The schlemiel is dead. A beloved figure in post-World War II Jewish-American fiction, drama and film, he suffered a spectacular death by vivisection over the course of a couple of fascinating years of films that re-imagined him in a rather less affectionate light.
That, I think, is the central story of Jewish film in 2010. In Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” the Safdie Brothers’ “Daddy Longlegs,” Maria Chenillo’s “Nora’s Will” and most tellingly, David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” the myth of the lovable dope got sliced and diced in ways that were thoroughly satisfying and provocative. Taken together with Azazel Jacobs’ 2009 film, “Mama’s Man,” we have had a chance to see a pop culture archetype torn down and rebuilt as a much more complex, nuanced and occasionally disturbing version of itself. While I think the Baumbach film suffers from the final implosion of its own pent-up neuroses, disintegrating in fascinating but frustrating ways, the other three films would make a good core for a best-of-2010 list.
What makes “The Social Network,” “Daddy Longlegs” and “Nora’s Will” so satisfying is that each analyzes the emotionally arrested development of the classic Jewish male loser-who-is-secretly-a-winner, a trope that Woody Allen pioneered and then beat into the pavement. For a long time, Jewish filmmakers have been content to coast on that paradigm, but each of these three films challenges its protagonists to grow up and be a mensch. The tragedy of the first two films is that neither Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) nor Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) is capable of such change. The beauty of Chenillo’s debut feature is that her protagonist José (Fernando Lujan) is. Eisenberg, Bronstein and Lujan are not afraid to be unlikable, if that’s what the role calls for. (In truth, the same can be said of Ben Stiller in “Greenberg,” which is a huge leap for him.)
Two of the best Israeli films of 2010 are culminating moments in the exploration of the archetype of the tight-lipped Sabra, that larger-than-John-Wayne he-man who is utterly implacable and occasionally implausible. The Israeli hero is sort of a mirror image of the schlemiel, but every bit as limiting. This year, two films deconstructed that convenient myth with great panache.
Amos Gitai has been one of the primary iconoclasts of Israeli film for 30 years, but his latest work, “Carmel,” is a brave, if occasionally cluttered examination of the macho element in Israeli culture. More than any of his films, “Carmel” is the dialectical synthesis (car crash?) of his fiction and documentary films. The film is a re-examination of his life and work as a backdrop for a consideration of 60 years of Israeli history. Gitai, whose intricately worked-out camera movements and monumentally long takes suggest an artist who is cerebral and controlling, has abandoned himself to a degree of emotional involvement that is unusual for him. Given that he is the central figure of the film, this is an act of artistic courage on a par with what Eisenberg, Bronstein and Lujan achieve in a more conventional setting.
Samuel Maoz, a first-time feature director, worked in a more conventional setting for his dark, brutal bildungsroman, “Lebanon.” The film recounts Maoz’s own experience as a tank crew member on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon war. Told entirely from the point of view of the men inside the tank, this is a brilliant throwback to the best work of Samuel Fuller. Like Fuller, who was a rifleman in World War II, Maoz knows what he’s doing from the inside. And like Fuller, who frames the violence in his films tightly enough that the relationship of “hero” and “villain” becomes morally complex (not equivalent, but ambiguous), Maoz implicates his audience in the on-screen action. The result is unnerving and remarkably powerful.
Haim Tabakman’s “Eyes Wide Open” is as much of a challenge to accepted notions of Jewish male behavior as any of the other films discussed above. Working from an original screenplay by Merav Doster, he shows the slow-burning attraction between Aaron (Zohar Strauss), a married father of four and pillar of his small fervently Orthodox community in Jerusalem, and his new apprentice, a mysterious loner named Ezri (Ron Danker), who we learn almost immediately is gay. Gradually, mutual attraction grows into something between love and lust, and Aaron’s marriage and standing in the community are shaken. Tabakman tells this story in a consistently understated tone. He captures brilliantly the paranoia-inducing claustrophobia that accompanies living in a small, self-isolating community.
Much as the best Jewish-themed fiction films of the year were smartly thought-out assaults on the conventions of genre and the clichés of our cultures, my two favorite documentaries also worked against the grain. “Loss” by Nurith Aviv and “DDR/DDR” by Amie Siegel are both set in the reunified capital of Germany, Berlin and, inevitably, each film is concerned with issues of memory and guilt. But neither film takes the usual tack in approaching these issues.
“DDR/DDR” is a complex mosaic of thoughts that take in the nature of filmmaking itself as a form of assault, the traumas of reunification in the East and the bizarre nostalgia for East German goods. It is no small tribute to Siegel, a Chicago-born video and film artist now living in Berlin, that the film does more than juggle all these disparate elements. Rather, it interweaves them with a remarkably deft hand.
“Loss” manages to fill a mere 30 minutes with a series of trenchant ruminations on the damage done to Germany by its murder and expulsion of German Jews. Aviv juxtaposes a train ride through contemporary Berlin with several interviews, fading the image of the speakers in and out of the frame, as if to say that the ghosts of the past still haunt 21st-century Berlin. The film is a vivid reminder that you don’t need two hours to make a point.