Category Archives: Romance

Bobby Deerfield (1977), directed by Sydney Pollack

bobby deerfieldA few years ago, I had cardiovascular bypass surgery. I was planning to travel to the US for the wedding of my son, Ezra. Feeling occasionally short of breath, I went to my cardiologist in Israel and, after examining me, he told me that I should not travel since my risk of having a heart event was significant. And so I experienced the wedding virtually on Skype instead of being there in person.

Being in the hospital for a serious operation, I decided, at the encouragement of a friend, to recite the confessional that Jews say when the outcome of an operation is uncertain. I said to myself: maybe my mission on earth is complete and now I will bid farewell to this world and enter the next.

After the operation, my blood pressure was fluctuating greatly, and I felt a need to be with other people. I did not want to be alone. When a friend visited, I asked him to stay longer because I wanted to be close to another living being. It truly helped me overcome my anxiety during my recovery.

That need for physical closeness when confronted with mortality is evident in Bobby Deerfield, the story of a race car driver who confronts the possibility of death after witnessing a track accident in which a friend dies. That desire for human connection intensifies when Bobby himself survives a near fatal crash.

When we first meet Bobby Deerfield, we see that he is a loner. He has forsaken his brother, his parents, his entire family. He lives a life in which he is the main character and there is no supporting cast. All he wants to do is win Formula One races. That desire to win is muted once a teammate of his dies in a racing event. The thought of death then preoccupies him.

When Bobby visits an injured racecar driver in the hospital, he serendipitously meets Lillian Morelli, an idiosyncratic, impulsive woman who captures his attention. Although she has a serious, but unidentified, illness, she has left the hospital without authorization, asking him for a ride. She does not want to be confined to the hospital and yearns for freedom. Although Bobby does not initially understand the nature of her illness, he eventually discovers that her malady is life threatening and that her time is short.

The desire to be physically close to people when faced with mortality is akin to what I felt in the hospital after my surgery. This emotion resonates in the early stages of Bobby and Lillian’s relationship, when Lillian asks Bobby to be close to her. She does not mean close in an intimate way.

In truth, his relationship with the quirky Lillian changes the way he views the world. No longer is life only about him; it now considers others besides him.

The longing for human connection when faced with death moves Bobby to become more sensitive to those around him and less self-centered. After realizing that Lillian’s days are numbered, he approaches a gardener that he does not know and simply tells him that he wants to talk to him. The simple desire to be close to another human being is now very important to him.

I write this review a few days before Yom Kippur, a holy day in the Jewish calendar when we ask for forgiveness for the wrongdoings we have committed against people by always putting our own needs first. The Torah reminds man that he always has a choice about the way he lives and relates to other human beings. In Deuteronomy the Lord states: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live” (30:19). The message: the confrontation with death makes us value life more. The outcome of Bobby Deerfield’s encounter with death is an epiphany that makes him appreciate life and the physical presence of others.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Advertisements

Phantom Thread (2017), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

phantom threadI know a woman who likes to shop. I am grateful not to be the person in the store who sells her things because she is always dissatisfied with her purchases. One example. I watched her shop for athletic shoes on one occasion. She took close to an hour trying on different pairs of shoes in different sizes. She finally decided on one pair and made the purchase. Two days later I happened to be picking up a tennis racket for a friend, and I saw her again. She was unhappy with the purchase and returned to the store looking for refund or for a different pair of shoes. The same obsessive behavior was observed when she bought a piece of jewelry or a hat.

That kind of monomania typifies the approach of famous fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock to his work and to his relationships with other people, especially women. His story unfolds in Phantom Thread.

The narrative begins in 1954 in London. The opening scenes reveal Woodcock’s obsession with detail and his controlling personality. On a rare visit to the countryside, he meets Alma, a waitress at a restaurant, and their friendship blossoms into a relationship in which Alma becomes Woodcock’s artistic inspiration and lover.

At first, the relationship is calm and refreshing for both Alma and Woodcock. Over time, however, Woodcock’s obsessive personality reasserts itself and they begin to argue with one another. He criticizes her for even attempting to disagree with him: “I cannot begin my day with a confrontation, please. I’m delivering the dress today, and I can’t take up space with confrontation. I simply don’t have time for confrontations.” He refuses to invest in human relationships that disturb his equilibrium.

Things come to a head when Woodcock excoriates Alma for preparing a romantic dinner for him that breaks his normal work routine, which to him is sacrosanct. Alma is repelled by Woodcock’s obsessive concern for his own needs, yet she still cares for him greatly for he is the gateway to a new and exciting life for her. Her challenge: finding a way to make Woodcock more a man of feeling, willing and ready to emotionally connect with other human beings. She embarks upon an unconventional strategy by which she will cause him to experience a sense of mortality. This will compel him to rely on other human beings and not live a life of emotional isolation.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi Chief rabbi in Palestine appointed in 1921, wrote about the importance of both the mind and the heart in living a full life: “Man cannot live with intellect alone, nor with emotion alone; intellect and emotion must forever be joined together Only the quality of equilibrium, which balances intellect with emotion, can deliver him completely.”

Moreover, in Ecclesiastes written by King Solomon in the autumn of his life, it states there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to wail and a time to dance” (3:2-8). To live life fully, we must embrace life with all its varied and at times contradictory thoughts and emotions, especially when it comes to loving another person.

Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, discusses the paradox of love: “Two beings become one and yet remain two.” Rabbi Maurice Lamm gives a Jewish twist to this notion. He writes: “The Torah, in requiring the end result of man and woman becoming one flesh requires ezer, an overcoming of loneliness, a mutual completion of the selves, and also ke’negdo, an opposite, independent person with whom one chooses to side at will.” Woodcock finally comes to this understanding when he experiences a near death experience. At that moment, he sees Alma both as an opposite and as one who gives his life a sense of emotional completion.

Notes on Blindness (2016), directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney

notes on blindnessA couple of years ago, I visited the Museum of the Blind in Holon, Israel. It was an immersive visit in a totally dark environment led by a blind guide who wants to give visitors a sense of what it is to be blind and what accommodations a blind person has to make to lead a relatively normal life. I left the museum extremely grateful for the gift of sight.

Notes on Blindness took that grateful feeling and made it deeper. The film is a true record of what happened to John Hull (1935-2015), a writer, theologian, and university professor in England, who totally lost his sight in 1983 after a number of operations on his failing eyes. The script of the film contains the exact words of his audio diary, which he kept to document his coming to terms with his blindness. They eventually became the basis for Hull’s book, Touching the Rock, and later the movie, Notes on Blindness.

Notes on Blindness is a film in a category of its own. Between segments of the film, the screen goes totally black for several seconds. Even as the story is told, much of it appears in dim lighting. Furthermore, the images are often out of focus, making it challenging for the viewer. Moreover, many of the scenes are shot with only parts of a person in focus. There are images of parts of faces, feet walking, and hands moving, as if to suggest impaired vision. As Hull narrates, we are given entrance to his dreams, his memory, and his imagination; and it is a fascinating journey.

As he comes to accept his blindness, he goes through various psychological stages. A particularly difficult time occurs when he returns to his native Australia to visit his aging parents. He remembers little of his visual life there and returns to England depressed.

It is at his home in England that his spirits are lifted. He emerges from “the shadowland of passivity” to a world with which he is familiar. He caresses his old furniture. He is pleased to find his desk and chair in their proper places, and he is happy to find his tape recorder in working condition.

What is amazing is the devotion of his wife who is by his side through all his adversity. We learn later that Hull and his wife, Marilyn, had five children, a profound testimony to their love and devotion to one another. Hull writes about her: “What I remember about you most vividly in those years was your amazing practicality. You never expressed regrets. You just got on with the next thing, step by step. The way you did that, I always thought was incredible.”

Hull does arrive at some kind of epiphany. He ultimately sees his blindness as a gift from God. It is not a gift he wants either for himself or his children; but now that he acknowledges this divine gift, he realizes that to complain about it is fruitless. What he must do is to decide how he will use this gift in a creative way for the rest of his days.

This perspective on life echoes the sentiment expressed in Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem in its entirety:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton, one of the great English poets, wrote this masterpiece when he was blind and coming to terms with his own personal affliction. One of my Torah teachers, in fact, said that this passage was a comfort to him when his father lost his sight. The essential message: we cannot know why God does what he does, but we can decide how we respond to adversity. That is the key to living a meaningful life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Greatest Showman (2017), directed by Michael Gracey

greatest showmanIn the news recently was a story about a politician who announced that he was not going to seek re-election. He was successful in his career and made lots of money giving speeches across the country. Why was he retiring? He said it was because he did not want to be a “weekend dad” to his teenage children. He understood that his kids needed more face time with him, and he did not want to look back at his life and regret not spending more time with his children. Family was more important to him than fame or wealth. This dilemma in broad outline is at the heart of The Greatest Showman, the story of the rise of P.T. Barnum who makes choices between family and the pursuit of personal goals.

Phineas Taylor Barnum wants to make lots of money and be a celebrity. His wife is a polar opposite. She is content with little. For her, family is more important than fame or money. Phineas’ origins explain his perspective on life. Orphaned and poor, he is driven by his desire to succeed financially. Moreover, he possesses a creative and optimistic mind, ready to take on all kinds of challenges.

After losing his regular job in a trading company that goes bankrupt, he decides to open up a wax museum to support his family, a wife and two daughters, thinking that people will want to come to see his wax creations of famous people. It is a resounding failure.

He then launches a show introducing people who look weird, such as a woman who has grown a man’s beard and a midget. Others see his collection of oddities as a freak show, but he sees himself as giving these strange looking people a chance to celebrate their uniqueness. His motives, in truth, are a mixture of the altruistic and the pecuniary, and he is successful. His success enables him to tour all over the world, including America, and his family is left behind. Absence in this situation does not make the heart grow fonder. An emotional and psychological rift grows between husband and wife and it is only when tragedy strikes that Phineas rethinks his flamboyant lifestyle.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, a veteran Jewish educator, writes regularly on sayings from the Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. On the passage “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot,” he comments: “Wealth does not ensure happiness. It is an important means towards many other things — comfort, self-sufficiency, tranquility, peace of mind. But if we make it an end — if its pursuit consumes us and occupies all our waking hours — we will find nothing but stress and anxiety.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld quotes his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, who also shares his perspective on the acquisition of wealth: “People who claim they are pursuing their careers so doggedly in order to provide comfortably for their families are generally deluding themselves. It is simply not true. They do it for themselves — for their own fulfillment. The pursuit of wealth and career assumes a life of its own. Such people become consumed with a drive for prestige, achievement, fulfillment, or they don’t even really know what. But career becomes their life goal in and of itself.”

The Greatest Showman on one level is an entertaining musical with songs and dances that engage your mind and heart. More important, it alerts us to the negative effects of possessing too much wealth and focusing on career more than family. In the end, it is family that endures, not money.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Dr. Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson

dr. strangeA friend of mine scheduled hip replacement surgery. He and his wife visited the surgeon who had been recommended by many. After the meeting, my friend and his wife came away with different impressions. While both felt the surgeon was highly competent, the wife detected a streak of arrogance in the doctor, and it bothered her. She preferred a surgeon who radiated humility, not pride. The husband felt that, at the end of the day, God is the healer, not the surgeon, and the surgeon’s arrogant attitude was not a reason to choose another doctor.

An extremely competent but prideful physician is the main character in Dr. Strange, the origin story of Marvel comic book hero Stephen Strange, a gifted doctor who sees himself as a mini-god. The opening segment of the film depicts a tragic car accident that results in catastrophic injury to his hands. He can no longer work as a surgeon and feels life is over.

One day, however, he hears about a fellow who was paralyzed and who, without medical intervention, regained the use of his limbs. To do this, the man journeyed to a faraway place in Katmandu, Nepal, called Kamar-tal, where he learned to use his mind to overcome his physical paralysis.

Strange decides to travel to Kamar-tal. There he meets people proficient in the mystic arts including The Ancient One, and Mordo, a sorcerer. These practitioners of magic exist in an alternate reality, which strives to rescue the world from enemies existing in other dimensions.

Under their tutelage, Strange moves from being a self-centered egotist to a person genuinely concerned about the fate of others. Moreover, he now believes not only in science but accepts other sources of knowledge that do not function according to the rules of science. At the outset of his psychological journey, he states: “I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” At journey’s end, he comprehends that he is not the center of the universe; but, rather, some spiritual power is. Furthermore, his brush with death has made him value life more. The Ancient One tells him: “ Death is what gives life meaning.” That piece of wisdom resonates within Strange; life’s brevity makes him treasure each moment more.

These valuable life lessons are part of Jewish tradition. The Jewish belief system is built on the notion there is both a spiritual and material world and that what we do on this earth transcends the physical. Indeed, our earthly lives eventually morph into a purely spiritual existence on another plane where we are held accountable for the good and bad things we have done.

Moreover, the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers remind us to repent one day before we die. Since we do not know when they day will arrive, we are to live with an awareness that each day might be our last. Therefore, each day should be filled with good deeds. Thinking about mortality is good because that thought will spur us on to a life of greater accomplishment.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange does not suddenly become a paragon of humility, but he does learn that life has other dimensions than the physical. Moreover, he learns that a mission-driven life can involve more than one mission, and that a person’s mission can change depending on the turnabouts in one’s own life. Indeed, Dr. Strange, a fictional comic book story, offers one model for cultivating humility and discovering our true destiny.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Fault In Our Stars (2014), directed by Josh Boone

fault in our starsI recently read a book by my son, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, entitled What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Drawing upon his synagogue experiences and officiating at hundreds of funerals, he poses the question of how we want to be remembered. Through personal anecdote and sharing interviews with movers and shapers in the worlds of business and art, he suggests ways to re-engineer your life so that when your life is over, you will be remembered for things that matter, not for how much you acquired.

The protagonists of The Fault In Our Stars, two teenagers afflicted with cancer, reflect on how they want to be remembered. Recognizing the likely brevity of their own lives gives the question a particular urgency for Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters.

Hazel and Augustus meet at a cancer support group. Hazel has stage-4 thyroid cancer and Augustus, in remission from bone cancer, has had his right leg amputated. They share their stories with one another and their literary interests, which deepen their relationship. Hazel’s favorite book is An Imperial Affliction written by Peter Van Houton. The novel ends in mid-sentence when the heroine dies, and Hazel is curious to know the after story of the characters in the book.

Hazel confesses that she has written hundreds of letters to the author asking him to tell her what happens next in the lives of the characters but to no avail. Happily, Van Houton’s assistant responds to Gus when he writes to Van Houton. This encourages Hazel to write Van Houton again and surprisingly he extends an invitation to her to visit him in Amsterdam. Frannie, Hazel’s mom, arranges for the Amsterdam trip for Hazel, Gus, and herself as chaperone.

The meeting with Van Houton does not go as expected. Van Houton is a misanthrope and only has negative things to say about life. Despite his cruel and insensitive outbursts, Gus and Hazel emerge stronger from his excoriations. They dismiss his pessimism and focus on the joy they feel for one another.

As the health of Gus and Hazel goes through peaks and valleys, they ruminate about the eulogy that each might say about the other. They begin to think about what is their legacy given the likelihood of short life spans. When Gus expresses his desire to lead an extraordinary life, Hazel reminds him that an extraordinary life is measured not in things accomplished but in the loving relationships you form on this earth. Hazel proclaims her love for Gus and tells him that her love and devotion to Gus will be remembered. That is the legacy that Gus will leave for Hazel.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen writes that one of the ways we create a legacy is to create memories and that is what Gus and Hazel do. They travel to Amsterdam, have dinner at an elegant restaurant, they discuss literature, and they share everyday experiences, all of which bond them together. Their shared memories animate their conversations as they navigate a precarious and uncertain life.

Rabbi Cohen cites two quotations that reflect the love and passion that Hazel and Gus have for one another. One is a popular quote whose source is unknown: “Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.” The other quote is by Bob Dylan: “If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them.” The Fault In Our Stars is sad and tragic, but underpinning the narrative are life lessons about leading a meaningful life, no matter what the obstacles.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Their Finest (2016), directed by Lone Scherfig

their finestWhen I was about to enter college in 1960, I thought I was going to be a high school teacher. Somewhere along the way, my Judaic studies at Yeshiva University became my academic focus and I resolved to be a pulpit rabbi. My professional career began in Atlanta, Georgia, where I was the assistant rabbi at a large Orthodox synagogue.

In 1976, I began searching for a rabbinical post where I would be the head rabbi. But God intervened in my career path. Even though I had no experience running a Jewish day high school, I was offered the position of principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta.

How and why that occurred is not the subject of this film review, but how one chooses a career is. What are the factors that make one choose a career for which one does not prepare?

Their Finest tells the story of Catrin Cole, who in 1940 is requested to interview with England’s Ministry of Information to write scripts for short documentary films about the war effort. While researching a story about twin sisters, Lily and Rose, who are reputed to have sailed their father’s boat to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, she discovers that their boat had engine trouble and never reached Dunkirk.

Instead of abandoning the story, Catrin, together with co-script writers Tom Buckley and Raymond Parfitt, convince their superiors to continue with the movie as inspirational fiction rather than as a documentary. And so, Catrin finds herself as a scriptwriter not for documentaries but for major theatrical productions. She did not plan this career, but once given the opportunity to spread her intellectual wings, she soars above the rest of her scriptwriting colleagues.

As the shoot continues, Catrin and Tom develop affection for one another as they successfully produce a film that inspires the British nation who are suffering from war fatigue. Tragedy intervenes, however, in the relationship between Catrin and Tom, compelling her to rethink her newfound success as a scriptwriter, a vocation for which she did not prepare, but which ultimately gives meaning and direction to her life.

Rabbi Benjamin Rapaport, referencing Duties of the Heart written by Bachye Ibn Pakudei around 1040, provides some questions to help one find the right career. Here are four of them: Does it attract you? Does it match your resources? Are you willing to invest? Do you have a passion for it?

Catrin Cole at first does not affirmatively answer these questions, but after she is baptized in the crucible of scriptwriting as a career, she truly discovers her life’s calling. She senses her writing will enable her to make a better world, or in Jewish terms, to do tikun olam, to improve and fix the world.

There is another valuable life lesson that Catrin learns about her career. Sometimes your career choice requires you to see the world differently. In particular, working in the arts might force you to see truth not objectively, but as artistic truth. Tom Buckley explains this to Catrin: “Film is real life with the boring parts cut out. Don’t confuse facts with truth, and don’t let either of them get in the way of the story. Why do you think people like films? It’s because stories are structured, have a shape, a purpose, a meaning. And when things go bad, they’re still part of a plan. There’s point to them. Unlike life.”

Their Finest ends on an optimistic note. After personal tragedy, Catrin resolves never to write again. However, Ambrose Hilliard, a veteran actor, reminds her that if she turns her back on opportunities that come her way, even when she has suffered great loss, “wouldn’t that be giving death dominion over life? “ Catrin understands the power and significance of his words and returns to her chosen craft of scriptwriting, where she can continue to influence the world for good.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

%d bloggers like this: