Divorce Israeli Style. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A Courtroom drama

  • Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn husband won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama from Israel.

The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, inexpensive, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber, with a few scenes in an adjoining waiting room. As in a stage play, the characters’ lives outside of that room are only alluded to in dialog. Although the protagonist, Viviane, has a life and runs her own successful business, the limited settings emphasize that in a very real way, she’s trapped.

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Let me explain: Despite the fact that most Israelis are secular, Orthodox rabbis own a monopoly on Jewish matrimony. You can’t get married or divorced without their approval. And by their rules, only the husband can grant a divorce (gett in Hebrew). If the husband has been particularly cruel, the rabbis can put pressure on him, and even jail him. But only he can set his wife free.

And so the hearings continue. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) explains the nightmare of her marriage. Her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) proclaims to be a good man and good husband. Witnesses speak on both sides. And little by little, we learn about their lives.

He’s deeply religious and keeps kosher. She grew up that way, and was Orthodox when they married, but now wants to leave religion behind her. And here she is, trying to win the sympathies of three Orthodox rabbis who may hopefully force Elisha’s hands.

Elisha is not a violent man, but he’s cold, self-centered, and horrifically stubborn. You can easily see what a nightmare it would be to be married to such a man. Even the rabbis–who one would assume are pre-disposed to favor an Orthodox man over a secular woman–hate him. But they can’t grant a divorce without him.

Over the years (scenes are separately by intertitles that tell us how many months have gone by), Viviane’s look and demeanor show her growing secular leanings. Her clothes get less modest and more modern over the course of the film.

The picture doesn’t tell us everything about Viviane’s life. For instance, we don’t know if she’s sexually active–quite possibly because she doesn’t want the rabbis to see her as an adulteress. But there are fleeting moments that suggest she has something to hide. And a few glances between her and her very handsome counsel (Menashe Noy) suggest a mutual, although probably not acted on, attraction.

There’s no question that Gett is a didactic film. It’s clearly meant as an indictment of the Israeli system of marriage and divorce. But it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere so claustrophobic that we only see the outside world twice–and both times through a window. And only twice, outside of the opening and closing credits, do we hear music.

Daring in its stripped-down style, Gett never makes you wish for a more expansive canvas. It may make you thankful for the first amendment.

Revisiting Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Anyone who cares about silent films has to read Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth oral history survey, The Parade’s Gone By. Not a history book in the usual sense, it describes early Hollywood primarily through the recollections of people who were there. Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, and William Wellman were among the many filmmakers who Brownlow interviewed.

imageI first read The Parade’s Gone By in 1972, and wrote a book report on it for a film history class. The book was only four years old at that time, and the American silent era had been dead for 42 years. And now, 42 years after my first reading, I’ve re-read it.

We have far better access to silent films, and I suspect have far more silent film enthusiasts, than we did when I first read this book–or when Brownlow wrote it. Brownlow complains frequently about washed-out prints projected at the wrong speed–the most common way silents were screened in those days, if they were screened at all. Today, thanks to restorations, digital technology, film festivals, and especially thanks to Kevin Brownlow, that’s no longer the case. When I first read this book, I’d seen maybe six silent features in theaters and classrooms–two with live music–and maybe another five on broadcast TV. Now, there are weekends when I see more than that.

One example of how things have changed: When I first read Parade, I fell instantly in love with Louise Brooks. I would have to wait ten more years to actually see her in a film. Now she’s readily available everywhere.

Although the creations of the era are now readily available, the people who created them are long gone. And its these people that Brownlow had access to in the 1960s. Here we have Gloria Swanson describing the time Cecil B. De Mille filmed her with a real lion on her back for Male and Female. "Then they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. I had to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Mr. De Mille with a gun."

Some of what they say is shocking by today’s standard–and even by the standards of image1968. Mary Pickford, recalling a fight with the American Legion over bringing Ernst Lubitsch to America, quotes a speech she planned but never had a chance to say, which including the argument "I’m white, twenty-one, and an American citizen." By then an old woman, she doesn’t seem to realize how offensive the statement sounds. Curiously, Brownlow put Pickford’s chapter in the section on directors, even though she never was one. She was a star, a producer, and ran a studio, but she never directed.

Decades-old recollections are notoriously inaccurate, but enough of them, well edited, can create a vivid view of the world they recall. I doubt that every incident described in The Parade’s Gone By happened exactly as written. But the general sense of a technical gimmick maturing into a major industry and a magnificent art form, then suddenly dying just as it reaches its peak, comes through. So does the sense of pioneers building something new. Those following today’s tech revolutions would do well to read this book.

Brownlow doesn’t stick entirely to his interviews. He has chapters on Griffith and DeMille, neither of whom lived long enough to be interviewed for this book. It includes chapters on art direction, editing, tinting, and, of course, the talkie revolution that killed one art form to create another. He also devotes two chapters to specific films: Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and the original Ben Hur.

Although the first chapter is called The Primitive Years and the last one The Talking Picture, Brownlow doesn’t attempt a chronological history. He’s more interested in the flavor of the period, and the day-to-day work. He assumes, for instance, that you already know that Griffith was a beginning of cinema as an art form (an opinion that isn’t as widely held today as it was in 1968).

The British Brownlow focuses his book almost entirely on America, but he turns to Europe for two chapters near the end. The second of these chapters, and by far the longest chapter in the book, covers his hero, Abel Gance. In almost worshipful terms, using both Gance’s words and his own, Brownlow describes Gance as the French Griffith, and the greatest filmmaker of all time. He goes into great detail about the man’s life, and the making of his three most important films. He bemoans the fact that Napoleon (in Brownlow’s eyes the greatest film ever made) no longer exists in anything like its original form.

That was 1968. Today, Napoleon has been beautifully restored. We have Kevin Brownlow to thank for that. And not just for Napoleon. The current access to silent films that we all enjoy is, to a large extent, the result of Brownlow’s life work. And The Parade’s Gone By was the beginning.

Undead comedy should have died sooner: What We Do in the Shadows

B- Mockumentary

  • Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

This vampire mockumentary from New Zealand feels a bit like an article in The Onion or The Borowitz Report. The headline and the first couple of paragraphs are very funny. But as you go deeper into it, you experience longer waits between laughs.

The basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentary camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in Wellington (they call it a flat, but it looked like a house to me). They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences.

Initially, the movie finds plenty of laughs about the situation. A vampire’s digital alarm clock goes off at 6:00pm. He opens his coffin, and rises out of it like a flat board being tilted up. But as he does it, he smiles into the camera, as if to say “Look what I can do!”

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A modern vampire’s life has other joys…and problems. They wear wild and crazy clothes, some of which they take from their victims. They have human slaves. On the other hand, drinking the blood of a living person can make a real mess. Their arguments can go on for eternity–literally. And eating just one French fry produces the grossest projectile vomiting imaginable.

The vampires’ different personalities clearly produce conflict. Our primary connection to their world, Viago (Taika Waititi), is fussy, tries to be tidy (he asks his mates to please put newspaper on the floor before biting someone), and wants everyone to be comfortable. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the youngest at 183, is a bit of an adolescent rebel. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) has a very dark but sexual personality. 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) looks like Nosferatu. He seldom moves and never speaks.

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But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. To keep things going, the filmmakers bring in some not-particularly interesting conflict. Brand-new vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) thinks his new situation so cool that he has to tell everyone. Obviously, you don’t want your neighbors, or the police, to know that you’re killing people for your own nourishment. (The cops in this film are geniuses at not noticing what’s really going on.) But this begs the question: If they don’t want mortals to know that they’re vampires, why did they agree to make a documentary?

At times the movie can be quite impressive. Even the generally dull second half has a smattering for very funny jokes. And someone really took the time to create the excellent, low-budget special effects, most of which I’m pretty sure were done in the camera.

The film was made by the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, which I’ve heard good things about but have never seen. Shadows is a fun idea for a movie. But after that idea has been played out, the fun comes only occasionally.

At least it’s better than the last vampire comedy I reviewed.

Timbuktu: Tyranny works slowly

A political drama

  • Written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall
  • Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

At first glance, life in the fabled city and the surrounding prairie seem to have changed little over the centuries. But there are changes far more unsettling than the ubiquity of cellphones. An armed group of Muslim fundamentalists have taken over the area. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film sometimes feels like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. We meet the gentle and forgiving imam who tries to tame the fanatics, the fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves while selling her fish, the young people unwilling to give up music, and the Islamist official who secretly smokes.

But mostly, we get to know the cow herder Kidane and his family. They live in a tent outside of town, they don’t have much money, but their lives are rich in love. Not that they’re living in the past. A prized cow is affectionately named GPS (I suspect that the 12-year-old daughter had something to do about that). Kidane will face horrible consequences before the film is over.

Timbuktu

At least his tragedy is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. Everyone else is inflicted by the new, fanatical rulers of Timbuktu. And yet, at least at the beginning, even they don’t come off the way we westerners imagine such people. Yes, they’re walking around with big guns and creating ever-more restrictive rules. But they act calm and friendly, and they seem reluctant to enforce the new rules. In other words, their fanaticism hasn’t completely destroyed their humanity.

Sissako and film editor Nadia Ben Rachid give Timbuktu a slow and stately pace. People think before they act. Much of the dialog is through interpreters (not everyone speaks the same language), so much of the dialog has to be said twice. The camera often lingers on an image. And yet, not for second did the film bore me.

The slow pace also enhances the strange, off-beat humor. In one remarkable scene, a group of teenage boys in a field play soccer with an imaginary ball. When some Islamists drive into and around the field, the boys quickly switch the calisthenics. Once the men with guns disappear, the imaginary game restarts.

As the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. People get whipped for infractions. An Islamist takes an unwilling bride over the objections of the young woman’s mother. A couple are buried up to their necks and stoned to death.

Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life.

Bisexual Iranian Immigrant Comedy Not Great–But Appropriate

C Comedy

  • Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan

There’s nothing really wrong with Desiree Akhavan’s autobiographical tale about a twenty-something woman trying to find her place–professionally but mostly romantically and sexually–in Brooklyn. But there’s nothing really right about it, either. The concept is very much like Girls, but the execution lacks the HBO series’ humor and incisive  characterizations.

The lead character, Shirin, is an Iranian immigrant who grew up in America and is culturally far more a New Yorker than a Persian. She’s bisexual–more gay than straight–but she can’t bring herself to come out to her completely secular, obviously liberal parents. Akhavan plays the part herself.

When we first meet Shirin, she’s just lost her job and broken up with her girlfriend. She gets a new job soon enough, although it’s one for which she’s woefully unqualified. She also finds a new girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Actually, I’m not entirely sure that Maxine is the new girlfriend, or the old girlfriend seen in flashback. Most of the movie’s thankfully short runtime is committed to the ways Shirin drives Maxine away. I occasionally suspected that the narrative jumped back and forth in time, but it wasn’t clear.

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Whatever time she’s in, Shirin comes off as a self-centered, alcoholic brat. She complains. She mopes. She doesn’t give anyone a straight answer. She goes to bars, drinks heavily, and sleeps around. Then she blows her top when she catches Maxine kissing a man.

But she’s not quite a complete jerk. There’s a slight sense that her problem is really immaturity; that someday she’ll grow up and become a decent human being. Occasionally, I even found myself rooting for her.

The film’s other characters appear to exist only for Shirin’s benefit; so she can have someone to talk to…or to have sex with. Even Maxine, who initially comes off as an intelligent and principled human being, soon turns into nothing but an object for Shirin’s frustrations.

The marketing material I received touted the film as a realistic, character-driven comedy in the tradition of Annie Hall. I think I chuckled mildly a few times.

Just Appropriate is just okay.

Pioneer Review: Deep Water, Shallow Story

C+

  • Writtern by Nikolaj Frobenius, Hans Gunnarsson, Cathinka Nicolaysen, Erik Skjoldbjærg, and Kathrine Valen Zeiner
  • Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg

Early in this Norwegian thriller, two brothers—both highly-skilled deep-sea divers—have a talk. The one who’s a loving husband and father tells his bachelor brother that this will be his last dive; he wants to spend more time with his family. And so the clichés begin.

Set in the early 1980s, Pioneer’s plot wraps around a competition over which country will control a very lucrative oil pipeline in the North Sea. Will it be virtuous Norway, or the evil United States? The movie doesn’t play coy about who it’s rooting for. All of the Americans are crude, violent, and involved in an evil, murderous conspiracy. Many Norwegians are involved in the conspiracy, as well, but at least they feel guilty about it.

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The surviving brother, Petter (Aksel Hennie, star of wonderful thriller Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident. But he knows it’s not his fault. How could it be? He’s the star of the picture!

As Petter begins to look into the matter, people start trying to kill him. He’s even run off the road by one of those evil American divers. Mind you, no one is really taking his claims seriously at this point. Here’s a suggestion for anyone running an evil conspiracy: If someone is publically talking about your murderous work, and everyone else assumes that this person is crazy, his death in a car accident involving one of your employees will do your public image more harm than good.

Call it a thriller by the numbers. The twists and turns of the plot are almost all predictable. Really, did you possibly expect that the friend helping him wouldn’t turn up dead?  What’s more, Petter just isn’t all that interesting a protagonist.

The movie improves considerably in the last act, when the climax I expected didn’t happen. That was nice, but I had to wait for more than an hour to be surprised by a plot turn

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg and his merry band of four co-writers never bring up the big question: Should this oil be tapped at all? I guess that raising the planet’s temperature and risking disastrous oil spills are acceptable goals if it helps Norway.

Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film

Film noir led to apocalyptic cinema. When human society has no clear moral boundaries, the end of the world is but a plot twist away.

imageAt least that’s the argument that Peter Labuza sets out to prove in his new, very short book, Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film. I can’t say that he really and truly succeeds.

After a first chapter arguing the differences between noir and melodrama, he discusses 10 films in moderate detail, showing their connection both to traditional noir and end-of-world themes. First, he discusses three classics from the golden era of noir that touch on issues of the then new atomic bomb:

  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • The Lady from Shanghai
  • The Big Heat

He follows that by examining three more recent films that display both noir tropes and touch on Christian conceptions of the apocalypse:

  • God Told Me To
  • The Rapture
  • Days of Heaven

Next, Labuza takes on noir-sci-fi crossbreeds that suggest a technological end of days:

  • Strange Days
  • The Terminator
  • They Live

Finally, he covers one film "that deals with a number of apocalyptic narratives through media saturation and the post-9/11 social environment."

  • Southland Tales

I’ve bulleted all of these films for a reason. The more of these films you’ve seen, and the better you know them, the more you’ll enjoy this book. Reading Labuza’s discussion of a film you haven’t seen is a laborious task; you’ll get little out of it except boredom and spoilers.

Things get more interesting (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them entertaining) when he discusses a film you know. Consider Days of Heaven, which I wrote about in 2011. Labuza notes (as I and others have) that the film places a B noir plot into a self-consciously artistic and beautiful mise en scene, and slows it down to an atmospheric pace.

The physical land thus acts as a temporal space of the past, a time of innocence made into a physical space. However, this supposed spatial heaven, which seems like the promise of an afterlife, has been plagued with the same troubles as human society.

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He also discusses the religious themes promised by the film’s title.

Malick juxtaposes the human conflict with the conflict of nature through biblical, apocalyptic imagery—the swarms of locusts, but especially the repeated depictions of fire. There are fires in the opening shots at the factory; in an early moment of the harvest, as the camera gazes into one of the tractors; in a brief mention by Linda during the voiceover recalling Ding-Dong’s story of an apocalyptic fie; and then, finally, during the fire that destroys the crops.

This book opened my eyes to new ways of interpreting Malick’s film. For instance, I had never caught on to the story’s relationship to the Genesis tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. On the other hand, he failed to convince me that there’s anything apocalyptic about Days of Heaven.

But as you might guess from the above quotes, Labuza writes in the word-heavy, over-intellectualized style of an insecure academic. The whole book reads like a thesis. Even when what he had to say was interesting, his writing style made reading it feel like a chore.

If you’ve seen enough of these films, and you have patience with this type of writing, you might find Approaching the End interesting. You can skip the sections on film you haven’t seen or haven’t seen recently. You might even want to take the time to see them first.

The book’s publisher, The Critical Press, sells its e-books directly, without copy protection. When you buy the book, even without a physical form, you’ve really bought it.

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