Saturday, January 28, 2006

La Mystere Garrel

I can't make up my mind about Phillipe Garrel. Les Amants Reguliers was my favorite unreleased film from the 2005 New York Film Festival, a giddy re-enactment of Mai '68 as remembered through a haze of dope smoke and burning automobiles. His Prix Jean Vigo-winning film L'Enfant Secret will be playing at the Museum of Modern Art (see link on the right) on February 10 and 13, and after seeing it Thursday, I find myself as conflicted as ever.

L'Enfant is another Garrelian tale of amour fou and, as seems his wont, it's a mad love experienced at a remove. My friend and colleague Daryl Chin pointed out to me that this is a thinly disguised recounting of Garrel's putative affair with the chanteuse-model-heroin icon Nico, yet for all the personal passion on display, the film has a strangely detached quality. There are intimations throughout that we are seeing a film-within-a-film version of events, although Garrel is careful to make this unclear. The result feels a bit like a Duras film turned inside-out, with the heart of the film taken up with the paradox of being simultaneously within and outside of the fiction, with a concommitant tension between melodramatic gesture and a rigorous lack of affect. Where Duras creates that tension through hall-of-mirror formal devices, Garrel choses a studious underplaying by his principals. The result is at once both enervating and compelling.
The film's grimy, grainy black-and-white adds to the sense of a strangely detached realism, and a scratchy print heightens that effect. Must be the only time I've ever seen a narrative film in which the iffy print quality seemed to be a deliberate act of design. Come to think of it, Les Amants Reguliers looked pretty raggedy-assed also. Can you imagine a Garrel remake of Saving Private Ryan?

La Petite Jerusalem

(This post appeared in a different form in this week's issue of Jewish Week.)


La Petite Jerusalem
which opened this weekend in NYC, represents the fortuitous intersection of two significant trends, one academic, the other cinematic. The latter is easier to describe: La Petite Jerusalem is the lastest in a new wave of films about Orthodox life made by Orthodox Jews. Films like Ushpizin, the documentaries of Anat Zuria and the collaborations of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky are something new in Jewish film, a chance for the traditionally observant to speak for themselves through movies.

Karin Albou, the writer-director of La Petite Jerusalem, grew up in the banlieues, the grim high-rise projects outside Paris that birthed last summer's riots. Like the protagonist of her film, Laura (Fanny Valette), she was the rebellious daughter of Algerian Jews (Tunisian in the film); she was the one who studied philosophy (and later filmmaking), who tried to reconcile modern thought with Judaism.

That may be why the primary thematic focus of La Petite Jerusalem is on one of the recurring themes in philosophical writing since the '90s, the embodiment of thought and belief, the relationship between human physical reality and spirituality. Although her characters state that concern only obliquely, it is at the heart of the film from its opening shots of Laura getting dressed in the morning, seen in extreme close-ups that insist on her physical presence without eroticizing her.


It is an opening that guides us to the central concern of this unusual, ardent film, the relationship between women, their bodies and their sexuality. Laura is a would-be neo-Kantian, trying to convince herself that passion is illusory, that one can live in the mind alone. Her older sister, Mathilde (Elsa Zylberstein), is struggling with the realization that her husband (Bruno Tedeschini) is cheating on her because their sex life is so unsatisfying. When Laura takes up with Djamel (Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre), an Algerian ex-journalist who works as a janitor at the school at which she is a cleaning woman, matters come to a head.

Given this set-up and Albou's decision to place the action in 2002, a time of anti-Semitic violence by North African immigrants throughout France, it wouldn't be a surprise if the outcome were pure melodrama, but Albou sidesteps the temptations of obvious violence and heartbreak to explore a much more nuanced set of options. Thus, Mathilde gets counseling from an older woman who works at the mikveh (Aurore Clement), who urges her to enjoy her own sexuality, telling her, "It's not a suggestion, it's a commandment, it's [Jewish] law," while Laura is finally forced by circumstances to separate from her family, but without breaking with them. There are no fatal blow-ups, no Romeo-and-Juliet self-immolations, just the quiet moving forward that comes with real life.

Albou injects this seemingly simple set of situations with a powerful undercurrent of female sexuality and with images of women at ease with their bodies and those of the women around them. The repeated scenes of Mathilde being examined by the woman at the mikveh prior to her immersion are telling, de-eroticized by the sheer ordinariness of the gestures, yet made beautiful by the Vermeer lighting of cinematographer Laurent Brunet. The conversations between the sisters and between Laura and her mother (Sonia Tahar) are earnest, frank and funny,suffused with a sense of shared love and concern.

At the same time, La Petite Jerusalem is redolent of the real world of Judaism as a lived faith, a faith that infuses spirituality into every aspect of daily life, something one seldom gets in even the most sympathetic films set in the Orthodox community. That is why the idea of an embodied spirituality resonates so powerfully in this film; for these women, sense of self is intimately linked (in every sense of the phrase) to how they practice their faith. It's a very different kind of feminism than American audiences are used to, but a firm statement of feminine empowerment all the same (albeit one that could be usefully contextualized by a viewing of Zuria's "Purity" and "Sentenced to Marriage," but that's another story for another time).

Finally, the warm, beating heart of La Petite Jerusalem is Fanny Valette, a 20-year-old actress whose previous work has been almost exclusively for French TV. She is a luminous presence, reminiscent of the young Meg Tilly, lovingly photographed by Brunet and well worth the price of admission.

La Petite Jerusalem opens on Friday, January 27 at the Quad Cinemas (34 West 13th St.). For information phone 212-225-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

After two days of jury duty, two German films about Jews

I am a firm believer in the jury system. Despite telling many lawyer jokes and being almost terminally cynical, I have a deep and abiding faith in the Bill of Rights, most of the Constitution and the legal system. So I usually do jury duty with a light heart. (The fact that I'm a freelance writer and don't have much of a schedule to disrupt makes it easier, of course.) This time was a bit of an exception. For once I actually did have appointments that would be hard to reschedule and when I was faced with the prospect of a felony trial that promised to last at least three weeks, I was appalled. Fortunately, that bullet whizzed by my head and I am now back at my desk writing this entry to the blog.

I should have run out and bought a lottery ticket.

Back to business.

Film Forum (link to the right) opens an interesting recent German film later in February. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, by Marc Rothemund, is at least the third German feature film to retell the story of Scholl and her fellow members of the White Rose resistance group. Rothemund’s emphasis is somewhat different from that Michael Verhoeven (The White Rose) and Percy Adlon (The Five Last Days); he focuses almost completely on the capture of Scholl and her brother Hans, her interrogation and trial, events to which the previous films only allude. The appeal of Scholl’s story is obvious: the White Rose group were college students, young, idealistic and uncompromised unlike, say, the participants in the Stauffenberg plot against Hitler, who included high-ranking German military officers. And Scholl herself is an appealing figure, pretty and spirited. Rothemund’s film is deliberately paced, not plodding but methodical, subdued but detailed. The problem is that while this pacing works well sequence by sequence, the film has little rhythmic variation as a whole, with the result that, at 115 minutes, it gradually becomes a chore to watch. Julia Jentsch, who is on-camera for virtually the entire film, is reason enough to make the effort; her performance is intelligent but never condescending.

Dani Levy’s Go for Zucker!, which has opened theatrically already and is getting a lot of press simply because it's a German-Jewish comedy full of Jewish caricatures, suffers from the opposite problem: this comedy is almost all rhythmic variation, pyrotechnics without purpose that undercuts much of the film’s potential humor. Henry Hubchen is the title character, born Jacob Zuckerman, a pool hustler who was a demi-celebrity in the old East Germany and now is not much more than a failing scam artist. When his mother dies, he is forced to reconcile with his Orthodox brother in order to win the old lady’s inheritance. So Zucker and his estranged non-Jewish wife and two adult children must sit shivah with brother Shmuel, his wife and two adult children. A potentially funny situation, particularly with Zucker’s Marlene (Hannelore Elsner) trying to give herself a crash course in Judaism, while Shmuel’s self-proclaimed princess daughter is trying to seduce her stuttering first cousin. But Levy never gets much out of the material, pitching most of the film at a level of frenzy that is more pained than funny.

Friday, January 20, 2006

I promise to keep up. . .

I have promised myself -- and you -- that I wouldn't let this go the way of my old website, with months between updates and, eventually, silence. Maintaining a website is a lot more work than keeping up with a blog, so hopefully this is one promise I will keep.

On the other hand, being a full-time freelance writer makes its own demands and the bank that holds the mortgage on our apartment is even less forgiving than people who read a blog. (Hmm, I wonder if the bankers are reading this blog . . . naaah.) And Walter and Stella, our cats, insist on being fed regularly. So when an editor at the Jewish Journal of LA asks for a story on an art exhibit, I gladly agree, even though the time might be as well spent watching a film for the benefit of you lovely people. And when the lovely and wise Margo, my better half (or as the late Earl Wilson used to call his spouse, the b.w., i.e., beautiful wife), says "Let's watch a crime show on BBC America, I need to see lots of people being killed artfully," I have to concur.

Okay, she never puts it that way, but I know what she means.

All joking aside, you have to watch movies to write about them. That seems, by the way, to be the part of this job that defies political pundits when they mix in our business. Consider the explosion of would-be film critics that preceded the opening of Spielberg's Munich. I am no fan of Steven Spielberg but I try to see his movies before I pan them. Silly me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

This blog takes its name from the column (and later two books of those columns) that the late Serge Daney wrote for Liberation in the early 1980s. Until his tragic death from AIDS, Daney was one of those rare film critics who could hold simultaneously in his mind the aesthetic, political and industrial importance of a film or filmmaker, and could draw on that complicated set of cognitive grids to put the film in its context. (Plus he dabbled in sportswriting, so he and I combine an unusual set of interests.)
Who am I? As a film critic, I have been published in numerous places -- the New York Times, Newsday and Jewish Week (NYC) most prominently. The work that will be most familiar to readers, however, isn't really signed by me at all; for six years I was senior contributing editor of the Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Movies and Videos. In that capacity I reviewed (literally) several thousand films and, once the book was published and being annually updated, well over a hundred new films a year. I am a graduate of the Film Division of Columbia University's School of the Arts, where I studied under Andrew Sarris and was part of the burgeoning army of auteur critics in the early and mid 1970s. We were, I guess, sort of the third generation of American auteurists, following Sarris and his contemporaries, and then the men and women who wrote for him at the Village Voice and their contemporaries (the second generation). Finally, we came along like an occupying army. The main combat was over, the auteur theory was tacitly and sometimes overtly the ruling paradigm in film aesthetics in the popular press and, by and large, the academy. Of course, in the academy, auteurism was being supplanted by other theoretical developments -- structuralism and post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, a wide range of Marxisms, feminisms and what-have-you.
By temperament I'm a syncretist. Over the years I've taken whatever seemed to me to work in the other theories and used it as a cognitive grid overlaying my basic auteurist perspective, but always leavened all of this stuff with -- I hope -- a solid grounding in the political and economic realities that had an impact on the film industry. Without an understanding of those, the rest is empty wool-gathering.
However, I recognize that for most movie-goers, these quasi-academic concerns are pretty remote from the actual experience of seeing a film. Put succinctly, you want to know what I like so that you can know who I am. Or where I'm coming from. (I'm coming from Northern Manhattan, near the GW Bridge, if you must know.) Without going into the long song-and-dance about canons and canon-building, here are some of my recent best-film lists, so you can make up your own mind whether it's worth your time to read any farther:

THE DOZEN BEST FILMS OF ALL TIME
(at 7:33 A.M., 1/17/06; could be different 15 minutes from now)
In alphabetical order, because when you get to this level of achievement, anything else is an insult to the artists:
An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)
Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1966)
Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953)
French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955)
Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone,1969)
Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1982)
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
Shin heike monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

SOME FILMS THAT CHANGED THE WAY I LOOK AT (AND LISTEN TO) FILM
Blue (Krzyzstof Kieslowski)
Lancelot du Lac (Bresson)
Nostalghia (Andre Tarkovsky)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Sans Soleil (Marker)
Tokyo Story (Ozu)
Virtually any film Jean-Luc Godard has made

Who I am and what this is about

Sometime in March I will be marking the completion of 35 years as a published film critic. It seemed like a good time to start a blog. Inevitably, that blog would be mainly (but not exclusively) about film. And this, apparently, is it.

In recent years, I have published mainly on Jewish film, music and religion. My most recent book, Essential Judaism and its follow-up, Essential Torah (which will be published this fall by Schocken Books), are lengthy studies of Jewish practice and thought from the point of view of a serious lay person, and my principal outlet as critic is Jewish Week, the largest-circulation Jewish newspaper in North America. So much of my film writing has been confined to Jewish-themed films, a focus that will be redoubled in my next book, Wounded Images: American Film and the Holocaust. Needless to say, I see a lot more movies than that. And I have intended for some time now to find an outlet for my writing on those other films. I do a quarterly column for INSIDE Magazine, which is based in Philadelphia and distributed by the Jewish Exponent; happily, they have encouraged me to write on anything I choose and, as the column is being transformed from a film column focussing on foreign and indie releases into a similarly oriented DVD column, the possibilities are pretty limitless. But a quarterly venue doesn't offer many opportunities. (Yeah, four a year. I can do that much math.)
For a while I was doing a webpage but that proved to be more work than I could sustain (well, more non-paying work). A blog seemed a much more practical alternative.

So this space will be dedicated to reviews of new and recent films and DVDs, my thoughts on issues of concern to the filmgoing and filmmaking community and occasional diversions into other areas (like human rights, music and even sports -- did I mention that I was a sportswriter for fifteen years?).

I suppose some backstory is in order, but it will have to wait until tomorrow.
In the meantime, if you want to a better idea of where I'm coming from ideologically, cinematically or whatever, I suggest you go to the Jewish Week website (there's a link on the right-hand side of this page), register and search for my byline. You'll find enough to keep you busy for a few months.