Sidney Lumet, a mentsh and a Rabbi of American movies, is gone

Sidney Lumet, a filmmaker known for progressive-minded movies, was an American Rabbi of movies, a teacher on topics that few of us are bold enough to confront one-on-one.  Having died on April 9th, he left a legacy, and left us hungry for more.

His indelible works include “12 Angry Men,” “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “The Verdict.” A few of those came out in a streak in the 1970s.  Many of these provoked viewers to go beyond their comfort zones.  Frankly he may be connected with theme of justice as much as he is with any other.

It is morose when a craftsman’s, an artist’s works are summarized by up to 5 percent of his output; it’s also typical.  Most general interest news venues ran typical obituaries, which provided summaries of Mr. Lumet’s achievements and legacy.  Why not go beyond that, and fill in some details and nuance?

“That Lumet is significant is pretty much a given,” Mr. Gregg said, a media scholar and producer at the University of Minnesota.  He made those several movies of substance, but in the 1980s he also gave us “Running on Empty” in 1988 and “Fail Safe” in 1964, both of are anti-war, the last far more so than the former.

Many Jewish American or American Jewish filmmakers’ careers are marked by conventional stories; these were about happy, shiny, suburban peoples and their mass sensibilities.  Mr. Lumet will not be remembered for giving a rip about or bothering with such insipid projects.  He was a mentsh, which is decent in Yiddish – just a decent man who on occasion defied Hollywood.

  • An irony: while his legacy will stand on these, he surely made his share of conventional, fun, escapist movies.
  • But we remember movies that last.

His stories dealt with public corruption, bigotry, the greed in entertainment and news, and a perspective on being Jewish in America.  His films pushed us more often than we would push ourselves.  “He was willing to take on controversial issues and make movies that addressed controversial issues, sometimes pitting one person against insurmountable odds..,” Mr. Gregg said.  Mr. Lumet’s indelible images and ideas were visceral, evocative and dangerous to some people.

In 1990’s “Q & A,” he dealt with subtle questions of “race,” bigotry and mixed-“race” perspective when few other filmmakers would. It’s an exceptional a police procedural, but under the masses’ radars.  Before then, and at least as potently and pointedly, he confronted those topics in 1957’s “12 Angry Men.”  It was shown most bluntly when Ed Begley’s character spoke with zeal about “those people.”  Mr. Gregg said that, “in terms of his ability to convey internal tension and really bring about solidly great performances from his talent.”

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Seeing Anne Frank’s final diary entry in today’s Jewish films

Anne Frank wrote her final diary entry on August 1st, 1944.  This is a lifetime removed from us.  A reality removed from ours in many ways.  As a teenager she had to confront her own angst and misgivings and a separate stress, which the Nazi’s stirred.  According to the director of education at the Anne Frank Center USA, Maureen McNeil, for many people “Anne is the face of the Holocaust.”  Her enthusiasm for movies distinguished and invigorated her personality.

She devoured her weekly copies of “Cinema and Theater Magazine” while in the annex.  On this day let’s think about how contemporary American films represent Jewish Americans or American Jews, and particularly how some films reflect Anne’s last diary entry.  Which 20th- and 21st-Century film portrayals of Jews reflect Anne’s angst or misgivings?

Anne yearned to reconcile contradictions within herself and her persona: a silly, precocious public persona versus a quiet, studious, and private one.  After having recently adapted her diary, PBS provides a thorough look at Anne and her legacy. She described herself as such: “flippant, boy-crazy, smart aleck.”  She wrote that “No one knows Anne’s better side, and that’s why most people can’t stand me. Oh, I can be an amusing clown for an afternoon, but after that everyone’s had enough of me to last a month.  Actually, I’m what a romantic movie is to a profound thinker — a mere diversion…”

Her internal narrative is the story of reconciling two sets of selves and personal contradictions: on one hand, one between the public, accepted, and acceptable, and the other hand the private, the unknown, the strange, the not yet accepted, or acceptable.  “Her inner-self was just a person.  Her outer-self was Jewish,” Ms. McNeil said.

"The Diary of A Young Girl" Anne Frank

Sixty-six years ago Anne wrote her final entry.  Contemporary Jewish American films are more than two generations removed from Anne’s last entry, from the Shoah (another and favored word among Jews for Holocaust); it is a pillar of a collective cultural memory.  How do American gentiles understand Jewish characters in American films?  How do they reflect that internal duality, which made Anne see herself through different cultural lenses?  If we don’t limit the scope to the last generation, the last 30 years, this question could be daunting.

The indelible, hallmark film about the Shoah is Schindler’s List.  I mention this because I remember when Steven Spielberg began to describe it: “Everybody knows that Nazis are bad…”  He wanted to go beyond that to show one who stood out for his humanity.  When you watch portrayals or listen to a survivor, their memories confront you with images of brazen evil, barbarism, and brutality.  The Shoah doesn’t define the American Jewish experience, but it probably is the one suite of images that typifies it for American gentiles.

How to interpret these hefty questions through 20th- and 21st-century Jewish American films?  First off, concentrate on those selections from only the last generation. In fall 2009, “moment” a magazine of “independent journalism from a Jewish point of view” published a thorough list of 60 films, from 12 renowned experts and scholars on Jewish films.  They considered what were the best ones that reflected their people or sensibilities.

Detective Bobby Gold must confront his identity

I was surprised that “moment’s” film list omitted two titles: David Mamet’s Homicide, a crime drama from 1991, and Edward Norton’s Keeping the Faith, a comedy from 1998, and written by Stuart Blumberg.  These are two disparate films, set in similarly disparate worlds, and presenting similarly disparate Jewish characters: one, Rabbi Jake Schram, for whom his faith and cultural traditions define his life and identity; the other Detective Bobby Gold, for whom his faith and cultural traditions do not at all define or even inform his life, profession, or identity.  Both carry cultural identities bound to their profession and peers.  But for Mr. Gold it’s secular and American.  For Rabbi Schram they’re his people and his faith.

This excerpt from Siskel & Ebert At the Movies, summarizes Det. Gold’s crisis most pithily.  At 1:15 we witness the detective’s confusion and self-hate.

This is something that, when addressed by W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folks,” is a singular American experience: “One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”  When you replace Negro with Jewry or Judaism, within the concept of social duality, the experiences reflect each other.  The more the Jews felt constrained, persecuted, the more this was their reality, even though weren’t burdened by color, but by their customs and traditions.

In an e-mailed response, a frenetic and harried scholar, Lester D. Friedman provided this hint as to how to approach my question in reconciling private and public selves:  “The issues which occupied the generation of Jewish filmmakers who followed WW 2 (I am thinking her particularly of Allen, Brooks, Mazursky, Lumet, etc) no longer concern modern Jewish filmmakers (such as Aronofsky, Singer, etc.) in the same, visceral way.”

There’s Barry Levinson’s Avalon, from 1990, which Friedman criticized for emphasizing, even celebrating or idolizing assimilation, while omitting the frequent context of culture clash.  He slammed it for omitting questions of otherness, bigotry, and their inherent growing pains.  No questions are raised when the protagonists Anglicize their names, going from Krichinsky to Kirk.

In “American Jewish Filmmakers,” a book that he co-wrote, he describes three categories of Jewish art and creative expression: “humor, social justice, and life-style trends.”  Keeping the Faith touches the trio, while Homicide focuses solely on how Det. Gold’s interest in social justice resuscitates one in his own ethnic or religious identity.  The more relevant and visceral questions are about no longer being “the other,” about comfort with yourself, public acceptance, and finally just how far you’ll allow assimilation to be a salve.

Anne’s most naked admission about this was, “…Keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if…only there were no other people in the world.”

Anne wasn’t devout: the religious part of her heritage was incidental.  Being a good person and a great writer interested her more.  The vital or decisive question isn’t that of zeal but of elementary respect for her culture.  Det. Gold, while respecting himself as an investigator, doesn’t as a Jew; he is confused, self-conscious, and ashamed.  He disrespects his heritage.

As we compare Bobby Gold to Jake Schram, we find in the detective what Anne could have become, at its darkest, had she succumbed mentally to her most destructive questions to or doubts about herself.  At some point, Det. Gold found himself too frail or fragile to grow beyond whatever hateful messages convinced him to betray his Jewishness.  Rabbi Schram is absurd comic flipside to the detective.  The reality of finding your sense of place and identity in a world that rarely and barely understands it lies probably in a dynamic spot between these two characters’ mentalities and their worlds.

Anne, at least as she portrays herself, was too smart, and had a sense of self, and family community that was too strong to become a Bobby Gold.  This is a key to the strength, inspiration, and promise that people find in her words and legacy.

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