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!

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  • 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.
    Michael! That sentence is ambiguous and rather offensive on one reading! 🙂 But Muffti assumes the congenial interpretation and congratulates you on a nice thoughtful and funny overview of cinema that Muffti knows absolutely nothing about.

    See you soon in Jerusalem. The Muffti cometh. Hide your young women.

  • I meant the enlightened sociological musings of your Nazi pals! The other Jewlicious weekly feature! Your personal enlightened sociological musings are like the finest of wines.

  • hehehe…thanks dude! Wait, do you mean they are old and only from certain years?….

    Muffti is a little touchy; preparing for a dissertation defense does that to one apparently. As for the Muffti’s enlightened pals, wait til you see the next one to get roasted…

  • I have very fond feelings for Ushpizin.

    I hear you about the self-flagellating movies, but I have to admit that when I saw Onat Haduvdevanim (Season of Cherries) about the Lebanon War, there’s a scene where a soldier starts screaming at the idea of Arik Sharon for having launched that stupid war with all of its attendant deaths. I really related to that scene.

    Gitai sucks. Sucks!!!!!

    Don’t forget Eytan Fox and his homosexual oeuvre.

    By the way, one film that always gets me is Late Summer Blues by Renen Schorr. I never understood how he only managed to make one feature film before being assigned the job of leading a film school (only in Israel), but there’s no question that the one film he made was one of the better Israeli efforts in the past decades.

  • Yay salach shabbati= Best movie!!!
    Salach is SO my dad!
    I got the mp3 of the song they sing in the bar on my computer.

  • jessi – I want the MP3
    michael – ah, yeah, you are correct but escapism is a very American cultural idea. Americans like happy endings (the end scene in Lelechet Al Hamayim – a movie with messages I do not like – was added to please the American audience) and escapism. Europe and Israel… nope.

    And Salach Shabati rocks!

  • Nothing is wrong with Eytan and his homosexual films. Reread what I wrote, I didn’t comment on it other than to bring it up.

    On the other hand, now that you mention it, I find the whole homosexual love story on the screen generally to be quite boring. It’s such a politicized issue that it becomes the focus of the film and there’s rarely any other storyline of consequence. As I watched Brokeback Mountain, I was amazed at how lame it was, especially in light of the superb short story from which it was adapted. Gimme a good old heterosexual romantic comedy any time.

    On the other hand, Eytan Fox made one exceptional homosexual film, and that is of course, “After.” I think he made it while still a film student and it’s only 40 minutes long, but it has to be one of the better films ever made in Israel and probably ranks up there with one of the better films that show homosexuality ever made. Yes, it has low budget student production values and I haven’t seen it in at least a decade, but I bet it still holds up.

  • Actually, I really hated the end of Lalakhet Al Ha-Mayim. Like, it ruined the whole frigging movie for me. It was just so saccharine and cloying and…eww. Didn’t fit the theme at all. But I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie in general, honestly, although it had its moments (and the prerequisite LOOK AT HOW MUCH THE BAD ISRAELI HATES NICE PALESTINIANS scene).

    As far as the cultural connotations of happy endings, I don’t know – almost all the old school Israeli movies have them. It was when they started aping the Europeans that they stopped having happy endings – but they also stopped having points. Whereas a good European movie may be depressing but at least lead to some sort of conclusion about something, a lot of Israeli movies just sort of aimlessly ramble from vignette to vignette and tack on an ending that makes no sense, happy or sad or otherwise. Ever seen Chatunah Me’ucheret? Or Kedma, for that matter?

  • Note that I said GOOD European movies. If I wanted an ambling assortment of vaguely connected slices of life interspersed with gratuitous sex scenes, like a lot of French (and Israeli) flicks, I could, you know, just have a life instead of watching a movie.

  • I dunno, I meant really meandering and pointless.

    But while we’re on French cinema, I was flipping through channels the other night and stumbled across a French film I love by Patrice LeConte, The Hairdresser’s Husband. See it! Also, a couple of years before that film he directed Monsieur Hire which is weird and hypnotic as well as touching no less than Hairdresser’s Husband but at least has a dramatic story line. It also has a very sensual Sandrine Bonnaire (sp?) in it and that alone is worth half the price of admission.

  • I agree with Michael.

    However, I did enjoy “Wisdom of the Pretzel” and “Cochavim Shel Shlomi.”

    Warning: stay away from “Mashehu Matok.”

  • That’s it?
    Um, Yossi and Jaeger?
    Broken Wings (won first prize at the 2002 Tokyo Film Festival)
    Ha’Asonot Shel Nina
    Late Marriage
    Paradise Now (Israeli director, Israeli producer, Israeli stars)

  • Didn’t he say that it’s a sham that a film can only be considered really good if it covers the conflict? ie Paradise Now

  • Oh yeah, and re. Gitai: definitely sucks. If I have to suffer through one of his films, I amuse myself by counting the boom shots. (someone get the man an editor).

    But what’s wrong with meandering films with sad endings that make you think? Whaddaya want, Hollywood?

  • The dirty secret of Paradise Now is that, once you look beyond its controversy, it’s a mediocre movie. Its plot hops and skips around, its characters are loosely drawn at best, and as a result, the denouement makes very little sense. If it hadn’t been about PALESTINIAN SUICIDE BOMBERS (GASP!) nobody would have paid it any attention.

    Late Marriage sucked. Actually, take what I just said about Paradise Now, minus references to Palestinians and controversy – it applies to Late Marriage too. Oh, and throw in lots of boobies.

    And Yossi and Jagger…eh. Another partially-realized movie coasting on controversy. Controversy is not enough!

    The other ones I haven’t seen. Whatever. Give me sirtei bourekas or give me death.

  • Broken Wings had some merit. Okay, not really, but the lead–the daughter–is amazing. Is she in other films?

  • I have no issue with meandering films with sad endings that make you think. I like a lot of them. I have an issue with meandering, plotless films with no endings that make me want to take the DVD back and beat the video guy about the ears with them.

    Let’s take Late Marriage for example. It didn’t make me think. It didn’t strike me in any particular way. And after two hours of watching a lot of humorless moping, he randomly goes and marries some girl who hadn’t even appeared in the movie up until that point. Yeah yeah, like, I get that he gave up and caved in to family pressure, but can we maybe see some of that process on film?

    Or Paradise Now, which has such shoddy character development that you just have to suspend disbelief and accept that the characters have totally switched personalities in the space of about two frames.

    It’s just…lazy filmmaking.

  • First off, this was great, so true! –

    Second – I have to disagree with you on Late Marriage. To be honest (and this might be a cop out) but I don’t think Americans would relate Late Marriage since family is not as important as it is in say Georgian culture or Americns don’t relate to family in the same way. Individual happiness is usually never sacrificed for family happiness in America. I think the maing actor did an amazing job playing the son. And I think it had the right balance of humor and sadness.

  • Michael,

    Two words: paragraph breaks

    Other than that, looking forward to your next installment.

  • Yossi and Jaeger – major league yawner.

    Paradise Now – boring or not, it is completely dishonest. The bombers are sent out to “kill soldiers” and then we see a bus filled almost exclusively with soldiers. We know from confessions by failed bombers that they were assigned to hit public places with as many people as they can find to blow up. We also know that when they get into a bus or a restaurant, they’re not about to kill people in uniform. The dishonesty of that alone takes away significantly from that movie.

    I have to agree with Michael about Late Marriage.

  • Thems’ still some perty hefty paragraphs, boy. But I’m glad you’re paying attention and responding to the needs of your readers. And we love you right back. Even if you are a shameless comment-alterer.

  • Well, I’m deeply sorry if my readers have a paragraph comprehension limit of 4 lines. Really. I am. But something tells me they’ll live.

    And hey, I didn’t alter your comment. Somebody else did. Because it broke the comment bar. I’m afraid our comment bar is more precious than your stylistic integrity. I know, I know, we’re bad people.

  • Knafayim Shvurot is a fantastic movie. incredibly depressing, and not about “the conflict.” the lead’s name is Maya Maron, and she is super talented. she is (was?) in this tv show called Betipul. It’s a pretty good show. Very interesting. She is in Medurat Hashevet also, and I think she was in the tv show “Miluim,” but I haven’t seen either of the latter two.
    I liked Paradise Now, except that moronic scene in which the Israeli guy drives the two suicide bombers wishes them behatzlacha, knowing full well what they are planning to do. I hate that part.

  • dude this is the best jewlicious post i’ve read in a while. i couldn’t have said it better myself, michael. amos gitai? little dude. bravo.

  • Sorry ofri, Broken Wings is just FREAKY. As Michael said about interspered slices of life and sex scenes, he could just have a life instead of watch a movie. If I wanted a fucked up family, I could just call my parents (sorry, that was mean, but the point holds … what do I need to watch fucked up people on TV/movies. Aren’t there enough in real life?)

    And Michael — while I agree with you about Lelechet Al HaMayim, I don’t think most foreign viewers (and neither of us really count in that we are too aware enough of Israeli culture and stuff) would agree and people whose only exposure to Israel is Israeli films or liberal American Jews who — if they visit Israel, which is doubtful, live in their little tourist bubble “I like ISrael, you know, Ben Yehuda Street. It’s right by the King David [or Inbal] where I stayed.”, and so like it.

  • I also thought the ending of Lelechet Al HaMayim was artificially cheery, but what would have the more realistic take? Having the protagonist move to Europe or New York because he was burnt-out? Discovering how the other half lives with his new German friend? Personally, my ending would have been him getting his groove back professionally and hanging out with the hot redhead at the office (I’ll avoid the obvious puns if you’ve seen the movie), but that’s my taste.
    One more thing: As part of this series, do we get a review of “Azit the Paratroop Dog”? We bought it at a film festival a couple of years ago and there’s definite MST 3000-style commentary possiblities. Although the Israeli that sold it to us told me that it’s a beloved childhood favorite…

  • I am a big fan of BROKEN WINGS. Maya Maron is indeed a terrific actress & she’s been in an amazing number of films already. The first one I’ve seen is SAINT CLARA (96); the most recent NO LONGER 17 (03) & CAMPFIRE (04). I agree with many of Michael’s comments (especially about LATE MARRIAGE & WALK ON WATER the ending of which is just “filmus interruptus” — not only the tacked on “happy ending,” but the fact that the Nazi family knows a Mossad spook is prowling around but they still leave Gramps totally alone & unprotected in his bedroom!), but I think there are several outstanding films he’s left off the list. Back to BROKEN WINGS, this is not just any old unhappy family, khaverim, this is the family that has just lost it’s father, in other words: Israel dealing with Rabin’s assassination.

  • Couldn’t agree with you more. Israeli movies of late seem to revel in the darkest of human experience. Is this any more realistic than life portrayed by the ubiquitous happy ending within American cinema? I think not.

    The package called humanity comes wrapped with a little accessory called hope. False or otherwise, it is this hope that Israeli moviemakers seem to have left that out.

    While I might pay to see a film more optimistic than reality, why would I pay to see one less so?