Saturday, June 20, 2015

I Have Complicated Feelings About This

Last month we lost a giant of rhythm and blues music, Riley B (B.B.) [Blues Boy] King. So, it seemed bashert when I popped in a DVD this weekend to watch the (unfortunately terrible) John Landis movie, Into the Night. The DVD's sole extra is a long featurette interview with B.B. King. Landis, director of the Blues Brothers, is, no surprise, a huge R&B fan, and the Blues Brothers is no doubt responsible for turning generations of clueless white kids onto the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker. The problematic racial dynamics of The Blues Brothers is something that's been on my mind for a while and I want to write something longer about whether it's possible to still enjoy the movie if you're, well, if you're me.

Anyhooooooo.... Into the Night. Man, what a bad movie. I don't really understand what the point was. The movie barely has a story, though it does have a very sexy, young Jeff Goldblum and momentarily naked Michelle Pfeiffer (my god, what a gorgeous woman!). But other than that? John Landis plays one of a gang of 'Iranian' thugs and, I'm sorry, I laughed. With a beard he reminds me of my brother, not quite white, not quite something else. I think that Ashkenazi American Jews get a thrill out of pushing the boundaries of their 'whiteness' by imagining scenarios where they pass as Other. I will give Landis credit, this isn't just a case of gratuitous (Iranian-face????). The movie is from the early '80s and explicitly references the then recent events of the expulsion of the Shah and brings us back to a time of the Iranian hostage crisis, and the shift of Iran from a more open, cosmopolitan (in some ways) place to a site of extreme fundamentalism. OK, actually, I don't think it's excusable, and wouldn't fly in 2015, but it is what it is.

What bothered me the most was the promotional video that accompanied the interview with King. It's King, 'backed up' by Dan Ackroyd, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steve Martin, Jeff Goldblum and Eddie Murphy. Murphy seems to be the only one who actually knows how to play the instrument he's miming (drums) while the rest are just... UGH. As I'm sure you know, Ackroyd was one half of the Blue Brothers and this is hardly his first time inserting himself into a genuine performance of African-American musical genius while doing... well, nothing of note. You see what I'm talking about? White people with no (musical) talent somehow packaging black talent and putting their no-talent asses front and center? Like, uhh, why did you think that was ok? Anyway, here's the video.

(My god, Jeff Goldblum is so freaking hot, I can't deal.)

Unfortunately, the black musician backed up by white stars miming was an 80s trope. See Billy Ocean's theme song for Jewel of the Nile.

I guess my question is, can there be a place for white artists with genuine love for, say, black music, to incorporate that music into their work, in a collaborative, non-exploitive way? For example, as I said above, The Blues Brothers, despite its uncomfortable dynamic, is still an incredible showcase for the artists who appear in it. And Landis is a true fan. His interview with King is terrific, and valuable. It's also quite interesting to hear Landis talk about how it was important to him to have King have a substantial role not just in the title and end songs, but in creating a unique score for the film, one that reflected King's unique talents.

I think, for me,  the way I can still enjoy stuff like this is to articulate the uncomfortable racial dynamic and understand what is, or isn't, ok, without giving everything a pass just because I enjoyed it when I was 15.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Felix and Meira

(cross-posted from my main blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan)

With its sly nods to Harold and Maude and The Graduate,  the new Canadian indie Felix and Meira beats, if weakly, with the heart of a black comedy. Like those two films, Felix and Meira tells the story of mismatched lovers, with a slightly absurd fairytale air. That one half of the couple is Hasidic turns out to be not terribly relevant to the story, even as Felix and Meira is being hailed in some corners as a great movie about the Hasidic experience.

Meira (Hadas Yaron) is a beautiful young wife and mother living within the Hasidic community of Montreal's Mile End. (If, like me, you have a soft spot for the slushy beauty of Montreal in winter, Felix and Meira is worth the price of admission just for that.) Meira's husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) can't understand why she is so distant: locking herself in the bathroom, listening to forbidden records, falling into sudden dead faints. 

By chance, Meira meets Felix (Martin Dubreuil), a slightly older, slightly rakish Francophone hispter. If Meira is trapped by a lack of resources and opportunities, Felix struggles with too much. He must make peace with his dying father, and the wealth his father represents. What can Meira do with so little? Why has Felix done so little with so much?

We learn why Felix is the way he is, but no explanation is ever really given for Meira's unrest. Yes, Meira is an artist. We know because we see her sketching when she catches the eye of Felix. But the contemporary OTD (Off the Derekh, meaning those who leave the Hasidic/Haredi community) memoirs (like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return) hinge on the cracks that form between individual and community, whether listening to a forbidden radio, reading blogs or simply enduring an intolerable dynamic of communal abuse.  

On screen, however, Meira's angst is taken as self-evident. Her husband is confused, but loving. She has only one child, not five. What has brought Meira to such a desperate point where she is willing to jeopardize her entire life, perhaps even sacrifice her child? We never really discover what makes Meira tick, we never see her struggle against the totalizing worldview that comes with growing up in a fundamentalist community. 

And yet, I cried through much of Felix and Meira. Not because I was touched by Meira's characterization (thin as it was), but because having read about, met, and befriended a number of people who have left the Hasidic world, I could fill in the details myself. Seeing Meira and her sketchbook, I thought of Frieda Vizel, a dryly brilliant cartoonist who left Kiryas Joel, went to Sarah Lawrence and now runs tours of Hasidic Williamsburg. Seeing two young people trapped in a marriage not of their making, I thought of any number of people I know who found themselves married off at eighteen to total strangers. 

In that sense, Felix and Meira didn't have to do much to move me as an audience member. These are not stories lacking in drama.  For me, the humorless Yiddishist, all Felix and Meira had to do was get the Yiddish right. And that it did. With one jarring exception, the language and setting were beautifully rendered, a major achievement in itself, reflecting the input of ex-Hasid turned actor Twersky.

Yaron and Twersky give beautiful, understated performances, gracefully moving between Yiddish, French and English. It would have been easy to drift toward melodrama given the storyline, yet the writers stay away from big gestures or lurking trauma. Most importantly Twersky's Shulem, Meira's husband, with his soulful eyes, is no monster, but, like Meira, a young person coping the best he can with limited education in matters of the heart. I found Shulem so sympathetic that when he finally confronts Felix canoodling with Meira, I found myself wishing he had really clocked him, instead of taking Felix down in a comical hail of slaps. The dramatic tension simmers at low, even at the moments when most is at stake.

And that's the quirky, fairytale quality of Felix and Meira. In real life, brutal custody battles are the norm for those leaving the community. Wayward souls like Meira are rarely dealt with in such a gentle manner. Most of those who leave have paid dearly, some have paid the highest cost, either with their children, or their lives. There are few fairytale endings in the real world.

Like Harold and Maude and The GraduateFelix and Meira relies heavily on a pop music soundtrack to amplify the story. I teared up as forlorn Meira peered through strange windows, watching a couple make love, all while Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat came on, handed me a tissue, and told me it was ok to let it all out. A good cry is one of the fundamental pleasures of cinema, isn't it? 

Unlike Harold and Maude and The Graduate, however, Felix and Meira lacks the nerve for black comedy. Some critics have dinged it for being excessively gloomy. A great black comedy embraces the gloom with glee, wringing comedy out of angst. When Felix dresses in full Hasidic garb in a desperate effort to see Meira, it just comes off as cringeworthy, a throwback to the silliness of a movie like The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French comedy in which a bigot is forced to hide out in Hasidic garb, passing as a ‘Rabbi’ with much hijinks ensuing. But Felix and Meira is too hesitant to really exploit the absurdity inherent in cross-cultural romance.

Indeed, Felix and Meira positions itself as a straight OTD narrative, but with little exploration of what it means to be a woman trapped in that community or what Meira really longs for, besides forbidden music. (How Meira would come to have a record player and rather esoteric taste in records is another matter.)

Had the filmmakers committed to either comedy or topical drama, Felix and Meira might have ended up a minor classic. For my money, the best portrayal of the OTD narrative is still the much less slick, but more psychologically insightful, Mendy: A Question of Faith. (2003). As it is, Felix and Meira is an entertaining but slight Yiddish flavored fairytale.

Why Jews Love American Werewolf in London

I'm working on a blogpost about The Blues Brothers*, another great John Landis film. But in the meantime, I thought I'd share this lovely appreciation of the Jewishness of American Werewolf in London. Author Jon Spira recounts being an awkward 9 year old with little idea of Jewish culture when his dad happens to tape AWiL off the telly.
The story of a man equipped only by his wit (if not his wits) in a country that neither understands nor particularly wants him. A man who is dazed by his recent bloody and brutal ordeal who does his very best to get along, despite being racked by the guilt and self-hatred of knowing what he is inside. I’m not arguing that director John Landis set out to make a hairy Jewish allegory, I’m just saying that there was an incidental subtext that continues to speak to and comfort me almost 30 years later. 
And that’s why I love it. An American Werewolf in London is the film that connected me to my Jewish culture. It taught me that one doesn’t need to be religious or dogmatic (it’s a pun, but it’s a good pun) to be Jewish. It gave cathartic release to certain primal fears. It gave me my first proper taste of that delicious New York Jewish humour… And it had WEREWOLVES in it!

One note: A couple years back I was lucky to attend a screening of American Werewolf in London here at Lincoln Center, with John Landis in attendance and taking questions after!!!!!

Yes, it was amazing fun. And, yes, you better fucking believe I asked a question. Specifically, what was with the Jewishness of this werewolf movie?

Landis made it pretty clear that the protagonists, Jack and David, were based on him and his best friend. Of course Jack and David were Jewish. It wasn't a big deal, it just was what it was.

And this is why I adore John Landis. Today I was reading this article from early '50s Commentary magazine. Even then, Jewish self-erasure was a decades old phenomenon in Hollywood. Rare were the times when authors and directors were able to include identifiable Jews just being Jews, without censure, from within or without. I've got a lot more thoughts on this particular topic, and the immense psychic harm it does to all of us, but I will just say it makes me love filmmakers like Landis even more, just for being authentic.

I also have a lot of thoughts on how to make a proper Jewish themed horror/supernatural movie. This is a start...

*The piece is going to be about how deeply problematic the film is and yet how I can still love it. Maybe. Maybe I won't after I finish writing it. I'm not sure.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Milk Duds and Smoked Fish

Sometimes life does imitate 'art.'

This week I went to see the lovely new romantic fairy tale 'Felix and Meira' at the Lincoln Plaza cinema. (Review coming soon, I"yh). In the lobby of Lincoln Plaza you can get the usual popcorn, soda and milk duds. And in an only in New York moment, next to the candy case is a whole smoked lox, available by the slice, for your movie noshing pleasure.

Unfortunately, I was too shocked by the sight to get a picture, but I thought of it again as I watched the mostly stupid gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously. Johnny's mom, Ma Kelly, goes to the concession stand for some candy:

I guess she skipped dinner before the movies, because she also goes for the whitefish. It's no longer satire (or funny) when it's true: