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LAJewish Film Festival -- Curtis to Curtiz and Roth on Roth

with a footnote on Woody Allen
by Alex Deleon
for <www.filmfestivals.con>
 
This year's ninth edition of the Los Angeles Jewish Film festival with the cooperation of the widely read Jewish Journal Weekly was better organized than in previous years and had an unusually strong selection of films.  Films are, of course, chosen on the basis of having some connection with Jewishness, director, subject matter, or whatever, and are aimed at a primarily Jewish audience, which can be pretty limiting in terms of general interest, but this year you gotta hand it to festival director Hilary Helstein who has come up with a set of films of more universal interest.
 
The opening gala documentary on Jewish actor Tony Curtis was followed up by a long lost, now restored, biblical epic, "Moon of Israel" from 1924,  the height of silent period. Not only is the theme of the film Jewish,  the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, but director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, etc.) was, like Curtis, of Jewish Hungarian background and, like Curtis, changed his Hungarian name to something more "American" when he came to Hollywood.  When "Moon of Israel" was shown here it so impressed studio head Jack Warner that he immediately offered the Director a contract which was readily snapped up.
 


As a contract director for Warner Brothers, Curtiz made almost every kind of film imaginable, from Earl Flynn Shwashbucklers to topical romances like Casablanca. Prime examples of his work in the 1940s are The sea Wolf (1941), Casablanca (1942) Mildred Pierce (1945)  and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  In spite of the fact that he never quite mastered English he was a very American director and it probably never occurred to people that the funny Z at the end of CurtiZ indicated exotic European origin. The original name was Kertész (Gardner).
 
"The Moon of Israel" made the same year as the original silent  "The Ten Commandments" was being made in Hollywood by Cecil B. Demille, was one of the landmark films of the time, but was lost for many years until found and restored at the British Film Institute with English intertitles. Though an outstanding monument of the silent era, the copy shown here was far from pristine, but even in a rather blotchy print the parting of the waters of the Red Sea are nearly the equal of the 1957 "Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston, and were considered superior to the DeMille version in 1924.  Rousing musical accompaniment was supplied by visiting Austrian pianist Gerhard Gruber who is a highly accomplished specialist in this field and makes the keyboard sound like a full orchestra. The venue for this unique screening was the monumental Saban Theater on Wilshire Boulevard, erected in 1931 -- itself a restored throwback to the bygone era of cinema palaces, one of the last around.
 
One of the more interesting films of the week was a documentary on Jewish American novelist Philip Roth.
This is basically a long interview with Roth, 77, (Born 1933) basically talking to the camera most of the time. The English title is "Roth on Roth" but the whole thing is subtitled in French and the original title is "Philip Roth, sans Complexe" which we will note when book covers in French are flashed on screen, is derived from the French title of "Portnoy's Complaint" which is called "Le Complex de Portnoy" en francais. The director is French filmmaker William Karel, whose credits include “The World According to Bush,” a scathing 2004 documentary about George W. Bush’s.
 
Although Roth rarely grants interviews and is now practically a recluse, in this film he offers up an amazingly candid window onto his life and work, starting out by stating that he is not a Jewish American writer, but a completely American writer who happens to be Jewish and like so many writers, often references his own background -- but only in its American context.
What we get here is a solid hour of Roth firing straight from the shoulder about everything in his life from his complex relationship with his Jewish parents (who never spoke about their past) his Yiddish speaking grandfather (whom he didn't understand) his college days where he was quite popular with the coeds on campus, his early successes, his failed marriage, his amazement at being called an Antisemite and purveyor of obscenity, (Similar to Bashevis Singer) his long break from writing to go into psychoanalysis, and in the latter part of the film his melancholy view of aging and approaching death, which also becomes the subject matter of his continued writing -- much of this viewed by close friend Mia Farrow (onetime wife of woody Allen). 
  In the closing line of the film he observes that when people help him cross the street these days they don't relate to him like a celebrity, but just as an old man thinking "Well, the poor old guy is gonna die pretty soon". (Delivered with a wry grin) -- That is apparently how he now sees himself in spite of all the fame and fortune that has come his way, and a friendship with a nice lady like actress Mia Farrow.
 
"Roth on Roth" is a profound portrait of a man who can lay claim to being the greatest living American writer, and should be required viewing in all American Literature classes.
 
This biodoc was preceded by a 13 minute short entitled "Woody Before Allen" which is a mini tribute to the Jewish American film director on the occasion of his 75th birthday when it was decided to erect a statue of him in the Russian city of Kaliningrad.  So what's the connection? --Why Woody in Kaliningrad... It turns out that both the city and the man were formerly called "Konigsberg", When Kaliningrad was Konigsberg it was in German east Prussia, but was taken over by the Russians after WW II and renamed for a famous Russian general.  Woody's family had root in this city on the Baltic and adopted the name as their own, Woody Allen was originally Allen Stewart Konigsberg! Young filmmaker Masha Vasyukova, a native of the city, was behind the statue project and got Woody invited there for the occasion filming his visit. 
In this brief film interview Woody seems both amused and bemused at this unexpected attention from a little known Russian city.  He remarks, candidly, that the one time he visited Russia before it was to Soviet Leningrad for one day, and found it so depressing that he grabbed the first plane out --to anywhere!  The odd thing about the new Kaliningrad statue is that it is only of Woody's hand holding his glasses. This also amused Woody and he said. "People often steal glasses from statues, so please be careful --because if somebody steals these glasses there won't be any statue!"  Bizarre connection but an interesting little filmic footnote to a Jewish American director who is perhaps more popular in Europe than he is at home.

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