'A republic of insects and no grass'
The choice of what film would open the Jerusalem Film Festival has always been a matter of much speculation among moviegoers. Although the selection has always been a commercial one - after all, the opening event is held in the outdoor amphitheater at the 4,000-seat Sultan's Pool - the choices have generally been classy movies, like "The Madness of King George III," a Pedro Almodovar flick, or Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
"Shrek" was a surprising opener, in 2001, but the animation in that DreamWorks adaptation of a William Steig novel was so far ahead of its time, and the title character so adorable, that it was hard to argue with the choice, especially as we were nearly a year into the second intifada, and Israelis were in need of a pick-me-up.
But after last year's opening night screening of "Ratatouille," this year we were ready for a selection that would declare that the Jerusalem festival, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, was still serious about movies. When the schedule was announced, two weeks ago, however, we learned that we were to be subjected to another cartoon - excuse me, animated film - namely, "Wall-E," the latest blockbuster from the joint production line of Disney and Pixar.
If that wasn't bad enough, the Thursday night opening ceremony (the festival runs through July 19) was itself a dumbed-down version of prior years. It consisted mainly of an endless tribute to Cinematheque and festival founder Lia van Leer, who retired this past year. So long did it go on that there was time for only one other festival honoree, British director Michael Winterbottom, to be introduced, and I mean no offense to him when I say that he represents himself far better on the screen than from behind the podium. Van Leer deserved better than the homage she received, which, in addition to a personal appearance by none other than President Shimon Peres, consisted mainly of film clips of some other Israeli celebrities, all of them telling Lia how very very much they love her, as well as pop star Shlomi Shaban doing the same, in song. All told, the spectacle was embarrassing - and boring, not what a presentation about Lia van Leer should be.
Then "Wall-E" began to run, and it turned out to be a superb choice for a mass audience. For those who wanted to be entertained, whether children or adults, it was funny, and touching, with animation and a soundtrack that were no less than breathtaking. At the same time, this was a very dark film, one that presented an apocalyptic vision of a Planet Earth that has lost the ability to sustain life of any kind, and of a degraded form of humanity that is being kept alive in a manner not much better than the life support we witnessed in "The Matrix."
Audiences and critics in the United States have responded to "Wall-E" with great enthusiasm (it grossed more than $60 million during its first weekend there, about one-third of what it cost to make the film), which would seem to indicate that the American public - unlike their leaders - are ready to think about the destruction that their way of life is causing to their home in the solar system.
"Wall-E," of course, is the name of the lovable little robot who keeps at his job of collecting solid waste, some 700 years after humanity has jettisoned itself from earth, and long after there's anyone left to care about the cubes of crushed metal he's piling up. His only living companion seems to be a roach. Back in 1982, when Jonathan Schell wrote his warning against nuclear proliferation, he imagined the earth after an all-out nuclear exchange as being little more than a "republic of insects and grass." In Disney-Pixar's vision of earth after an environmental catastrophe, even the grass is gone.
Wall-E has his chance to give humanity a second chance - and to find true love for himself - when the gargantuan spaceship carrying the remnants of the species on its non-stop trip around the heavens sends a probe to earth, a cute little female robot called Eve. Eve returns to the mother ship with the shoot of a plant she's found on Earth, suggesting that maybe conditions have improved, and the planet is again hospitable to life. What's left of humanity, however, are fat Americans, the kind of jointless blobs you see in Bermuda shorts at the county fair snacking on funnel cakes and deep-fried ice cream. Except 700 years from now, they no longer know how to walk, and they drink all their meals out of a plastic cup, and experience life entirely via a TV screen.
Against all odds, Wall-E and Eve are able to steer the ship back to earth, where, when we last see them, these chubby humanoids are starting to try their hand at agriculture again. I suppose that in Hollywood that qualifies as a happy ending, but I don't imagine their chances of success are especially high.
What the corporate executives at Disney were thinking when they gave this project the green light is anybody's guess - obviously they knew what they were doing - but writer-director Andrew Stanton succeeded in taking some pretty sharp swipes at the American way: consumption, pollution, corporate centralization (everything on earth seems to be owned by a conglomerate called "Buy N Large," whose CEO has taken the place of the U.S. president) and cultural poverty.
What does it mean that that's a tolerable message to the corporate-minded execs who run Disney and Pixar? Probably that they recognize that Americans have started to wake up and smell the coffee.
Yesterday, Winterbottom, one of the cinema's most versatile and prolific directors, presented "A Mighty Heart," from 2007 (he's already three films beyond that), the screen version of Mariane Pearl's memoir about the kidnapping and murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The movie is neither an introduction to radical Islam nor to the complex political puzzle that Pakistan constitutes today, but it is a powerful and fascinating reenactment of the redoubtable - though ultimately unsuccessful - effort by Mariane Pearl, along with Pakistani police and intelligence officers, and American officials in Karachi, to find and save her husband after he was kidnapped while reporting on Islamic terror in 2002.
The film was not the commercial success it deserved to be, and it was barely noticed when it was released several months ago in Israel, but it is worth seeing for Angelina Jolie's performance alone.
Answering questions from the audience after the screening, Winterbottom revealed that he's using his visit in Israel to collect material for a feature film about the campaign by the Jewish underground organizations against the British Mandate, which ultimately led to independence in 1948. One can only wonder how Israeli audiences will appreciate seeing the story of their country's birth from the viewpoint of the colonial power the founding fathers pushed out.