skullcap, then his inner talles, then his pants and the rest. That order reveals his total commitment to religious propriety.  
He seems to have invested his emotions entirely into his religion and its political extension, to the point of violent radicalism. This fires his rejection of his daughter’s sexual identity. Because his religious and political extremism has overridden his human values, Joshua rejects his daughter’s lesbianism and independence. 
     He also expels her lover, Yael, the troubled teenager he brought into the community for therapy. She has been cutting herself, for the pain that briefly penetrates her emotional numbness. Joshua punishes both girls for their love, the girl recovering from emotional detachment and his daughter’s awakening.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


This is a contemporary classic opera. As our canonic operas were in their day, this uses an epic story of heightened emotions, poetic expression and musical energy to reflect upon contemporary issues. 
Oakland serves as a microcosm of America’s roiling racism, with trigger-happy white cops, a divided nation and blacks walking a quaking line to preserve their sanity, dignity and safety. It catches the current trickle-down racism.
This is the America that the blacklisted NFL QB Colin Kaepernick kneels at the anthem to protest, at which Republicans cower behind the pretence to patriotism. 
The film tips its hand when Verdi’s drinking song from La Traviata plays behind the opening credits: “let's not waste our time with things that don't give us pleasure. Let's enjoy life, for the delight of love is fleeting and all too brief….”
  Like most of our opera experiences today, for much of the time we don’t know what the characters are saying. That’s okay. The plot, emotions and psychology come through. For the most part this obscurity is due to the strangeness of the street language. 
But one scene is written to let us off the hook: Miles negotiates the sale of a rowboat to a free-wheeling African American stranger. Both speak languages completely foreign to us but — it turns out — also to each other! Unlike the larger communities they represent, they can strike an agreement and understanding with no idea of what the other is saying. The willingness overrides their differences.
  Unlike the Republican nightmare, here the good guy Collin is the African American, trying to get through the last three days of his probation without a lapse that would toss him back into jail. 
  His best friend Miles, the white guy, has the virtue of lifelong loyalty, total freedom from racism but a violent streak, short fuse and inability to foresee and prevent disaster. The film’s question is whether Miles will prove Collin’s undoing or Collin will effect Miles’ redoing. 
The heroes’ respective street argot plays like music, especially when they unleash their wit and musical energy to ex temporize rap. The language is as free-wheeling, energetic and apparently unrestrained as the shooting and editing are. This is one zippy flick. 
Indeed, in Collin’s climactic confrontation with the pathetic white cop Collin’s emotional tirade is a rap song. His art amplifies his emotions, expresses his terribly conflicted ideas — and by finding artistic form provides an alternative outlet to what his pointed gun threatened. This aria gives Collin and his story the soaring of our purest spirit. He makes his point with a poem not the gun.  
The title points to a central theme, our choice between two perspectives within the same frame. 
  Collin’s ex Val is living the same test she demonstrated in her psychology review. There the viewer sees either the two faces on the side or the vase between them. Read the foreground or read the background? Collin calls it “face-vasing.” (Jasper Johns did a famous silkscreen version with two Picassos and a cup.)
Val used to see his best side. Now she first sees the ugliness of his disastrous fight. That ends their love.
But even that perspective is queered. As bouncer Collin was just doing his duty, trying to get the dunk to take his flaming drink back into the bar. Which we see, the positive or the negative, the action or its context, depends upon our given bias. And on our ability to acknowledge and to transcend our biases. 
In its ambition, achievement and nuanced success this could be the best American film so far this year.

Thursday, July 26, 2018


There are two kinds of scaffolding — i.e., the framework one constructs to enable the making —or remaking — of a more permanent construction. 
But what building will you dedicate yourself to do? The literal construction of some worldly thing, some edifice, or that more rarefied project — building a deeper, more human and responsible self? In an Israeli film, this question takes on significant political weight.Hence Asher's skirmish with a Muslim student who presumes to wear a shirt similar to his.
For Milo Lax, the only scaffolding that counts is his business, the construction sites that he runs and wants his son Asher to take over from him. He has that Edifice Complex that today drives so much industry, politics and most dangerously, education..
Milo is an ex-con who still barely checks his anger and violent impulses. His growth in life inhered in his managing to maintain something of a relationship with his 17-year-old son Asher after his wife left him. 
And build a successful scaffolding business. But of course, he’s only in on the beginning. Lax just puts up the scaffolding, in preparation for the construction crews to come do the major work.
Literal construction is all that Milo can see in his son’s future too. “When will you ever read a poem, see a play, read a book?” he rhetorically asks him. He insists Asher cover for him at work instead of studying for his matriculation exams. “Don’t go too high,” he orders, on the scaffolding as in life. 
Asher is tempted to accept the limitations his father sets. He too has a short fuse, violent impulses, and has serious learning disabilities to boot. 
But he also shows signs of curiosity, however minor and illicit. He searches idly through a client’s house, stealing a Russian doll, then his teacher’s, where he stumbles upon a forbidden secret. Here Asher intuits the appeal of entering someone else’s world, which we non-construction types do through literature.
His English teacher Rami offers him a glimpse of the other scaffolding, the world of literature, morality, questions, thinking, debate. He engages the boy in discussion. He tries to amend his brutishness. 
When Asher overhears Rami assigning another class to record questions they would ask of someone, Asher takes on the assignment. He submits the questions he could never ask Milo. 
While Rami teaches his class Greek tragedy he lives out his own. Unable to deal with his own existential doubts he kills himself, leaving his unnerved students and a bereft pregnant widow. 
The film ends with Milo and Asher grabbing a fast breakfast wrap in the truck, en route to the school. There Asher is to be questioned by police and perhaps arrested for breaking into Rami’s flat and finding, then airing, his suicide note. 
Finally Rami’s teaching gets through. Asher asks Milo the questions he couldn’t before: Why were you so strong in my life? Why did you and mom have me and then break up? Why didn’t you ever read me any stories? How do loving and beating go together? Those questions clearly define that family’s unquestioning, brutish dynamic.
Asher asks those questions of a man who was never interested in the earnest questions of life, just the scaffolding. We don’t know if he’ll answer or deepen his distance from his son with yet another evasion. 
But those questions are the significant scaffolding Rami unwittingly left Asher with. Can Asher finish the job with the real construction? He can’t count on his dad, who does only the other scaffolding. His scaffolding is Lax. 
Whatever happens at school or with his father, Asher is on his own. But at least he has been introduced to literature, to ideas, to questioning — the important questions, not the knee-jerk belligerence of the Israeli teen. 
      Who knows? Maybe Asher will make a movie.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Simon and Theodore

The title’s focus on the two male leads suggests the film’s main theme is the range of possible forms of manhood. That understanding Theodore’s mother shows him and Simon’s wife him. 
The two men have a symmetry. Simon eagerly awaits the birth of his son, hoping that will lead him into balance and maturity. Theodore undertakes a bar mitzvah — the ritual of becoming a man — in hopes of reuniting with the Jewish father who abandoned him and his mother Edith just after his birth.  
Where Simon has been hospitalized for beating up on himself, Theodore is in trouble for fighting at school. Both have difficulty expressing themselves, connecting to others, controlling their impulses and handling their anger. Both are emotionally disturbed, Theodore afflicted with Teenage and Simon with an odd, guilt-free brain disease. In one dark night of the souls, under the pressure of their respective urgent needs they manage to help each other.  
In a comic replay of the theme, Edith’s work colleague removes his ostensibly macho moustache in hopes of attracting her. It works, but mainly because of the care and commitment he shows when he comes to the hospital after work to check on her and on Simon’s wife’s delivery. He quietly demonstrates the manly virtues Simon and Theodore need.
But the women establish their own symmetry, making humanity trump manhood. Edith is a security guard, Rivka a rabbi, a neat parallel.  Theodore tricks her into preparing him for the bar mitzvah by claiming he has his parents’ approval and they will attend. We see little of the congregation’s dynamic, just the solicitous elder Aaron, but our sense is that the woman rabbi is wholly accepted, even with her feral husband. Outside the synagogue, the Jewish-Gentile distinction is there but not a point of conflict or emphasis. They're part of the same social web. 
The film’s climax involves parallel suspensions of a law. If Edith’s not being Jewish would normally disqualify Theodore from a bar mitzvah, his preparation has given him a focus, a new support and at least the hope of reconnecting with his father. 
Through Theodore, Rivka meets Edith, which ends up facilitating her son’s birth. Through Rivka, Simon meets Theodore which facilitates the meetings with the one’s father and the other’s son. More importantly, when Rivka finds herself assuring Edith that "Simon would rather die than hurt your son," she discovers her own confidence in Simon as the functional father of her child.
Theodore’s outlaw spirit prompts Rivka and Edith to break the hospital rules so Simon in the psych ward can meet and hold his new son. So rules, whether religious or institutional, may sometimes have to be broken in the interests of helping people. Humanity should trump legalism.
In the comic replay of the women’s relationship, waitress Caroline has to deal with Simon and Theodore when they can’t pay for their dinner. When they offer to work it off, the dishwasher scolds their encroachment on his job. “Next time just dine and dash like the others do.” By calling Theodore’s father, Simon saves Caroline from having to pay their bill — and gives the dad the chance at last to do something for his abandoned son — as well as for his effective replacement, Simon.
        Despite those careful parallels, the film never seems schematic. It’s a fresh, very original drama with heart, emotion and a healthy respect for human irregularity. If it focuses on a particular religion its overriding value is the unspoken yiddish term, Mentshlichkeit. Humanity. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sorry to Bother You

This richly inventive satire may have been 10 years in the making but it speaks trenchantly to our moment.
The title is the telemarketer’s opening gambit, but it also works as a pseudo-apology to the film viewer for interrupting his entertainment-time with a rude awakening to our harsh social reality. The profit-uber-alles ethos is propelling us into a fascist state. 
The initial satire targets corporate salesmanship. Management create an illusion of “family” and “team” to harness their commission-only drones to sell delusions of success through unnecessary products like encyclopedias. (There’s an endangered species.) This is a bleak view of our gig economy.
But the telemarketer’s prime customer has a larger humanity to numb. They offer Worry-Free Living, a sweeping assurance policy that will guarantee its clients a life of work, “security,” minimal comfort, in short, an updated version of slavery. Company head Steve Lift carries the promise of improvement in his name. 
Even its glossy commercials reveal the system’s total abandonment of privacy, of individual living. In exchange for guaranteed — i.e., unending — labour the clients enjoy living in rooms full of bunk beds, with drab uniforms and meals of slop provided. This is the no-worry life that can seduce individuals to resign their humanity. The ads don't even try to hide this dehumanizing.
In offering to meet all its workers’ earthly needs, that company seems to promise a kind of socialism. Instead it delivers a tyranny, a total reduction of its workers to a brutish life. Here the film parallels the conversion of the pretence to populism in America and Europe into right-wing fascism.  
Company head Lift takes his dehumanizing one step further. He is using a drug to turn his serfs into equine-sapiens, humans with exploded muscle strength but with the heads of horses. This brutalizing makes human labourers all the more efficient. For a saving grace, they get the horse’s schlong too.  Every cloud….
Our nebbish hero Cassius Green grabs the telemarketing gig as a last resort. His surprising flair gets him promoted to Power Caller, which llifts him to meeting the impressive Steve. Having succeeded as seller, Cassius is now converted to product. Lift offers him $100,000,000 to undergo the horse change and work as the company’s agent in the workers’ union for five years, after which a serum will — hopefully — return him to human normalcy. He gets to keep the schlong.
Instead of accepting Cassius tries to expose Lift’s nefarious scheme. But the company’s spectacular profits valorize even that evil practice. Money talks; who knew? Only by submitting himself to painful abuse and humiliation on TV can Cassius air his scandalous revelation. It falls to the artists to convey the harsh reality which entertainment glosses over.
Hence the political activism of Cassius’s artist girlfreind, Detroit. She swings a sign-company’s advert on a street corner, but her real calling is politically driven art. In addition to her paintings and sculpture, she does a performance piece in which she also maintains dignity in the face of the audience’s (invited) abuse. That anticipates Cassius’s strategy. 
Detroit’s very name evokes the America of economic and racial injustice. In his name Cassius combines the “slave name” of the revolutionary fighter Mohammad Ali with the society’s exclusive hunger for the long green, which also reduces Cassius to Cash. 
The central characters may be black but in the film’s major concern race gives way to class. The traveling labour organizer -- aptly named Squeeze -- is Chinese. This struggle is not black vs white but Haves vs Haven’ts. 
In their speech style Cassius and Detroit have left behind their street-smart. They speak white like Will Smith. But Cassius’s sales success lies in his affecting an even whiter tone, the voice of the Privileged/Confident/Carefree. That’s economic not racial. That class voice sells and makes him a huge success—only to doom him to fulfill his user’s baser intentions. Cassius’s success not only pulls him away from his striking colleagues but dooms him to his boss’s designs. 
This dystopian Oakland satires sends a clear message. Voters of the West unite. You have nothing to lose but a dehumanizing tyranny.