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.

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Lady Bird (2017), directed by Greta Gerwig

Lady birdFriends of mine have a daughter poised to enter her senior year in high school. Their relationship with her is challenging. She wants to attend an out-of-state Ivy League school, but they are not wealthy and prefer that she attend a more affordable state university. The daughter also feels that her local high school is intellectually claustrophobic, and she yearns for a more stimulating educational environment in college, one that will allow her to dream and think out-of-the-box.

Her parents asked me for advice. I had no simple answers and said I would think about their questions. I reminded them that parenting is a lifelong journey. Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. What they were experiencing was a normal part of the real life struggle of teenagers to define themselves as adults, to attain a level of independence without becoming alienated from the adults who love them.

This struggle is at the center of Lady Bird, a coming of age comedy/drama about Christine McPherson, also known as Lady Bird. Lady Bird is enrolled in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, that she finds narrow-minded and repressive. She desires to attend a cosmopolitan university far away from her small town roots. She wants like-minded friends who are more intellectually sophisticated than her high school buddies.

Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, is not an ogre. She tries to be helpful in enabling her daughter to be successful in the world; but Lady Bird still sees her as lacking understanding of her creative spirit and not recognizing her for the unique person she is. In one interchange, Marion tells her that she wants Lady Bird to be the “very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Lady Bird responds: “What if this is the best version?”

Lady Bird wants her mother’s approval and yearns for her praise. Marion, however, feels she must be honest in her comments to her even if it risks alienating her. For example, Lady Bird asks her: “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Marion answers: “Okay, I’m sorry. I was telling you the truth. Do you want me to lie to you?” Lady Bird needs affirmation. Marion needs honesty. Sometimes the two conflict and there is no reconciliation.

Marion shares life wisdom with Lady Bird, hoping to give her tools to navigate life. In one encounter, she states: “Money is not life’s report card. Being successful doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. It just means that you’re successful. But that doesn’t mean that you’re happy.”

Lady Bird hears her and is bright enough to appreciate her counsel. But it is not until she enters college that she acknowledges the profound influence of her parents. In a poignant phone call from college, she tells them: “Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom. Hey, Mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you.”

Adina Soclof, a social worker and Jewish educator, provides some tips to enhance communication between parents and teens, to preserve the ties that bind them since birth. She writes: “Teens are egocentric. They often only think about themselves because they’re experiencing so much inner turmoil. Their emotions overtake them; they are dealing with their hormones, school, peers and other pressures. They don’t have the experience and maturity to handle their problems on their own.” Therefore, “Try to overlook this behavior. It is critical to keep the lines of communication open. All your effort should be directed to this goal.”

Lady Bird is an unsettling view of a teenager’s coming of age. In the end, her story is hopeful because Lady Bird, in spite of her arguments with her mother, still keeps the wisdom of her parents in her mind as she navigates her adult life.

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Seven Years in Tibet (1997), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

seven years in tibetI know people who are very busy in their professional careers, but who always find time for family, and especially their children. One rabbi friend of mine who works for a number of companies in the pension fund industry in order to make a living for his large family always finds time to study Torah with his children. It is a weekly commitment that he rarely misses, and I admire him greatly. That kind of devotion to family is absent in the life of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, a picturesque drama that chronicles his life before, during, and after World War II.

Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in British India to gain glory for his country and for himself. So driven is he to accomplish this goal that he leaves his wife, Ingrid, who is expecting their first child. Harrer is self-centered and cannot recognize the stresses under which his wife functions with a husband who is away for long stretches of time and is emotionally distant from her even when he is at home.

During their climb, World War II breaks out and Harrer and his fellow climbers are arrested and sent to a P.O.W. camp where they languish for several years, during which Harrer’s son, Rolf, is born. Harrer finally escapes and finds refuge in Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan monks. There he befriends the very young Dalai Lama, whose curiosity about the world is satiated by Harrer’s worldly knowledge.

Although young is years, the Dalai Lama is old in wisdom, and Harrer learns from him as much if not more than what he teaches him. A wise Tibetan points out to Harrer the difference between his life’s philosophy and the Tibetan way of life: “You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who abandons his ego.” Harrer’s ego is large and it takes much time for him to understand the importance of humility in shaping one’s character.

During Harrer’s long hiatus away from family, Ingrid sends him divorce papers, informing him of her desire to re-marry. The finality of the letter and his own increasing desire to see his son begin a process of repentance for Harrer. He becomes less self-centered and begins to think of how his actions are perceived by others. He is also troubled by the insensitivity he showed towards the suffering of his wife, who he essentially abandoned at a critical moment in her life.

The Tibetan experience teaches Harrer about the significance of family, which in Judaism is a primary value. Rabbi David Rosen connects the importance of family to the value of sanctity, a central theme in Judaism. Rosen writes: “It is thus not without significance that the Hebrew word for Jewish marriage (Kiddushin) means “holiness or sanctification”. Not only is the relationship of marital commitment itself seen as holy – indeed it is seen as the ideal state of adult life – but the family as the central institution and focus of Jewish life, is the key to the realization of the people’s raison d’etre, to be a holy nation.”

Rosen also notes that a hallmark of the family is the mutual dependency of husband and wife. If one partner is arrogant, that partner deludes himself into thinking he is self-sufficient, not needing anyone else. This describes the relationship between Harrer and his long-suffering wife Ingrid.

The Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah, perhaps says it best. The language of the document indicates that the husband is responsible for his wife’s happiness. The Sages of the Talmud tell us that a man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself. Moreover, the Talmud states: “there is no blessing in one’s home without the wife’s honor.”

Heinrich Harrer comes to this realization too late to salvage his own marriage, but his Tibetan experience makes him a wiser man now ready to devote time to family. His encounter with the Dalai Lama has forever changed him. He is now obsessed with being a good father and does his utmost to share his son’s journey into manhood.

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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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com. 

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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