Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight

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After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. She recently released a new eBook, " Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter ."

Tzivi’s Spotlight

Tzivi reviews Vita Activa

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Ada Ushpiz’s brilliant new documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is an audacious attempt to completely reframe the legacy of Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt is best-known today for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Arendt was in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961 (the day the trial began) because she had arranged to cover it for The New Yorker magazine. The result was a highly controversial series of articles in The New Yorker,which were later republished in book form by Viking Press in 1963.

One result of this close association between the names Hannah Arendt and Adolph Eichmann is that we are inclined to think of Arendt now as a "Holocaust survivor." But as Ushpiz makes clear, Arendt was already safe in America by 1941, long before the infamous Wannsee Conference (on January 20, 1942) during which those at the table—including Eichmann—planned the details of what they hoped would be "the final solution" to the "Jewish problem."

In fact, Arendt learned about the true horrors of the Holocaust second and third hand (like most Americans did). So even though it is probably unconscious, we are wrong to make the assumption that the course of either her life or her work were directly determined by the Holocaust.

To the contrary, what Ushpiz shows is that the formative experience of Arendt’s own life was not annihilation, but exile and displacement, what Arendt herself called "statelessness." No doubt Ushpiz, who is Israeli, felt this acutely when she began to do her research for this film five years ago. But surely even she is somewhat dismayed to see how au courantthis makes Arendt’s work. As new waves of refugees settle in camps all around the borders of Israel and flood ever further into Europe, perhaps Arendt’s work is even more relevant today—in 2016—than ever before.

The centerpiece of Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is a long interview she did on German television in 1964. As abhorrent as much of the content is, listen carefully and her conclusions about Adolph Eichmann are chillingly prescient. "I really thought Adolph Eichmann was a clown and I laughed out loud when I read the transcript..." He was "intelligent but dumb…" "Evil is thought-defying. Clichés are its comfort."

Wrapped around this interview are a birth-to-death biography with excerpts from her mother Martha’s diary ("Hannah turned four in October… She has an intellectual side to her, loves books."), followed by extensive quotes from many letters read by actress Alison Darcy. (Hannah Arendt was a prodigious letter-writer who maintained innumerable relationships with many people across the twin distances of miles and years.)

There are also long passages from several of her books, most especially The Origins of Totalitarianism(published in English by Schocken Books in 1951).

"The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them… With the emergence of the minorities of Eastern and Southern Europe and with the stateless people driven into Central and Western Europe, a complete new element of disintegration was introduced into post-WWI Europe. Denationalization became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics... Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyites, etc.—were received as scum of the earth everywhere."

This is what Hannah Arendt knew firsthand, and articulating the condition of statelessness—as well as its dire legal, moral and political consequences—is her true legacy.

Almost a half century after her death in 1975 (at the age of 69), it is still difficult to stick a label on her. Was Arendt a philosopher? Was she a political theorist? Was she a public intellectual? Ushpiz includes some interviews with prominent talking heads in Israel and the USA to debate all of this, but the fact is Arendt is difficult to label precisely because she refused to be labeled.

As Ushpiz makes clear in the course of her film, Arendt was committed to a life spent in essential dialogue with herself, so she defined herself more through the act of thinking in itself than in the results of any particular thoughts articulated at any specific points in time. This makes Ushpiz’s film dense and draining, but I urge you to stick with it. Ushpiz certainly convinced me, thereby making my own emotional investment in this difficult subject matter well worth the effort.

In the Q and A I attended the night Vita Activaopened at the Film Forum in Manhattan, Ushpiz said: "Thinking independently, and deeply, and provocatively… is the only way to fight our conditioned state."

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is currently playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State and Randolph. For times and tickets, visit their website.

For more photos from Vita Activa as well as more quotes from the April 6, 2016 Q and A at the Film Forum, visit my blog.

Read my review of Hannah Arendt(Margarethe von Trotta's 2012 BioPic)

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Photos: Hannah Arendt, subject of Ada Ushpiz’s documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Tzivi reviews Colliding Dreams

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Colliding Dreams, a new documentary about the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict from the Jewish-American point of view, comes to us from two men with superlative credentials. Filmmaker Joseph Dorman is best-known to us as the director of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. Oren Rudavsky is best-known to us as the director of Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust. Together they have taken a leap of faith, crafting an epic drama worthy of its subject.

I first saw the directors’ cut of this film at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival. Back then it was called The Zionist Idea, and it was 160 minutes long (2 hours and 40 minutes). That was just fine with me, but clearly too long for others. So Dorman and Rudavsky locked themselves up with their editors to produce this new cut, which is “only” 134 minutes long. However, I am happy to report that Colliding Dreams is not merely 26 minutes shorter than The Zionist Idea, it is also tighter and better focused -- so all their travails were well worth the effort.

In a Q and A after the screening that I attended at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in Manhattan on March 4, Dorman said: “Me, Oren, and our two editors, we fought a lot to be truthful to all points of view … but we didn’t make a film about Palestine. We made a film about Zionism from the Jewish point of view, although we did try to capture the Palestinian point of view too.”

But this relatively straightforward statement belies the complexity of their endeavor. There is no one “Jewish point of view,” nor is there one “Palestinian point of view.” So the attempt to “be truthful to all points of view” really means focusing on the differences within each group, in hopes of finding points on the continuum where most people find themselves closer to the midpoint than to either of the poles.

The filmmakers give this their all. Quoting Dorman in the Q and A again: “We have no ‘political message’ per se. [Oren and I] believe in a Two-State Solution. A Jewish State must be democratic. So both attacks on Israel and self-righteous support for Israel are both wrong-headed … There will always be at least two narratives.”

These twin narratives are presented chronologically -- with voiceover by Michael Douglas -- in five sections:

  • The Jewish Dilemma
  • One Land/Two Peoples
  • Another Zionism
  • Recognition
  • The Zionist Dilemma

The timespan is more than a century, from 1882 to the day before yesterday. Every major milestone and movement is described, with abundant historical footage prompting cheers and tears. The long list of speakers includes the famous and the infamous. (Which talking head should get which label will depend, of course, on your own point of view.) There are many politicians and religious leaders as well as artists and intellectuals. There are also citizen voices, people in the flow of daily life who are interviewed on the sidewalks of Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

This is a complex, demanding film, and I will not attempt to summarize further. All I can really do is urge you to see it for yourself, for yourself, your children and Jews everywhere.

Colliding Dreams opens in Metro Chicago March 25 at the Music Box Theater on Southport and the Landmark Renaissance Center Cinema in Highland Park. For times and tickets, follow these links to the Music Box website, and the Landmark website.

For additional photos and comments from the Lincoln Plaza Cinema Q and A with Joe Dorman, visit my Blog Second City Tzivi.

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Top Photo: IDF soldiers remove a protester during the evacuation of an Israeli settlement.

Bottom Photo: A group of young “illegal” immigrants on board the Hagana ship “Jewish State” arrive in the port of Haifa. (Note: I took the liberty of converting this photo from black and white to sepia so that the wonderful expressions on these precious faces would show better online.)

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Colliding Dreams website.

Tzivi reviews Carvalho's Journey

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Have you made plans for Valentine’s Day yet? If not, then I suggest you go straight to the Spertus Institute website and order tickets for their screening of Carvalho's Journey.

Although the Spertus description doesn’t mention this angle, I am here to tell you that Carvalho's Journey, in addition to all its other virtues, may well be one of the greatest love stories in Jewish American history.

This wonderful new documentary—newly released by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University—interweaves three powerful stories. First and foremost, Carvalho's Journey is a BioDoc about Solomon Nunes Carvalho (pronounced Kar-Vay-Oh), an artist born into a distinguished Charleston, SC Sephardic family in 1815. Second, it tells an arduous tale of survival in the Early West that captures almost everything seen onscreen in The Revenant except the bear. Third, Carvalho's Journey is also an insightful description of the transition from daguerreotype to modern photography with moving details about how ordinary people felt when they saw fixed images of themselves and their loved ones for the very first time. And with all this, there is even a romance? Yes!

Our guide is Robert Shlaer, a professional daguerreotypist who has devoted himself to reproducing original images captured by Solomon Nunes Carvalho on John C. Fremont’s fifth and final expedition across the Rocky Mountains. Fremont had two reasons for taking a daguerreotypist west with him. The overt purpose was to document a winter route for the transcontinental railroad along the 38th parallel. The covert purpose was to create heroic images for Fremont’s presidential campaign. Yup! Way back in 1853, the man who was to become the first Republican Presidential Candidate in American history was looking for new ways to market himself to the public. As a result, this was the first of the great expeditions to be fully documented by a photographer.

Carvalho met Fremont—best remembered in American History by his nickname “The Pathfinder”—in New York. Fremont wanted Mathew Brady, already well-known for his book The Gallery of Illustrious Americans (a portrait collection of prominent contemporary figures released in 1850). Brady recommended Carvalho, and even though he had a wife and two children to support, Carvalho signed on immediately.

In retrospect, his eagerness to join Fremont is almost heart-stopping. Not only was Carvalho Jewish, he was devout. Not only was Carvalho a slight man with no prior experience roughing it in the great outdoors, he was an artist/intellectual used to a refined life with all the comforts of home.

Shlaer, who creates a portable dark room in his van, marvels at the sheer technical difficulty of Carvalho’s project. He explains that no one had ever attempted to make daguerreotype plates “on the go” in sub-zero temperatures before. Nevertheless, after only two weeks of preparation, Carvalho boarded a train with twenty cases of luggage on September 5, 1853, and headed off for his meet up with Fremont in St. Louis.

At this point (around the thirty minute mark), filmmaker Steve Rivo switches from Shlaer’s first-person story to third-person narration by actor Michael Stuhlbarg. This is when we learn about Carvalho’s family history, from Portugal to Barbados to Charleston, South Carolina. Those who don’t know much about Sephardic American history will be astonished to learn how prosperous and well-integrated Charleston was in the early 19th Century. Equally surprising is the fact that no one seems to have objected to Solomon’s artistic inclinations. Quite the contrary, after the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue burned down, the community was happy to pay Solomon for his beautiful rendering of the sanctuary (which he did from memory).

Back to St. Louis. Fremont and his men—including Carvalho—headed west across Kansas towards the Rocky Mountains. But they encountered difficulties almost immediately and things went steadily downhill. Now it is one thing to watch Leonardo DiCaprio simulate the experiences of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but learning how Solomon Nunes Carvalho not only learned to ride a horse, but also summoned the determination to eat that same horse when the time came is nothing short of remarkable.

But we know the details and we believe the details because of the letters Carvalho wrote all along the way to his wife Sarah Miriam Solis. The letters Solomon wrote to Sarah became the core of a book he published in 1856. That same year, Solomon also painted a portrait of Sarah that shows just how much his love for her sustained him in his darkest hours. John C. Fremont ran for President in 1856, but lost to Democrat James Buchanan. Meanwhile Solomon and Sarah were married for forty-nine years. She died in 1894. He died in 1897.

Remember, I promised you a love story… Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Spertus screening of Carvalho's Journey is Sunday, February 14 at 2 PM, and filmmaker Steve Rivo will be onsite for a post-screening Q and A. To order tickets, visit the Spertus Institute website.

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Top: Self Portrait, Solomon Nunes Carvalho/Courtesy: Yeshiva University Museum
Bottom: Painting of The Rio Grande by Solomon Nunes Carvalho/Courtesy: Oakland Museum
Used with permission from the National Center for Jewish Film

BONUS

Carvalho's Journey is only one of the four programs Spertus is offering in its new Sunday Cinema series this month. To learn more about the other three film s, visit my blog.

2/7: Raise the Roof

2/21: Camera Obscura

2/28: How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire

Tzivi reviews Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

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Who won World War II? As we prepare to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Complex on Jan. 27, I would like to make the case that one of the big winners of World War II was Peggy Guggenheim. 

Say what?

In her superlative new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland introduces her subject with quotes from talking heads who are often quite snide, and yet 95 minutes later, her heroine has triumphed. Despite all who would doubt or demean her, in spite of all who would endanger her wealth, her well-being and even her life, Peggy Guggenheim proved herself to be invincible.

We hear the name “Guggenheim” today, and we picture a world of people born with silver spoons. But Vreeland shows with a brief overview of PG’s family tree that the wealth of the Guggenheims (on her father’s side) like the wealth of the Seligmans (on her mother’s side) was entirely new money, all of which was made in America.

PG’s Seligman great-grandfather -- Joseph Seligman -- was born in Baiersdorf, Germany in 1819. At age 17, Joseph Seligman boarded a steamer at Bremen and sailed to America, where he worked as peddler in rural Pennsylvania. But by the time he died at age 60 in 1880, Joseph Seligman had amassed a fortune and founded a dynasty.

Meyer Guggenheim, PG’s paternal grandfather, was also born in the Old Country. He left Switzerland in 1847 at age 19, and started his new life in America in the import business. Then he saved his money, went west, and invested in Colorado mines. When Meyer Guggenheim died in 1905, he was the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in late 19th century America.

Barbara and Meyer Guggenheim raised ten children (seven sons and three daughters). Babet and Joseph Seligman raised nine children (five sons and four daughters). But PG’s parents were both a bit rebellious, and when Florette Seligman married Benjamin Guggenheim in 1894, they began to distance themselves from their birth families. They set themselves up in grand style in Manhattan, yet by the time Florette gave birth to their third daughter in 1903, they had also grown distant from one another. Then Benjamin went off the Paris, where instead of achieving independence he ended up squandering much of his inheritance in ill-advised investments.

Truth being stranger than fiction, Benjamin Guggenheim literally sank with the Titanic on April 15, 1912, leaving Florette alone with her daughters in somewhat precarious financial circumstances. Benjamin’s brothers -- all of whom were extremely wealthy -- tried to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed, but as soon as Florette found out, she began downsizing. Perhaps some of the Seligmans also tried to help her, but if so, there is no record of it. So while PG carried a name that seemed to imply great good fortune, she actually had a childhood filled with tragedy and she grew up knowing she would always be thought of as an object of pity.

To everyone’s surprise, PG embraced her fate and turned it into a badge of honor. Rather than live as a “poor relation,” PG cast herself as a “black sheep,” and moved to Paris in 1920 at age 22. For the next 20 years, PG lived at the edge of Europe’s avant-garde. Name almost any famous person who passed through Paris in those years -- artists and writers, intellectuals and gadflies -- and it’s likely he or she supped at PG’s table. She loved their creative energy; they loved her money. It may not have been much money from her relatives’ perspective, but from a bohemian’s point of view, PG had it all.

And so, as the Nazis began their “rape of Europe” in 1939, PG was perfectly positioned to achieve her destiny as the savior of Modern Art. By the time of her death in 1979, PG had amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th century paintings, sculptures, and other works of “fine art.” Along with her purchases, she also provided direct financial support to those once-famous who had fallen on hard times (e.g., Emma Goldman) and those who might never have become famous without her (e.g., Jackson Pollock).

And in the end, she also healed strained family relations by donating her collection --The Peggy Guggenheim Collection -- to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. For its part, the Foundation affirmed in a recent press release that it “has worked to make the name of Peggy Guggenheim and the renown of her achievements more celebrated than ever before and will continue to ensure that Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is honored and preserved.”

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is one of my favorite documentary films of 2015. Once I was introduced to her by filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, I couldn’t get enough. I ended up reading both versions of her autobiography (the randy original from 1946 and the cleaned-up version released in 1960), the new biography Peggy Guggenheim – The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose (published last year in Yale University Press’s prestigious “Jewish Lives” series), “The Cicerone” (a short story published in a Mary McCarthy collection called Cast a Cold Eye in which a fictionalized Peggy appears), and A Not So Still Life (the memoir published by her step-son Jimmy Ernst in 1984 in which a very real Peggy appears).

Then I re-watched Pollock (the film released by Ed Harris in 2000 in which he plays Jackson Pollock, Amy Madigan plays Peggy Guggenheim, and Marcia Gay Harden plays Pollock’s very Jewish wife Lee Krasner). Then I re-watched Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict a second time, and knowing so much more about her, I loved Vreeland’s film even more.

In her own way, PG -- the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of German-speaking Jewish immigrants from Europe -- lived in defiance of Hitler and his murderous assault on everything precious to Western Civilization. He lost. She won. And through her, countless cultural treasures have been preserved for future generations. May her memory be for a blessing.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict opens Friday, Jan. 8 at the Music Box Theatre on Southport Ave. For showtimes, call (773) 871-6604. To purchase tickets, visit: http://www.musicboxtheatre.com/

For more photos and links, visit Jan's blog.

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Top Photo: Peggy Guggenheim looking through sculpture, Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice. (NOTE: Per filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, this sculpture is not part of PG’s collection.)

Bottom Photo: Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (1898-1979) and her first husband Lawrence Vail (1891-1968) with their children Pegeen Vail Hélion Rumney (1925-1967) and Michael C. Vail aka Sindbad (1923-1986).

Photos courtesy of filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland.

Tzivi reviews The Big Short

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The Big Short -- the best film of 2015 -- opens in limited release today in most major American markets including Chicago.

I say “the best” with confidence because I have now seen almost all of 2016’s Oscar contenders. It’s true -- I have attended innumerable private screenings in the past two months as a member of New York Film Critics Online, and my Brooklyn apartment is flooded with “For Your Consideration” screeners from all the major distributors. When the Golden Globe nominations were announced yesterday, there was only one top film on the list that I hadn’t seen -- The Revenant -- and that’s only because I had the flu the night of my NYFCO screening.

Based on The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the non-fiction best-seller published by Michael Lewis in 2010 which inspired the screenplay by director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph, The Big Short uses bravura filmmaking techniques to tell one of the most important stories of our era: the collapse of worldwide financial markets in 2008.

We refer to this now as the “Subprime Mortgage Crisis,” as if it were over and done. But reverberations are still evident in almost every country on this planet, especially our own (embroiled as we already are in one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history). When the dominos began to fall midway through the film, one character said to another, “This thing is hitting Europe. Greece and Iceland are finished. Spain is teetering,” chills ran up and down my spine.

So it is important for us to strap ourselves into a careening car on this wild rollercoaster, and give ourselves over to those with the talent and skill to explain how we got here. Luckily, McKay and Randolph lay it out for us in bite-sized pieces, with tremendous support from film editor Hank Corwin (the MVP on their huge and phenomenal team).

The plot (the cast of which includes major stars like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Marisa Tomei as well as up-and-comers like Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong and Finn Wittrock) follows four sets of idiosyncratic outsiders, all of whom sensed that something was deeply wrong with the Housing Bubble. So they bought insurance on bonds everyone else considered totally secure. The title The Big Short refers to the fact that they “shorted” the market when everyone else went long, but hey, let Margot Robbie explain it!

Margot Robbie is the gorgeous actress who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street two years ago. “Here is Margot Robbie to explain,” says narrator “Jared Vennett” (Ryan Gosling). Cut to Margot Robbie (the real Margot Robbie). Sipping champagne in a bathtub filled with bubbles, Robbie is the epitome of decadence (just as her character was in The Wolf of Wall Street). “Short means bet against. Got it? Now get lost.”

This scene serves multiple purposes for the audience. It relaxes us and gives us a laugh, and it also cushions us from all the jargon to come. This is important because jargon was one of the primary weapons used to defraud investors like us and the people who were supposedly acting in our interest (like our pension fund managers). Acronyms like “CDO” buzzed around us like bees. Collateralized Debt Obligation? Say what?

But using Margot Robbie as the first of several celebrity explainers is also an archway for McKay and Randolph to signal that “the wolf” in The Wolf of Wall Street turned out to be a chump, whereas the guys who looked like sheep were the ones who actually succeeded. In the end, as big-name financial institutions like AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers implode, the “insiders” who considered themselves “players” are all turned out.

Insofar as this mess has a moral center, it belongs to a Jewish guy introduced early on by his Rabbi. “Mark is an excellent student of the Torah and the Talmud,” the Rabbi tells Mark’s beaming mother. When she fails appreciate his concern, the Rabbi continues: “He’s looking for inconsistencies in the word of God!”

Mark is a character named “Mark Baum” who is closely modeled on a real person named Steve Eisman, and this anecdote comes directly from Eisman’s mother Lillian. It can be found in the first chapter of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, almost verbatim. 

“Mark Baum” (like Steve Eisman) was the head of a hedge fund called FrontPoint Partners. One day a guy from Deutsche Bank named “Jared Vennett” (the Ryan Gosling character based on another real person named Gregg Lippmann) called the wrong number and ended up making a pitch to Baum and his core team members, numbers guy Vinny Daniel (whose actual name really is Vincent Daniel) and trader Danny Moses (whose actual name is Daniel Moses). This fluke leads the beginning of FrontPoint Partners’ involvement. They know Vennett is only looking out for “number one” -- as Vennett later admits, “I never said I was the hero of this story” -- but his mere appearance signals to them that the waters are far murkier than they realized.

Even though he is inherently skeptical, the more Baum learns, the more anxious he becomes. He sends his guys down to Miami in 2006 to look at a pricey new housing development, and it turns out to be a ghost town. He travels with them to the American Securitization Forum in 2007, and finds thousands of people partying with no thoughts of tomorrow. Breaking the fourth wall, Vennett tells us: “It was at that moment in that dumb restaurant in Las Vegas with that stupid look on his face that Mark Baum realized the whole world economy might collapse.” Soon after, Baum says to his wife: “It’s all so much uglier and more twisted than I could have imagined.” “Stop trying to save the world,” she says. But he can’t.

Mark Baum is played by Steve Carell in a transformative performance that raises him to the rank of one of the greatest actors of his generation (a remarkable feat for someone who got his start as a Second Banana in “bromance” comedies). Carell totally owns the climactic scene in which Baum is invited to debate a bullish investor from Bear Stearns at the very moment Bear Stearns stock goes into freefall. While Vinny tracks the numbers on his BlackBerry, Baum puts the whole mess in perspective: “For 15,000 years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually people get caught. Things go south. When the hell did we forget all that?”

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The Big Short opens today in limited release at the AMC River East and the Regal City North on Western Ave. Suburban locations include Bolingbrook, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Lake Zurich, Lincolnshire, Skokie, and Woodridge. The Big Short will expand to additional Metro Chicago theatres on Dec. 23.

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Top Photo: Steve Carell as Mark Baum in The Big Short

Bottom Photo: Carell and Ryan Gosling.


Tzivi reviews A Voice Among the Silent

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On March 18, 1949, President Harry S. Truman appointed James Grover McDonald "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" -- a person invested with the full power of independent action on behalf of their government in a foreign country -- to the newly declared State of Israel.

Who was this man, and how did he come to receive such a profoundly significant title at such a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people?

The answer is fascinating, and well-explained in Shuli Eshel's new documentary A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald, which will be honored with a special screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street this Sunday (Nov. 22).

This is a case in which there is no reason to speculate. Although born in Ohio to a relatively ordinary Christian family, McDonald began his ascent as a student at Indiana University. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1909, he completed a master's degree in History, Political Science, and International Relations at IU in 1910, after which he was selected for a prestigious teaching fellowship at Harvard University.

Because his mother was German, McDonald spoke German fluently. Therefore, this very tall -- and very "Aryan-looking" -- fellow made friends with students at Harvard who later rose to become prominent members of the Nazi Party. Ironically, this gave him access to highly placed individuals after he left academia to become Chairman of the Board of the Foreign Policy Association. In 1933, all of these connections lead to his appointment as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany. So he was literally in the right place at the right time to offer detailed information to Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet from 1933 through to the end of World War II.

Eshel's achievement in A Voice Among the Silent is to explain McDonald's career step-by-step with a clear linear line from a Midwestern childhood to the world stage. In this she is much aided by on camera interviews with McDonald's daughter Barbara McDonald Stewart. Now a historian in her own right, Stewart has collaborated on the publication of three edited editions of her father's voluminous diaries:

  • Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1932-1935)
  • Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1935-1945)
  • To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald(1945-1947)

Eshel -- an award-winning filmmaker who was born in Israel but has long resided in Chicago -- is best known locally for her beloved documentary Maxwell Street: A Living Memory which premiered to a record crowd at the Chicago History Museum in 2002 (I remember! I was there!), and has since aired numerous times on WTTW (Chicago Public Television).

Sunday's screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center begins at 5:15 PM, and Eshel will be there in person for a Q and A after the credits roll.

For tickets, visit the GSFC website: www.siskelfilmcenter.org

For more information about Eshel and links to all documentaries now available on DVD (including A Voice Among the Silent and Maxwell Street: A Living Memory), visit her website: http://shulieshel.com/

The screening begins at 5:15 PM. For tickets, visit the GSFC website: www.siskelfilmcenter.org

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American Ambassador James G. McDonald with Israeli President David Ben Gurion.

Top Photo: Note portrait of Theodor Herzl in the background.

Bottom Photo: Note map of Eretz Yisrael in the middle.

CFIC '15: The Gett Trilogy

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The 10th annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema begins this week, and as regular readers already know, I will be flying in from Brooklyn to participate in a special screening of The Gett Trilogy on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

This is something of a high-risk venture for the CFIC, because the initial release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem was a “2014 event” rather than a “2015 event.” Gett received an Ophir Award as Best Picture of the Year from the Israel Film Academy in September 2014, and it received a Golden Globe nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in December 2014 in the Best Foreign Language Film category. In between, Gett also made its first Chicago appearance at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival in October, and then played at both local Landmark Theatres -- the Century Center Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park -- in February and March.

Nevertheless, even if you have already seen some -- or all -- of The Gett Trilogy already, I sincerely believe that the opportunity to see all three parts together should not be missed. I will go so far as to say this will be a cultural experience somewhat akin to signing up for one of the Lyric Opera’s Ring Cycle weeks (an experience hubby and I both cherished).

I will be with you all day on Nov. 3 to watch all three films in person, and that’s really saying something because I have already seen Gett three times, and I have seen both To Take a Wife and Shiva twice. But great works of art are inherently open to multiple interpretations, and different facets often resonate based on changes in your own life. (For a wonderful analysis of this phenomenon, get yourself a copy of Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser.) 

Just a few weeks back, I actually found myself arguing with another film critic here in NYC about our contrasting interpretations of Gett, so I will be looking with new eyes. Maybe she is right? Maybe I missed something? Who knows? As I always say: “You don’t know until you go!”

Let me stop now and back-up, because even though I have written JUF posts about all of the 2014 events mentioned above, many of you reading now are probably new to The Gett Trilogy and are therefore thoroughly baffled.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is the third film in a trilogy about an Israeli woman named Viviane Amsalem who is seeking a divorce decree (a “gett”) from the Bet Din (Rabbinical Court). Viviane Amsalem is played by Ronit Elkabetz, one of Israel’s most highly lauded actresses. She has also starred in well-known Israeli films such as Late Marriage and The Band’s Visit, as well as high-profile French films including The Girl on the Train.

In addition to her starring role as Viviane, Elkabetz also co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the production in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. The story is loosely based on the life of their parents. Together they collected awards from film festivals all around the world, including a “Silver Hugo” for Best Screenplay from the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival jury.

To Take a Wife, the first film in the series, was released in Israel in 2004. Although it was shown in various film festivals around the world, it was not widely available in the USA until a DVD was released in 2009.

Shiva, the second film in the series, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008 was released in Israel a few months later. I saw it the following year at CFIC ’09. (It appears on the “Highly Recommended” list at the end of my JUF post.) Yet once again, it was not widely available in the USA until the DVD release, also in 2009.

However, worldwide acclaim for Gett has fed interest in the first two parts of the trilogy, no doubt related to greater awareness of the agunot (“Chained Women”) issue in the Jewish world at large since 2004.

Let me cut to the chase: If you have only seen Gett, it will be almost impossible to feel one iota of respect for Viviane’s husband, Elisha. It’s very difficult to understand the motivations of a man who would treat any woman like this (for decades?!?), but here I remind you that Ronit and Shlomi have based these characters on their own parents. So Elisha is not just a “monster” to them, he is a man presumably much like their own father.

Watch the entire trilogy, and you will see how actor Simon Abkarian wins our grudging sympathy for someone who knew his place growing up in Morocco, but cannot find his way after making aliyah. Elisha is not the first man in his position who tried to reclaim lost dignity by lording it over his family. And with so many displaced people now flooding the developed world, we should be more grateful than ever that Ronit and Shlomi have empathy for Elisha even though they are clearly rooting for Viviane.

Screenings on Nov. 3 are as follows:

  • To Take a Wife at 4 p.m. (runtime 97 minutes)
  • Shiva at 6:30 p.m. (runtime 103 minutes)
  • Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem at 8:45 p.m. (runtime 115 minutes)

Remember: I will be watching with you, and I will be available to answer questions and provide continuity from beginning to end.

Note that there will also be a dessert buffet for sponsors at 2:30 p.m. at which I will present “Jan’s Guide to Gett” (an overview of character arcs and major themes). If you would like to attend, please send me an e-mail message ASAP: tzivi (at) msn (dot) com.

Todah Rabah to CFIC Executive Director Cindy Stern for inviting me, and to the five sponsors -- Hadassah, Na’Amat, ORT, Shalva, and Teddie Kossof Salon -- who are making this extraordinary day possible.

I hope to see some of you there!

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Click here to read my post “Tzivi’s Guide to the 10th annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema” for the October issue of the JUF News.

For a complete program schedule, visit the CFIC ’15 website.

Click here to buy CFIC ’15 tickets   

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Gett movie still   

Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) and her attorney (Menashe Noy) face off against her husband Elisha Amsalem (Simon Abkarian) in one of their innumerable appearances before the Rabbinical Court. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema.)

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