Sunday, March 28, 2010

More on Connections Between Herzog and Greenberg

Near the end of Bellow's novel Herzog, Herzog has to be rescued from jail by his older brother, Will.

Bellow describes Will from Herzog's perspective, sounding much like Roger Greenberg describing his brother: "Standing with folded arms he favored one heel, somewhat like Father Herzog, and had a bit of the old man's elegance but not his eccentrities. He had no time for such stuff, thought Herzog, running a big business. . . [T]here's a strange division of functions that I sense, in which I am the specialist in . . .in spiritual self-awareness; or emotionalism; or ideas; or nonsense.. .He mixes grout to pump into these new high-rises all over town. He has to be political, and deal, and wangle and pay off and figure tax angles. All that Papa was inept in but dreamed he was born to do. Will is a quiet man of duty and routine, has his money, position, influence, and is just as glad to be rid of his private or 'personal' side. Sees me spluttering fire in the wilderness of this world, and pities me no doubt for my temperament. Under the old dispensation, as the stumbling, ingenuous, burlap Moses, a heart without guile, in need of protection, a morbid phenomenon, a modern remant of otherworldliness--under that former dispensation I would need protection. And it would be gladly offered by him--by the person who 'knows-the-world-for-what-it-is.' Whereas a man like me has shown the arbitrary withdrawal of proud subjectivity from the collective and historical progress of mankind. And that is true of lower-class emotional boys and girls who adopt the aesthetic mode, the mode of rich sensibility."

This passage in Herzog echoes the same themes in the film Greenberg, the same disjunction between the more successful brother who acquires a beautiful house full of rooms and possessions (the camera often pans from room to room to show the furniture and "stuff," the brother has acquired) and the other brother, guile-less, too steeped in sensibility, in feeling, "in need of protection," though this very vulnerability is what Florence (Greta Gerwig) finds appealing.

This foil/counterfoil that is set up between Herzog and his brother Will is the same as that between Roger Greenberg and his more successful brother, a real-estate developer of some kind, just like Will Herzog (a builder with hands steeped in the permanence of grout rather than a restless nomad, a Jew in perpetual exile, steeped in the intangibility and impermanence of words and ideas). A lack of putting down roots suggests a failure to grow up; it is only when Greenberg stops his restless wanderings, and halts his last-minute running off to Australia with two pretty young blondes that he starts becoming an adult.

Is "Greenberg" a Shlemiel?

After seeing A Serious Man, a few months back, I had the idea to start tracking whether shlemiels were returning to film and fiction. Two weeks ago, Tablet Magazine ran a short piece by Marissa Brostoff arguing that Baumbach's Greenberg and Sam Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, "breathe new life into the figure of the shlemiel".

Is Ben Stiller's character in Greenberg a shlemiel? What does a shlemiel look like in contemporary film (as opposed to the shlemiels of Yiddish literature and in the writings of Bellow, Roth, Malamud)? Why would be seeing a return to the shlemiel now? (A question that Brostoff doesn't answer.)

It's arguable whether Larry Gopnik in the Coen Brother's film "A Serious Man" is a shlemiel.

In mid-February, I asked Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and author (among other books) of The Shlemiel as Modern Hero (1976), about whether Gopnik is a shlemiel. Wisse wrote in an email, "The schlemiel character that interested me was the "loser-as-winner:" he is a figure of comedy, who nonetheless persuades us of his staying powers, and of his moral authority. There is profound irony involved. The very sorrowful protagonist of the Coen Brothers' movie is too beaten to fit my model. The Judd Apatow character does seem the type, though he is merely a little shlobby, not really a loser, not like Gimpel, or Herzog, or the other characters I describe. No doubt the Jewish type has influenced American humor, but the schlemiel was born of real failure--failure as a man."

Baumbach's film Greenberg, like his earlier film Squid and the Whale, is about male anxiety about becoming a man. Oddly, I noticed that the father-son relationship, so central to a boy forming an identity as a man, and at the heart of the story of Squid and the Whale, is absent from Greenberg. Greenberg's father is not shown or mentioned in the film. The two Greenberg brothers do mention their mother, that she has recently died, and Greenberg, in his honest, emotional voice mail that he leaves for Florence, says that he misses her.

For Greenberg to be a shlemiel, he must be a "loser-as-winner", as Wisse put it, not simply a fool. And in the end, we see that he is a loser-as-winner: he gets the beautiful girl.

Baumbach seems to be obviously referencing Bellow's Herzog, in calling his movie by the character's last name, and having Greenberg, like Herzog, constantly writing letters of complaint. Greenberg is a shlemiel in the same way that Herzog is. Both have over-excited, over-active minds; they are brimming over with verbosity and shrewd observations. They see too much; they feel too much, so they seem crazy, and yet in their strangeness, they reach insights. There is a great scene in Greenberg at a children's birthday party where Ben Stiller comments that the fathers are dressed like children and the children are dressed like super heroes. He is constantly analyzing those around him and finding them unworthy. In one scene after dissecting the behavior of those at a nearby table with witty darts, he says, "I'm strangely on tonight." And yet he is too "on," all the time. Similarly, the novel Herzog starts out, ". . .though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Moishe Oysher Brought Back to Life

On Saturday night I attended a wonderful performance at Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, where Cantor Arik Luck and a troupe of performers paid a musical tribute to Moishe Oysher. Cantor Arik Luck played the starring role beautifully and convincingly, singing favorite Oysher songs, and appealingly giving background to some of the songs, such as explaining the narrative of Oysher's film "Overture to Glory," before signing a song from the film. I loved how he made the packed audience clap in tune with his reanimated Oysher, in a celebration of the joy of the Yiddish tunes. (In a sense, his bringing back to life Oysher reminds me of Steve Stern's new novel, Frozen Rabbi, to be published in May, though excerpted now in Tablet, Nextbook's online magazine, whose titular character comes back to life a century later after defrosting in a Memphis 1950s freezer.)

What I noticed in Cantor Luck's captivating brief run-downs of Oysher's roles in his films was the theme of "returning to the shtetl" that seems a trend in recent films and novels. According to Luck, Oysher starred in only four films in the U.S., and in the two that he talked about, there was the theme of Oysher's character dramatically returning to the shtetl, and a conflict between pursuing a life of religious study or a secular life on Broadway. In kind of a meta-narrative, Luck's reanimation of Oysher in turn reanimates the 19th century shtetl for us, the audience, and reanimates the Yiddishkeit of Oysher and his world, and helps us reconnect to our Jewish past, the life of the shtetl that was annihilated, the same life that Oysher's characters were, ironically, trying to break free from in their efforts to assimilate in America.

It's this quintessential theme in Jewish-American literature and drama of the struggle between remembering and forgetting our past. In "Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination," Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes that the appeal of Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing "came not from his refugee stories but from his reinvention of the shtetl....and what is transpiring in this shtetl of the mind, at its most fundamental level, is a creative resolution of the struggle between remembering and forgetting."

It's interesting to see how contemporary writers, and performers like Cantor Arik Luck, are now reinventing the shtetl, how we have this fundamental compulsion to return to and to reinvent the shtetl, as Jonathan Safran Foer did in Everything is Illuminated. Perhaps the pendelum has swung and that now as Jews we have reached a certain point of comfort (arguably, too much comfort) on the continuum of assimilation into American society, now we feel the desire to reach back and find a sense of authenticity, to reach back and connect with our shtetl past. It's the same reason that the Coen Brothers start "A Serious Man" with a reanimation of the shtetl, to try to forge a creative resolution to this struggle between remembering and forgetting that Jews in America, the Jews of the midcentury on the midwestern prairie as represented by Larry Gopnik in the Coen's film, and Jews today, are grappling with. It's an attempt, as Ezrahi put it in describing Yiddish writers in America in the 1950s, to "reclaim a lost Jewish place and an interrupted Jewish story."

Cantor Luck's musical revue was joyous and celebratory, a pure and simple celebration of the music of our shtetl past and the Yiddish tunes Jews brought to the New Country.

The Coen Brothers, and Steve Stern in A Frozen Rabbi, are also attempting to reclaim a lost Jewish place, the shtetl, but with the darker tones of irony and satire, looking from the disconnected perspective of the postmodern early twentieth century, grappling with the question of what it means today to be an authentic Jew (authenticity, "realness", being hard to come by in the postmodern world).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Coen Brothers did get a second of the camera though. . .

A friend of mine, Tamar, wrote this on Facebook in response to my last blog post:

"What did you think of Steve Martin's joke about the "Jew hunter" at the Oscars, followed by a camera zoom in on the Coen brothers?"

It seems most people, to judge by blog postings on the Internet, found Martin's joke very funny. I didn't find Martin's to be laugh-out-loud funny, nor was it offensive. At the risk of being overly analytical (alas, I can't help myself) I did find it a little odd. Here was a movie, "Inglorious Basterds", that isn't at all meant to be taken seriously. Tarantino's film doesn't take the Holocaust seriously at all. It's a fairy tale, like much of recent cinematic Holocaust fare (Boy in Striped Pajamas, etc.) In Tarantino's live-action cartoon we don't see any emaciated Holocaust victims, or concentration camps. Jews are portrayed as all-powerful and Nazis are portrayed as sympathetic buffoons or appealing, magnetic villians like Christoph Walz's Hans Landa. He uses the Holocaust as a mere setting in order to riff on his favorite subjects like the power of film, the power of violence, and other metanarratives.

The Landa character in the film, the Nazi figure with a larger-than-life, magnetic, charismatic personality, is as much a figment of Hollywood as the hooker-with-a-heart-of gold (which is also Oscar material-i.e., Julia Roberts). In reality, Nazis weren't men like Landa so appealing in their larger-than-life villainy, but, sadly, mere "Ordinary Men," as in the book by Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. But it's more comforting to think Nazis were really like Landa and not like the ordinary men-next-door.

Oddly, Martin's joke presupposes that we should take Tarantino's film, or Walz' Nazi, seriously, that somehow we need to be reassured that within the Academy Award Theatre there is a "motherlode" of Jews.

But maybe we do. While there may indeed be many Jews in the 'industry,' there aren't necessarily many "Jewish" films made, as has been the case in the history of Hollywood, even when studios are led by Jews. The Coen Brother's film (see my previous post) "A Serious Man" did not receive any Academy awards though it is a brilliant, thought-provoking work.

The camera pan to Joel Coen's face, right after Steve Martin's "Jewish joke", as if he somehow was the "token" Jew in the audience, was ironically apt in that the Coen Brother's film was really the only "Jewish" film made this year. The camera should have panned to Tarantino after that joke. Instead, it panned to the one filmmaker who actually made a Jewish film this year, to see how this filmmaker, who is "out" with his Jewishness, would react.

This brings to mind a quote from an essay in You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture, edited by Vincent Brook, describing "a central confusion and an ongoing concern in American Jewish life: not simply the fear that Jews will so easily be absorbed, but the simultaneous and far more subtle anxiety that Jews can never truly be absorbed."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Serious Man not taken Seriously by Academy

Well, "A Serious Man" didn't receive any Oscars. Ironically, there wasn't much of a "Jewish" feel to the winning movies this year. I'm reading You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern Culture (2006), a collection of essays, and in one on film, there is this quote by Malma Sarah Saval, from 2004: "'Over the past several decades there has been a shocking dearth of Jewish films in the mainstream Hollywood market. Perhaps the most noticeable absence in recent years occurred during the 1990s, in which period not one American movie featured a rabbi. On the flip side, an everlasting stream of movies keeps us in constant supply of Christian clergyman.'"

Rabbis, and what they represent, play a prominent role in "A Serious Man". Could "A Serious Man", consequently, be "too Jewish" for mainstream American culture, "too Jewish," for the Oscars? (I remember a 1996 exhibit entitled "too Jewish?" at the Jewish Museum in NY).

I suggest that "A Serious Man" makes audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish, uncomfortable, which is the Coen Brother's trademark (to disturb, to provoke), too uncomfortable for the Academy. Rather than "flattening the difference" between Jews and non-Jews, as Hollywood films featuring Jewish characters do, making Jews palatble for mass audiences by making them seem not so Jewish, not so different, "A Serious Man" calls attention to the differences between Jew and non-Jew, i.e., between a Jew and his Gentile next-door neighbor, who has his son miss a day of school to hunt deer (something a Jew would never do).