Thursday, May 23, 2019

Revisiting Yiddish Film

Would the history of cinema be substantially changed if Edgar G. Ulmer had directed The Dybbuk instead of MichalWaszynski? One suspects not. Perhaps the history of Yiddish cinema might have been altered, but even then the change would have been minimal.

That thought occurred to me when I was looking over the list of a half-dozen films that will be playing at Film Forum as the series "The Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema" from May 26-July 3. The series opens with Waszynski’s The Dybbuk, arguably the best Yiddish-language film ever made.

Waszynski was, despite his name, a Ukrainian Jew (originally named Wachs), a journeyman director who worked steadily in the Polish film industry in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Whether it was the multi-layered S. Ansky text or some dybbuk of his own that possessed him during the shooting of the film, this is his one utterly unforgettable work, a strange, hypnotic conglomeration of German expressionism, Jewish tragedy and a fog compounded of graveyard dust, mysticism and a little old-fashioned hokum.

The plot is probably familiar. Sender and Nisn are friends from their yeshiva days and now that they are both rising young men in their communities, with their first children on the way, they pledge that if they are a boy and a girl the pair will be betrothed. But Nisn dies the night his son is born, just as Sender’s wife dies giving birth to Leah, their daughter. Nisn’s son, Khanan, fetches up in Sender’s town, an indigent but brilliant yeshiva student who has begun dabbling in the darker mysteries of Kabbalah. When the prosperous Sender makes a profitable match for his daughter, the infatuated Khanan dies. But his spirit comes back to claim his promised bride by inhabiting her body. Overseeing all of this is a solemn mendicant with a lantern, clearly the prophet Elijah. 

Leah (Lili Liliana) dances with Death

Waszynski approaches this material with a straight face. Although the acting styles range widely from the early-silent-movie hysterics of Leah’s aunt (Dina Halpern) to the eerie sleepwalker drones of Lili Liliana’s Leah and Leon Leibgold’s Khanan, Waszynski subsumes all the disparities into a weirdly satisfying funeral rhythm, using a nervously prowling camera to emphasize the self-involvement of  the members of this supposed community. The film rises to an early climax with the genuinely unsettling dance of the bride with a harbinger of death, but peaks once more with a deeply disturbing exorcism by rabbinical court and a deeply pessimistic ending. The result reminds one of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr or Jacques Tourneur’s luminous I Walked with a Zombie, films that seem truly haunted. 

Or Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 masterpiece, The Black Cat. Perhaps Ulmer might have made more of this material, but Waszynski does pretty well by Ansky, and The Dybbuk would be hard to better.

A transplanted German Jew, Ulmer might have been better suited to the material with its clammy atmosphere of superheated sexual attraction beyond the grave. His echt-expressionist The Light Ahead, one of the great Yiddish films, turns the shtetl into an eerie ghost town.

The Ulmer offering in the series, American Matchmaker, is an uncharacteristically light farce that turns very dark and Ulmeresque as the implications of its ornate comic plot begin to dawn on the participants. Nat Silver (Leo Fuchs) is a highly successful young industrialist with notoriously bad luck in romance. At the film’s outset he is concluding a bachelor party for what will be his eighth unsuccessful attempt at marriage. Understandably he is skeptical about this latest effort’s potential for success, a skepticism that will be rewarded later when the childhood sweetheart of his latest fiancĂ©e turns up with a pistol.

Foiled in love again, he hits on the bizarre notion that he will go into hiding in the Bronx and operate as a modern, sophisticated shadkhen, “Nat Gold, Counselor in Human Relations,” or as his butler-best friend puts it “human relishes.” Of course, he is a huge success until he falls in love with a client (Judith Abarbanel), with predictable results.

What sets the film apart and skews it more towards the obsessive realms of Bluebeard and Detour, two of Ulmer’s best films, are multiple layers of deception, sexual ambiguities in Nat’s relationships and Ulmer’s chiaroscuro grace notes. The lunacy reaches a climax in the scene in which Nat and his meddling sister confront one another in near-total darkness. The result is a seemingly minor screwball comedy infected by a dybbuk all its own.

For some notes on the remaining titles in the program and a bit of background on how this project started, take a look at my piece in the Jewish Week

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Tribeca: Another Jewish-Themed Short

As regular readers of this blog know, my main writing bread-and-butter comes from Jewish Week, so much of my attention is occupied, inevitably, by movies with Jewish interest. In an artform that is often dominated by Jews, it is a beat that keeps me busy enough and, frequently, provides some artful cinematic stimulation. The Tribeca Film Festival, for example, can always be counted on fur a nice selection of Israeli and New York films about the "members of the tribe."

Consider "Black Hat," a deftly constructed 14-minute film directed by Sarah Smith from a shrewd script by Phillip Guttmann. Shmuel (Adam Silver) is a distracted young Hasid living in LA. His wife and children are away in NY but he is reluctant to join his rebbe for the Sabbath dinner. He is one of those absent-minded young men who is forever misplacing his black fedora, but there is something deeper troubling him.
Adam Silver dons the eponymous chapeau in "Black Hat"

Late that night he climbs out of bed and hesitantly re-designs himself as an "ordinary" guy, then sneaks off to a gay bar. Of course, forbidden pleasure ensues, followed by predictable problems and a cunningly ambiguous ending.

Smith and Guttmann cleverly exploit the semiotics of desire and the semiotics of tribal identity, and the result is a film that respects all its characters without condescending to any of them. 

Tribeca Once Again

When you aren't enjoying writing for a living -- not a reflection on my editors, etc., just a fact of life after more than 48 years as a film critic -- then writing for nothing seems almost overwhelming difficult. Strangely, I'm more drawn to cinema than ever, with my teaching gig at Borough of Manhattan Community College the most rewarding and satisfying work I've ever done in film. But writing, at the moment, seems like an arduous and not very satisfying chore.

But the bills must be paid, press credentials must be maintained (and earned), and it's hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

So here I am, back at the old lemonade stand. The Tribeca Film Festival ends its 2019 run tomorrow and I must say it has been a good one for the most part. If you want to read my two pieces for Jewish Week, you can find them here and here.

Needless to say, there were many other films in the event that were worthy of notice.  

Flawless is the latest Israeli film co-directed by Sharon Maymon (Magic Men, A Matter of Size and The Farewell Party) and Tal Granit (The Farewell Party). Like their previous work together and apart, Flawless is a sober, occasionally funny drama driven by the realities of the limitations of the human body, its limited lifespan and inherent imperfectability. The focus, this time, is on a trio of teenage girls picking their way through the minefields of social competition, rampant hormones and violent cliques in a Jerusalem high school.

Maymon and Granit deftly paint a picture of the school as a battlefield metaphorically filled with knifefights over shekels, as prom night approaches with all the hideous ramifications of ostracism and shaming. Stav Srashko is particularly impressive as Eden, who seems to have the most to hide and falls into an easy friendship with Mika (Netsanet Mekonnen) and Keshet (Noam Lugasy), two of the less “fashionable” girl in the school. The trio are inveigled into a scheme in which they will sell a kidney each in exchange for free plastic surgery and cash, driven by the alternately motherly and Godfatherly Keren (Assi Levy, in an astonishingly mercurial performance, veering from sympathy to menace). 

Stav Srashko in a star-making turn in Flawless

If you picture Flawless as a cross between Carrie and Mean Girls with issues of gender ambiguity, racism and body dysphoria added to the usual tortures of high school, you wouldn’t be far off. Maymon and Granit display surprising sympathy for some of their most unlikeable characters and underplay the nastier implications of some of the humor, and the result is a highly successful take on material that in other hands would be either overly familiar or too slender to support its own weight.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said of Standing Up, Falling Down, a Long Island-based comedy-drama about a failed comedian (Ben Schwartz) who has moved back in with his parents. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a dermatologist (Billy Crystal) who carries his own secret failures around like a backpack full of bricks. Peter Hoare’s screenplay and first-time director Matt Ratner’s mise-en-scene are disorganized and only fitfully funny. Ironically, the last movement of the film, which turns into full-blown tragedy, is most effective, in no small part because of Crystal’s deeply felt sense of regret.

Standing Up, Falling Down: Calling Dr. Crystal. It's your break. 

But wait, there's more to come shortly.

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...