Paths of Glory (1957), directed by Stanley Kubrick

paths of glory posterAs a school principal for many years, I have often tried to mediate between the needs of teachers in the classroom with the needs of regional educational administrators. There is a clear difference between the perspectives of teachers who want the freedom to teach what they want and administrators who promote adherence to a specific literary curriculum. The latter group is often preoccupied with students attaining high scores on examinations, which implicitly give their districts better reputations in the family of academic institutions.

This difference in perspectives between those on the ground and those in the strategic planning rooms is evident in Paths of Glory, a classic war film that depicts that different ways soldiers and commanders view the same situation.

It is World War I and the French and Germans are engaged in fierce battle. General Broulard informs General Mireau, his subordinate, that a major offensive is planned and that Mireau’s division is to seize a very well-defended German position known as the “anthill.” The likelihood of success is very small, but Mireau agrees to the assault when Broulard hints at a possible promotion for him if he accepts the mission. It is clear that Mireau values his own future more than that of his troops.

Insensitive to the genuine emotions of the soldiers in the theatre of war, Mireau inspects his troops and scolds them whenever they reveal any hesitation about combat. Instead of inspiring and encouraging them, he verbally abuses them when they show any fear at all.

In contrast to Mireau is Colonel Dax, the commander of the 701st Regiment, who will lead the men into battle. When informed about the planned attack on the anthill, Dax is unenthusiastic, knowing it is a fool’s errand. When Mireau threatens to relieve him of his command, Dax reluctantly agrees to go forward with the mission, not wanting to abandon his soldiers at a critical time.

Predictably, the attack is a disaster and many French soldiers fall. When Mireau learns that some of the soldiers are still in the trenches, he orders his own artillery to fire upon them to get them to move from protected spaces.

The next day, Mireau accuses his own men of cowardice and, together with other officers, recommends executing three random men before a firing squad as an example. Dax vociferously objects and, because of his civilian expertise as a lawyer, offers to serve as the attorney for the accused men, whose lives hang in the balance.

In stark contrast to Mireau is the Biblical image of military leadership. In the Bible, the general, the one in charge, is seen as role model for all, who both protects and inspires his men. Abraham does not delegate the battle to others; he wages war himself when necessary. So too does King David. The general does not place his soldiers at unnecessary risk, certainly not to advance his own reputation at the expense of endangering his own men.

As I write this review, Israel is engaged in a war in Gaza. A neighbor of mine recently traveled south to visit the troops and to give them moral support. He told me that while there he saw a general giving encouragement to his soldiers, relating to them as a father to a son, full of compassion and concern for his children. I thought of this symbiotic relationship between commander and soldier as I watched Paths of Glory. It is a model of good relationships between officers and soldiers, of leaders who do not promote themselves to the detriment of those they lead.

 

 

 

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), directed by Chris Columbus

mrs doubtfire posterAs a former school principal, I have often met kids whose parents are divorced. When speaking to the parent, I frequently learn that the dysfunction at home is related to possible dysfunction at school. In truth, I am unfamiliar with divorce but I am familiar with the fallout from divorce and its detrimental effect on children. I recall very vividly two parents who articulated clearly their different approaches to their child’s education at the day school of which I was principal. The mother loved the school and chose it in part because of the rabbis who taught there. To her, they were alternate male role models for her son. The husband felt that a Jewish day school was too parochial in its academic program and claustrophobic socially.

Mrs. Doubtfire, at once a hilarious and serious film, deals with the messy fallout of divorce on a family. Daniel Hillard, played by the singular comedian Robin Williams, is a talented voice actor who cannot hold on to a steady job. Moreover, his unpredictable and spontaneous behavior at home creates ongoing chaos in the lives of his wife, Miranda, and their children, Lydia, Chris, and Natalie. The constant tension between husband and wife causes Miranda to ask for a divorce, but Daniel cannot accept the thought of being separated from his children. Furthermore, he unrealistically thinks that the loving relationship he once had with his wife can be restored. Daniel’s hopes are shattered at the first custody hearing when his wife is given full custody of the children with only periodic visits from him.

At this point, the plot thickens. When Miranda seeks to hire a housekeeper, Daniel, in disguise, shows up as Mrs. Doubtfire, an elderly British woman with a sterling resume. In this way, he can see his children regularly and hopefully gain a rapprochement with Miranda. Because of his supreme voiceover talent, he is able to maintain this ruse for a long time, until the schedules of Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire directly conflict.

While working in the stockroom of a TV station, CEO Robert Lundy observes Daniel playing around with toy dinosaurs, props on a low-rated children’s program. He then invites Daniel to dinner for a job interview. But complications ensue when Mrs. Doubtfire is invited to dinner at the same time and same restaurant by Stuart, Miranda’s handsome suitor, who regards her as one of the family. The challenge Daniel faces is immense: how can he go to both events which require two different identities? A comic scene of epic proportions depicts Daniel’s attempts at changing in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire costume as he navigates both social and work meetings with his family and with Lundy.

Daniel finally obtains a good job on a children’s TV program using Mrs. Doubtfire as his alter ego. In a coda to Daniel’s own life, Mrs. Doubtfire reads a letter from a child lamenting her parents’ divorce. Now understanding his own situation, he can give advice to others: “Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. You’re going to be all right.”

This realistic and sobering view of marriage and divorce is echoed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a contemporary giant of Talmudic learning, who observes that the romantic vision of marriage is a Hollywood invention and vastly overrated. In truth, he suggests, when God makes a match with our destined soulmate, that does not necessarily mean that we will always be happy with the match. It could be that our destined one is supposed to be the one with whom we will produce something worthwhile, such as a child, not that happiness is guaranteed between us and our spouses.

Divorce in Jewish tradition is certainly a tragedy, but with compassion and sensitivity, life can move onward and upward. Mrs. Doubtfire affirms this truth.

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42 (2013), directed by Brian Helgeland

forty twoAnger is a terrible trait. I was blessed to be raised by parents who seldom if ever argued. Tension was not a part of our household ambiance. But I did know people who argued constantly. There were the tenants who lived above us in our three-story house in Mt. Vernon, New York. Every day I could hear the hollering between husband and wife, parent and child. As I kid, I didn’t know what to make of it except that it was not pleasant to listen to.

When I was courting my wife in the 1960’s, we occasionally double-dated with another couple, who were constantly arguing with one another. They eventually married. At the time, I was shocked since the arguing never seemed to stop. Someone always had to be right and the other wrong. Divorce came several years later and it did not surprise me at all.

The stirring 42, the story of black baseball player Jackie Robinson is a classic illustration of successful anger management, controlling one’s emotions in the face of extreme provocation. Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to bring African-American players into major league baseball. To accomplish this, he offered a contract to Jackie Robinson, who would become the first black to break the baseball color barrier. The film describes Robinson’s year with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn farm team, in 1946 and his rookie year, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as they fought for the National League Pennant.

Racism at that time was very much part of the country’s landscape. Subjected to taunts from adults and children, who followed the bigoted example of their elders, Robinson endured much abuse. He knew it would happen. Rickey, before employing him, informed him of the controversy that his hiring would generate. Moreover, Rickey told him that to be a success, he would have to control his temper. Robinson realized the historic nature of his employment and agreed to Rickey’s terms.

Not only did some of the fans express racist rants to Jackie, but some of the players and managers did as well. In one particular game, the manager of an opposing team used racist epithets to unsettle him, but Jackie responded by hitting successfully, stealing a base, and scoring the winning run.

Although some of Jackie’s own teammates were unenthusiastic about his joining the team, most supported him and championed his participation in the game. In one very touching moment, Pee Wee Reese, the team’s shortstop, demonstrates his support of Robinson in a public way before a hostile crowd in Cincinnati, earning the kudos of Branch Rickey, the one responsible for bringing Robinson into the organization.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a seminal work on Jewish ethics, defines the hero, the truly strong person, as one who can control his impulses. Strength in the Jewish view is not manifested in physical terms by muscle size or possessing a large body. Rather it is defined by character, an inward quality.

Because we are all tested every day by irksome comments from business associates, acquaintances, friends and family, Jewish tradition encourages us to control our anger in order to reach our own potential as a holy people. Every day in my private prayers, I pray to God to help me control my reactions to provocations. As a teacher, I am tested in the classroom. I know that an inappropriate response to a child’s problematic behavior can hurt me and the child for a long time afterward. Words are like arrows and cannot be retrieved once released. Therefore, I have to think deeply before responding. 42, in its depiction of the remarkable strength of character of Jackie Robinson, serves as an object lesson in restraint that demonstrates true strength.

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The Butler (2013), directed by Lee Daniels

butler posterAs a youngster, I had little knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust. There was no Holocaust Remembrance Day that focused my attention on this unspeakable tragedy and I did not know any Holocaust survivors. Once I entered Yeshiva University as a freshman, however, things changed. At the college there were courses on the Holocaust, and survivors visited as guest speakers, sharing some of their experiences with the students.

I soon became sensitive to the issue of using German products, and driving around in my new Volkswagen in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan where many survivors lived was not always a comfortable experience once I became aware of how strong some people felt about Nazi Germany. For me, the Holocaust was still an academic subject, but for them it was an ever-present memory that still haunted them. I recall seeing Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker and being disturbed by its narrative about a concentration camp survivor who cannot adjust to his present reality because of his horrific memories of the past. He saw life through the prism of history. I only saw today.

This memory of the disparity between my superficial understanding of the Holocaust and the searing memory of someone who actually has endured cruelty returned as I watched The Butler, a moving drama about Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler who served in the White House for 34 years during the administration of several presidents and through some of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history. It is an engaging historical film; but also one that describes the evolution of the relationship between father and son, who view the same events but with different eyes.

Cecil Gaines’s history begins with tragedy on a cotton plantation in 1926, where his parents work as sharecroppers. His mother is raped by the farm’s owner and his father is then shot dead by him. Out of pity, Annabeth Westfall, the caretaker of the estate, takes in Cecil and trains him as a house servant.

When he reaches his teens, Cecil embarks for a new home, away from the precarious life of a persecuted black man in the South. Serendipitously, he meets Maynard, also a house servant, who finds employment for Cecil in one of the wealthiest households in Washington, D.C. Soon he meets the love of his life, Gloria, and they have two boys, Louis and Charlie. In 1957, Cecil is hired by the White House during the administration of President Eisenhower. Louis, his oldest son, elects to go Fisk College, a school far away from home, and there he becomes involved in the non-violent protest movement promoting equal rights for blacks.

Cecil’s family story parallels the growth of the Civil Rights movement in America, and the film masterfully juxtaposes the abysmal treatment of blacks in the South with Cecil’s immaculate work in the White House. While his son is beaten and then incarcerated, Cecil is serving guests in the White House dining room with gloved hands.

The tension between Louis and his father intensifies when Louis joins the radical Black Panther organization. For Louis, this is heroic; for Cecil it is insane. After many years, there is reconciliation, but only when both recognize the disparity between each other’s life experience. Louis has led a comfortable life in a Washington suburb and has not experienced the childhood trauma of his father. Cecil, experiencing poverty and violence as a young child, feels that real change can only come about gradually and cannot be forced; hence, his antipathy for movements that promote violence, even when the cause is just. This practical approach is expressed by Maynard, Cecil’s mentor in his early years, when he offers him advice on how to succeed: “We’ve got two faces- ours, and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now, to get up in the world, you have to make them feel non-threatened. Use them fancy words that I’ve taught you. White folks up north, they like some uppity coloreds.”

The great sage Hillel says in the Talmud: “Do not judge your fellow man until you reach his place.” It is, indeed, impossible to judge another because our life experiences are so different. Both Cecil and Louis initially err when they view the other stereotypically without understanding the different life journeys each has taken. The Butler reminds us of the essential complexity of human experience and how judging people superficially can shatter even the most precious of relationships.

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Barry Lyndon (1975), directed by Stanley Kubrick

MV5BMTczNzkyMjQ4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQ2NjU4Mw@@._V1_SX214_AL_One of the “ah-ha” moments of my undergraduate career was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero. I was not a big reader in high school and what I read was not of a classic nature. But at college, I was exposed to great works of literature and it was a mind-blowing experience. I was introduced to worlds I never knew about and people who captured my attention and my imagination. What excited me about Vanity Fair was that I really cared about what happened to the people described in the book. Their problems and their challenges became mine and I was engrossed in their lives, even though none of them was a conventional hero. What they all shared was a common humanity, struggling to survive in an indifferent and sometimes cruel world; and their stories fascinated me. Barry Lyndon is another of Thackeray’s great novels, and it has been transformed cinematically into an opulent and engaging story similar in tone to Vanity Fair. It could be called “a film without a hero.”

The narrative begins in the 1750s in Ireland when Barry’s father is killed in a duel. Raised by his mother, he is sheltered from the harsh realities of learning how to earn a living. Instead, he tries to move upward on the social and financial ladder by allying himself with people in positions of power and influence. After numerous years of drifting and gambling, he finally secures the hand in marriage of a rich countess, Lady Lyndon, whose aged and sick husband has recently died.

Although they have a child, Barry is unfaithful to Lady Lyndon. Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first marriage, observes this behavior and sees Barry as an opportunist interested only in his mother’s money. He is correct and, unfortunately, Barry’s life of excess drives the family to the brink of financial ruin by spending his wife’s fortune trying to become a respected and influential member of high society. He throws lavish parties to ingratiate himself with those in power and purchases overly appraised works of art. Eventually, he regrets his selfishness and apologizes to his wife, but only after much damage has been done. The dysfunctional relationship between Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, continues, however, with tragic consequences.

Kubrick, a masterful director, captures the opulence and physical beauty of the idle life of the wealthy and privileged with rich and exquisite images. Every scene looks like a museum painting. But beneath the outward beauty is a corrupt society focused only on power and pleasure, a society which disdains work and worships those with influence.

The positive value of work is nowhere to be seen in Barry Lyndon, which portrays a life of excess and leisure. This is in stark contrast to Jewish values. The Talmud, indeed, places great value on work. It is filled with comments abhorring idleness, suggesting that it leads to mental illness and sexual immorality (Talmud Bavli 59b). Moreover, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon state that work honors the workman (Nedarim 49b), and they themselves would deliberately carry heavy loads to show that manual labor was to be respected. Furthermore, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Besayrah remarks: “If a person has no work to do, what should he do? If he has a dilapidated yard or field, he should go and occupy himself with it.” Work is therapeutic, for it keeps man mentally healthy. Further, the Sages warn us “not to be tempted by opulence and not to be jealous of those who maintain positions of authority.” To be idle, in Jewish tradition, is to lead an unproductive life. Work, in contrast, gives man stability, a sense of self-worth, and happiness. Barry Lyndon reminds us that the life of idleness prevents one from leading an emotionally rich and balanced life.

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Say Anything (1989), directed by Cameron Crowe

say anything posterA female physician, who married a number of years ago, recently introduced me to her husband. I expected to meet a college grad in some white collar job, but I did not. Instead, I met a very sweet guy who worked as an auto mechanic in a local service station. I wondered what prompted each one to connect with each other, but soon realized that just because two people have similar educational backgrounds does not mean they are compatible intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes, opposites do attract. That is at the core of Say Anything, a teen romance between a class valedictorian and an affable young man who has no idea of what he wants to do with his life.

Lloyd Dobler, an average student who envisions kickboxing as a possible career, one day decides to date the brilliant Diane Court immediately after they graduate from high school before she leaves for college. Say Anything follows their relationship as it waxes and wanes through the prism of teenage angst.

It is 1988 and Diane is practicing her valedictorian speech. Although the talk is humorless, Lloyd still wants to date her, and so he asks her to come with him to a graduation party. Surprisingly, she accepts even though she has little idea of who Lloyd is. When she attends, she has a great time and feels more integrated into the world of other teenagers, who are more socially adept than she.

Diane continues to date Lloyd and they both enjoy one another’s company. When Diane learns that she has won a prestigious scholarship in England, Lloyd wants to come with her, much to the chagrin of Diane’s father. Plot complications ensue as she and Lloyd travel their rocky road to love in spite of their disparate backgrounds.

Jewish tradition is very clear on who has the final say when it comes to compatibility between couples. They are encouraged to consult with parents and trusted friends, but the final decision is the couple’s. The Babylonian Talmud tractate of Kiddushin (41a) records that “it is forbidden for a man to marry off his daughter when she is young, until she is older and says, “He is the one I wish to marry.” Moreover, even arranged marriages were never forced.  The consent of a Jewish young man and woman was required as a pre-condition for the match. Furthermore, the Biblical story of Isaac and Rebecca indicates that their wedding was not considered a done deal until Rebecca had given her consent. As the Torah says, “Let us call the maiden and ask her (Genesis 24:57).”

This principle of mutual consent was later made part of Jewish law. The great medieval sage Maimonides in his code of Jewish law, the Mishna Torah, declares that “a woman cannot be married unless she consents to the match of her own free will.” The Talmud thoughtfully mentions the following precautions before marrying: buy land quickly but be deliberate in finding a wife, don’t betroth a woman you have not seen, find a woman close in age to you, and do not marry for money.

Lloyd Dobler is very deliberate in his quest for Diane’s affection. He is not interested in money. He likes her looks but also admires her braininess and her good character. That is what sets Diane apart from other girls. She is a thinker who both examines and experiences life. This is what brings them together in spite of their different social and educational histories. The fact that they can be honest with each other and “say anything” makes their relationship special. Both Lloyd and Diane are without pretense and that paves the way for an enduring relationship.

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I Am Sam (2001), directed by Jessie Nelson

I am Sam posterAs I write this review, I am observing the Yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of my oldest sister, Carol, who passed away close to 30 years ago. Carol had Down’s Syndrome, a severe form of mental retardation. When she was born in the late 1930s, this condition was in the proverbial closet, and rarely discussed in public forums.

My conversations with Carol when I was a child were always straightforward, but once I was very surprised by a remark of hers. My father was trying to get her to speak slower so he could understand what she said and he told her: “Hold your horses.” Carol responded: “I have no horses to hold.” To my 10-year old mind, Carol’s answer was hilarious, and both I and my family burst out laughing. Carol laughed too, understanding that she told a good joke.

The incident reminded me that when we deal with people with disabilities, especially mental retardation, we have to leave our preconceived notions at the door. We have to realize that there are many gradations of mental retardation and they present themselves in many different ways.

I can recall Bobby Duffy, a mentally handicapped fellow I met in my childhood, who was a superb ping-pong player. Watching I Am Sam, in which several mentally challenged people reveal an encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles legend and lore, made me think of Bobby who excelled at one endeavor even though he was intellectually functioning at a very low level. I was reminded of Bobby again when my son-in-law, a special education expert, was working for a school with the acronym of SCHI, which stood for School for Children of Hidden Intelligence. The name of the school was ingenious because it implied that even handicapped kids had intelligence, albeit an intelligence of a different kind.

I Am Sam tells the story of Sam Dawson, a mentally retarded adult who has fathered a child with a homeless woman, who leaves Sam right after giving birth to their daughter. She wants nothing to do with either Sam or the new baby, and Sam is left with the awesome responsibility of caring for his child, which he does with the assistance of Annie, a kind neighbor.

In a few years, Lucy, his daughter, surpasses her father intellectually and social services challenge Sam’s ability to care for his precocious daughter. A court custody case ensues, and Sam desperately seeks legal representation.

Due to an unusual set of circumstances, Rita, a high-powered lawyer, volunteers to help Sam on a pro bono basis, and thus begins her journey on a road to understanding the world of mentally challenged people as well as a road of self-understanding. An early conversation between Sam and Rita illustrates the initiation of Rita’s learning process. She asks Sam: “I just don’t know what to call you: retarded, mentally retarded, mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, intellectually handicapped, intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled, “ to which Sam responds: “ You can call me Sam.” Rita quickly learns that labeling people does not allow you to truly recognize the uniqueness of every human being.

Jewish tradition regards every child as special and as possessing a perfect soul. From the point of view of Jewish law, mentally retarded children are not accountable for their actions. The Chazon Ish, a great sage of the twentieth century, suggested that such children have a unique purpose in the world. Unlike normal children who are charged with improving their character, the purpose of the Down’s Syndrome child is to bring out the best in others, to foster sensitivity in those whom they meet both within the family and without. For example, when Rita asks Sam to manipulate the truth for the sake of retaining custody of Lucy, Sam tells her that he can’t do this. Lying is not in his genetic code. He can only tell the truth and he cannot use subterfuge. This forthright answer silently encourages Rita to face the truth of her own family situation, married to an unfaithful husband and mother to a child that has little respect for her.

I Am Sam is an emotionally touching film that helps us understand the world of the mentally challenged. In the process, it makes us reflect on our own modalities for relating to family and friends. Sam reminds us that love is more important than wisdom in lubricating our human relationships.

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