Category Archives: Documentary

Fastball (2016), directed by Jonathan Hock

fastball-posterOne of my Torah teachers, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, is an avid baseball fan. He sees baseball as particularly engaging for students of Talmud. His reasons? “Because it’s slow-moving and you can think,” he said. “Every play requires you to ponder what to do. How shall I react to the reality that I see on the playing field? What play are you going to use? In other sports, it’s quick; you don’t ponder what will happen next. Things move very fast in basketball and football. But in baseball you have questions. Is the pitcher or the batter a left-hander, a right-hander, will the fielders pull the infield in, push the outfield back, give up the run, worry about the bunt, go for the double play, the squeeze, should he steal, what do you do, put him in scoring position, hit away. There’s so much involved that you have time to think. To me, if you have that Talmudic mind, it’s one of the reasons you like baseball.”

The Talmudic mind is on display in Fastball, an intellectually engaging documentary about the fastest pitch in baseball, but also a trip down memory lane visiting the baseball greats of the past. The narration by Kevin Costner focuses on the confrontation between batter and pitcher that is fraught with tension and peril. The ball is thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour toward the batter’s head. The pitcher intimidates while the batter exhibits caution, vigilance, and nerves of steel. The film considers the extent to which the speed of the ball influences the success of the pitcher and the ultimate outcome of the game.

Tracing the origins of the fastball compels one to visit the evolutionary history of baseball by interviewing celebrated players from both the past and present. Moreover, there is a scientific/mathematical analysis of the speed of the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box, which enables the viewer to understand fully the impact of speed on the ball’s rotation.

After considering which pitcher has the best fastball, there is a vignette about a pitcher who is no longer remembered by the vast majority of fans and players even though he was reputed to have the fastest pitch. Why is this? Because even though he had the fastest pitch, he lacked consistent control of the ball. Speed alone does not make winners; only when speed is harnessed to control does winning occur.

This sensibility of balancing speed with control and mastery existed in Jewish academies of learning in the past and exists today as well. In many of these post-high school institutions of learning, there are two categories of classes. One class moves with alacrity and covers lots of Talmudic ground, but does not go deeply into the text. The second, more advanced class, moves more slowly and spends lots of time analyzing the nuances of the text. The great scholars emerge out of the second group of classes, which not only covers ground, but enables students to attain mastery of a topic. Speed alone does not produce success.

Fastball ultimately informs us that Nolan Ryan had the fastest pitch along with the most control of the ball. Interestingly, he had a long baseball career pitching for a number of teams.

It is this mindset of being both fast and controlled that contributes to success in all areas of life. When we are energetic and quick and combine that with a thoughtful demeanor, we increase our chances for success in life. In the Ethics of the Fathers, we are told to rise like a lion and be as swift as a deer, but we are also cautioned to be deliberate in judgment. Speed unfettered by reason leads to accidents. Speed buttressed by the attribute of control leads to success.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Above and Beyond (2014), directed by Roberta Grossman

above-and-beyondA “lone soldier” home is located around the corner from me. What is a “lone soldier?” He is a volunteer who serves in the Israel Defense Forces even though he has no immediate family with him or her in Israel. Reliable sources tell us there are over 6000 of them serving in the army.

What makes someone volunteer for such service? One answer is given in the stirring documentary, Above and Beyond, which tells the story of a group of World War II pilots who, in 1948, volunteered to fight for Israel in its War of Independence. They knew that Israel was about to be attacked by its Arab neighbors and that the country might not survive the onslaught of so many powerful enemies unless it had help from others. They viewed themselves as being on the cusp of history and they were determined to do whatever they could to enable the new nation to survive. This diverse band of brothers fought in key battle theatres and laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.

The narrative begins with the United Nations resolution to divide Palestine and the British decision to leave, opening up the way for an Arab conquest of the land. Into that perilous situation steps a group of volunteer Jewish American former World War II pilots who help the Jews secure planes and fly them into the line of fire, preventing the Arabs from driving the Jews out of Palestine.

What gives the film authenticity is actual footage of the original aircraft and contemporary interviews with the pilots who flew them. What is remarkable is the fact that these soldiers who survived the hazards of World War II voluntarily placed their lives in danger to help the fledgling state of Israel.

Indeed, there is a rich tradition of volunteerism in Jewish history. The basic commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” sets the tone, encouraging all people to help one another in times of crisis. The commandment relates not just to requiring the rich to assist the poor, but includes all situations where people are in need of help. In truth, the notion of helping someone can relate to lifting his spirits as well as giving him charity. Furthermore, history records that such diverse causes as Jewish schools, burial societies, providing money for impoverished newlyweds so that they can establish their own homes, self- defense organizations, health and emergency medical centers all began under volunteer auspices.

The Talmud tractate of Sanhedrin tells us: “Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.” This mindset energizes the American pilots who want to prevent another Holocaust. They view their rescue mission as an opportunity to make a difference in the historic destiny of the Jewish people. For them, to save one life is to save the world.

Moreover, the Ethics of the Fathers states: “If I am only for myself, what kind of person am I?” The pilots are idealistic, unselfish, and willing to take risks. This combination enables these men to defy logic and convention, to try the impossible and sometimes achieve it.

Above and Beyond provides a window into a little known but important part of Israel’s history. It informs us that most volunteers are motivated by wanting to do the right thing, not by visions of being recognized publicly or getting financial benefit. It is gratifying to watch ordinary people rise to the occasion and make mighty contributions to the Jewish people that ripple into the future. Above and Beyond reminds us that heroes are often ordinary people meeting extraordinary challenges.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014), directed by James Keach

glen-campbell-ill-be-meA couple of years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. I did not see him often, so it was unnerving for me to see him so helpless and confused when I finally visited him. Once a robust, intelligent, and expressive man, he was a shadow of his former self, needing almost 24- hour care. Now his family only had memories of the great man he once was.

I was surprised when I heard about the documentary recounting the life of musical icon Glen Campbell. Titled Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, the film deals primarily with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the subsequent 151-farewell tour show upon which he embarked both to celebrate his music and to share his experience of dealing with Alzheimer’s.

Over the span of his career, Glen Campbell created a large catalog of hit songs including “Rhinestone Cowboy, “ Wichita Lineman,” and “Gentle on My Mind.” He began as a country music star and was the first to crossover into contemporary popular music. In this sense, he opened to door to thousands of country musicians who, until that point in time, played music exclusively for country music fans.

Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. Together with his wife Kim, they decided to go public with the diagnosis and begin a “Goodbye Tour” that was initially supposed to be for three weeks. However, due to strong emotional support and appreciative audience reactions, they continued with a nationwide tour that lasted for 151 shows.

The film begins in the doctor’s office with the diagnosis and it is fascinating to observe the physician’s questions as well as Campbell’s responses. His answers reveal that his memory is becoming more selective about what information it retains. For example, Campbell may not remember who was the first president of the United States because he thinks this is not useful information. However, he remembers song lyrics and how to play the guitar because these things still matter to him.

As the tour progresses, the quality of his performance declines, but his myriad fans do not seem to mind. They consider themselves fortunate to be present at what will probably be one of his final concerts. Throughout the tour, his family and small cadre of musicians, some of whom are family members, give Campbell support and love no matter the outcome of a particular performance. His children feel blessed to spend this time with their Dad.

Near the end of the tour, the question is asked why Campbell agreed to do the tour. The answer: he genuinely wanted to perform again and his family felt that his performance would give more media attention to Alzheimer’s, a disease afflicting so many Americans, and, by extension, to their caregivers whose lives are dramatically changed when they take care of loved one who may not even remember their names or who they are.

Jewish tradition emphasizes the dignity of man. We all are created in God’s image and are deserving of respect no matter our physical or mental condition. The image of God can still exist in a body damaged by disease or in a mind damaged by mental illness. Alzheimer’s does not define our value from the aspect of eternity.

One of the most touching moments in the film occurs when Campbell sings “A Better Place, “ a song that expresses his hopeful spirit in the midst of his mental decline. Here are the lyrics that resonate: “Some days I’m so confused. Lord/ My past gets in my way/ I need the ones I love, Lord/ More and more each day/ One thing I know/ The world’s been good to me/ A better place awaits, you’ll see.”

Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me is a one-of-of-a-kind movie, a film that reminds us of the fragility of life. What life is like today may not be what it is tomorrow. This is a life lesson that relates not only to those afflicted with debilitating disease, but to all of us making life’s journey.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Becoming Bulletproof (2014), directed by Michael Barnett

becoming bulletproofMy sister Carol, of blessed memory, was six years older than me. She had Down’s syndrome, and as a kid I vividly remember going with Carol and my mother to Teen Town, a Thursday night social get-together where developmentally disabled teenagers could mingle socially, form friendships, and plan outings together. It was there that Carol met Sam Berniger, who also had Down’s syndrome.

Carol and Sam were an item in those days, often flirting with one another. At first it was strange to observe because I viewed my own sister as disabled in some way and not capable of romantic relationships. However, after witnessing Carol and Sam’s obvious affection for one another, I realized they were no different from other teens I knew. They wanted human connection. They wanted to feel love and affection, and that desire is common to all people, not just the developmentally disabled.

I thought of their romance as I watched Becoming Bulletproof, an arresting documentary about a cohort of disabled people from all over the United States, who come together once a year to make a movie.

Some background information is in order. Zeno Mountain Farms has an annual project of making a film using people with disabilities of all kinds as actors. Although their disabilities are wide-ranging, the young men and women come together in the service of art, making a movie that somehow transcends the limitations of their disabilities.

The project takes place in their summer camp program, and this year the project is to produce a short western movie by the camp’s residents. Period costumes are used, some paid for and some donated. The key scene is the confrontation between the hero and the villain in a shootout on a deserted street. The entire cast serves as bystanders to the imminent bloodshed. The camera pans over the worried faces of people in the crowd and then focuses on the guns in the holsters of the antagonists, who are about to draw their weapons against one another. It is a scene reminiscent of many classic western movies.

Working with the campers are people without disabilities who relate to the disabled as normal human beings. They see the disabled as significant others; and by doing so, they discover their common humanity, and forget about the disabled label. Watching the residents learn their lines and act their respective parts is both very heart wrenching and inspiring. What is especially noteworthy is how the staff relates to the residents as regular friends and family, even though the disabilities that distinguish them are glaringly evident.

Although there is an implicit message embedded in the movie, the movie is not preachy. The message: the disabled want to be recognized as people of value, who have an independent identity, who want to be taken seriously. This harks back to the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image; therefore, we all have infinite value regardless of our physical disabilities.

Jewish law recommends treating the disabled as regular members of the community as much as is humanly possible considering the idiosyncratic nature of each disability. As a synagogue rabbi, I recall vividly a father who painstakingly taught his developmentally disabled son how to recite the Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. In the father’s eyes, it was very important that his child experience the same rite of passage as other young men.

Becoming Bulletproof is testimony to the fact that the disabled are part of the human family, and want to be treated as such. Stigmatizing someone as disabled may be a necessity in the world of therapeutics, but labels should not define a person in the world of human discourse.

 

 

More Than a Game (2008) directed by Kristopher Belman

more than a game posterOne of my fond childhood memories is going to the local JCC every week to play basketball. Sunday was game day and one day during the week we would go the “J” to practice, which ended with “dessert.” “Dessert” was lining up on the right of the basket, then on left, then in the center and the coach would feed us the ball and expect us to make the lay-up on each side of the basket. If we missed a lay-up, we would have to go down to the locker room, so we all tried to be the last man standing.

It was an enjoyable but competitive way to end the practice session, and we all looked forward to it. I still remember the sweet smell of the gym and the sweat that were part of the experience of playing b-ball with my good buddies at the time.

So it was with a great sense of familiarity and recognition that I watched More Than a Game, much of which takes place on the basketball court and in the locker room. It is the inspiring story of the high school basketball team of Lebron James that went on to win the national championships. Much of the footage is of the actual games that were played, but just as mesmerizing is the camaraderie of the players, and the coaching comments of Dru Joyce, an unlikely high school basketball coach who viewed football as his primary sport.

Dru became highly interested in basketball because of his son, Dru Jr., who, although 4’11,” was enamored with the game. His father, recognizing his son’s’ passion for basketball, decided to coach a youth league team that included many talented players including Lebron James. When the boys went to high school, they enrolled as a group in St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio, largely because of its coach who they credit with improving their skills and their game. Disappointment, however, reigned when the coach accepted a college coaching position. It was then that Dru Joyce became their high school coach.

In one of his first speeches to his team, he reminds his boys that, in the final analysis, basketball is not the be-all and end-all of life. What is more important are the life lessons learned in the game. They learn the value of teamwork, of working together towards a common goal for the good of all. They learn about stepping up with extra effort when their star player is not with them, of not making excuses but confronting adversity head-on and triumphing over it. They learn to appreciate the value of the contribution of every individual player. In a clutch game, it is not Lebron who comes to the rescue but Dru Jr. at 4’11,” who makes seven 3-pointers in a row to drive the team to victory.

There is a notion in Jewish tradition of a rebbe, a teacher who transmits not only information, but who also functions as a mentor and life coach to his students. Students view him as a role model and learn by observing him both in class and out of class. The rebbe is the paradigm for the ideal Jewish teacher.

What emerges from viewing More Than a Game is how much Coach Joyce functions as a rebbe and father figure to the team, some of whom come from broken homes and single-parent families. He is the rock providing emotional stability and security to boys whose home life is in disarray. For them the basketball court becomes a sanctuary. It is a place where the world with all its everyday challenges and disappointments can be put in the recesses of one’s mind as one concentrates on getting the ball into the net. Like the quintessential Torah teacher, Coach Joyce not only transmits data but also gives his students an approach to successful living that transcends the basketball court.

Coach Joyce acknowledges that there are times when he gets caught up in the superficial things, in the winning and the losing. But, in a sobering moment, he realizes that his mission is not only to win games, but to enable young boys to become men. He is their rebbe, the instrument of their growth as complete and successful human beings.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015), directed by Alex Gibney

sinatre all or nothing at all posterGrowing up in the 1950s, my musical icon was Elvis Presley. I enjoyed his songs, combed my hair the way he did, and even grew sideburns to match his. Frank Sinatra was still around and popular with my sister Martha and her friends who were five years older than me. Now in my senior years, Sinatra and his big band arrangements have re-emerged in my consciousness as musical classics that have withstood the test of time. Fifty years after they were written and performed, they still sound fresh and tuneful, which is why I found the four-hour documentary of his life, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, fascinating to watch.

The main talking head in the film is Frank himself, who appears in archival footage being interviewed by Walter Cronkite and in a host of other unspecified settings. Sinatra’s story has been well documented over the years. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, he determined at an early age that he wanted to be an entertainer. First singing in local clubs, he eventually became a featured vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band, and soon morphed into a solo artist selling millions of records.

When his career floundered for a short period of time, his professional life was invigorated by the movies. He won an Academy Award for his role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity, and from there he went on to star in a number of popular films. Furthermore, his appearances in Las Vegas gave new life to what was at that time a moribund city. Together with his celebrated “rat pack” of buddies, he injected new energy into the Las Vegas tourist industry.

As I heard his rendition of his classic signature songs at his “Retirement Concert” in 1971, I became more aware of what separated him from other crooners of the time. It was his impeccable pronunciation of words and phrasing. It was a mellifluous voice, one that was able to convey nuances of deep emotion by phrasing his words in idiosyncratic ways.

The documentary reveals that as a young man Sinatra took singing lessons to improve his delivery. He paid $3 a week to learn voice calisthenics to make him a better singer and it worked. His investment in learning at a tender age reaped rewards and Frank’s career blossomed.

This vignette of his early voice lessons reminded me of the Talmudic concept of girsa d’yankusah, the learning that one does as a youth. The Sages tell us that such learning stays with one for the rest of one’s life because it is given when a child’s mind is a tabula rasa, a blank page upon which indelible memories are engraved. Moreover, the Talmud tells us about a great scholar who remarked that his most important teacher was the one who taught him the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, which was the bedrock of all his learning as a teenager and adult.

Frank Sinatra is one of the great musical icons of the twentieth century. Like all human beings, he is both talented and flawed. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All reminds us that his determination to be a musical star was not serendipitous. He worked hard to succeed and took advantage of every opportunity to move his career forward. His investment in voice lessons as a young performer indicates that Sinatra knew his weaknesses and wanted to correct them. He was not satisfied with merely being good; he wanted to be great, and he was open to receiving criticism if it helped him become a more successful entertainer.

Sinatra’s retirement concert, which is the linchpin of the narrative, demonstrates through song the many challenges that he faced and his ability to survive and prosper over many years of show business. His odyssey demonstrates how an ability to accept criticism and guidance in one’s youth can create enduring and felicitous consequences in the future.

Find out more information about this movie from HBO.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), directed by Gabriele Muccino

pursuit of happyness posterThere was a time in my life when I was in a very poor cash position. I went to relatives and friends and asked for help, and they all assisted me. I told all of them that I would repay their loans and in a couple of years I did. A few people forgave the loan but most did not, but I was happy to pay them back now that my financial situation had improved. It is no fun to be heavily in debt, and I identified easily with the emotional stress of Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, an inspirational film about a man with very bad financial luck who manages to turn his life around because of sheer hard work and unswerving commitment to a goal.

The story begins in 1981 in San Francisco where salesman Chris Gardner purchases a large number of portable bone-density scanners to sell to doctors. But there is a problem. The machines are very expensive and do not reveal much more than standard x-ray machines. The result: few machines are sold and Chris goes into deep debt. The financial stress causes a rift between Chris and his wife. Eventually, as their economic situation deteriorates more and more, his wife Linda wants out of the marriage. Chris insists on keeping their 5-year old son with him in spite of his wife’s pleas. The fact that Chris’s own father walked out on him is a memory tape that haunts Chris, and he does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps when it comes to his own son.

In the course of trying to sell his scanners, he by chance meets Jay Twistle, a manager for the stock brokerage firm of Dean Witter Reynolds. Fascinated by the glamour of the job of stock broker, he applies for an internship at the company. In a serendipitous cab ride that he shares with Twistle, Chris impresses him with his facility for solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle and Twistle accepts Chris for the internship.

As Chris tries his best to turn the internship into a real job with pay, he encounters a surfeit of impediments. Police arrest him for unpaid parking tickets. His bank account is garnished by the IRS for unpaid income tax. He is evicted from his home because of overdue rent, forcing him and his son to sleep in the subway for a short time and then to live in a facility for the homeless.

Because of these pressures, Chris is forced to utilize every available free moment to make phone contacts and set up sales calls for stock purchases. He even defies protocol by seeking out high value customers even though he is an intern. Moreover, he does not want to reveal his disadvantaged situation to anyone at the firm for fear it will jeopardize his chances for the coveted paid position at Dean Witter.

King Solomon in his classic Proverbs tells us that “seven times the righteous will fall, yet they will rise again.” It is a message of hope in the face of adversity, to stay focused even when things fall apart. We all have friends who, when faced with possible failure in reaching their professional goals, give up hope. For example, I know of many young, promising teachers who leave education because of their initial difficulties in the field. I also know some who weather the storm and leave meaningful legacies in their respective institutions.

Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness comprehends the value of perseverance in the face of adversity. His story inspires us to be steadfast even in the face of enormous obstacles.

 Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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