Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fields of study

Joseph Cedar’s Footnote perhaps isn’t such a major film in the scheme of things, but at the very least it’s a refreshing contrast from what we usually get to see, like getting the morning off work to attend an enjoyably peppy seminar. Eliezer Shkolnik is an elderly philologist in modern-day Jerusalem, who’s devoted most of his life to painstakingly studying historical iterations of the Talmud; his plan to publish his findings was tragically derailed, one month before publication, when a competing academic made a chance discovery of a long-lost manuscript that while confirming Shkolnik's research, rendered his record of it obsolete. The most tangible trace of his life’s work then is merely that he was mentioned in a footnote within a largely unknown scholarly text.

Not the Hunger Games

Among his many grudges is a lifetime of being passed over for the prestigious Israel Prize for Talmudic study; then, when he’s finally given up, he gets a call telling him his time has come. It’s perhaps the happiest day of his life, but it’s based on a mistake – the committee meant to give the prize to his son Uriel, also a Talmudic scholar, and a much more charismatically high-profile and productive one. The dilemma: do they rescind the prize, while publically humiliating the old man and possibly breaking his heart, or leave things as they are, even if the committee considers Eliezer undeserving?

Not exactly the plot of The Hunger Games. But as I said, the film (which was nominated for this year’s foreign-language film Oscar) goes down very easily, with Cedar using voice-overs, flashbacks and digital-aided glitz to jazz up the basic story. It’s a calculated move, laying the film itself open to charges of the same kind of compromise that lie at the centre of the plot, but at least you’re drawn to engage with the film’s devices rather than simply succumb to them.

In perhaps the film’s pivotal scene, letting down his guard in a newspaper interview, Eliezer rails against the lesser lights that won the prize before him, and then gets drawn into contrasting his work with that of his son. Suppose you have a collection of pot shards, he says. His approach consists of examining the pieces in detail, researching their provenance, working meticulously to recreate something historically valid and meaningful (and therefore presumably more truly aesthetically moving as a result). His son on the other hand, he says, examines the pieces only cursorily, glues them together into a pot that looks superficially nice but makes no historic sense, then moves on to the next thing (when Uriel reads this in the paper, he blasts his father’s approach as mere masturbation).

How to live?

This is a far from trivial point of disagreement of course. On the face of it, Uriel’s life is much fuller than his father’s. But much as Eliezer’s disappointments may have made him a virtually catatonic figure (often shot in a blackly comic sad-sack manner), his life governed by repetition and the narrowest of parameters, the film drops hints of a more turbulent and possibly unsavoury past – even providing glimpses of someone who might be a past lover. And would that be a scandal or a validation? Uriel’s wife says she has no doubt about his fidelity to her, but says she attributes it to his cowardice more than his devotion. Footnote is at its best in setting out these contrasts and ambiguities, which really go to the question that ought to override all others, but instead gets trampled by the weight and pace of the mundane: how should we aspire to live?

It’s a gift if one can even ask the question of course – most people are too occupied and tired out by living to be able to step back and philosophize about it. But even when people have the time and/or money to take some control, they often seem to have nothing better in mind than to construct a better equipped version of the same treadmill everyone else is on – bigger cars and houses, more expensive gadgets, better tickets to the game, and so on. Intellectual reflection isn’t prized at all – you think things can’t get dumbed down any more, and then the bar falls again (even as the complexity of our challenges rises). And yet, people who achieve something meaningful in life don’t do so by succumbing to all this – they do so by creating their own space and investing years of often-lonely time and effort into it. It’s a cruel paradox perhaps – the world promises boundless, unprecedented experience, but for the most part they’re forms of surrender to someone else’s agenda. We say we prize diversity, but that’s only partly true – in most of the ways that count, possibilities and experiences are becoming dismally standardized. People obsess over random tales of individual lives lost through murders or tragedies or whatever, as if every existing heartbeat had to be inventoried and kept beating, but spend no time considering (except in the most clichéd and unproductive manners) whether a life squandered (either because society allows it no room for anything else, or because of personal cluelessness) isn’t as great a loss and a disgrace. Of course, if our leaders started to talk in these terms they’d be dismissed as moonbeams. But then at the same time, polls and voting inactivity only confirms the lack of trust in those leaders. Isn’t it at least possible that on some unarticulated level, many of us know we’re not having the right conversations?

So little at stake

In the meantime, universities provide almost the only refuge for such investigations, and Footnote is in part an understated parody of that life: in a recent interview Cedar quoted a line attributed to Henry Kissinger – “The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake.” In this sense, the film – although very “Jewish” I guess – might take place almost anywhere (it doesn’t concern itself with Israel’s politics for instance – several scenes depict the heavy security marking day to day life there, but this primarily serves to underline Eliezer’s isolation). But if little is at stake in the immediate politics, a vocation like Eliezer’s could be seen as a huge inner rolling of the dice. Except that at the end of the film, in a certain sense, he accepts a pot he knows is inauthentic. Cedar leaves it to us to assess whether this is a small compromise or a major self-betrayal.

As I said, despite these points of significant interest, the film isn’t the most major of works, at various points resorting to contrivances and simplifications better suited to network drama. It’s more a film you politely appreciate than one you lose yourself within. But then, losing oneself is something one should only do with great discrimination.

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