In one of her short stories, Grace Paley writes, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Such a splendid statement, the quotation turns up twice in Lilly Rivlin’s splendid new documentary on Paley’s life and work, “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts,” which plays in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. The sentiment behind the sentence is so open-handed and wholehearted that it could be applied to the best films in the festival, including Rivlin’s own offering.
The Paley film is merely one of several more entries in this year’s festival that center on the lives and trials of Jewish artists, as noted here last week. In a few cases, it is the filmmakers themselves who are an integral part of the story, one of the luxuries available to documentarians in the form’s evolution towards more first-person storytelling. In the case of Rivlin’s film and the excellent short that accompanies it, “Vera Klement – Blunt Edge” by Wonjung Bae, it is the subject herself.
The pairing of Bae’s 11-minute profile of Klement, a Chicago-based painter of considerable power, with Rivlin’s feature-length portrait of Paley, is an inspired one. Each of the films is a splendid miniature graced by a woman artist of great warmth, wit and wisdom.
Both Klement and Paley wear their genius and their Jewishness lightly but firmly. Both filmmakers have their subject firmly in view, but manipulate the conventions of the talking-heads documentary skillfully to paint a comprehensive portrait of the milieu that produced their subjects and engaged their creative energies. Both films are economical and precise, with pacing that deftly balances leisure against precision. The highest praise I can bestow on both “Grace Paley: Collected Shorts” and “Vera Klement – Blunt Edge” is to say that I wish each were an hour or two longer. That is how delicious it is to spend time in the company of their protagonists, thanks to the skill of the filmmakers.
It would be nice to say that one comes away from Lou Reed’s initial filmmaking effort, “Red Shirley,” co-directed with Ralph Gibson, in the same mood. Certainly, Reed’s centenarian cousin Shirley is a delightful lady, a tough, no-B.S. veteran of the labor wars, articulate and passionate in her recollections of life as a new immigrant in Montreal and New York.
Regrettably, Reed chose to do the film’s interviews himself and, as great a musician as he is, that’s how inadequate an interlocutor he proves. Shirley has some great stories to tell about the after-effects of World War I on the Jews of her region in Poland, her brief time in Montreal and her union struggles in the needle trades in Depression-era New York, but Reed seems unwilling or unable to elicit them. Visually, the film is graceful and pensive, but one cannot help but bemoan a lost opportunity.
Nili Tal, on the other hand, is an old pro at the filmmaking business. Tal’s latest documentary, “Sixty and the City,” is a bit of a departure from her excellent TV documentaries. It’s a tongue-somewhat-in-cheek diary of her search for male companionship — dare we say love — at the age of 60. The film is a wry, disarmingly frank rumination on the perils of dating in the Internet age. Tal is wittily self-deprecating without being cloying or corny; her dates are not your garden-variety disasters, but something more complicated, more unexpected and occasionally more poignant.
The feminist subtext to this is clear and strong, and Tal conveys it with humor and the street-smart intelligence of the trained journalist that she is. Besides, you have to love a film in which one of the first suitors is a former lounge singer who lives in a converted public bomb shelter. Really.
Eran Riklis, needless to say, is also an old hand at filmmaking, too. With his latest film, “The Human Resources Manager,” he continues the run of very accomplished miniatures that he began with “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree.” In each of those films, he managed to offer a very different take on the clichés of Middle-Eastern politics by shifting his perspective to the problems of a tiny handful of, mostly, ordinary people. Even the politically powerful characters in “Lemon Tree” turn out to be peripheral to the story and its themes. In his new film, adapted by Noah Stollman from A.B. Yehoshua’s “A Woman in Jerusalem,” he continues to mine the rich vein of feeling that ran through those two films by once again looking at a universal human dilemma through the eyes of an ordinary person on the periphery of suffering.
The title character, played with a wonderful hangdog expressiveness by Mark Ivanir, is the nominal head of personnel at a Jerusalem bakery. He has suffered a mysterious career setback that has landed him in a job he neither wants nor enjoys, and when a tabloid milks the death of an ex-employee in a suicide bombing for some cheap headlines at the firm’s expense, he finds himself thrust into the onerous task of taking the dead woman’s body back to her native Romania. On one level, Riklis treats this like a shaggy-dog story, and there is a fair amount of enjoyable broad humor rooted in the cultural collisions between Israeli brusqueness and Romanian disorganization. But the film’s first images, of hundreds of interchangeable, identical loaves of bread being turned out by machine, say everything about the plight of the film’s characters, compounded by the fact that only the dead woman, Yulia Petracke, has a name rather than a position (the characters include the Ex-Husband, Consul, Vice-Consul, the Boy and the Weasel, the sobriquet attached to the tabloid reporter who tags along).
At the heart of the film is the universal human desire to be taken as an individual. The human resources manager himself and the film that bears his “name” both reach that understanding in the world of seemingly logical absurdism and deeply suppressed feelings that Riklis is making his own personal domain. In that sense, he is one of the natural heirs to Grace Paley. n
The New York Jewish Film Festival, now celebrating its 20th year, will run through Jan. 27. Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, most of the programs will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.), with some at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) and the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street). For information, go to www.filmlinc.com.