Friday, September 30, 2011

L'shana To-Gab!

Werth: Happy New Year, Wise!

Wise: Is it January already?

Werth: It's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and that means one thing—

Wise: Fasting and atoning?

Werth: Our favorite Jewish movies!

Wise: I'll break out the gefilte fish and my dancing shoes!

Werth: I may just be a poor white goy from the Midwest, but no Jewish holiday is complete without a viewing of Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

Wise: Or Bubby's challa.

Werth: Fresh from its record-breaking, Tony-winning run on Broadway, Jerome Robbins' Fiddler was left mostly intact by film director Norman Jewison (irony of ironies, he's not Jewish). 
It tells the story of Tevye (Topol) a poor milkman in the village of Anatevka in turn of the century Russia. He is a gruff, but loving family patriarch who turns to God to deal with everything from a lame horse to marriage proposals for his daughters.

Wise: Better to turn to a crippled nag than to Patti Stanger.

Werth: What Fiddler does with such grace and beauty is align the changes that are happening in this man's family to changes happening in the bigger world where antisemitism in Tsarist Russia threatens to uproot their lives. Fiddler's success comes from how it universalizes the questions of faith in the face of change while at the same time celebrating this unique group of people. It also doesn't hurt that the score is full of eminently hummable songs like "Tradition," "If I Were A Rich Man," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and that wedding staple, "Sunrise, Sunset."

Wise: A score so good it makes you want to convert. 

Werth: Oswald Morris' Oscar-winning cinematography turns the expansive Yugoslavian countryside into a work of art, making its bleakness beautiful. And the actors (many cast for their believability over their marquee status) are shot in muted tones and minimal makeup, eschewing the typical glamor shots that had defined the Hollywood musical for a simpler aesthetic. 
At the 1972 Academy Awards, Fiddler lost the Best Picture prize to William Friedkin's The French Connection (tough competition that year with both A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show in contention), but it remains a stunning example of the joy and the power of the American musical. What film flips your yarmulke, Wise?

Wise: Adapted by Alfred Uhry from his Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) stars Jessica Tandy as an aging Jewish widow whose son hires a chauffeur named Hoke (Morgan Freeman) after a series of traffic mishaps causes her to lose her license.  Despite her original reluctance, Miss Daisy gradually begins to appreciate Hoke's talents and to recognize the limitations he has had to endure in the pre-Civil Rights era Atlanta.  

Werth: The Help doesn't sound so original anymore.  

Wise: Driving Miss Daisy is a little different, I think, because she remains a cantankerous character and never positions herself as a savior to oppressed people.  Plus, this is a movie about two individuals recognizing their equality rather than a group of powerless servants getting a boost from a spunky gal with other goals on her mind.

Werth: Who knew driving to the Piggly Wiggly could be so trans-formative?

Wise: But it's certainly not all uplifting race drama.  The movie is actually quite funny, especially in scenes with Dan Aykroyd playing Miss Daisy's son Boolie and Patti LuPone as his social climbing wife Florine.  Determined to assimilate into Atlanta's Protestant bourgeoisie, Boolie and Florine throw an ostentatious Christmas party tricked out in the most garish display of red and green lights south of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  

Werth: Nothing gets you into the Protestant bourgeoisie like a color-themed holiday party.

Wise: Of course the main reason to see this film is the heartbreaking performances by Tandy and Freeman as they move from mutual distrust to grudging respect to deep affection.  Tandy won an Oscar for her nuanced performance, and it's a shame that Freeman didn't also win a statuette for his equally fine depiction of a man battered by circumstance finally achieving his dignity.  

Werth: Speaking of battered, is fried food kosher?

Wise: Let's find a rabbi and ask. Tune in next week for more religious experiences on Film Gab!

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