Dog Day Afternoon (1975), directed by Sidney Lumet

 Somewhere I remember a teacher saying the following line: “If you think education is experience, try ignorance.” I thought of this maxim as I watched Dog Day Afternoon, a true story about two men who attempt to rob a small bank in Brooklyn. Neither of them has any criminal record. One of them needs a few thousand dollars to help a friend; the other comes along for the ride. Both have some street smarts but are incredibly ignorant and naïve when it comes to understanding the dire consequences of their unrealistic plan.

Their ignorance is dramatically brought home when they are arranging for a plane to fly them to a foreign country. Sonny wants to fly to Algeria but is clueless about what would await him there. Sal confesses he has never flown on a plane before and wants to fly to Wyoming. To this New Yorker, Wyoming is a foreign country, and it is this kind of ignorance that dooms these would-be robbers from the outset.

Sonny and Sal, two down-and-outers, attempt to rob a bank, but things fall apart very soon after they realize that the cash for the day has already been picked up. Only about $1000 remains in the till. When Sonny tries to burn some traveler’s checks to prevent them from being traced, the business across the street sees the smoke coming from the bank and soon policemen surround the building. In a panic, the robbers decide to go ahead with the robbery and hold the employees hostage. Sonny tells the police detective in charge that he will kill the hostages if anyone tries to enter the bank.

Things get very complicated as TV cameramen and bystanders crowd around the bank, where Sonny has become a minor celebrity in his stand-off with the police. Realizing his situation is deteriorating, he requests a jet and safe passage to a foreign country in return for the lives of the hostages. A limousine arrives taking everyone to Kennedy Airport and it is here where the story ends sadly and violently.

As we watch events unfold, it is clear that Sonny will not kill anyone. Life’s challenges have simply overwhelmed him and his bank robbery is a desperate act. In the midst of the robbery, he refers to his Catholic faith that still sustains him and is solicitous about the condition of his hostages. Before leaving for the airport, he even dictates his last will and testament to a bank employee, revealing the simplicity of his motives. He is not robbing the bank to get money for himself. He wants the money so that he can help another person in distress. When he departs, he does not want to leave a mess.

Jewish tradition reveres education and acquiring knowledge. The commandment to teach one’s children goes back to Biblical times and is set forth in the first paragraph of the credo of the Jewish faith, the Shma. Moreover, the concern for transmitting wisdom throughout subsequent generations is echoed in various books of the Bible including Proverbs, written by the wise King Solomon. Although the verses primarily relate to religious education, they have a ripple effect in secular learning as well.

The great sage Maimonides, who excelled not only in Torah learning but in medicine as well, maintained that wisdom comes not only from holy text, but from careful observation of nature as well. Learning is a supreme value, and not to learn puts one at great disadvantage. Dog Day Afternoon, a gritty, profanity-laced, New York story of two small men in the big city, dramatically reminds us of the perils of ignorance.

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Far From the Tree (2018), directed by Rachel Dretzin

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an aphorism often quoted to praise the accomplishments of a child whose exemplary behavior or achievements mirror the accomplishments of the parent. In Rachel Dretzin’s documentary, Far From the Tree, inspired by Andrew Solomon’s best-selling book, she profiles several families in which the children do not at all mirror the situation of their parents.

The first subject is a man who disappointed his parents when he came out as gay. His mother’s initial response: “Now I will never have any grandchildren.”

The second subject is Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome. Here the mother clearly loves him, but she recognizes the reality that intellectually he will always have severe limitations. Jason is obsessed with the character of Elsa in the movie Frozen. He even wants to travel to Norway in spite of his knowledge that Elsa does not really exist.

The third case involves an autistic teenager, who can only speak with the aid of a computer. The mother wonders whether she did anything during her pregnancy that brought about this disability.

Fourth is the story of Loini, who is a dwarf. She laments the fact that she cannot drive a car because her family cannot afford to buy a specially equipped car that would enable her to drive. Her life takes on excitement when she attends a Little People of America convention where she meets other people her size and comes out of her emotional shell.

Fifth is the case of 16-year old Trevor, who, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly slit the throat of an 8-year old boy and was given a life sentence in prison. Here we see normal parents raising their son in a conventional, loving way yet the son commits a horrific crime. The psychotherapist tells them their son is “broken,” and the parents can do nothing about it.

In each narrative, parents are compelled to deal with the reality that the expectations they had for their children will never be fulfilled. The question then becomes how should a parent relate to that child. The film suggests that in the face of situations that cannot be easily remedied, parents need to be accepting, tolerant, and loving.

That response to a painful reality is echoed in Judaic sources. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) speaks of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and notes that, in the midst of this catastrophe, God does not totally abandon the Jewish people. Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, a Jewish educator, writes: “God loves His children even in the midst of unbearable destruction. It is this knowledge that God will never forsake us that gives us the strength to endure all the trials and tribulations of life. God has unconditional love for his children.”

The model for how a parent should treat a child that does not meet his expectations is God Himself. Rabbi Safran observes: “God has shows us the way to respond to a child that does not fulfill our hopes and dreams.  It is love and acceptance.”  Even when a child falls very far from the parental tree, you must still love him, just as God loves us, no matter what our state of being.

In Far From the Tree, there are children who ideologically are distant from their parents, there are children who physically are very different from their parents, and there are children who are intellectually different from their parents. But in all these cases, there still exists the enduring bond of a parent to a child, which transcends the moment, which overcomes the present crisis and enables parents to continue to love and cherish their children in spite of any unpleasant and challenging reality. Parental love may not solve the problem, but it enables the relationship to continue and, from the aspect of eternity, good things may still come.

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Triple Frontier (2019), directed by J.C. Chandor (a Netflix film)

One of the important lessons I transmitted to my children over the years was never to make the acquisition of money the sole reason for one’s actions. Make important decisions in life based on Torah wisdom, not based on acquiring more stuff. Stuff has limited shelf life. Good character does not.

Another related life lesson for my children is based on an aphorism in the Talmud: “Attempting to grab too much will lead to grabbing nothing (Yoma 80a).” The expression is found seven times in the Babylonian Talmud.

The consequences of making money the main motivation behind one’s decision-making and the consequences of grabbing more than you need is depicted in the thriller Triple Frontier, a heist film with a message about the perils of compromising one’s integrity to acquire more riches. Five ex-special forces soldiers are tested both physically and morally when they decide to raid the compound of a Columbian drug lord, Gabriel Martin Lorea, whose cartel is responsible for the destruction of many individuals and families.

The film opens with an assault by a private military outfit on the Lorea cartel. Santiago “Pope” Garcia, an ex-special forces soldier, is employed by the company to help stop the flow of drugs into America. While on his mission, Yovanna, an informant, gives him a tip about Lorea’s whereabouts and the amount of money he has stashed away in his home. In return, she wants Santiago to smuggle her brother, whose life is in danger, out of the country.

Santiago travels to the United States to recruit his old Delta Force friends to join him in a job to steal the money from Lorea. The cash prize will be more than 75 million. His buddies include Tom “Redfly” Davis, a realtor; William “Ironhead” Miller, a motivational speaker; his brother Ben Miller, a mixed martial arts fighter; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales, a former pilot.

Redfly is regarded as the leader since he was the one who successfully led them on missions in the military. Initially, he is only willing to do reconnaissance and is reluctant to participate in the venture. However, once he learns how much potential reward there is, he decides to join.

At the initial meeting of the group, he emphasizes that what they will do is illegal and they have no military support. The job is only for personal gain. Everyone understands the ground rules and Redfly’s plan is put into action.

When scouting Lorea’s compound, they learn that Lorea goes to church every Sunday with his family, leaving his home with only minimal security for about an hour. This is the maximum time for Redfly and his companions to steal the loot and disappear into the surrounding jungle.

Things begin well, but then there are complications when they discover close to 250 million dollars hidden in the walls of the house. Greed overwhelms Redfly’s normally cautious approach, and precious seconds are lost with dire consequences.

Moreover, their troubles mount when their plane, weighted down by the excess money, has trouble flying over the Andes Mountains. Additionally, they are confronted with unforeseen moral dilemmas when they have to decide to continue with their original mission when it involves the killing of innocents.

Alan Morinis, a Jewish ethicist, in his book, Everyday Holiness, discusses the importance of leading a life of simplicity not based on acquiring more money. He writes: “The mindset of acquisition can leave us constantly feeling great pangs of need. Of desire, the Talmud says, Satisfy it and it becomes ravenous; Starve it and it becomes satiated.”

The Talmud tells us in several places to be happy with what one already possesses: Ben Zoma says: ”Who is happy? He who is content with his lot.” Morinis amplifies this: “No matter how many or few your possessions, you will actually feel the reality of your riches only if you have an inner contentment with what you have. To devote ourselves exclusively to the stuff of the world is to be left with nothing.”

The heroes of Triple Frontier are not initially greedy men. They have served their country admirably and are now in civilian life leading ordinary lives. But they have little financial security. The attraction of being in a better situation economically appeals to them and they rationalize their heist of a drug lord’s wealth to be a good thing, a boon for society as well as for them.

It is only in the crucible of real life experience that their lofty goals are compromised. Triple Frontier reminds us not to abandon our moral sensibilities no matter what the temptation.

Logan Lucky (2017), directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a school principal, I am sometimes faced with parents who, no matter the evidence, refuse to admit the shortcomings of a child. I recall one occasion when a student was caught plagiarizing a paper. At the subsequent meeting in which the teacher, the parents, and I were discussing what should be the consequences of this dishonesty, the boy’s father proclaimed: “My son never cheats.”

It was a troubling comment because it revealed an inability to accept truth and the consequences of lying. A similar inability to accept truth is evidenced by a prison warden in Logan Lucky, a humorous heist movie. No matter what the evidence, the warden denies he has a problematic prison population even when it is clear to the viewer that the prisoners are engaged in nefarious activities.

The narrative begins in a rural county in West Virginia when Jimmy Logan gets fired from his physically demanding job because he has a pronounced limp. The origin of his injury is a football injury sustained during his high school days when he was a star player. Now he is out of the limelight and working hard as a laborer to survive.

Desperate for cash, he enlists his brother, Clyde, and sister, Mellie, to assist him in robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. There is one problem: they need the help of a safecracker, Joe Bang, who is presently incarcerated. Jimmy’s plan is both crazy and straightforward, and it depends on lots of uncertainties. First, they have to get Joe Bang out of jail surreptitiously. Then they have to break into the racetrack vault. They then have to abscond with the cash. They then have to return Joe to prison without anyone realizing he was gone. Finally, Jimmy has to arrive at his daughter’s beauty pageant on time. How all this works out is the stuff of movie magic. It involves a very willing suspension of disbelief.

The conceit that enables the robbers to succeed is the fact that the local authorities who are charged with finding the culprits and recovering the stolen money are not willing to accept criticism. It is easier for them to plead ignorance or to lie outright than to recognize and accept the stark reality of the crime with all its attendant consequences. Because of this desire on the part of the establishment to cover up incompetence and to avoid public ridicule, they inform the news media that the money has been recovered when they actually do not know if it has been or not.

In contrast, Judaism accepts the reality of sin and requires man to atone for bad behavior. There are no excuses and there is accountability. Unlike my high school parent who refused to acknowledge his son’s cheating, and unlike the establishment authorities who see the robbery as only hurting the insurance companies, Jewish law mandates candor, sincere regret for past indiscretions, and teshuva, repentance.

Repentance involves several steps: regret, ceasing the harmful behavior, confessing to God, and resolving not to do it again. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a noted Jewish educator, shares a thoughtful analogy that illustrates how we should view the mistakes of a child: “Imagine a new child taking his first steps in front of the proud parents. He gets to his feet, takes a few steps ― and falls flat on his face. The parents clap with excitement and joy. But if you analyze the scenario, shouldn’t the parents be upset? After all, the child fell down! The answer is obvious. A parent doesn’t judge a child based on whether he walks or falls, but rather on whether he took a few steps in the right direction.” That mindset perhaps should have guided the parents in my school who, by protecting their son from the consequences of failure, taught him to avoid accountability at all costs.

Logan Lucky makes no moral pronouncements and the protagonists of the story do not necessarily walk in the right direction, but the film does provide an example of what can occur when people rationalize bad behavior.

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Coco (2017), directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

One of my children was recently visiting me in Israel and I decided to peruse with him some old photo albums to review our family history. In the albums were images of family members, close and distant relatives, and friends from different communities in which we lived.

Much to my surprise, I could not identify many people in the pictures. Out of sight for a long time, they were also out of mind. I could not remember them; it was as if they no longer existed. The theme of memory is central to Coco, an animated feature about a young boy whose memory of the past provides a gateway to understanding his future.

Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy and a budding musician. For some unknown reason, his family has placed a ban on all music, which conflicts with his desire to make a career out of music. Things come to a head when, through a serendipitous event, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead, a place where the dead continue to live if they are still remembered by the living. Here Miguel can meet his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz and discover for himself the reason for his family’s ban on music.

In the Land of the Dead, Miguel meets Hector, a skeleton with musical talents, who will assist Miguel in his search for his family’s secrets. Hector takes the job as Miguel’s guide when Miguel promises to take his photo back to the Land of the Living to give to his daughter so that he can, in some mystical way, be reconnected to his daughter and prevent her from forgetting him. He implores Miguel to carry out this mission so that his daughter’s love for him will survive eternally: “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”

Along the way, Miguel learns that Imelda Rivera, his great grandmother, was abandoned by her husband who left her and her 3-year old child Coco to pursue a career in music. Music was the root cause of the family’s disintegration and Imelda opened a shoe-making business to enable her family to survive financially. These memories animate the past and create a living legacy for Miguel, who finally discovers secrets and misunderstandings that led to his family’s ban on music. Hector reminds him: “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life, in the stories they tell about us.”

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, reflects on the purpose of memory: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Jews on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, recite the Yizkor prayer, the memorial liturgy for those who are no longer with us in this life. Its recital evokes in our minds and hearts the memories of all those family members who were close to us and who now dwell in the uncharted beyond. By preserving their memory, we can emulate their positive behaviors and incorporate their attributes into our own lives. Saying Yizkor reminds us that the good deeds a person performed when he was a vibrant human being have a ripple effect on those who remain alive after his death. Yizkor, indeed, opens a door leading to eternity, a link between generations.

Coco is more than a typical animated feature. It is a meditation on death and on the connections between the living and the dead that survive and transcend the end of life. Miguel keeps the memory of his ancestors alive, and in so doing creates a happy future for himself, a future grounded in the rich history of the past.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Score (2016), directed by Matt Schrader

My granddaughter, Shoshi, is a very talented pianist. Not only does she play well, she also composes some of her own compositions. Whenever I am in the States and visiting Shoshi and the rest of her family, I ask her to play some of her own melodies. Hearing them is a pleasure and the music relaxes me. Life without music seems sterile; with music, it is vibrant.

Music occupies a very special place in cinema. Sometimes it is critically important because it underscores major themes in the film you are watching. It is the soul of the movie, part of the creative vision of the director and actors who want to convey the meaning of a film to those who see it. It is not just filler; rather it is essential to the creative film experience.

One of my first exposures to the power of music in the cinema was watching Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy Award winning film about racing. It begins with a scene of men running along the English beach preparing for the 1924 Olympics. The camera depicts in slow-motion the men running; the music in the background, composed by Vangelis, is transcendent and uplifting.

Score is a documentary that describes the history of motion picture scoring. It begins with a discussion of silent films. In truth, they were not really silent because an organist often played during the film to highlight and punctuate the action on the screen. The game-changer in movie soundtrack history was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933. The music transformed a standard special-effects monster movie into a total cinematic experience.

After this brief historical introduction, the film explores the creative processes of a number of composers whose work in films helped make the films memorable. They include such musical luminaries as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Ennio Morricone.

Some soundtracks still remain with us after many years. They include such classics as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and Titanic. Just listening to the music conjures up images and emotions from the past.

What is fascinating is the technology and new musical genres that influence contemporary soundtracks. Innovation in sound is a hallmark of famous iconoclastic films. The composer does not limit himself to traditional orchestral instruments. Nature sounds and instruments of primitive cultures often substitute for conventional background music to accentuate what is happening on the screen.

Jewish tradition has much to say about the interplay of music, life, and emotion. When the Jewish nation crosses the Red Sea, the people spontaneously break out in song. King David, the author of Psalms, is known in the Bible as the “sweet singer of Israel.” The priests sang in the Temple every day. Prayers are often sung, not merely recited.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Tolstoy called it the shorthand of emotion. Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”

Score reminds us that dialogue in movies can take us only so far. The soundtrack, which is the last creative part of the film to be added, is crucial to the overall affect the film has on the viewer. So it is in Judaism. What enables Jewish tradition to pass from generation to generation are not simply the dry words of the Bible and Talmud, but rather the spirit, the music, through which it is transmitted. Song represents the soul within and the soul lives beyond the present.

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The Highwaymen (2019), directed by John Lee Hancock

In the 1960s, I saw the classic Bonnie and Clyde. It was part of a group of films that changed my view of cinema. Others films in the group were The Graduate and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All of those movies took a conventional story and stood it on its head. The Graduate dealt with love that was complicated when the young man was in an adulterous affair with his girlfriend’s mother. Butch Cassidy glorified the bad guys, and Bonnie and Clyde, robbers and murderers, were depicted as amiable friends and champions of the common folk. The Highwaymen seeks to correct that image.

The good guys are the Texas lawmen who brought down Bonnie and Clyde. Before they arrive on the scene, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, thinks that new forensic technology will lead to the capture of the criminals. But when the crime spree intensifies and Bonnie and Clyde are still at large, two former Texas rangers, Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, are recruited out of retirement to get the job done. They use basic low-tech detective work to track them down.

Hamer and Gault possess dissimilar temperaments. Hamer simply wants to kill Bonnie and Clyde. His is sick and tired of the public romanticizing their exploits and not recognizing the barbarity of their killing of innocents. Gault is also bothered by their notoriety. When he sees a poem by Bonnie in a local newspaper, he remarks: “Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.”

Gault agrees with Hamer’s assessment of Bonnie and Clyde for the most part, but he would prefer to capture them. He is very much concerned about the collateral damage of ambushing them. Memories of past deadly encounters with criminals in which bystanders were killed still haunt him.

Hamer and Gault are not interested in publicity. They only want justice. They are humble men who take pride in serving the law-abiding public.

Humility is a classic Jewish virtue, especially when it is manifest in Jewish leaders. Moses, the greatest prophet in the Bible, is referred to as the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). Moreover, Abraham, the Patriarch, refers to himself as nothing but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).

The great deciders of Jewish law in contemporary times gained acceptance by the masses for their erudition and knowledge and also for their good character. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik, Torah luminaries of the twentieth century, were not scholars who sought the limelight. People simply sought out their wisdom and they did their best to respond.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares an insight about why Jews generally value genuine humility and do not seek out recognition or notoriety: “Appearances deceive. The Hebrew word for garment, begged, comes from the same Hebrew word as to betray – as in the confession Ashamnu bagadnu, We are guilty, we have betrayed.”

The text indicates that we should not posture nor see ourselves as powerful and influential people. Rather we should view ourselves as modest, seeking to complete our mission as human beings on this earth. We should not yearn for recognition for the deeds that we do, especially when the deeds we perform are clearly the right things to do even without recognition.

Bob Diener, founder of Hotels.com and a motivational lecturer, examines Talmudic sources and concludes that a successful life involves promoting the welfare of others, not just gaining accolades and fame for oneself: “Success is not just what we have done personally, but what we have done to pass on Jewish values and wisdom to the next generation. Did you have children and raise them to continue the mission of improving the world around us?”

The Highwaymen reminds us that the good that we do is more important than any recognition we can receive. Frank Hamer and Maney Gault did their job well; any public recognition of their completed task was not the motivator for their good deeds. Their humble work ethic is worth thinking about.

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