San Francisco portion of Jewish Festival ends with Mr. Spock

Sunday night I attended the last screening at the Castro Theatre for this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The festival itself will continue in other Bay Area locations.

The film was For The Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy’s loving tribute to his father, Leonard, and the character that made his father famous.

Adam Nimoy, an entertainment lawyer turned television director (he directed his father in a 1995 Outer Limits episode), gave a surprisingly long introduction to his documentary. He pointed out that this screening was the film’s west coast premiere. Because this was a Jewish film festival, he discussed his father’s connection to Jewish tradition. Born to orthodox parents, he was a frequent donor to Jewish charities and he created audiobooks of Jewish and Yiddish short stories.

He also discussed how this film came about. “We had made a short film together about his growing up. it was such a great bonding experience that i wanted to replicate that…Leonard was immediately enthusiastic about it. ”

Originally, they were going to make a documentary about Mr. Spock. After the elder Nimoy passed away, Adam decided that the film had to also cover his father’s life, and their loving but sometimes difficult relationship.

So what did I think of the film itself?

Adam Nimoy splits this feature documentary about evenly between his father Leonard and his Star Trek character, Mr. Spock. He tells us how the character developed, and then became one of the last century’s most important cultural icons. But he also shows us how his father developed, from a struggling actor to a star to a director, how he struggled with family conflicts and with alcohol. It’s a loving tribute, but also an honest one.

I give For the Love of Spock a B+. I’ll publish a longer review next month, when the film opens in theaters.

After the screening, Nimoy and three other people involved with the film or with Star Trek came on stage for a Q&A. A few highlights:

  • We broke all crowdfunding records for a documentary.
  • The one word that characterized your dad is passion.
  • If you’re not passionate, you don’t belong in this industry.
  • [Leonard Nimoy] grew up in a shtetl. It happened to be in Boston, but it was a shtetl.

For the Love of Spock screens again tonight (Monday), 8:30 at Berkeley’s Roda Theater. And as I mentioned above, it will open in theaters and on VOD September 9.

Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.

Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 2

Since I last wrote about this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I’ve seen five more films and a TV show that will screen at this year’s festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst:

A The Settlers

I found this documentary extremely difficult to watch, but also desperately important to experience. It tells the history of the West Bank settlements, mostly through the words of determined, militant, racist, religious fanatics with a worthat’s at odds with basic human decency. It leaves you feeling that there’s no hope for a just peace–probably because there really isn’t any hope. You won’t get this one out of your system easily.

A- Natasha

This coming-of-age drama deals with cultural conflicts and the side effects of sexual exploitation. Mark is 16, lives in a suburb of Toronto, and doesn’t know what to do with his life. Then members of his extended family arrive from Russia. One of them, Natasha, is 14 years old, sexually experienced, and has just become his cousin by marriage. She’s sullen whenever her mother is around, but loosens up (maybe too much) when free of maternal contact. The two teenagers soon become lovers, but that clearly can’t last. A very touching film.

What makes this a Jewish film? The characters are all ethnically Jewish, but their Russian identities seem far more important to the story than their Jewish ones.

B+ Germans and Jews

How do today’s German’s deal with the horrible crimes committed by their parents and grandparents? How can they face their own prejudices in a country with almost no Jews? And how do modern Jews relate to modern Germans? Janina Quint points her camera and microphone at several thoughtful and intelligent Germans and Jews, and gets insightful and fascinating answers. One Israeli-raised Jew claims he feels safer in Germany than in Israel. As I watched this conventionally-made documentary, I couldn’t help wishing that the USA would face its own crimes as well as the Germans have faced theirs.

B+ Song of Songs

Most films about shtetl life give it a nostalgic glow, with only the anti-Semites outside causing real trouble. But this story of a 10-year-old boy with a wild imagination barely mentions pogroms. His problems stem from a sadistically stern teacher and a crush on a beautiful orphan girl living with his family. The simple story is slow, low-key, and touching. If for no other reason, see Song of Songs for the photography, which appears to have been inspired by Vermeer.

  • Castro, Wednesday, July 27, 12:00 noon
  • Roda, Wednesday, August 3, 2:05

B- How to Win Enemies

I can’t really call this Argentine crime mystery a thriller, but it has a likeable protagonist and a nice little puzzle of a story (even if I guessed the bad guy way too soon). Lucas, a young lawyer working in the family business and a fan of crime fiction, falls for a con and loses a lot of money. While everyone else insists that he was just a random mark, Lucas is certain that he was targeted by someone who knows him well. And thus a mystery must be solved.

What makes this a Jewish film? Lucas is Jewish, and the film uses his brother’s very Jewish wedding as a framing device.

C The Writer

The new TV show by Sayed Kashua is even more autobiographical than his hit Arab Labor. This time, his alter-ego protagonist is the creator or a sitcom called Arabic Work (I don’t know if the title difference is intentional or a subtitle error), and is so obviously Kashua it’s almost embarrassing. The Jew/Arab conflict barely appears here. The story of a commercially successful, desperately unhappy man blurs the line between fiction and autobiography a little too much.

You can also read my previous reviews of four other SFJFF films.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are four films I’ve already seen that are coming to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A Indignation

Already screened at San Francisco International Film Festival.
Most coming of age movies are essentially optimistic. You know that the protagonist will come out alright. But in Indignation, you slowly begin to realize that, in the early 1950s, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil. The son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, he does well academically but not socially in a Christian college in Ohio. And if he leaves college, the draft and the Korean War await. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth.

  • Rafael, Friday, August 5, 6:30. The film will also open a regular engagement in San Francisco the same day.

B+ The Last Laugh

Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary asks an interesting and difficult question: Can we joke about the Holocaust? Quick answer: Yes, if you’re Jewish, and if the joke is very funny. The professional comics interviewed include Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, his son Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mel Brooks–the creator of The Producers has a lot to say on the subject. Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, not a professional but with a healthy sense of humor, deservedly gets more screen time than anyone else. Intriguing and funny while bringing up questions of remembrance, respect, and censorship.

The film has no connection to F. W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece, The Last Laugh.

  • Roda, Saturday, July 30, 7:10
  • Castro, Sunday, July 31, 2:55

B The Freedom to Marry

Already screened at Frameline. This documentary follows the struggle for marriage equality in both the courts and public opinion. As one would expect considering the outcome that we all know, it’s upbeat and inspiring. The problem is that it sticks almost exclusively to the last weeks before the Supreme Court decision. The years of struggle that preceded the big Washington moment are walked over quickly and without depth.

What makes this film Jewish? Some of the most important leaders in the movement, and thus the heroes of the story, are Jewish.

  • Castro, Friday, July 29, 3:50
  • Roda, Wednesday, August 3, 8:35

C+ The Tenth Man

Opening Night!
Ariel, an accountant living in New York, returns to his Buenos Aires home to help his Orthodox father’s Jewish charity. But his father (who is only a voice on the phone) keeps sending him on strange errands and wild-goose chases. Meanwhile a beautiful redhead–an beautiful and very religious redhead–seems to be spending a lot of time with Ariel. That potentially funny plot never really gets off the ground in this badly-paced, occasionally funny comedy.

I’ll be previewing more of these movies in the near future.

The SF Jewish Film Festival turns 36 (double chai)

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival turns 36 this year with 68 films (more than 50 of them features) from 16 countries. The films and presentations include comedies from Argentina and California, several coming-of-age dramas–including one about an Iranian family in Israel, a new TV series from the creator of Arab Labor, a Freedom of Expression award for Norman Lear, and documentaries about Holocaust humor, gay marriage, Goebbels’ secretary, the Israeli peace movement, comedian Robert Klein, and Leonard Nimoy.

The number 36 is significant in Judaism, because it’s a double 18. The number 18 is significant in Judaism because it’s associated with the Hebrew word for life, chai. (It’s spelled, but not pronounced, like the Indian tea. The ch is pronounced as in Bach.)

I’m Jewish, which pretty much makes this my favorite of the Bay Area’s many identity film festivals. Here are some festival screenings and events that look intriguing to me:

  • Freedom of Expression Award: This year the award goes to television pioneer
    Norman Lear, the man who brought controversy to prime time as the
    creator of All in the Family. The event will include a screening of the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.
  • The Writer: Sayed Kashua, the Israeli Arab creator of Arab Labor has a new TV series–this time a drama. As with his sitcom, it focuses on an Arab writer with an identity crisis.

  • The Last Laugh: Can we laugh at the holocaust? Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and other Jewish comedians consider the topic.
  • Sand Storm: A family relationship drama set in a Bedouin village in Israel.
  • For The Love of Spock: Director Adam Nimoy examines the life of his father, who created one of the most iconic characters in TV history, Mr. Spock.
  • Origin of Violence: A historian studying the Holocaust comes upon a photo suggesting something hidden in his family’s history.

I’ll tell you more about movies I have seen after I’ve seen enough of them.

Spellbound with music: Surviving and enjoying the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Nothing really beats the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For three days (plus an opening night), you’re immersed in an art form that was born, matured, reached extraordinary heights, and then suddenly died–all within the space of 20 to 40 years (depending on how to you define its birth and death). All told, this year’s festival presented 15 feature films, three collections of shorts, a program of lectures, a lot of live music, some fascinating introductions, and an opening-night party.

Only one of those three days had a break long enough for a comfortable restaurant dinner.

This year’s marathon included two French comedies by René Clair, the restoration of a long-fractured Laurel and Hardy comedy, two films shot in the frozen arctic, a double bill on cross-dressing, an Ozu crime thriller that’s also a family story, an African-American response to Birth of a Nation, a selection of colorized shorts, and one of Douglas Fairbanks’ pre-swashbuckler comedies.

The live music was, almost without exception, magnificent–both as cinematic accompaniment and live concert in its own right. The musicians provided not only tunes and emotional heft, but also some surprising sound effects. Even the squeak of pen on paper could be heard at one point.

The major musical newcomer this year was Michael Morgan, conducting a subsection of the Oakland Symphony–complete with chorus–in Adolphus Hailstork’s score for Within Our Gates. I had mixed feelings about Hailstork’s score. While it was powerful and dramatic, it failed to calm down for the quiet moments. And sometimes the music just stopped at seemingly random places, leaving the movie in silence.

Following the modern trend in silent film presentation, the foreign films were shown with their original German, Japanese, French, or Swedish intertitles, with digital English subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. When the films were projected in 35mm (which was most of them), the subtitles came from the Castro’s digital projector.

It seemed as if every third film was restored by the Festival itself (usually in collaboration with other organizations). Although all of these movies had been restored digitally in either 2K or 4K, they were projected in 35mm. I’m all for returning a digital restoration back to film for archival purposes, but these movies would all have looked better off of DCPs.

Serge Bromberg couldn’t make it this year, which is a pity. He’s always worth listening to. And the number of costumed festival goers was surprisingly small. I did, however, catch this happy couple:

But what about the movies I saw? Here are my favorite screenings from this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

Varieté

Emil Jannings proves himself a great actor in this powerful, sexy, and spectacular tragedy set in the world of vaudeville and the circus. He plays a trapeze artist who leaves his wife for a younger woman…with predictably disastrous results. The trapeze sequences are breathtaking, even while you can clearly see that Jannings is being doubled. And the sense of foretold doom covers the tale.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra‘s score matched both the film’s emotional heft and its many dancing sequences. This was all the more remarkable because it was such a group effort. Several students of a film-scoring class worked together, and passed the piton from one to another during the performance.

A Woman of the World

Pola Negri gives a fine comic performance as an Italian countess who comes to small-town America to recover from a broken heart. She smokes (a sign of an independent woman in the 1920s), has a tattoo, and is otherwise unacceptable to the local gossips and worse, to the blue-nosed district attorney. Directed by former Buster Keaton collaborator Malcolm St. Clair.

The Italian Straw Hat

A man on his way to be married runs into trouble when his horse eats a woman’s hat. If she comes home without her hat, her husband will suspect that she has a lover. She does have a lover–a short-tempered army officer who insists that our hero find an identical hat immediately. The story is ridiculous, but who cares when the movie is this funny.

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