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‘Noah’ and the Jews

 
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Russell Crowe plays the title character in the biblical film epic “Noah.”

It is easy to think back to a time, not too long ago, when filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, shied away from a discussion of anything Jewish that might be apparent in their work. And so it was a special moment when I joined seven rabbis at a special screening of “Noah” in New York two weeks ago. The rabbis represented several Jewish organizations and a few Manhattan synagogues, and the group was invited not only to screen “Noah” but to chat with director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel afterward.

Such opportunities are singular, as most directors who tackle Jewish or biblical themes rarely open themselves up to questioning or even encourage discussion of their work with Jewish authorities. This was different. It seemed that both Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel had seen their creation of “Noah” as an exercise in Jewish learning, a process that began years ago when a teenaged Mr. Aronofsky wrote a poem about Noah for a class assignment.

My first contact with the film project began a year ago, when I was invited to Brooklyn, along with a handful of Jewish educators, to begin a conversation with the filmmakers about their story and to visit the set, a magnificent four-story recreation in a Williamsburg armory, of Noah’s Ark, envisioned and built by Mark Friedberg. (Mr. Friedberg, kvelling, joined us for the Manhattan screening.) Mr. Aronofsky had called us in to get feedback on his interpretation of the Noah story. He explained that he and Mr. Handel had done extensive text study, culling from a variety of Jewish sources, including the Zohar. Now, a year later, he assembled this interdenominational group of rabbis to screen the movie and provide feedback. Their response was quite positive. The rabbis questioned the writers on a variety of issues and story points, asking how they had come up with their interpretations of text. They were pleased to note that these readings of the fixed Genesis text had some basis. Mr. Aronofsky was happy to refer to the film as his and Mr. Handel’s midrash on the Noah story.

Jewish tradition has a long history of encouraging interpretation of the “p’shat,” the literal text. Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel have done so, drawing from a rich mix of rabbinic literature. In contrast, some Christian and Muslim scholars and clergy have had trouble with the film, because it changes the Noah story’s fixed literal reading. Because of this initial reaction, Paramount, the film’s distributor, has chosen to alter its advertising, now saying that the film was “inspired” by the Bible story.

Mr. Aronofsky was proud to describe his Jewish upbringing and share with us how important it was for him to make this motion picture. As a youth, he had planned to backpack across Europe, beginning in Israel, where he volunteered on a kibbutz. His expectations for helping Israeli agriculture were dashed when he found himself on an assembly line at the kibbutz’s plastic factory. In an online interview on his website, aronofsky.net, he noted, “So I ran away after two days. And if you have no money and you’re walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold.”

Mr. Aronofsky was affected by that experience and it found its way into his first narrative film. Text, interpretation, and choice of words are important ingredients in that film, “Pi,” made in 1998, a movie that would garner the young director a variety of awards and national attention. The film was about Max, a “numbers theorist,” who begins to make stock calculations based on his computer’s suggestions. He and his mentor, Sol, struggle with issues of mathematical logic, which only gets more complicated when Lenny introduces new questions related to gematria (a form of mystical mathematics that involves assigning numeric values to Hebrew letters). After “Pi,” Aronofsky made a series of strong, not always popular films, which included “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” Most recently, he directed the highly acclaimed “The Wrestler” and “The Black Swan.” “Noah” marked a return to struggling with Jewish text.

“Noah” spends a great deal of time developing the character of the man who was chosen by the Creator to live through the catastrophic flood. Noah was righteous for his time, but as most commentators agree, he was an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Russell Crowe is excellent as Noah; he and Jennifer Connelly, as his wife, Naama, bring us a sense of a real couple struggling with intense difficulties. Anthony Hopkins, as always, is strong in his role as the sage Methuselah. But the real star of “Noah” is Emma Watson, who as Ila shows a broad swath of emotion as the late addition to the family. The film had a $150 million budget, and it seems that little expense was spared. I can attest that the moviemakers did their very best to make this story look as real as they could. They did an awesome job of giving us their interpretation of what happened in those four short chapters in B’reishit- the Book of Genesis.

Mr. Aronofsky chose to pull together a variety of stories in this epic film to best position it for popular consumption. There are the love stories, there are battles waged between the forces for evil and goodness, there are the sacrifices made to save the future, and there even are “Watchers,” Transformer-like characters who aid Noah in fulfilling his mission. There is even a moment when we see an Abraham story element introduced. Mr. Aronofsky was quick to say he inserted it “as a way to characterize God … that he is going to wipe out humanity … his creation. We were trying to put that in human terms.” There are enough moral questions and theological issues detailed onscreen to allow for great post-viewing discussions and Bible study. We even are treated to a refresher course on Creation and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Noah” is pure enjoyment, though because of some of the brutality, it is not for the very young.

In our post-screening discussion, Mr. Aronofsky told us that he regretted calling Noah’s protectors “Watchers” rather than “Nephilim,” the term used in Genesis 6:4. “We thought it was too esoteric a term, but it is not,” he said. One of the attendees, Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, showed me the reference to the Nephilim. It is at the end of parashat B’reishit, just before the Noah story. Rabbi Marans noted that the rabbis struggled with the question of who exactly the Nephilim — “who cohabitated with the daughters of man” — could be. Were they fallen angels? Some commentators thought so and Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel provide their own interpretation of these “Watchers,” these Nephilim, in their film.

Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel invite you to delve into their midrash and challenge them. If you are ready for a fine biblical film epic, go see “Noah”!

Eric Goldman is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University. His most recent book is “The American Jewish Story through the Cinema” (University of Texas Press).

 
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Teaneck Film Festival in its ninth year

There has been a proliferation of regional and town film festivals across the country these last two decades.

Nine years ago, Teaneck joined them. Because of the town’s unique demographic makeup, its directors have tried to provide films that reflect its diversity. From the beginning, that has meant including films on Jewish subjects. The gala fund-raising event is now on a Saturday night, so that everyone in the community can participate.

Given Teaneck’s large and growing African-American and Jewish population, I found this year’s choices most appropriate. Three of the four films that tackle Jewish subjects look at the interaction of Jews and people of color and provide fascinating historical and contemporary studies. The fourth film takes a hard look at how the gap year in Israel affects young people from traditional homes.

 

‘Fury’ a blistering account of World War II — sans the Holocaust

Going into a World War II film, audiences expect to see 70-year-old battle scenes play out on the big screen, in sometimes gory detail.

The war in David Ayer’s latest film, “Fury,” is no different—except that it is more a character study and a piece of historical fiction, much like “Saving Private Ryan,” to which it’s already being compared.

“Fury” follows the crew of an M4A3E8 Sherman tank in Germany in April 1945, towards the end of the war in the European Theater. The tank, named “Fury” after the painted name on its gun barrel, becomes the new home of Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a clerical typist sent to the wrong part of the front. He joins up with Staff Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt), Corporal Trini Garcia (Michael Peña), PFC Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Technician 5th Grade Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), a rough crew that’s been together since they fought in the North African campaign. They lost Red, one of their front gunners, so Ellison is roped in to take his place after confronting the first of many horrors of war—the viscera of former comrades inside the tank.

 

Kutsher’s documentary captures the eclectic legacy of a Borscht Belt relic

When young independent music enthusiasts descended on Kutsher’s, an antiquated Jewish hotel, for an international indie rock concert series in 2008, it was “kind of like ‘Cocoon’ meets ‘The Shining,’” Barry Hogan recalls in the forthcoming documentary film “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.”

The comment by Hogan, founder of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival organization, exemplifies the widening generational gap that ultimately forced Kutsher’s to close in December 2013. Yet despite the hotel’s obvious state of physical decline, Hogan observes, the venue still had the right charm and “intimate” stage for bands. It allowed indie nerd fans to raise the roof during electric performances.

Similar nostalgia, pride, and humor characterize the other interviews in “Welcome to Kutsher’s,” which is premiering on December 6 in Palm Beach, Fla. Viewers will be treated to a quirky smorgasbord of Borscht Belt culture. Directors Ian Rosenberg and Caroline Laskow explore the origins of Jewish American investment in the Catskill Mountains, beginning in the late 19th century. Next, the filmmaking pair visits Kutsher’s Country Club. This prominent hotel was a magnet for vacationing Jewish families, as well as a springboard to success for prominent entertainers and gifted athletes throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

 

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‘Gone with the Wind’ turns 75

The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” which was marked December 15, presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time.

That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick.

Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick was born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh in 1902. He worked as an apprentice to his father, Lewis, a silent-film distributor, until 1923, when Lewis declared bankruptcy. That event may have had something to do with Selznick’s fear of failure — a fear that propelled him toward success.

David Thomson, author of the 1993 book “Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick,” believes that Selznick had the most interesting career path of the legendary movie producers because he began in the studio system, went independent, and experienced both success and failure.

 

‘Sheriff of Mars’ tells story of Daniel Antopolsky

It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers. High on heroin. Rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt.

But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the grandson of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the “Sheriff of Mars” fled the aggressive U.S. music scene for a tranquil life on a farm in Bordeaux, France.

Over the last 40 years, Antopolsky has written nearly 500 songs. Now, for the first time ever, his music is being shared with the world through a new documentary and music album, the latter produced in conjunction with some of country music’s finest players and by award-winning producer Gary Gold.

 

‘Zero Motivation’

A woman’s look at women in the Israeli military

Let’s face it! There is a very strong sense that Israel today is a society that men largely dominate. We certainly see this in the majority of Israeli films, and in various other aspects of Israeli life.

We looked at photographs and films from earlier times, showing men and women working side by side in the field or defending the country together, weapons in hand. Today, we are treated to stories of Israeli women pilots and tank commanders. But what percentage of pilots and commanders are women? Do men and women soldiers walk side by side through the streets of Gaza?

And how many Israeli film directors are women? Are they challenging the system and asking tough questions? First-time feature film director Talya Lavie has stepped up and taken on that task in her new film, “Zero Motivation.” Her mission seems to be to tell a different story about women in the Israel Defense Forces.

 
 
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