Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Jason goes to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival--Sunday, July 28

I'm not going quite as all-out crazy as I have in the past at this festival. In fact, it opened last Thursday night but I didn't get up to the city to see anything until Sunday. But at least I had a full day of five films.

I started with AN AMERICAN TAIL, Don Bluth's 1986 animated film about the immigrant experience, set in the world of mice. This movie came out when I was 12, and it was a big part of my childhood. I must have watched it dozens of times on video with my brothers and sisters. Oddly enough I never saw any of the sequels. Or maybe not so odd, since when Fievel went west (as promised at the end of the first movie) in 1991 I was 17, and had undoubtedly outgrown such childish entertainment. I didn't even know there were two more direct-to-video sequels and a short lived (one season) TV show until I looked it up on IMDb just now. If I decide to become obsessed, I could spend a lot of time immersing myself in the adventures of Fievel Mousekewitz. Or perhaps the sequels could become part of a future SFJFF? They do want more family programming....

Anyway, back on topic. While I had seen it so many times as a child, I don't think I really ever paid much attention or cared about the Jewish content. I just knew it was a story about American immigration, and I guess I knew in the back of my mind that they were fleeing a pogrom in Russia. I don't know why that didn't resonate more with me at the time, since one side of my family does go back to Russian Jews who immigrated to America. It sure resonates now. I also didn't think too much about what it had to say about the American immigrant experience. I was still naively believing that America is the Land of Opportunity™ and saw Fievel's struggle--getting separated from his family, preyed upon by crooks, captured by cats, etc.--as just the drama necessary for a good story. Looking at it now, it has a lot to say about the over-hyped promise of America (they sing a whole song about how there are no cats in America,) how short it falls from that promise (spoiler alert: There are cats in America,) and how America really is still the Land of Opportunity. It's just not a land where success is easy, but if you stick to and never say never, you will succeed here. Darn it, this movie might just make a patriot out of me yet.

Next up, and sticking with the theme of the Jewish American immigrant story being the story of America, I saw BROADWAY MUSICALS: A JEWISH LEGACY. This film has already played on PBS and is available online, but it was so much more fun to see it on the big Castro screen with a community of like-minded people (whether that community is Jews, movie fans, musical fans, or whatever.) It opens with David Hyde Pierce singing a song from Spamalot "You Won't Succeed On Broadway" (if you don't have any Jews.) That's the tone of the movie--light, funny, self-mocking,...lots of fun. But it also makes a pretty interesting and insightful argument. That Musical Theater is a uniquely American art form. That Jewish artists thrived there (and still do.) That their perspective--as outsiders in the melting pot of America--informs a great deal of their stories, even when there's no overt Jewish content. And that a whole lot of Jewish musical influences--klezmer and cantorial--hidden in musicals. I'm pretty dumb about music in general (now my sister, she's the master musician,) but I got a kick out of learning that the line "It Ain't Necessarily So" in PORGY & BESS is to a tune lifted from a common chant in Jewish worship. Or pointing out how "Rhapsody in Blue" starts with a klezmer clarinet, and mergers classical, jazz, klezmer, and blues beautifully. Or how the biggest exception to the rule--Cole Porter--had meager success starting out until he figured out he had to write "Jew music" (meaning more minor chords.) Or how the first draft of WEST SIDE STORY was actually EAST SIDE STORY and about Jews and Catholics instead of Puerto Ricans. Or, finally, the runaway success of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (by the way, I know it's kind of poor form to promote another festival in this coverage, but check this out!) Plus clips from CABARET, THE PRODUCERS (playing at the SFJFF a week from Sunday.) Plus how could I forget about Irving Berlin, the Jewish immigrant who wrote "God Bless America" as well as one of the most beloved Christmas song ("White Christmas") and Easter Song ("Easter Parade")--if that's not a success story of immigration and assimilation, I don't know what is. And there's tons more, I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of important contributors, but I only have so much time to write, and you shouldn't be wasting so much time reading this anyway. Go online or turn on PBS and just watch the movie.

Next we got into some serious fare, with HANNAH ARENDT (opening Friday at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck theaters.) In a flashback scene, Hannah asks her mentor/lover Martin Heidegger to teach her to think. He responds by warning her that "thinking is a very lonely business." And that is certainly true, but doesn't stop her from becoming one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. The loneliness probably started after Heidegger joined the Nazi party, but the movie takes place much later, after she escaped to France, was put in an internment camp, escaped, and moved to New York. In fact, it takes place in 1961, during and immediately after the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Hannah, now a respected professor and famous for her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism" offers her services to the New Yorker to cover Eichmann's trial (shown in news footage, I don't think they ever use an actor to play Eichmann, which is an interesting choice that works very well.) The editorial scenes at the New Yorker offer some comic relief, as they debate over whether she should have come begging to write for the New Yorker, like everyone else. But she goes, she observes the trial, she is restless over what she saw, and finally writes her piece, where she famously coined the phrase "the banality of evil." That Eichmann was evil not because of some sinister demon, but because he abdicated his responsibility to think. I'm sure I'm doing a bad job of explaining it. And an equally important part is her criticism of some Jewish leaders during the Holocaust. Well, her writing sparked an enormous backlash against her, which is the backbone of the movie. It's really a remarkable achievement, making a nearly 2-hour movie that's all about thinking. And it doesn't back away from it--sure there's human emotion and drama, but at it's core it really is about her ideas and about the power of thinking--and thoughtlessness. Thinking might be a lonely business, but not thinking is pure evil in its most banal form.

Next up we had a pretty cool event. We were introduced to Gideon Raff, the creator of the Israeli TV show, PRISONERS OF WAR (HATUFIM.) He also adapted that show into an American TV show--you might have heard of it, it's called HOMELAND.

Now I have to confess I've never seen HOMELAND. I've heard it's great, and now I do want to see it, but I just don't watch a lot of TV, I'm too busy watching movies in my free time. But we did get to watch the first episode of PRISONERS OF WAR on the big screen, and it was pretty cool. It starts with a deal, mediated in Germany, to release 3 (2 alive, 1 dead) Israeli POWs. This is a major difference in the American version, as Gideon explained--Israel does negotiate the release of their captured soldiers, America doesn't, so it had to open with a military operation to free them. Outside the airport, there is cheering and celebrating and waving of "Bring Them Home" banners. Inside they briefly meet the Prime Minister and then are reunited with their family in a quiet, emotional visit. They are told that soon they will be taken to a facility to get reprogrammed and re-assimilated into society after 17 years of captivity, but tonight they get to spend with their families. And this is just the start--nightmares, confusion, a daughter who is disrespectful after growing up without a father. A wonderful and intriguing start of something that I can already assume will be more about the lasting emotional  turmoil of captivity than the action-thriller genre elements. I'd definitely like to see more of that.

Then, as I alluded to above, we had a discussion with Gideon about adapting PRISONERS OF WAR to HOMELAND, and that discussion featured side-by-side clips of similar scenes from each show. It was very interesting, and clearly wasn't just a matter of setting the dialogue in Israel or America. There are many differences--subtle and unsubtle--between the two versions (as there are differences between the two countries.) A very interesting talk, and it gives me two new shows I should check out.

And finally, I ended the night with the film that puts the "-ish" in Jewish. One can argue the Jewish content of THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI (there isn't much) or whether it belongs in a festival simply on the merit of director Bill Siegel being a self-described "Husker Du Jew" (if I spelled that right. I have no idea what it means.) I don't care, it's a good movie about a fascinating man and how society changed around him. It opens with Ron Suskind on TV telling Muhammad Ali (via satellite) that he's a felon (for declaring himself a conscientious objector and refusing to be drafted to Vietnam) and then quickly cuts to Ali receiving the Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2005. We sure have changed around him. He's gone from a time when stubborn sports writers and broadcasters would still call him Cassius Clay despite his constant objections to his "slave name" to a time when kids might ask "Who was Cassius Clay?" But everyone knows Muhammad Ali. We've gone from a time when the Nation of Islam was seen as a radical branch and traditional Islam was seen as peaceful to a time when the Nation of Islam is seen as the more peaceful, Americanized version of Islam, not the version the "terrorists" practice. This movie is about us--the society that changed around (and because of?) Muhammad Ali--more than it is about him. But it's also still very much about him. And particularly, the "trials" alluded to in the title--from him embracing the Nation of Islam (and the ensuing criticism,) his name change, and especially his refusal to fight in Vietnam. How he held firm while he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing. How to survive he learned to be a public speaker (considering he was almost as famous for his mouth as his punch, it's really interesting to see footage of his early, awkward attempts at public speaking.) And the narrow legal ruling where the Supreme Court eventually exonerated him and granted him conscientious objector status--well, that was pretty laughable. A fascinating story, especially from a young-ish (hell, if this movie is Jewish, I'm youngish!) guy who only knew Muhammad Ali as an icon and role model, and didn't know the time when he was hated and feared.

THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI has been picked up by Kino Lorber for a theatrical run in the fall, so watch for it! Then watch for it to come to Independent Lens on PBS.

And that was it. I initially planned on seeing a sixth show, LIES IN THE CLOSET with the short SUMMER VACATION but I was just physically beat. And I knew I had to get up early for work on Monday, and staying would mean the difference between getting home to San Jose around 11:00 pm or 1:00 am. So I'm sure I missed a couple of great movies--probably the best in the festival--and I almost never do this, but I was beat and I made the right decision for myself.

Total Running Time: 437 minutes
My Total Minutes: 335,365

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