Category Archives: United States

Exodus: Gods and Kings

ExodusRidley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is yet another Hollywood take on the Exodus story. Previous movie tellings include The Ten Commandments (1923), Moses the Lawgiver (1974), The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Ten Commandments (2007), and the most famous movie by that name, The Ten Commandments (1956) with Charlton Heston. Exodus: Gods and Kings opened to mixed reviews.

Commentary

If you have read Exodus, you know that this film departs from the Torah in some significant ways.  Unlike The Prince of Egypt or the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, the writers did not seek their extra material in Jewish midrashic literature. This film focuses on an imagining of the relationship of Moses and Ramses II and to some extent sticks there. It might be interesting had Prince of Egypt not already explored that angle with much greater sensitivity and depth.

Christian Bale portrays Moses as a rational man and brilliant general who develops a serious mental illness involving psychosis, seeing little boys who open their mouths and turn out to be the God of Israel. Later in the film, it turns out that he isn’t hallucinating, after all: he really is talking to a deity who looks like a ten year old boy. The burning bush appears but seems to be mere scenery. The plagues appear to be natural events until they suddenly morph into unnatural events.

I found the middle part of the film unconvincing and boring. Moses attempts to train the Israelites for a guerrilla war. Given that they are slaves, they appear to have a lot of free time and energy, and no one makes inquiries as to their activities – it’s all odd. Then that section goes nowhere when the deity decides that this isn’t the way to go.

I got the impression that the writers couldn’t settle on one version of Exodus. An imagining of the story without God or miracles would be interesting, and a retelling of some neglected aspect of the story would be interesting – but a mishmosh of versions of the story was spectacularly UNinteresting.

Questions for Study

1. Towards the end of the film, Pharaoh, holding his dead child, confronts Moses and asks, “What kind of god DOES this?” That is the best question raised by this film. Considering any the versions of the story you’ve read, how would you answer that question?

2. A game: how many departures from the Biblical text can you find?

3. Is there any way in which this film did illuminate the story for you? How does it compare with the other film versions? With the versions in the Haggadah and the Torah?

4. If you were going to write a screenplay for the Moses story, where would you focus?

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The Book Thief

bookthiefThe Book Thief (2013) is a beautiful if flawed adaptation of the 2005 young adult novel with the same title. It looks at life in Nazi Germany through the eyes of a young German girl. Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) has lost her mother as the film begins; her mother is a communist, presumably taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel is adopted by the working-class Hubermanns (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) who become progressively poorer as the war drags on. Her adopted father, Hans, is in trouble for not joining the Nazi Party, and he has a penchant for sticking up for the underdog. Rosa, his wife, appears to be a stingier sort of person, but shows her true colors when the son of an old friend of Hans’, a Jew, appears starving at their door.

The film follows this threesome through the war, and it surprises in ways that I will not spoil with this commentary. There is nothing in the film I would not show a middle-schooler. (For more about the film’s suitability for children, see its entry at www.kids-in-mind.com.)

The book and film take their name from Liesel, who takes a book she cannot even read at the beginning of the film, and who continually acquires books through questionable or dangerous means.

Commentary

The Book Thief offers us a chance to ponder what was going on with ordinary Germans during the Holocaust years. It takes us inside the home of a couple who feel sympathy for communists and Jews, but who are poorly equipped to take a heroic stand against Nazism. It takes us into the schoolyard, where young Liesel faces the full range of her neighbors’ loyalties and inclinations, from Franz, an enthusiastic Nazi and bully, to Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens and cannot understand why he must keep that enthusiasm quiet. It introduces us to the neighbors, some who disapprove of the Hubermanns’ unwillingness to join the Nazi Party and others who seem to silently agree with them that the world has lost its mind.

In this setting, every small act may have outsize consequences. I understand that some reviewers found the film “boring,” but I found the film to have a growing, needling tension. First there is the ordinary calm of a schoolroom, but with Nazi flags and Hitler’s photo, there’s an edge to it. Then with each plot development the Hubermann family seems more vulnerable, between Han’s penchant for showing his humanity at the wrong moment to Liesel’s dangerous book acquisitions. Since I had not read the book, I was on the edge of my seat every moment, afraid that they were about to be exposed.

I understand that the role of Max, the Jew in the basement, is much smaller in the film than in the book. He is still a compelling figure, a gifted teacher who encourages Liesel’s passion for words while trapped in a cold, damp basement.

The Book Thief is a film about transcendence: the power of love to transcend a horrible situation and about the power of a good narrative to transcend an ugly present.  In bare outline, Liesel’s childhood was horrible, one terrible loss after another. As told in the film, however, she is very much a loved child and able to survive her losses partly because of her passion for a good story.

Questions for Discussion

1. Given her motivation (and just what was that motivation?) what did you think of Liesel’s borrowing or stealing books from the Bürgermeister’s house? What was she risking by taking the books? Was it worth it?

2. What was your initial impression of Rosa? Did your impression change, and if so, at what point in the story? Why?

3. What books would you be willing to steal, if it were the only way to get them? Under what circumstances would you consider it justifiable to steal books?

4. In this film, a number of “ordinary people” face ethical challenges. What would you do (or have you done) in these situations:

  • Someone hungry and desperate asks you for help. You fear they may bring disaster on your home.
  • You desperately want something that belongs to someone else.
  • Someone you believe to be innocent is handled violently by police.
  • Someone you love has a secret, and they won’t tell you what it is.

5. Is it true that love can transcend even a situation like Liesel’s, or is this film ultimately foolish and sentimental for suggesting it?

 

 

Noah

noahNoah (2014) is midrash on the story of Noah from Genesis 6-10. As is the case with many Biblical tales, the bare-bones version in the text would not make for much of a film. At one time, Hollywood simply added a love story to spice things up (see The Ten Commandments (1956), and later Disney sought out some classical rabbinic midrash to fill out The Prince of Egypt (1998).

Darren Aronofsky chose a different and very intriguing route with his account of Noah. In an interview with NPR, he said:

I think most people think of the story as the guy with the long white beard and the animals two by two, and it’s a jolly story, a nursery story for kids. But for me, I kind of sympathize with the people who didn’t get on the boat, thinking maybe there’s wickedness in me and I wasn’t good enough. So I always found it as a very scary, a first apocalypse story.

Rabbinic Commentary

Educated as a Conservative Jews in their youth, Aronofsky and co-author Ari Handel went to traditonal midrashim and to the books of Enoch and Jubilees to fill out the story of Noah. They then riffed on their own, creating what Aronofsky called “a Noah for the 21st century.” They took the sketchy details of the Biblical story and a few literary loose ends and created a fascinating backstory for the apocalypse:

Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden for disobedience. Their child, Cain, slew his brother Abel. Cain’s descendants took off into the world, aided by some fallen angels. In the Biblical text, there are two mentions of Nephilim, which is often translated “giants” but Aronofsky and Handel interpret as fallen angels (from the Hebrew root nun-pay-lamed, to fall). These angels, called “Watchers,” fall from heaven literally into the mud of earth out of attraction to humanity, and the combination of their heavenly fire and the earthly mud re-creates them as rock creatures. The Watchers become disenchanted with the sons of Cain, who only want to exploit the earth, and they abandon humanity.

When Noah (Russell Crowe) receives his call to build the ark, first in a dream and then via a hallucinogenic tea from his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) he encounters the Watchers and asks for their help. They gradually become intrigued by him and take the risk of assisting him. This action and contrition for their rebellion  brings about their own redemption, a contrast to the uncontrite human beings who die in the flood.

Cain’s descendants led by Tubal Cain are a hunter/industrial society under the rule of Tubal-Cain, the bad guy in the film. They have managed in only ten generations to mostly lay waste to the earth with mining and hunting. They have long threatened the peaceful and vegetarian descendants of Seth, and once they hear Noah’s prediction of a deluge to come, they want on the boat.

The big departure from the Biblical story is that in the Bible Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth are named, but they all have unnamed wives who are included in the salvation by ark. In the film, Mrs. Noah (Jennifer Connally) is called by the name she carries in Genesis Rabbah, Naamah. The eventual Mrs. Shem is played by Emma Watson and named Ila. Ila is much easier to pronounce than her name in the Book of Jubilees, Sedeqeletelebab. As for Mrs. Ham and Mrs. Japeth, to say much about them would spoil the story. Suffice it to say that the story of the wives of Ham and Japeth is where the most interesting conflict in the story emerges.

“The Creator” is a very distant personage in this story, who speaks through dreams and visions. There is an interesting echo of the story of Abraham as well, as Noah struggles with his interpretation of the commands of the Creator. He believes he understands the message, and then something happens that calls his interpretation into question. He also suffers from survivor guilt; he is written here as a man chosen precisely because he loves life and loves Creation, and yet he is commanded to drown most of humanity and all but a remnant of the creatures on earth. The character arc in the Biblical story is really God’s – God moves from anger and destruction to mercy and love. In this version of Noah, the arc belongs to the title character.

Questions for Discussion

1. Aronofsky has said that he wanted to tell the story of Noah “for the 21st century.” How is this story specific to our time? Are there any contemporary issues upon which it comments?

2. We normally see angels pictured as beautiful creatures. What did you think of the Watchers? Did they seem to be angelic to you? Did watching them affect your ideas about angels at all? Why do you think Aronofsky called them Watchers?

3. Do you think God speaks to human beings? How can a person who believes he has received a divine message be sure he has understood it properly? If you were Noah, and you had the experiences Noah did in this film, how would you have understood your mission? Would you have been willing to carry it out?

American Jerusalem

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

American Jerusalem (2013) tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

Commentary: The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

Questions for Discussion:

1. Where are your Jewish roots? Do you have any connection with the Jewish community in San Francisco?

2. What are the roots of your current Jewish community? Who settled there, and when? Where did they immigrate from?

3. What circumstances contributed to the Jewish community of San Francisco being different from other American Jewish communities?

4. From this film, in what ways do you see the San Francisco Jewish community as distinct from your own Jewish community?

5. What questions did this film bring up for you?

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org

The Big Lebowski

Biglebowskiposter The Big Lebowski (1998) is a film about which feelings run high: viewers tend to love it or hate it. It’s a shaggy-dog tale from Joel and Ethan Coen, who also wrote and produced A Serious Man, also on this list.

These essays are not meant to be reviews, instead a rabbi’s commentary on the Jewish content of a film. The Big Lebowski has significant Jewish content: it is the only film I can remember which explores the Jewish identity of a Jew by Choice in any depth.

Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman, is foil and friend to The Dude [Jeff Bridges.] He is insistent that he is a real Jew, and he is both serious and knowledgable about Judaism. He is adamant that he does not “roll on Shabbos,” unless it is a matter of life and death. He quotes Maimonides to make a point, referring to him as the Rambam, as might a person who had studied with rabbis. He also quotes Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

“But you aren’t Jewish anymore!” says the Dude, exasperated. Walter is insulted by that suggestion, explaining that just because he and his ex-wife split up, he’s still a Jew, and he’ll be a Jew forever. Walter is passionate about much in life, and he is passionately Jewish.

That may seem like a relatively small slice of Jewish content, but consider how few images there are of adult converts to Judaism in film. The only other film I can think of at this writing that even mentions conversion is the dreadful Keeping the Faith (2000), which suggests it as a clever way to paper over differences.

Walter Sobchak is flawed and foul-mouthed, but he is an earnest and observant Jew. When he is asked to play in a bowling tournament on Saturday, he’s vehement: “I do not roll on Shabbos,”  and he goes into great detail explaining the mitzvah, littering his explanation with profanity.  It is that very juxtaposition of the holy and the vulgar that creates comic friction in the character of Walter. He’s a mess, but he’s a devout mess:

If my readers have any questions about the suitability of this film for children, that clip should have taken care of it. It’s vulgar, profane, tacky, and obscene in bits. It’s also very funny.

Questions for Discussion

1. The Big Lebowski has a cult following, with an assortment of drinking games. Here’s a game to play with a glass of Kedem Concord Grape Juice or the kosher wine of your choice: Raise a L’chaim every time Walter mentions his Jewishness or defends its legitimacy.

2. Notice one of Walter’s Jewish habits: he quotes sources by name to illustrate his points, not only about Judaism but about nearly everything. See if you can count the number of times he cites a source. This is what’s known as speaking b’shem ro, in the name of someone. It’s very good form to cite your sources by name, a form of respect, and a way to avoid stealing credit for someone else’s words.

3. What Jewish values does Walter live out in the course of this film? What Jewish values could he perhaps work on in the future?

4. What stereotypes about Jews by Choice can you identify, not just in the film, but in your experience?  Which of those stereotypes does Walter fit? Which does he not fit? Are any of the stereotypes contradictory?

Casino Jack (and the United States of Money)

I’ve never written a post about two films at once before, but today I am writing about two films that cry out for that treatment.  Casino Jack (feature film, 2010) and Casino Jack and the United States of Money (documentary, 2010) cover much the same territory, and each of them is incomplete.  Together, however, they offer a disgusting but nevertheless fascinating trip into the world of Washington politics and the career of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Abramoff was a former College Republican who dabbled in screenwriting and movie production until he discovered the calling that would make him infamous:  he became a Washington lobbyist.  In 2004 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate his dealings on behalf of several American Indian tribes and casinos, and a sordid tale involving gambling, tribes, offshore sweatshops, lots and lots of money, murder, the Mob, and figures close to the Bush White House unravelled before the horrified members of Congress, many of whom had benefitted from Abramoff’s largesse.

Convicted in 2008 of trading meals, pricey gifts, and travel in exchange for political favors, Jack Abramoff made yet another trade in exchange for a prison sentence of only four years:  he agreed to cooperate with a massive bribery investigation of lawmakers, their staff, and figures in the Bush Administration.  Ultimately 21 people either plead guilty or were convicted in the subsequent trials.

The documentary, written and produced by Alex Gibney, is a meticulous account of l’affaire Abramoff, including interviews with all the players in that drama.  It lacks only one essential thing for real understanding:  Abramoff himself refused to be interviewed. His motives, and his reflections after the fact remain a question.  We are left to wonder why a person who initially had high ideals and remarkable gifts of persuasion chose to invest his gifts in a con.

The feature film, made at the same time as the documentary, looks precisely at that question:  what possessed the man?  It was directed by George Hickenlooper  a filmmaker whose greatest credits were his documentaries (he won an Emmy in 1992 for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about the making of Apocalypse Now.)  Casino Jack sometimes has the feel of a documentary, especially in scenes like the Senate hearing, in which Kevin Spacey‘s performance  as Abramoff is intercut with real footage of the Senate hearing and the real John McCain.  However, in that scene, the film seques into a dream sequence in which Abramoff confronts the members of the panel with their own misdeeds (in the real hearing, he plead the fifth again and again and again.)

The weakness of the feature is that it attempts to stuff the voluminous details of a complicated political episode into 108 minutes of entertainment film.  Critics didn’t like it, and neither did the public, so the film appeared at the box office and faded from view almost immediately.  That’s a shame, really, because the story itself is an important one.

Commentary

The feature film left me with the impression that Abramoff did what he did because he got caught up in the game of finding ways to persuade people to give him their money.  He may also have been looking for validation of his own worth in money and in the respect or fear of important men.  Spacey’s performance gave me an impression of a vain, silly man who was good at intimidating others and impressing himself, but who was at heart an empty shell.

Abramoff justified his actions with his philanthropy, and his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. His view of himself as a virtuous man completely blinded him to his despicable acts. An interview since his release from prison in 2010 suggests that perhaps he now understands that studying Torah does not make up for a failure to live Torah.

One key to his side into criminal behavior is mentioned in the documentary:  during his years with the College Republicans, there was a belief that since they were on the side of right, any behavior on its behalf was therefore right.  “Politics is war,” and the winners would write history.  Abramoff was rewarded as a young man for winning at all costs, and so it never occurred to him to ask uncomfortable questions later, when “winning” had become defined by his bank account.

Taken together, these films provide a deeply disturbing picture of Washington.  They are also a description of how a well-meaning, idealistic man could go so horribly wrong.


You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) is a Judd ApatowAdam Sandler film:  as Roger Ebert so beautifully put it, “a mighty hymn of and to vulgarity.”  It is a slapstick romp about a crack Mossad operative whose secret wish is to “stop the killing” and become a hairdresser in New York.  Once there, he finds himself an outsider along with many Palestinians. They chase one another, in Keystone Cop fashion (but with more penis and hummus jokes) until the sets are destroyed and everyone is exhausted.  I think that about sums it up.

Commentary

I had to think a while about my comments on this film, because I hope that Sandler et al meant well.  There are many jokes making fun of Israelis, some of it pretty rough humor, and to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt, I hope that he thought that those jokes were in balance with the jokes at the expense of the Arab characters.  After all, the Zohan’s love interest is a Palestinian woman!

But there is no getting past the fact that while the film plays with Israeli stereotypes (tough guy, the accent, the attitude, the Sabra heart of sweetness) it trades on a nastier stereotype of Arabs and Palestinians:  the lust for Jewish blood and mindless hatred.  The humor about the Zohan springs from the tension between his tough-guy Mossad persona and his true hairdresser lover-boy identity.  The humor about the Arabs in this film does not come from any such tension:  the men are mostly Wile E. Coyote to Zohan’s RoadRunner, one-note idiots who repeatedly court disaster in hot comic pursuit of their quarry.  The more benign Palestinian male characters are merely dim.  This is racist stereotyping at its worst, because it is disguised as “all in good fun” while it sends the same old hateful messages.  Worse yet, it is aimed specifically at young men.

For those who are saying, “Whoa! Don’t you love Israel?” all I can say is, I dislike this film because I do love Israel.  I am a deeply committed Zionist.  I lived in Israel in 2002-3, during the Second Intifada.  I dislike this film because I think that racism like this hurts Israel, and damages the chances for peace, because it tells young American men that Palestinian men are subhuman.  I can point to Israeli films that take similar or even touchier subject matter and do so much better with it:  for example, watch The Band’s Visit.  It’s a wonderful, funny film that gets its comedy from the humanity of everyone in it.

For a contrast to a broad, sometimes vulgar comedy that tackles similar subject matter with much better results, take a look at The Infidel.  Everyone in that movie is a complicated human being, with complicated motives and dreams that lead them into a comical collision.  We all laugh together at the human condition:  much, much better.

As for the way women are pictured in this film, I will just say: feh.  I am very tired of Jewish filmmakers failing to work out their mommy issues — or going for the cheap laugh, which is worse — by dumping on women.  Sandler and Apatow, you can do better!