Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

Manchester By the Sea (2016), directed by Kenneth Lonergan

manchester by the seaIn 1991, I read about the tragedy of famed rock musician Eric Clapton’s son, Conor. He was only four-years old when he fell out of a window on the 53rd floor of Clapton’s New York City high-rise. It was a calamity that could have been prevented, so the pain of Conor’s loss was especially intense.

Memories of that terrible tragedy came to mind as I watched Manchester By the Sea, a heart-wrenching story of a family coming to terms with a similar misfortune. Unlike conventional movie reviews, my “kosher movies” reviews sometimes contain “spoilers,” and Manchester By the Sea is one of those. Be forewarned.

Lee Chandler works as a janitor for a property management company in Boston. He is reclusive and does not enjoy small talk. We learn that his antisocial behavior has its origins in an incident that occurred in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea a number of years earlier.

While Lee is drinking with friends at his home, his wife, Randi, asks Lee’s friends to leave because of the noise they are making, which prevents their three kids from sleeping. Lee, inebriated, builds a fire to warm up the house but forgets to place a screen in front of the fireplace. Lee then goes to the grocery store to pick up a few items. When he returns, he sees his house in flames. He is faced with overwhelming tragedy and guilt when he learns that all his children have perished in the fire.

Lee does not understand why he was not charged with a crime. In truth, the authorities see him as a tragic figure, who has suffered enormously. His kids are dead and he is responsible. To charge him with a crime seems pointless and so the authorities have few questions for him about how the fire started. Filled with guilt, he attempts to kill himself, but the police restrain him.

His marriage to Randi is now over. In time, he is able to find work, but daily life is devoid of meaning. He lives from one day to the next, but there is no joy in his life.

His mundane existence changes when his brother Joe, divorced from his alcoholic wife for many years, dies unexpectedly. Lee is appointed permanent guardian of Patrick, his 16-year-old son. Moreover, Lee is appointed trustee of Joe’s estate until Patrick comes of age.

Lee’s new responsibility as guardian is onerous and emotionally unsettling, for it requires Lee to move back to Manchester to take care of Patrick, a typical teenager who wants to live a typical teenage life without many boundaries. Moving back to Manchester also means that Lee will again see Randi, his ex-wife, who has moved on with her life, and be reminded daily of his negligence as a father who allowed his children to die in a fire.

In the cold light of day, Lee understands that he has to rise to the occasion and assume responsibility for his nephew Patrick. Their alliance is an uneasy one; but over a period of time, Lee finds meaning in helping Patrick become an adult. Lee finally accepts the reality that we have to move forward even when tragedies set us back.

Judaism views guilt as positive. However, even when we sin, the Sages tell us not to regard ourselves as sinners incapable of redemption. We make mistakes, but we can recover in some small ways and lead meaningful lives. Guilt should not paralyze us.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writes that we should regard guilt as an “engine of growth. To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed. But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing. It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement.”

Shafran highlights one of the prayers that Jews say every morning upon awakening: “The soul that you placed in me is pure.” Shafran states that in spite of this purity, “our soul is easily stained. However, we would do well to try to restore it to its natural luster. And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong. There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling guilty for them.”

Guilt can be redemptive if man comprehends its positive aspects. Indeed, guilt is good, but not when it overwhelms us. Manchester By the Sea reminds us that in the face of unspeakable tragedy and guilt, we still have to find a way forward to lead meaningful and productive lives.

 

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The Score (2001), directed by Frank Oz

scoreA friend of mine recently told me that, during his senior year at high school, he was caught by his History teacher for plagiarizing a term paper. It turns out that he copied the paper from his sister who, a number of years earlier, had submitted the paper to a different teacher at the same high school and she received an “A.”

Now here is the strange part. The teacher showed my friend the exact place where he discovered the plagiarism. The copied section was a verbatim quotation from the book jacket. Apparently, his sister had plagiarized as well and had gotten away with it.

The incident dramatized for me that to be a successful cheat you have to work at it. You cannot be lazy. You have to devote energy to achieve success as a criminal. This is what transpires in The Score, a thrilling heist caper in which crooks plan meticulously to rob from the Montreal Customs House a precious French scepter that will be sold on the black market for millions of dollars.

Master safecracker Nick Wells wants to retire from his life of crime and devote his time to managing his jazz club. However, he is persuaded to take on one last job due to the entreaties of Max, his longtime fence and friend. The job represents a payoff of four million dollars to Nick, enough money to enable him to forsake his life of crime for good.

The first challenge is to obtain schematics information about the building that houses the scepter. He also needs specific alarm bypass codes so that he can manipulate the alert protocols of the system as he breaks into the building.

The provider of this information is Jack Teller, a young, ambitious thief who poses as an intellectually disabled member of the maintenance staff to get access to the security information. The relationship between Jack and Nick is tense and filled with mistrust. However, since the payoff is great, they submerge egos in their quest for success in stealing the scepter. Nonetheless, Nick is concerned about Jack and excoriates him: “You’re smart, talented and you know a few things but talent means nothing in this game if you don’t make the right choices. There are plenty of talented people that never see the light of day anymore. This whole thing takes discipline because it’s one big long shot. And if you don’t have the discipline to stay away from the stupid move, then one day you will go down. It’s inevitable.”

Soon after seeing The Score, I read the outstanding biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe entitled, Rebbe, authored by Joseph Telushkin, in which he says that the Rebbe felt that ethical lessons could be learned from the world of business, from science, from sports, and even from thieves. In the book he has a section entitled “Learning from a Thief.” He quotes the saintly Rab Zusha who learned an approach to Divine service from observing the work ethic of a thief. He writes that a thief is modest, is prepared to endanger himself, labors with great exertion, works quickly, exhibits trust and hope, and does not give up after initial failure. The same qualities can be utilized for divine service, for living a holy life.

It is the attention to detail that characterizes the successful thief, and it is the attention to detail that is needed to be a successful Jew. The ideal Jew is modest and does not want to be noticed for what he does. He is prepared to encounter some risk in order to do a good deed. He labors hard to do the will of God, and he works with alacrity when the situation requires speed and timeliness. He is optimistic about the future, and does not give up hope even when things do not go his way. He understands that he has to fail forward after making mistakes, and there is always time for a mid-course correction.

The Score presents nefarious characters on the margins of society, but we can learn much from their work ethic and their careful attention to detail in accomplishing their unsavory ends. The Score reminds us that we can sometimes use the meticulous methods of the thief to accomplish worthwhile and holy goals.

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Menashe (2017), directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein

menasheWhen my wife passed away over 25 years ago, my world fell apart. After a year of parenting my six children by myself, it became clear to me that I needed to remarry to provide a semblance of a normal home life for my kids. It would never be the same. The past could not be replaced; but in some meaningful way, my kids would have a sense of family restored.

Menashe is an unusual film in that most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with a few English words thrown in. The story is about a recently widowed Hasidic man who is struggling to parent without a wife and mother at home. He faces many trials in trying to rear his only son, Rievin.

In the Hasidic community in which he lives, a child must be reared in the home where there is a father and mother. Menashe faces social pressure to remarry as soon as possible. But there is a problem. Menashe’s first marriage was unhappy and he is not interested in remarrying quickly, even though he knows that this may mean that he will be separated from his son.

Menashe works in a grocery store where he is a cashier and occasional salesman. He earns a low wage and has little money for extras. Eizik, his late wife’s financially well-off brother, offers his home to Rievin until Menashe can remarry and get his life in order.

Menashe resents his take-charge attitude, even when he knows that Eizik’s home is more stable than his. He feels Eizik looks down on him and treats him with disrespect. Menashe consequently is unwilling to accept criticism from him. Low self-esteem plagues Menashe.

Things come to a head when the anniversary of the death of Menashe’s wife approaches. Eizik wants the memorial in his home; Menashe wants it in his apartment even though he knows it will be less aesthetically pleasing.

To make the memorial service and the ensuing meal special, Menashe decides to cook a potato kugel. Unfortunately, he allows it to burn and it is barely edible. What is instructive is the way the various guests respond to the burnt kugel. Most take a small bite and quietly express their disappointment at the kugel’s taste. The revered rabbi who is present praises the food and encourages everyone to eat. More important to the rabbi than food is not embarrassing someone who falls short of community expectations.

The rabbi’s comments linger in Menashe’s mind. In his comment, there is a profound implicit message; namely, that you have to focus on the positive. When life brings disappointments, you have to accept them and move forward. You cannot wallow in what could have been or what should have been. For Menashe, this means accepting responsibility for his behavior and deciding to find a wife, even if she is not perfect. It will be a journey of self-discovery for Menashe as he tries his best to lead a normal life.

At the end of the movie, Menashe immerses in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Jewish tradition tells us that this act is symbolic of being born again. It is often done before the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, days when we want to shake off the sins of the past and turn over a new leaf.

Menashe may not be the most punctilious in his religious observance, but he definitely defines himself as a religious Jew who takes the words of God and the instructions of his rabbis seriously. His story reminds us that even when life deals us a tragic blow, God wants us to pick ourselves up and make the best of what we have.

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Forsaken (2015), directed by Jon Cassar

forsakenI have been having a problem finding films to review that by any definition I can call “kosher.” So much of what is on the screen today is full of unsavory behaviors that I have difficulty recommending them. Indeed, I rarely go to the cinema in Israel. I order movies on Amazon when they become reasonably priced and then send them to my daughter in Lakewood, New Jersey. When I visit the US, I then pick them up and bring them back to Israel where I can watch them at home.

One staple of my reviews is the Western genre. The stories may not be very original, but there is comfort in watching a familiar genre film done well. Such is the case with Forsaken.

The story is simple. John Henry Clayton has returned to his hometown after a ten-year absence, during which he fought in the Civil War and became a gunfighter with a fierce reputation. He hopes to repair his relationship with his father, a preacher at the local church.

When he arrives to the surprise of the townspeople and his father, he learns that his mother has recently died, and his gun-toting ways are an anathema to his dad who sees his son as an embarrassment. There is great misunderstanding between the two and it takes time for each one to overcome his judgmental attitude toward the other.

In his hometown, he finds that a corrupt banker, James McCurdy, is forcing farmers to sell their land so that he can make a profit when the railroad is built. His thugs are vicious, and they are ready to kill anyone who stands in their way. Tensions escalate and good people die until John Henry decides that he must act to stop the villains from terrorizing the town. It is a bloody and satisfying conclusion in which good triumphs over evil.

The triumph of good over evil is characteristic of Jewish history. When confronted with evil, we must act. Rabbi Steven Weil summarizes the approach of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great theologian of the twentieth century, to the problem of evil and how we should respond to it. We should “never passively accept evil and suffering; we must fight against it. God endowed man with intellect and resources that should be used to actively and aggressively battle evil or, even better, seek to prevent suffering. Thus, we are obligated to research cures for diseases, build Iron Domes and David’s Slings and heed warnings to get out of harm’s way if all else fails and we are unable to thwart the evil. Passive resistance is not the Jewish way; sanctity and preservation of life is.”

John Henry initially wants to leave his violent ways behind him. Knowing that his father disapproves, he wants to be a good son and follow his father’s instruction and example, but it is challenging to do so when he daily witnesses the cruelty of James McCurdy and his henchmen.

His father, a man of the church, tries his best to remain stoic in the face of constant threats of violence and actual violence. He never changes his moral stance, even when his own life is hanging in the balance. However, he finally understands that his son’s perception of the reality of evil may be correct and he does not stand in his way when John Henry decides to act to protect the innocent townspeople.

Forsaken is a throwback to the westerns of the 1950s, when the bad guys dressed in black and the good guys in white. The lines between good and evil were clearly drawn. Going to watch a western where the good guys triumphed was a cathartic experience in which one left the theatre knowing that good will always prevail, a comforting thought to a person confronted with the existence of evil.

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Pilgrimage (2017), directed by Brendan Muldowney

pilgrimageThere is a statement in The Ethics of the Fathers that resonates with me every time I read it: “civility (or good behavior) comes before Torah.” What is the takeaway? That for the Torah to reside in a person, he first has to conduct himself like a mentsch.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of sainted memory, addresses this complex issue in part in an essay that he wrote in 1975 entitled “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha (Jewish law)?” He concludes that it does. Citing examples of great non-Jewish writers who behaved in exemplary ways, he shows how, outside of the Jewish framework of Torah and Jewish law, these people were paragons of virtue and righteous living. He bases this insight on the passage in the Torah that speaks of all men being created in God’s image. Being a good person means recognizing the divinity in other people and treating them accordingly.

Pilgrimage is film that deals with religious faith and raises an important question. Is the true man of faith one who carries out the behest of the Pope in Rome or one who treats his fellow man with respect? Where does one see divinity? In the face of one’s neighbor, in the unpredictable acts of nature, or in the religious establishments of the time? There are no simple answers, but Pilgrimage puts a human face on the questions.

The narrative begins on a remote island in Ireland in 1209. A cadre of monks, at the request of the Pope, commits to transporting to Rome a holy relic that has been in their charge for many years. The relic is reputed to have special power and the Pope wants it in his hands before launching the upcoming Crusade.

However, the journey to bring it to him is fraught with peril. The key players in this cosmic drama are Brother Geraldus who represents the Pope’s interest, Brother Diarmuid, a young boy sent so that he can experience a holy quest, the Mute, a strong and faithful Christian who has made himself available as a servant to the brotherhood of monks, veteran Brother Claren, and Raymond De Merville, son of one of the monks who is charged with protecting the monks on their journey.

As they progress to their destination, their guards leave them, and they become vulnerable to hostile heathens who attack and kill some of them. The relic is lost, but the monks do not give up. They look for a way to retrieve the relic, putting their own lives at increased risk.

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran cites an interesting case from the Talmud that illustrates the conflicting claims of organized religion against respect for human life. The Torah, for example, tells us about the priests attending to the task of removing the ashes that had built up on the altar overnight. Rabbi Safran writes; “The Talmud describes how the priests would quite literally do battle for the privilege of attending to this task. They would race one another up the ramp in order to attend to this job to see who would get to the ashes first. The competition to perform this small but holy task grew so heated that, on one occasion, one priest shoved another off the ramp, causing him to fall and break his leg. Rather than end the competition, this seemed only to spur it on resulting in even more injury. Finally, a lottery system was enacted, bringing peace to this daily ritual.”

In this Talmudic example, the fervor to do a religious act resulted in tragic consequences. So too does the task of bringing the relic to the pope in The Pilgrimage, a film that serves as an object lesson in the negative outcome of religious zeal at the expense of human life. Implicit in Pilgrimage is the idea that religious faith must co-exist with righteous action. One cannot truly love God if he does not love man.

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Loving Vincent (2017), directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

loving vincentMany years ago, I saw Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, a cinematic biography of Vincent van Gogh, based on the novel by Irving Stone. In recent years I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Both experiences gave me an appreciation for the unique artistry and power of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Loving Vincent is an unusual motion picture. An animated film, it uses the style of Van’s Gogh’s art to tell its story. The film recounts hypothetically the last years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered? Was he depressed for a significant length of time? What may have contributed to his despondency?

The narrative begins one year after he died. Joseph Roulin, Vincent’s postman, requests his son Armond to deliver Vincent’s last letter to his brother Theo. The postman does not understand why Van Gogh chose to end his life when he seemed a well-adjusted man only a few weeks earlier. He shares his ambivalent feeling about Vincent’s death with his son, who reluctantly takes the letter to Paris.

Once in Paris, Armond learns that Theo died six months after Vincent. He then travels to the home of Dr. Paul Gachet, the physician who housed Van Gogh during a time of his artistic development and who shared his artistic sensibilities. Vincent’s relationship with his doctor is complicated and Armond leaves with more questions than he had before he met him.

All roads of inquiry finally lead to Theo’s widow, who happily reads Vincent’s last letter. The missive testifies to the strong love of the brothers for one another. It is signed “Your Loving Vincent.”

The mystery surrounding his death remains, but we sense that Van Gogh’s paintings show both the agony and ecstasy of his troubled life. He writes: “What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”

In his letters, Vincent reveals the purpose of his art: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’. I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”

Van Gogh is an artist for whom details are important. Indeed, that is the nature of art, to be concerned about details and how they come together to create enduring works of art. Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, writes: “Look closely at a masterpiece painting and see how it is composed of many small brushstrokes. If we were able to approach the artist – Rembrandt or Monet for example – and ask them, ‘Did you really need that brushstroke of blue in the bottom left corner or that dab of red in the upper right?’ they would be appalled. It’s only through the combination of all those brushstrokes that you get the full beautiful picture, the masterpiece.” The little details affect the whole picture.

This notion that details are important is embedded in all of Judaism, and is not limited to art. Braverman connects Orthodox Sabbath observance with a concern for the detail of Jewish law, which expresses the very essence of the day. There are many laws about the Sabbath that, if observed, enable one to make, as Braverman says, a “spiritual masterpiece” of the day.

Loving Vincent gives us an opportunity to look at the work of a great master. It also reminds us that behind the artistry is often a life of turmoil and disappointment, in which the artist is plagued by lack of self-esteem. It is difficult to earn a living when the product the artist is selling is so idiosyncratic. Van Gogh rarely received kind words for his artistic renditions, but over time he became a celebrated artistic innovator. His work reminds us that God is in the details.

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The Prestige (2006), directed by Christopher Nolan

prestigeWhen I was a kid playing basketball at the local Jewish Community Center, I would often hear adults mentioning famed football coach Vince Lombardi’s comments about winning. Here are some of those quotable quotes: “Success demands singleness of purpose.” “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” “Second place is meaningless. You can’t always be first, but you have to believe that you should have been – that you were never beaten – that time just ran out on you.” These statements fit the profiles of the two central characters in The Prestige, a mind-bending tale of two adversarial magicians who spend their lives trying to best the other professionally.

Their initial friendship turns into bitter rivalry when the wife of Robert Angier, known as the “Great Danton,” dies in a magic trick because of a knot tied around her hands by Alfred Borden, a competing magician who is assisting Angier in his show. It is unclear whether Borden disregarded a warning not to use this particular kind of knot and deliberately placed Angier’s wife at risk by making the knot more difficult to untie, or whether he assumed that Angier’s wife could easily free herself from the knot. In any event, after the death of Angier’s wife, the two men go their separate ways, admiring the other’s illusions, but also attempting to damage the other’s professional reputation.

The competition between them intensifies with both men trying to outwit the other and learn the secrets behind the other’s magic tricks. Tragedy strikes Angier again during a trick called the “transported man” when he falls into a hidden giant tank of water from which he cannot escape. Borden watches Angier suffocate and is ultimately accused of murdering him.

The film is full of twists and turns, revealing information about how their magic is performed, and then suggesting that what we see is not really what is happening. One must pay close attention to the machinations of both Angier and Borden to discover the truth.

What is clear is that neither Angier nor Borden play by conventional rules. They both want to be the best magician, and everything in their life is subservient to satisfying the desires of their respective egos. Jewish ethicist Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir in an essay entitled “Ethics and Sportsmanship” writes: “In business, like in sports, keeping score is a legitimate and valuable way of motivating people and inducing them to give their best. But just as sportsmanship in games reminds us that winning is not what’s ultimately important, business ethics reminds us that we don’t win the game of life by accumulating the most ‘monopoly money,’ but rather by doing the most good with our God-given talents.”

In The Prestige, we have two men driven not by doing the best with their God-given talents, but by their personal desire to gain notoriety by creating the best illusion. They have no interest in benefiting society with their skills. All they want to do is provide an “aha” moment to the audience so that their tricks are memorable. For them, family responsibilities are secondary to winning accolades as the best illusionist.

The fates of Angier and Borden remind us that obsessive concern with fame ultimately does not bring us happiness in life. It may for the moment be satisfying, but it does not foster meaningful human connections. The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, reminds us: “He who pursues a name will lose his name.” Yaakov Astor, a veteran Jewish educator, writes: ”Fame is an empty goal; it’s nothing unto itself. The person who gears his every thought and action toward the pursuit of fame cannot grow. Growth is an internal quantity; fame is external, a shell. The person whose entire focus is the external shell is not alive and growing on the inside.” Angier and Borden do not understand this basic truth.

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