עיניים פקוחות/Eyes Wide Open

[Screenshot]More Israeli cinema, and a return to Orthodox Jews and their conflicting emotions about troublesome guests. This time, though, the trouble is homoerotic.

I seem to end up watching a fair amount of queer cinema, so it’ll probably surprise my readers to learn that I haven’t watched Brokeback Mountain, without which (as I understand it) I’m unlikely to actually get any film about restrained, clandestine homosexuality made in the last several years. With that having been said, I’ll admit I’m not sure I entirely got this film. It seemed to go from point A to B to C to D with a minimum of fuss, which may well keep things uncomplicated but also seems to raise questions about motivations. We go from Aaron’s sympathy for a charity case to open sexual tension so quickly that it’s difficult to see what makes either of our heroes tick, or what they see in each other. There’s no real sense of rapport, and likewise, once they acknowledge their feelings, it seems that we miss the most critical dramatic element, which would be Aaron’s internal conflict. Everything we have seen in the story so far suggests he should be tormented, and yet he only actually becomes upset when an external threat to his happiness appears. Maybe this is all meant to emphasize his reserve, but I’m not sure the acting is nuanced enough to get that point across.

Apropos of the final linear-plot-element, the (unnamed, as far as I know) community of Jerusalem where the events of this film take place turns startlingly ugly awfully fast. We get to see them being moralistic assholes in a non-homosexuality-related context first, but we hadn’t gotten even a hint of this particular social dynamic until the last half-hour. I wasn’t thrilled with this urn of events: even if it is an accurate depiction of the reception a revealed gay relationship receives in Orthodox communities (which I am not entirely sure about) it seems to dilute the cultural message to have the stones thrown by other people rather than by Aaron’s own psyche. Our heroes don’t come across as terribly complex, and that cheapens what might have been a distinctive voice in the gay-awakening-and-conflict-with-local-culture genre.

Cinematically, it’s a quite well-crafted work; shots are deliberately composed but not pretentiously so, and there are some effective tricks of light and shadow that serve to impart an often oppressive air to the scenes. The localization was rather imperfect, though, with some dialogue (and all prayer/singing) left unsubtitled, which was rather to the film’s detriment. I’d describe it overall as a technically accomplished work which is unfortunately treading well-worn ground with its plot and themes and bringing very little new to the table.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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A Film Unfinished

This was not quite the film I expected, although in many particulars it conformed to my expectations. The central artifact of this documentary is a different film, an infamous and unfinished Nazi propaganda film of staged scenes of ghetto life, which had previously been taken as a mixture of staged and documentary scenes; however, discovery of an outtakes reel in 1998 indicated that even the less manifestly propagandistic scenes had been directed and staged. I was expecting a typical documentary, full of talking-head film historians and voiceovers musing about the German propaganda machine. The making of the propaganda film is in fact is not the thrust of this movie at all, and it devotes the bare minimum of interest to the questions raised by Das Ghetto (of which there are many: it’s a bizarre work even by the standards of Nazi propaganda); instead it uses the film, and the events of the filming, as a central motif in recollecting life in the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of survivors, the journals of the dead, and the reports and later testimony of German officials. In spite of being staged, and highly offensively staged in respects, it is in fact the only video memento of that horror, and this film reclaims it with dreadful purpose, setting the scenes which bear a semblance of verisimilitude against survivors’ experiences of the same, and the wholly staged scenes against readings of entries form Czeriniaków’s diary relating to the stagings performed by the film crew.

It was affecting and horrifying, and distressingly real. There’s something to be said about the mediation of film, that in the scene depicting a mass burial I was startled and shocked to think that it wasn’t, say, Hotel Rwanda, and that I was seeing not a recreation or a dramatization but the actual atrocities being depicted. We are perhaps to a certain extent desensitized by re-enactment, and filter what we see on film as not being “real”. But no matter how many Nazi propagandists were massaging the cinematography to cast themselves as well as possible, this was a lens on the death and squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto, juxtaposed grotesquely with the staged luxury. Viewed just as a silent film, this work would be troubling but so intercut with patent absurdities as to be impossible to process. Taken in concert with appropriately chosen survivor memoirs and the cameraman’s testimony, we get a vivid view of the realities the camera evades.

Apropos of all this admiration for the film’s commitment to reality, I must confess a certain disappointment with the decision to re-enact some scenes of the German administrator’s reporting and the cameraman’s testimony. Re-enactment is rarely a useful tool, but particularly in the context of a film struggling with the concept of cinematic verity in gleaning truth from a much older work of fiction, I found it to undercut the purity of the endeavor and wished that they’d stuck to voiceovers for this, as they had done for reading the victims’ diaries.

See also: Wikipedia, IMDB

פעם הייתי/The Matchmaker

I saw this film this evening as part of the Louisville Jewish Film Festival. It’s a largely sweet and nostalgic comedy with some surprising teeth. Like so many films that I find interesting, it’s also a picture of a time, a place, and a culture: there is a specific intergenerational and intercultural dynamic which is perhaps uniquely 60s-Israel, which suffuses the film: even among the young people, there are clear distinctions on a piety/nationalism/radicalism spectrum, with different young people subscribing to different views of what being Israeli really means. Of course that pales in comparison to the distinction between and among the older generation: the Holocaust survivors are a breed apart, and soberingly presented as not pitied but rather shunned. It’s easy to see how people get Survivor’s Guilt, when they’re in a culture full of Survivor Blame, and this film is merciless in presenting the basic rift in communication and understanding between those who survived and those who wonder just how they survived. This is quite possibly the coyest Holocaust film I’ve ever seen: the Holocaust itself is barely mentioned, but the spectre of its legacy hangs pretty heavy, and in unconventional ways.

While this intercultural drama is part of the experience delivery, and a very intriguing part, the film is, on the whole, a comedy, with likable characters bouncing off of each other in clever ways. There are recurring gags, such at Yankele’s overreliance on the exact same lines for every customer, and a tremendous amount of situational absurdity, and it is, for the most part, quite funny enough to keep the film moving in between the dramatic bits. The acting is generally solid: the entire cast is competent, and Adir Miller puts on an inspired performance which is believably sentimental. The only element of the story that really fell flat for me was the Arik-Benny-Tamara love triangle: Benny was fleshed out so sparsely, and even Tamara was fairly one-note, and that particular aspect of the plot felt flat and in large part irrelevant.

On technical notes it was mostly satisfactory, although some of the editing decisions seemed questionable: on more than one occasion a scene cut out without fanfare after a rather non-final-seeming line of dialogue. It didn’t seem that this technique was used with any deliberate purpose in mind; I assume that either the script or the editing was unintentionally abrupt, which doesn’t speak well to the technical aspects.

A word of warning, which may be an issue only of pre-releases and not of the actual stateside DVD: the subtitles are rendered in white (without the usual black border on subtitle script), which makes them very difficult to see when anything white is on the bottom of the shot. On the subject of the subtitles, they are sometimes haltingly ungrammatical or unidiomatic, but only when one of the Holocaust survivors is speaking, so I’d tend to put this one in the “faithful reproduction of aslightly mangled Hebrew” box (unless someone who speaks Hebrew tells me otherwise).

See also: IMDB.

עג’מי/Ajami

[Screenshot]Ajami is one dense film. There are a lot of plotlines and a good number of characters and there’s a lot to keep straight. I think I might have fallen down at some points and not realized that, say, Nasri and Malek were different characters. But that’s mostly my problem: it’s a story that engages well with the unusual character of a particular society, and while Israeli/Arabic tensions contribute towards the drama, they aren’t the beginning and end of the story: in-group tensions among the resident Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) play at least as large a role, and the story doesn’t feel preachy. On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily have a central theme, but it’s mostly a snapshot of interlocking fates, rather than a story with an Important Message. None of the characters are particularly admirable, but they’re mostly sympathetic, at elast.

Tecnically, this isn’t anything great, but not anything dire either. The cinematography works without being obtrusive.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

אושפיזין/Ushpizin

[Screenshot]I’m a cultural Jew, but not a religious one; I enjoy exploration of the cultural traditions of my people, so it goes without saying that I was predisposed to like this film. Particularly since it highlights one of the more ethical aspects of Jewish tradition: that the holidays are a time first and foremost for hospitality (both Sukkot and Pesach figure in a great deal of folklore about the blessings attendant on those who welcome strangers into their midst). So there are a lot of nifty mythic resonances being set up by this story, which slots them nicely into the mold of a fable without being over-didactic. There’s a lot to like here and I’m loathe to spoil it, but it keeps moving and spins out its characters in a believable and largely sympathetic way; even the titular guests are likeable in their rough way. On technical aspects the film is mostly servicable (albeit with a somewhat intrusive dependence rather unimaginative pop music at a few crucial places), but it’s really the acting that keeps this one rolling, particularly by Shuli Rand.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

$9.99

[Screenshot]Let’s not mince words: $9.99 is distinctly short on technical appeal. It’s stop-motion, fairly crudely done by the high standards of modern stop-motion artistry. Nonetheless it is largely successful: it has a freshness of design and a strong enoguh script to overcome its primitivity and even turn it into a certain charm. It helps that the voice-acting is, overall, excellent and characters feel distinct. Even in the limited execution of the medium, the characters are actually quite expressive. I’m finding it difficult to give it a definite genre, though: it’s modern realism liberally larded withh the fantastic, which is textbook “magical realism”, although I know some people who detest that name. It’s generally heartwarming, in spite of its often-discouraging plot arcs. The original work was apparently a book of short stories, but the little vignettes here feel interwoven without contrivance.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

ואלס עם באשיר‎/Waltz with Bashir

[Screenshot]This one I had to see. As a cultural Jew, I have more than a little interest in Israeli film and Israeli subjects. As an animation buff, I had to see how an animated documentary could hold up. And as a fan of cinematic oddity, I was drawn by its critical acclaim. It lived up to the hype and my expectations. I don’t know much about the Lebanese Civil War, so I was coming into this with no particular context. It’d be interesting to see how someone more culturally grounded in the Lebanese massacre as an element of history would view this: this film seems not to inform about the massacres themselves as to illuminate with individual vignettes, most of which work. It seesaws between the fabulous and the horrific, the reality of battle and the unreal trance of waiting. It captures war as a human experience quite well, and it does so within the constraints of a documentary form: the stories are built from eyewitness accounts.

Arguably, it might be considered more of a docudorama than a documentary: a documentary actually uses primary-source footage, while a docudrama includes re-enactments, and an animated feature is necessarily the latter (the animated scenes of Folman interviewing veterans complicate matters even more, since it’s surely an accurate depiction of Folman and his subjects talking). From a format perspective Waltz is difficult to categorize: if it’s a documentary, then is, for instance, Persepolis also? I’m not averse to that categorization, but it raises interesing questions about its purpose. There’s the danger that animation can be distancing, and I doubt it was Folman’s purpose to try to make the war seem fictional. Perhaps it was meant to explore the space between “unreal” and “imaginary”, and I can roll with this as a noble purpose.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.