It’s high time Jewlicious had another weekly feature, preferably one that isn’t chiefly concerned with the enlightened sociological musings the Grandmuffti consistently manages to scrape up from the bottom of the slop jar that is the Internet. So I’ve decided to do my part for the enrichment of the online Jewish community with a weekly slice of Israeli culture – a retrospective of Israeli screen gems from bygone days, as seen through the eyes of an immigrant who was a good long time away from being born when said screen gems debuted. I can hardly contain my excitement either. This will be a weekly feature until I run out of movies or get bored – place your bets on what will happen first.
This first installment will be a very brief history of Israeli cinema. In the beginning, there were patriotic paeans to the land, to the New Jew, to the Palmach and to Israeliness in general – and it was good. Then a new generation of filmmakers, influenced by cinematic developments abroad, began to experiment with more personal stories and heavy doses of homegrown Israeli sarcasm – and it was good. Then a couple of smart Ashkenazim realized that they could make a killing by teaming up with Mizrachi comedians and creating movies that balanced goofy slapstick and sweet love stories with nods toward simmering Mizrachi discontent – and it was awesome. And then, because no good thing lasts forever, Israeli film (and society in general) was overtaken by crushing self-consciousness, and suddenly Israeli movies had to have meaning, and they had to question the founding myths of the state, and they had to deal with the issue of how the conflict had caused Israel to lose its soul – so essentially, Israeli film turned into Israeli literature.
This is a pity, because in its effort to become internationally respected, Israeli cinema has become increasingly bitter, rambling and joyless – a situation that many foreign film critics exacerbate, because every internationally-released Israeli movie that isn’t a monotonous exercise in Israeli self-flagellation and self-negation, i.e. any movie that doesn’t deal with The Conflict, is dismissed with a contemptuous attitude along the lines of “How dare the Israelis make a movie which ignores the oppression of the Palestinian Peopleâ„¢?” Seriously, read any review of an Israeli movie in a British newspaper. Meanwhile, any Israeli movie that is an exercise in self-flagellation and self-negation is glowingly reviewed no matter how execrable it may be as a film.
The best example of this phenomenon is hack director Amos Gitai, whose movies are an interchangeable gallery of post-Zionist pornography, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly shot and poorly paced, but wildly popular with the overseas crowd to whom the only good Israeli is the Israeli who denies his very right to exist. The modern screen Israeli is no longer the self-confident Sabra but, invariably, a shattered emotional wreck wrapped up in tattered masculinity, so conflicted he can barely get out of bed in the morning (see also Munich). This is of course not representative of the average Israeli mindset, although it may well be representative of the mindset of that certain school of Tel Avivian intellectuals and “culture” makers who can’t order a falafel without working through waves of guilt for eating an immorally culturally-appropriated Arab food. These people are of course useless, but they’ve been with us since the beginning and so far Israel has survived them – and at any rate, they always seem to eventually run off to get their egos stroked by the far left in New York or London, and thus we get rid of them. You hear me, Gitai?
Which isn’t to say that ALL current Israeli films are bad – Sof ha-Olam Smola was excellent in its evocation of a period and its visitation of a little-glimpsed saga of Israeli history (aliyah from India), Ha-Kallah Ha-Surit managed to deal with Israeli ethnic and territorial issues (centered around the Druze in the Golan Heights) without being preachy or simplistic, and Ushpizin provided Israeli cinema with a much-needed infusion of the joie de vivre that it had been so desperately lacking, especially interesting given Ushpizin’s Haredi subject matter.
But despite these fine movies, all of which I would recommend in a heartbeat, I can’t help but feel that Israeli cinema’s golden age was thirty years ago and it’s been steadily downhill since then. The Israeli movies of the 1970s are not overly complicated, they contain little to no groundbreaking filmmaking and they wouldn’t exactly be required study material for the serious actor, but they have loads of heart, and no matter how cynical or sarcastic they may be (and they are, trust me), they tend to be possessed of a profound sweetness which shines through their unpolished exteriors – one might say, much like Israelis themselves. That is what separates them from many newer Israeli movies – the classic Israeli movies’ sarcasm springs from affection, while far too many new movies’ sarcasm springs only from disillusionment and bile. And honestly, I don’t see the problem with a little sweetness and a little escapism in cinema. Why has it become unfashionable here to make a movie that makes the audience feel good, or at least not pessimistic? If I, or any Israeli, wanted to be depressed, all we’d have to do is read the news. Why not take your mind off the fact that an Islamic fundamentalist organization that would very much like to see you at the bottom of the Mediterranean has been elected next door with an hour and a half of Ze’ev Revach mugging for the camera and star-crossed lovers whose families’ disapproval of their relationship never stops the movie from ending with a wedding? Seriously: what’s better for your soul, Kedma or Chagigah b’Snooker?
So with that in mind, prepare yourself for Classic Israeli Movie of the Week. It’s a lighthearted blast from the past, straight from Michael to you!
Coming tomorrow: Sallah Shabati!