POLITICS FEBRUARY 17, 2010
The Last New Yorker
Music Box Films
A Palestinian, Scandar Copti, and an Israeli, Yaron Shani, have co-written, co-directed, and co-edited Ajami. This title is the name of a multi-ethnic district in the city of Jaffa, so it fits the film, not merely in facts but in feeling. Copti and Shani knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.
Coincidentally, they prove again that the film medium has made a contribution to social revelation. Obviously documentary and fiction films have long recorded social data in ways that were not previously possible, but film-makers have also developed a genre, a structural approach, that in itself is a beneficence. From dozens of cities all over the world, we have had films built of interwoven strands, all set within one overall area, keyed in interplay, usually contrasting with one another, often tinged with crime, driven with compassionate intent. We quickly sense that Ajami, too, is using this form: to bring us new material in a familiar way. A gripping picture in itself, it leaves us feeling experienced in more than its stories.
The intricacies of Ajami lives--and deaths--are present from the start. A fifteen-year-old Arab boy is fixing a tire on a car when drive-by motorcyclists shoot him. He has been killed, we soon learn, by other Arabs, bedouins, because a member of their tribe was injured in a café owned by another family. Worse, the motorcyclists killed the wrong boy, who had just taken over the car from the offending family. An Arab leader is consulted to avoid further trouble, and at a conference between the killers and the others, a financial settlement is reached.
Braided with this account, which is treated as an unsurprising event in Ajami, are the agon of an Israeli policeman whose brother disappeared a few years ago and who learns what happened; complex drug dealings, particularly those of an Arab youth who is trying to earn money to help his hospitalized mother; an Arab frustrated about living with his Jewish girlfriend; and the rupture of romance between an Arab youth and an Arab girl because he is Muslim and she is Christian. There is more. As Ajami surges along, the dialogue flits frequently between Arabic and Hebrew, and Arabic flecked with Hebrew, and the subtitles keep us posted as to which is being spoken--or mocked.
No one in the cast is a professional actor except Copti, who plays a drug chief. He and Shani followed the neo-realist practice of finding non-professional people steeped in the milieu, then molding their enthusiasm and commitment into truthful performances. We are told that much of the dialogue was improvised by the cast as they worked.
Of course this process is irrelevant to our viewing of the film. When we first see the granddaddy of neo-realist films, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, we probably don’t know--and it doesn’t matter--that the cast is non-professional, that De Sica grabbed the boy out of a crowd that was watching him shoot a scene. What matters is the result. Yet this non-pro approach is disturbing. How are these good performances possible? We cannot help wondering how a professional cast could have improved the film. Actors would have spared the directors ten months of preparation, but there is something vaguely anarchic, iconoclastic, about the fact that, ten months or not, these performances could be done at all. And only on film. It is still an art that, in some ways, defies art. The motion-picture camera, whatever shape it may come to take, is still a somewhat frightening hive of mystery.
To another multi-ethnic center. The Last New Yorker is actually a daring piece of work. Films too numerous to sample have sported splendid shots of New York; there is at least one coffee-table book of stills of the city taken from Hollywood films. Yet the photographer Harvey Wang, who has made short films, has elected to make his first feature about Manhattan. He had a story and actors, but his apparent prime purpose was to let us see what he sees when he looks around New York. The credited cinematographer is Derek McKane, who certainly must not be snubbed; still, it is hard to think that a photographer directed a film and stayed completely away from the camera.
The screenplay by Adam Forgash is fairly forthright. It virtually admits to being little more than a piece for three actors to fill some time with. We are not much solicited to care one way or another: we just watch two old men--old friends--talk like two old friends. (Multi-ethnic New York? Their names are Lenny Sugarman and Ruben Liebner, and they are played by Dominic Chianese and Dick Latessa.) One of them, who loves New York, falls ridiculously in love with a mature woman, while the other man just wants to move away. We can be pleased that two veteran actors found a 1950s-type television script to appear in, with some effect. But the most credible human chord in the picture is struck by Kathleen Chalfant as the woman. Eminent in the theater, Chalfant is not much known in films, and here she shows why that is regrettable.
Still, the star of the picture is the scenery. Wang and McKane eschew grand monumental shots. They are concerned with a city that is lived in--shops, cafés, markets, walkable streets, welcoming avenues--and while their acute color pleases the eye, they imply all along that these buildings are filled with people, and that today, if we listen carefully, we can hear the hum of their lives.
A few months ago a young woman asked me how it feels to live in a city that I have known since I was a child. The question startled me: I had long thought of New York today as greatly different from the place I grew up in. But Wang gave me hints as to how this city has grown out of mine.
In the 1920s Germany produced a series of so-called mountain films, with Alpine settings and lots of climbing. Some of them were documentary, but many were fictional. Leni Riefenstahl began her film career by starring in some of them, which is logical enough for this eventual favorite of Hitler’s, since the mountain films celebrated German heroism and ingenuity and fed into the essence of Nazi bravado.
Now comes North Face, another German film about mountaineering. In May 1936, the country is looking for national heroes as the Olympics approach. Alpine success seems a good way to find some, especially through the ascent, if possible, of the north face of the Eiger in the Alps, which had already claimed some German lives. A secretary on a Berlin newspaper, Luise Fellner, knows two young men back in the town she came from who are possible candidates for glory. Her paper sends her down there; her boss accompanies her; the two young men finally agree to attempt the climb, as do two Austrians. These matters give Luise a chance to develop her skill in photography. A predictable story develops in the days of preparation and, later, during the attempts. The film’s real interest and excitement, naturally enough in two senses, are in the climbing.
I have always loathed mountain climbing. Like auto racing, it seems a sport designed for a viewer who basically wants to see death, and like racing, though through much more difficult stratagems, it finds occasional means to satisfy that viewer. Still, when the camera ascends, the heart almost fibrillates. All the predictable climbing shots in this picture, all the hammering-in of pitons, all the swinging on ropes precariously fastened while the men arch over infinity--it is all simultaneously hateful, silly, unnecessary, and chilling. The screenplay, by Benedikt Roeskau, is based on a true story, all of it familiar enough except the last Alpine scene, which stings.
Yet the hazardous north-facing is less astonishing than the existence of the film itself. Made recently, it is set in Hitler’s world. Nazi armbands are worn, Hitler is heiled when people arrive and leave, conversation refers to the pleasant state of the country. North Face won several awards lately from the German Film Academy. Don’t these facts mark some sort of turning point in acceptance?
Not long ago we had My Führer, a German film that made Hitler a buffoon. Presumably it demonstrated that a god had been de-deified. But now a German film presents life under Hitler as calmly as life under Merkel. I am not suggesting that this picture signals the return of fascism in Germany. Rather, it suggests an increase in speed. Everything is faster these days, apparently including the melding of the present into the past, the acceptance of the past as history rather than experience. As I recall, it took about a century before the English theater could accept Napoleon as a romantic figure. Now it needs only sixty years for Germans to accept loyal Nazis simply as people of the past living in accepted ways.
The film-makers have put in one unguent shot at the end. Luise (gently played by Johanna Wokalek) is a postwar photographer in New York and is taking a photograph of a black musician. No permanent Nazi, she.
Postscript. The recent passing of Eric Rohmer brought forth the tributes--the gratitude--that he certainly deserved. His influence on the New Wave as editor and intellectual, the suavity and perception and polish of his films, were all hailed rightly as ornaments of French culture. There is, however, an anomaly in his career for me. My favorite Rohmer, his adaptation of Kleist’s The Marquise of O…, was made in Germany in German. Usually I am wary of the greasy adjective “great,” but I remember that when I first saw this film in 1976, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was watching the arrival of a great work. Some admirers have said that Rohmer made a Frenchman out of Kleist; still, it seems remarkable that this very French sensibility found its masterwork in Germany.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.