Monday, October 21, 2013

Yidl Mitn Fidl (Joseph Green & Jan Nowina-Przybyski, 1936)

Molly Picon
A film starring the New-York-born Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon as a girl in Jewish Poland who goes out on the road with her grandfather to earn a living playing music. For the sake of safety and propriety, she dresses as a boy, with predictable results: she falls in love with the other fiddler, Froim (Leon Leibgold), who of course is incapable of seeing Yidl, no matter how wonderfully she (he) plays. Though the cross-dressing disguise theme is conventional enough in stage-plays in many traditions--think Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelfth Night, for instance--it usually works better on stage than on film. Picon's disguise as a boy is not especially convincing,
and the disguise plot is predictable and somewhat silly. She falls in love with the other fiddler, Froim (Leon Leibgold), who of course is incapable of seeing Yidl, no matter how wonderfully she (he) plays. Even when he rescues Yidl from a swiftly-flowing river he doesn't realize he's carrying an adoring, wet-clothed young woman in his arms.

This is because Froym's attentions are directed elsewhere, at the singer Taubele (Dora Fakiel), who is lovely and rather nice. Then she is discovered by producers who quickly make her a star--but she doesn't care for the limelight and just before the curtain rises for a performance chooses true love over stardom.

So, in an interesting twist on the understudy plot--the reverse of the story where the scheming newcomer viciously supplants the star who nourished her--Yidl takes the stage. There Picon’s charm is manifest as she insists she’s not a boy and pleads with the audience not to laugh.

Importantly, the film captures something of the tone of an eastern-European folk-tale, but the screenplay was developed by the Yiddish theatre actor, Joseph Green (Yoysef Grinberg), a Jewish emigrĂ© from Poland, who had acted in several films including The Jazz Singer) and made four Yiddish movies in the 1930s. The music isn't really traditional klezmer, but the work of composer Abraham Ellstein (composer in the Yiddish theater) with lyrics by the poet Itsik Manger. There's a clip of one song on YouTube here.  Another fine feature of the movie is the way the film captured the disappeared world of pre-holocaust Poland, not so much the countryside and the shtetl but urban Jewish markets and communities.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Zvenigora (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1928)

So avant-garde in its narrative structure it is almost incomprehensible, and yet Zvenigora is still impressive. The cinematography is adventurous and strong, lots of montage and quick cutting and then long shots of men on horseback. A thread runs through the fragmented story: an ancient Ukrainian grandfather who is concerned with protecting his country’s hidden treasure--what exactly the treasure might be is never very clear--over a vast extent of time and against a variety of would-be treasure-hunters, invading Poles, ancient Vikings (who cursed the treasure and the beauteous Oksana, who in some way that also isn’t very clear at all first welcomed and then dispatched the invaders), and Cossack bandits. Or are the bandits on the right side? And then invading Germans, and the expatriate aristocrats after the Revolution.
Ultimately it becomes clear that the real treasure is the people, the land, and the traditions of Ukraine, a lesson the Grandfather himself only learns after he attempts to blow up a Red train at the behest of a cynical and machiavellian Ukranian “Duke.” To his surprise, the old man is taken in and fed by the hearty Red workers and soldiers. Along the way we see both outright propaganda and warm, visual celebration of Dovshenko's treasure, the faces of the people, soldiers shaking hands with enemy soldiers who (apparently) are brother workers, and refusing to execute their brave companions. In contrast, we see the decadent sensation-craving bourgeois of the west, at its nadir a nasty crowd clamouring to witness a staged suicide. We see fields and forests, grain, factories, trains, bulldozers, and people working hard for their nation. The movie is rough and puzzling and xenophobic, and still it's sometimes beautiful.