Old Courage, New Coolness

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A fascinating documentary accomplishes more than it promises.
Shanghai Ghetto (Rebel Child) recounts the adventures and travails
of those European Jews--about twenty thousand of them--who escaped
Hitler in the late 1930s by making their way to China. The
directors, Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, present this
little-known story lucidly, and also, whether or not it was their
aim, they tell more than that story.Their documentary technique is conventional: talking heads with
intervening relevant footage. But they have found highly articulate
talking heads, all of them survivors of the Shanghai
experience--the grandfather of Dana Janklowicz- Mann, a woman who
is a professor at Hebrew University, a woman who headed the relief
effort to help the refugees in Shanghai, and four others. All of
them remember large and small matters, from kindnesses and
cruelties to the sprinkling of rice on a windowsill in the sunshine
so that the bugs would exit. (We get to see that windowsill when
the man who told us about it revisits his boyhood home.)
Benefactors and bullies live on in their minds.

This hegira came about when the Western governments that had been
asked to receive Jewish refugees declined--the United States among
them. Forced to seek other havens if they could, those Jews with
sufficient means found that Japan would allow them to enter
Japanese-occupied China. The refugees made their way to Italy and
took passage from Genoa to Shanghai on Japanese ships. The first
wave of exiles was German, soon followed by Polish and Russian
Jews.

The film's title is slightly misleading. The word "ghetto" implies
enforced segregation. The Shanghai Jews certainly lived in
communities in the International Settlement, but all immigrants
tend to live in communities of their own. These refugees were as
free and active as anyone else in the city. They found ways to
support themselves, and families managed to live their lives. The
relatives and friends whom they had left behind suffered in ways
that we all know. In Shanghai the Jews lived in what one of these
survivors calls "paradise," adding that, like most people in a
paradise, they did not fully realize it until later.

History, as usual, is liberal with irony. It was Japan that had made
this refuge available, and after Pearl Harbor Germany reached in,
through its Japanese allies, and harried the Shanghai Jews. Many
were sent to camps. And history continued on its wry way. The
narrator (Martin Landau, restrained) tells us that during the war
some of the refugees were killed in American air raids on the
Japanese occupiers of the city. After the war, some of the refugees
went to Israel, and a good many of them came to America on American
troop transports.

All of this story is engrossing, especially because it unfolds
something more than political data. In Shanghai, in an utterly
strange land and with the needs of every day nipping at their
heels, these Jews nevertheless built a society. The schools and the
hospital that they founded we almost take for granted, remarkable
though they were. But there were soccer teams, cabarets in several
languages (German, Yiddish, Russian), theater and newspapers in
those languages, and a literary culture. One of the surviving women
is ecstatic about the poetry that was written by some of these
exiles. This account of a flight from horror thus metamorphoses,
with humane insistence, into a social and cultural blossoming. We
cannot exactly rejoice that the whole episode happened; we can
rejoice at what these people brought within them.

Just a Kiss (Paramount Classics) is about New York young people. The
screenplay is by the actor Patrick Breen, who is one of the initial
quartet of the story. Two men and two women begin with certain
linkages, rearrange them as they go, and are then joined by other
people. The thematic base of the film is the quartet's openness to
change.

Breen has said that his impulse to write the script came from a book
by Stephen Jay Gould, whose thesis is that life is happenstance
that is then reified. If we could rewind the tape of our lives to
any point in the past, almost everything that followed could have
happened otherwise. This idea is just valid enough to be slightly
terrifying, and the director, Fisher Stevens, emphasizes it with a
cinematic technique called rotomation. A sequence ends with the
photography melding into an animated cartoon of the same people in
the same situation. The matters that have been treated more or less
seriously by the characters, including one woman's suicidal
tendencies, are thus rendered as gravity that might be seen as a
joke. And toward the end of the film we get fast rewinds to show us
how encounters in the past might have gone otherwise.

An actor named Peter (played by Breen) has a ballerina girlfriend,
Rebecca (Marley Shelton), who has an affair with Peter's friend Dag
(Ron Eldard), a TV commercial director who lives with Halley (Kyra
Sedgwick), who makes video biographies to order. Add: a black
cellist (Taye Diggs) who has just split with his wife (Sarita
Choudhury), a free-minded airline stewardess, plus a sexually
aggressive bar girl (Marisa Tomei). Mix these ingredients virtually
any way you like (which the film itself suggests), and serve at
(bed)room temperature.

The gambits and ploys and accidents have a sophisticated sheen, but
the most interesting aspect of Just a Kiss is that it helps to
confirm a genre. For at least fifteen years the screen has been
studded with hip young pictures featuring people who are smart,
either well enough off or careless about it, and marked by the fact
that their strongest convictions are about trifles. They are
usually busy in beds but are passionless. Richard Linklater and
Whit Stillman have helped to ground this genre, along with almost
any film that has Catherine Keener in it. What is most salient
about this genre is that the characters themselves know that they
are characters: each individual seems to understand that he or she
has a part to play, is obliged to supply smart dialogue, and must
have only pro forma feelings.

A cultural perspective comes into view. Ever since the Restoration,
the English theater has flaunted a line of social comedy in which
high-born characters are dedicated to an ethic of the smart and the
brittle. In the twentieth century the middle class took over these
aristo roles. (In Noel Coward, for instance.) American film,
allowing for changes of venue and diction, has latterly picked up
this style, and Just a Kiss follows in the line with a kind of
obedience.

The line is sure to prosper, at least as long as it truly reflects
the world that it cares about. With its airless, tacitly desperate
quality, its suggestion that very few games are worth their
candles, it creates a skillful synthesis, a witty glistening that
is nonetheless transparent, deliberately so. These films want us to
see the emptiness beneath.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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