Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fiddler On The Hoof

Whenever we go out for Chinese food, a friend of mine insists that each person, as he reads the message contained in his fortune cookie, add the words "between the sheets."  

For many years, the question asked of any news emanating from Hollywood was "Will it be good for the Jews?" With that sentiment in mind, I decided to take a quick look at the holiday fare hitting movie theaters this month. The white bread entry (tailor-made for dysfunctional Christian families) is Four Christmases, starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as a yuppie couple who, until this year, had managed to avoid spending Christmas with their four respective families by lying through their pearly-white teeth.  The ethnic entry, Nothing Like The Holidays, gives Christmas a zesty Latino flavor by focusing on a dysfunctional Puerto Rican family's reunion in a Chicago neighborhood.  And what do the Jews get?  

Nazis, Nazis, and more Nazis! 

You think I'm kidding?  The big money is riding on Tom Cruise's frequently delayed Valkyrie, about a group of high-ranking Nazi officers who planned to assassinate Adolf Hitler as a means of gaining control of Germany's military forces. Valkyrie opens in theaters on Christmas Day.  

No symbolism there.......

No. 2 on the list of nostaglic Nazi films is a drama directed by Stephen Daldry.  Based on David Hare's screenplay, The Reader attempts to show how one generation comes to terms with the war crimes of another.  Ralph Fiennes stars as a idealistic young German who, after suffering an acute illness in his teens, enjoyed an intense love affair with an older woman who liked to have him read to her.  Years later, as a law student, he is stunned to see his lusty partner, Hanna (Kate Winslett), show up as a defendant during a trial of Nazi war criminals.

Last, and probably least is a feel-good fable entitled The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. which might best be described as the Disneyfication of the Holocaust. The production design by Martin Childs, aided by Benoit Delhomme's cinematography, creates a strong sense of period which will have special appeal to fanciers of antique cars, steam locomotives, and vintage furniture. Sheila Hancock has some poignant moments as the boy's rebellious grandmother. Rupert Friend provides some macho Tom of Finland-style eye candy for uniform fetishists as a butch young Nazi who suddenly disappears after mentioning that he no longer knows where his parents are.

To its credit, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas offers actress Vera Farmiga some beautiful moments as the distressed mother who, after her family moves to a villa in the countryside (not far from where a smokestack belches foul-smelling smoke) comes to realize what her husband's work actually involves. After a tragic misunderstanding, she loses her son because of the young boy's simple yearning to have a friend who is the same age.  And what better place could there be to find an adolescent playmate than the neighborhood concentration camp?

Is it mere coincidence that three films attempting to cast guilt-ridden Nazis in a more sympathetic light are being trotted out before holiday audiences at the exact same time that Republicans are feverishingly trying to whitewash George W. Bush's legacy so that the 43rd President of the United States of America does not end up in the same dark corner of history as such pathetic fucktards as David Berkowitz, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and Jeffrey Dahmer?  

I wonder, and think back to a sunny day, many years ago, when I was tripping my brains out in Disneyland. As I stood on a long, winding line waiting to experience Pirates of the Caribbean, I turned to a friend and asked "Have you seen anyone exit this ride?  For all we know, this could be the fucking ovens!"

After watching The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (in which the Germans all have very curiously proper British accents), I found myself wondering if the creative team behind this attempt to rewrite history and sugar coat it with a syrupy musical score had given any thought to adding an Auschwitz section to the famous It's A Small World ride in Disney's Magic Kingdom. (Take my word: you never want to be stuck on that ride for half an hour!)

* * * * * * * * *

Thankfully, this month the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco offered some brighter alternatives for the holiday season.  Soprano Roslyn Barak (the cantor for The Congregation Emanuel) headed up the final installment in a series of events celebrating what would have been the 90th birthday of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Barak's presentation, entitled "Lenny's Voice: Bernstein's Humor and Jewish Spirit," described her personal interaction with the maestro with great warmth as well as pointing out certain ways in which Lenny remained "an unrepentant Yid" throughout his years as a cultural ambassador to the world.  

In addition to singing Dinah's big number about a horrible new movie called Trouble in Tahiti, she delighted the audience with some small songs Bernstein had written as presents for friends. Barak discussed the importance to American Jews of Bernstein's refusal to change his name and illustrated how the sound of the shofar provided a recurring theme in Bernstein's compositions (including the opening notes of West Side Story).

* * * * * * * *

Many people got their first exposure to Klezmer music during the bottle dance created by Jerome Robbins for the wedding scene near the end of Act I in Fiddler on the Roof

Earlier this month, the JCCSF hosted a concert by the Klezmer Conservatory Band. With an audience that included supporters of Klez California, Hankus Netzky's ensemble rocked Kanbar Hall. Selections ranged from classics to slow jazz, with Susan Watts alternating between singing and playing trumpet.  Although Netzky claims that the soul of any Klezmer ensemble is its fiddler, I would have to disagree and point to the mindblowing contribution from Ilene Stahl on clarinet.  Mark Berney scored strongly on coronet, with Jim Guttman on string bass. Here's an old clip from the KCB playing a gig back East.

If you have not yet read Aaron Lansky's thrilling book, Outwitting History, get your hands on a copy of it as soon as possible.  Thanks to his groundbreaking work saving Yiddish literature, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts has also embarked on a mission of saving and digitizing the sheet music that has been found to many Yiddish songs that were almost lost to history.

The resurgence of Klezmer music is cause for joy.  All you have to do is listen to the exuberant music of the shtetl and you'll feel your body wanting to move.  There is a raucousness to many Klezmer arrangements which sets the stage for a rompin', stompin' good time. 

Treat yourself to a 10-minute music break to watch violinist Itzhak Perlman perform with four different Klezmer groups in the following video clip.  As you listen and share their joy in making music, you'll also appreciate how much the improvisational nature of Klezmer music predates the solo riffs heard throughout American jazz.

No comments: