Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mining Gold From Man's Imperfections

This much we know: nobody's perfect. And yet the supposed path to perfection has been lining the pockets of alchemists, snake oil salesmen and other entrepreneurs for centuries.
  • How many millions of dollars do you suppose have been made selling diet supplements, weight-loss programs, or Relaxicisors?
  • How many men have purchased pills and other devices guaranteed to increase the size of their penis or strengthen their erections?
  • How many people have had BoTox injected under their skin or undergone plastic surgery in an attempt to look younger and more attractive?
  • How many men and women have dyed their hair, tattooed their skin, bleached their anuses or pierced their bodies with decorative jewelry in order to make a fashion statement?
Face facts: Someone either paid for or collected a fee for the goods and services involved in the nurturing of an insecure consumer's ego. Someone made money off each of those transactions. Whether or not the results actually improved the consumer's self esteem remains questionable.

I used to think that only Jews were neurotic enough to pursue such pipe dreams so enthusiastically. After all, with Joan Rivers acting as cheerleader-in-chief for plastic surgery and Dr. Joel Kaplan pushing penis pumps and pill supplements online, it would be easy to jump to such a conclusion were it not for the numerous plastic surgeons who have fattened their wallets by performing East Asian blepharoplasties on insecure Asian women.

From Hans Christian Andersen's fable, The Ugly Duckling, to John Waters' rollicking Hairspray, the arts have been filled with tales of people whose imperfections continued to plague them until they finally developed enough self-esteem to embrace themselves for who they were -- warts and all. Four programs being shown at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival show how bucking society's stigmas can reap comedic and financial gold.

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I've been fat all my life. I've been refused admission to a gay bathhouse whose desk clerk didn't want me to "ruin the ambience" for the club's other clients. I've had gay men recoil from having their picture taken with me. And I'm more than familiar with the ways in which fat people are told, day after day, by one person after another, that they are the last minority that it's still okay to hate.

Once, many years ago, when a Arab chubby chaser had traveled to visit me, he was thrilled to be able to purchase DVDs of chub and bear porn so that he could sneak them back to Kuwait to share with his friends. He came back to my apartment one day glowing like he had just met Santa Claus and informed me that "I just meet someone who was like TWO of you!"

Saud was happily watching his chubby porn video in my bedroom one afternoon when my friend Winston stopped by to pick up a book. As Winston walked into the bedroom, the sight of naked chubby gay men going at it on the television screen caused him to react as if someone had stabbed his eyes with ice picks.

If you're the kind of person who is squeamish about seeing fat people being openly affectionate, walking down the street half naked, or fighting back against the taunts of skinny assholes, then A Matter of Size might be a difficult consciousness-raising experience for you. Trust me when I tell you that it is also a hugely satisfying movie that is tightly written, filled with love as well as the anguish of rejection, and great fun to watch.

Written and directed with great insight and compassion by Sharon Maymon, A Matter of Size is the chubby man's answer to Rocky Balboa. The movie focuses on a group of obese Israelis who keep failing to make the grade in a weight-loss support group. Among the film's main characters are:
  • Herzl (Itzik Cohen), a single, middle-aged mama's boy who has been fat since childhood. When Herzl's father died after his weight brought about the collapse of their apartment's balcony, the seven-year-old Herzl thought what he had just witnessed was quite funny. Herzl is the kind of obese man who actually thinks that if he hands the weigh-in nurse his watch, it will lessen his results on the scale.
  • Aharon (Dvir Benedek), an insecure macho man who discovers that his wife is cheating on him. Even as he and two large friends from a weight loss support group are crammed into the back of a small car, Aharon firmly believes that the reason there are no sumo wrestlers in Israel is because there are no fat people in the Holy Land.
  • Gidi (Alon Dahan), a fat closet case who has grown accustomed to being rejected in gay chat rooms -- until the night he gets an instant message from an extremely handsome and athletic man who loves bears.
  • Zehava (Irit Kaplan), a social worker who hates it when men tell her lies, and usually ends up drowning her sorrows in food. When Zehava tries to extend the rules for good nutrition she has been given in her weight loss group to a group of women in prison, the results are totally humiliating.
  • Mona (Levana Finkelstein), Herzl's manipulative mother who wants skinny grandchildren. An expert in the "You're too fat, here -- eat this" school of dysfunctional love, Mona doesn't like being told by her son that she's got a few extra pounds of her own.
  • Geula (Evelin Hagoel), the chain-smoking diet counselor from the weight loss support group who leaves double-edged messages on Herzl's answering machine like "I can't stand to see you turning into a whale. Bye-bye, sweetie."
  • Gira (Ofira Rahamin), Aharon's wife who is cheating on him with an even fatter man than her husband.
  • Kitano (Togo Igawa), a Makuya Japanese Zionist who also owns a sushi bar. Kitano's employees all think that he dropped out of coaching sumo wrestling because of gambling debts owed to Yakuza.
Writer/director Sharon Maymon

The basic plot is simple. After being kicked out of his weight loss support group in the small Israeli city of Ramle, Herzl's employer at an airport restaurant buffet asks him to train another employee to take over Herzl's job. Why? Customers have complained about the sight of Herzl's ungainly 155 kilos (347 pounds) hovering by the salad bar.

With his feelings hurt once again, Herzl quits his job and decides he would rather wash dishes in a Japanese restaurant. When, during a break, he notices the restaurant's Japanese employees excitedly watching a sumo match on television, he is shocked to see fat people as the target of adulation rather than derision. A co-worker, Ito (Yuki Iwamoto), suggests that Herzl ask the restaurant's owner, Kitano, to train him for a sumo competition. Herzl takes the idea one step further and decides to start an Israeli sumo team with his fat friends. What follows is far from the usual journey of self discovery.

Maymon's script has a firm handle on all of the emotional wounds and coping mechanisms of fat people. He finds surprising ways in which to give his characters strength, courage, make them feel sexy, and have them win over the hearts of the audience. I sincerely doubt that anyone would be immune to the pathos of the performances by Itzik Cohen and the radiant Irit Kaplan as two fat people in love. Here's the trailer:

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If the love story at the heart of A Matter of Size seems a bit odd, just wait until you get to see Mary and Max. Written, designed and directed by Adam Elliot, this animated gem features the voices of Toni Collette as a young Australian meeskite and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obese, New York Jew with Asperger's syndrome. Narrated by Australia's Barry Humphries, this film deserves a special award for the best use of Puccini's humming chorus from Madama Butterfly.

It took me all of five seconds to fall head over heels in love with this film. If you took the most hopelessly morbid insecurities of Jules Feiffer and Woody Allen, brought them to life through the process of claymation, and imbued them with the bleakly sardonic sensitivities of Tim Burton and Charles Addams you'd get some idea of the dry wit and comic gold awaiting audiences who see this movie.

The heroine, Mary Daisy Dinkle, is described as having eyes the color of muddy puddles and a birthmark the color of poo. Her mother, Lorraine Vera Dinkle, is addicted to cooking sherry, smoking cigarettes, and has a nasty habit of "borrowing" items from the supermarket by hiding them up her dress (she once got a frozen package of fishsticks stuck to her bra).

Mary's father has spent most of his life working at a teabag factory and pursuing his love of amateur taxidermy. She has a crush on her neighbor (Damian Cyril Popodopolous), who has a severe stutter and hopes to become either an actor or a cake decorator. Living across the street is an old man in a wheelchair who suffers from agorophobia.

One day, Mary decides to write to a complete stranger to find out how babies are born in America. Randomly choosing a name from the New York phone book, she begins a pen pal relationship with Max, whose multiple neuroses could make Woody Allen seem overly self confident. Although Max often finds solace in talking to his invisible friend, Mr. Ravioli, he and Mary share a love of chocolates (as well as an Australian cartoon show) that brings them closer and closer over the course of the next two decades.

Elliot's full-length feature is a masterpiece of animation which includes everything from the snarkiest kind of gallows humor to the funniest death of a mime ever to be caught on film. It's hard for me to accurately convey the beauty of Elliot's story, the drollness of his script, the visual charm of his artwork, or the twisted kind of neurotic Jewish tenderness conveyed in his film. You really have to see it to believe it. I can assure you that, once you do, you will love Mary and Max unconditionally. Here's the trailer:

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One of America's greatest, if mostly forgotten love affairs was with a talented writer and actress named Gertrude Berg. The star and creator of the radio and television series The Goldbergs, she wrote more than 12,000 scripts over the course of a brilliant career. Although it's hard to remember any specifics, I have fond memories of watching The Goldbergs when I was very young. And, as Molly Goldberg herself would have said, "So nu? What's not to love?"

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is presenting a double whammy with two programs devoted to Gertrude Berg. First, there is a brilliant new documentary by Aviva Kempner entitled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which shows Berg's brilliance as a scriptwriter, actress, and businesswoman. While many people may have some familiarity with the story about Philip Loeb's departure from the cast of The Goldbergs, they may not be aware of how Gertrude Berg stood up to network executives who gave her two days to fire him. She looked them right in the eye and said that if they did not back down from their threat, she would use every platform at her disposal to inform her customers not to buy their products. Keep in mind that, at that time, the two most respected women in America were Eleanor Roosevelt and Gertrude Berg.

I remember our family joking about how my grandmother used to write "two golubs of milk" in her recipes. When pressed to explain what a "golub" was, she replied "You start pouring from the bottle of milk and it goes "golub, golub, golub."

Former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton once described the challenges she faced while researching her family's recipes for her wonderful cookbook entitled From My Mother's Kitchen. Her mother, who had been a superb baker, had never really written down any of her recipes. One day, as they were about to begin another session in the kitchen, her mother asked "Are going to cook today? Or are we going to measure?"

That sentiment is perfectly captured in Molly's Fish, one of the three segments of The Goldbergs that will be shown during the festival:

When a sales rep from a food processing company tastes Molly's fishballs at a local bazaar, he insists on flying her out to Chicago so that his company can try to document and reproduce her recipe. Molly (who has never measured anything in all her years in the kitchen) fails to recreate the same dish in a laboratory setting. She returns home to the welcoming embrace of her family, where her fish will always be treasured.

Kempner's documentary and the three segments of The Goldbergs that will be screened at the festival are filled with such tenderness and charm that you'll probably feel warm all over by the time the film ends. What you will undoubtedly notice is that:
  • Molly's voice had a musical lilt to it that was infectious.
  • Molly's Yiddishkeit malapropisms ("Wait a minute while I just go hang myself in the closet," or "Please, throw an eye on the table") have lost none of their charm.
  • Unlike subsequent sitcom housewives, Molly Goldberg was a zaftig lady and a genuine balabusta. The only other person of her physique to be seen as a regular character on family sitcoms was Aunt Bee (Beatrice Taylor) on The Andy Griffith Show.
  • Like many Jews of that time, most of the actors seen on The Goldbergs had not had reconstructive nasal surgery in order to get their noses "fixed."
  • Molly was a master of gently "touching" people as a way of showing her affection.
Offstage, Berg was quite a sophisticated and wealthy woman who lived on Park Avenue. The love and affection that was returned to her by Americans far and wide can be seen in this clip from her appearance as a mystery guest on What's My Line?

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