Tuesday, September 21, 2010

AFF #2: Fakin' It!

The Holocaust is different from other genocides in that there exists so much footage of it. How many people remember the Herero genocide, other than those who've read Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973)? This time, the Germans kept meticulous records and made films because they wanted people to know what they were doing. Perhaps significantly, the best and most comprehensive film I've seen on the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), doesn't incorporate any archival footage whatsoever.

The approach taken by Yael Hersonsky in his powerful documentary A Film Unfinished (2010) is directly the opposite of Lanzmann's in that it focuses like a laser on one particular event: The making of a Nazi propaganda film in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1942. Four reels of edited footage, running about an hour, were discovered in an underground film vault in Eastern Germany after the war, but why the film was made, why it was never completed, and the names of all but one of the technicians who worked on the film remain a mystery to this day. The documentary consists primarily of the surviving footage, including outtakes that show the same events being staged over and over from several different angles. The footage, which lacks a soundtrack, is contextualized by the reminiscences of Holocaust survivors watching the film in a screening room, as well as excerpts from the diary of Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish Council in the Ghetto, who wrote daily about the making of the film (his diaries are also featured prominently in the latter portions of Shoah), and from the testimony given by Willy Wist, a cameraman who worked on the film, during the trial of a German officer.

The film, titled simply The Ghetto, attempts to present a comprehensive view of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, including ritual baths and circumcisions, with a particular emphasis on the supposed disparity between the rich and the poor, and the indifference of more affluent Jews to those dying in abject squalor. One survivor of the Ghetto estimates that there were between twenty and fifty people who could afford to buy food right until the end (at exorbitant prices), but the scenes in the film of rich, healthy-looking Jews thriving and enjoying their lives were obviously staged for the camera. But what were they trying to prove? Apparently, the filmmakers themselves didn't know; they filmed what they were told to film. My guess is that the film was intended as a rationalization for the liquidation of the Ghetto, which occurred shortly afterward, but when it wasn't finished on time for whatever reason, the film was simply abandoned. As a record of how the Nazis wanted the world to see the Warsaw Ghetto, A Film Unfinished is a fascinating historical document.

Hasid Streets

A Rabbinical school version of Scarface (1983), Kevin Asch's Holy Rollers (2010) takes place in a black-and-white universe in which everything the characters do is either a step towards Hashem, or a step away. As the film opens, its protagonist, Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), is an ultra-Orthodox George Michael (you better believe he's gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith... Baby!) whose parents want him to become a Rabbi. Sam, however, wants to continue working in his father's fabric store so that he can make some extra money to buy his ma a new oven, and support the girl he intends to marry, who comes from a more affluent family. Leon (Jason Fuchs), Sam's best friend, is also studying to be a Rabbi, but his older bother, Yosef (Justin Bartha), watches porn, smokes on the sabbath, and wears a gold watch. It's through Yosef that Sam meets Jackie (Danny Abeckaser), an Israeli drug dealer who imports ecstasy pills from Amsterdam using Hasidic Jews as drug couriers.

Jackie introduces Sam to a life of fast money and fast women, not to mention flashier clothing. But temptation begets temptation, and before long, Yosef is skimming drugs off the top to sell on the side, and Sam enters into an Oedipal struggle with Jackie over the latter's girl, Rachel (Ari Graynor), a blonde temptress whose first step away from Hashem was to drop out of Hebrew school. Throughout it all, Sam remains fundamentally a nice kid. When trying to convince Rachel to run away with him to Lithuania (where they'll live with his grandmother!), Sam tells her, "I think we make a cute couple." On the other hand, Leon stays on the righteous path and marries the girl that Sam wanted to, while Sam, Yosef, Jackie, and Rachel all go to prison. A bit neat, don't you think? The film's message is essentially that you should just do whatever your parents tell you to do.

The film is very well made. I liked the style of the film (shadowy handheld realism with virtually no non-diegetic music), and Asch has a good handle on the tone of the material. And I liked Eisenberg, who's more of a leading man than Michael Cera. In short, it's probably the best after school special ever made. But to cite the last mainstream Jew-fest to hit the 'plexes, I was much more intrigued by the Coen brothers' A Serious Man (2009), which is all about uncertainty and doubt. (Incidentally, both films use selective focus to represent an altered state of mind.) This movie, on the other hand, for all its claims to taking place in the secular world, never seems to leave Rabbinical school.

Down by Law

Cameron Yates' The Canal Street Madam (2010) is a documentary profile of Jeanette Maier, a self-described "whore" from New Orleans whose arrest in the late 1980s attracted national media coverage and inspired a made-for-TV movie starring Annabella Sciorra. Yates began filming Maier in 2004 and followed her over a period of several years, and the resulting documentary suggests at different times a political activism doc, with Maier campaigning to have prostitution decriminalized; a feminist statement about how Maier has been exploited by men; and a reality show train wreck in which Maier (unwittingly?) makes a fool of herself on camera.

It's not so much that Yates portrays Maier in an unflattering light so much as that's how she portrays herself. After being interviewed by the local six o'clock news, Maier gets into an argument with her boyfriend, who thinks that she should be more careful about the language she uses to represent herself--for instance, instead of saying "whore," he thinks she should use the more politically correct "prostitute." Maier answers, not unreasonably, that "a whore is a whore is a whore" no matter what you call her. And her best friend thinks it's okay to say "whore" if you are one. All valid points of view. But surely it doesn't help Maier's cause to decriminalize prostitution when, while campaigning for local office, she stands on a street corner holding up a sign while giggling her boobs at passing motorists.

Let's agree that the prostitution laws in the United States are ineffective and hypocritical, targeting the prostitutes while protecting their clients. (The film touches on the dubious suicide of the DC Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, after she decided to name names. And the undercover cop who busted Maier waited until after she sucked his dick before arresting her--or at least, that's how she tells it.) When you get down to it, the fact of the matter is that a woman with no education, no skills, no legitimate work experience, a criminal record, and three kids to feed can make a hell of a lot more money selling her ass than she can working at Denny's for minimum wage and tips. It's easy money, like teaching English abroad--except that you don't need a university degree to do it, and you don't pay taxes. (After her arrest, however, Maier started another business, selling candles for three hundred dollars a pop, and whatever she does with a customer afterward is simply for her own pleasure.)

Not surprisingly, all of Maier's children have criminal records. Her eldest son is an intravenous drug user; her daughter also became a prostitute; and her youngest son spent time in prison for an unspecified offense and now lives at home with his mother. Maier attributes her kids' problems to their having seen her being abused by the cops from the time that they were children, but this is obviously a self-serving rationalization so that she doesn't have to take any responsibility for her actions. My theory is that kids learn by example, and if they see a parent engaged in illegal activity, they're going to think it's okay. Do I need to tell you that Maier's mother was herself a lady of the evening? (Ellen Burstyn played her in the TV movie.)

Aside from infrequently asking a question while standing off screen, Yates mostly keeps himself out of the picture, letting Maier speak for herself. Watching the movie, I had the same queasy feeling that I got from Chris Smith's American Movie (1999), in which you sense that the people on screen aren't in on the joke. The curious thing about the movie is that Yates isn't pretending to be objective; rather, he seems to be giving Maier a platform to espouse her views. So when he includes footage showing her and members of her family in an unflattering light, I felt that he wasn't being entirely upfront about his intentions, either with Maier or the audience.

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