In the director’s lair
Haaretz film critic Uri Klein arrived at an interview with Joseph Cedar expecting to talk about the director’s new film, ‘Footnote.’ Little did he know he was about to meet his biggest critic
This article was supposed to have taken the form of an interview with the Israeli film director Joseph Cedar, whose latest work, “Footnote” − which has just been released in Israel − won the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival last month. I did in fact meet with Cedar. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes and statements formulated as questions were spoken. However, no interview in the usual sense of the term came out of the encounter. Here’s what happened: When I was in Cannes covering the festival, the editor of the paper’s arts section asked me if I would like to interview Cedar. I replied that I would. It would be interesting, I thought, to sit down with Cedar and talk to him about his films, his cinematic worldview and its sources and essence, and about other topics related to Israeli cinema and to filmmaking in general.
When I got back to Israel, I started to organize things. The film’s PR woman told me that the director would like to meet in a quiet place. I replied to the effect that it could be wherever he liked (I even suggested my apartment, which is certainly a quiet place).
Finally, the PR woman informed me that the meeting would take place on a Sunday at 10 A.M. in a room that would be set aside for the purpose in the offices of Movie Plus Productions, which is located on the fourth floor of a building on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv (the building once also housed the Zamir Cinema).
I arrived on time; Cedar was already there. He or the secretary who was also there, or maybe both of them, asked if I wanted anything to drink. Coffee? Tea? Water? I said water. I got water and we entered the room that was set aside for the meeting and sat at one end of a table, opposite one another. From my bag I took out my old tape recorder − one with cassettes − and placed it on the table between us. Cedar then asked if I would mind if he also recorded the conversation. In truth, the question took me somewhat by surprise; never had any interviewee, Israeli or non-Israeli, wanted to record for himself an interview with me. But why not, I asked myself. If I was recording the interview, why shouldn’t he have the same right? “Sure,” I said, or something to that effect.
Until less than a week before this meeting I had never met Joseph Cedar or exchanged so much as a word with him. My only previous meeting with him took place four days after the end of the Cannes Festival, at the entrance to the toilets in Nice airport, on the way back to Israel. I was about to enter, Cedar was just coming out. I said something like, “This is a bit of a strange place to meet for the first time − I’m Uri Klein.” “I know,” he said. We shook hands and he walked away so hastily that I was a bit dumbfounded.
A few minutes later, as I was waiting for the flight, he came over and apologized for his quick getaway − I told him I hadn’t even managed to congratulate him for his award − and said he doesn’t know how to behave with film critics. He rushed off again, or maybe this time I just imagined the rushing.
The relationship between us
Back to the fourth floor on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. As I usually do, I pressed the tape’s record button and told Cedar what I wanted to talk about first (even before we came to the new film, I wanted to talk about his background and how he became a filmmaker).
He said he didn’t want to talk about that.
What would he like to talk about? About the relationship between us. That is what was occupying him now, and that was why he had chosen to meet with me: The film critic of the newspaper he reads and which he would later in the meeting describe as the most important newspaper in Israel. Haaretz readers can find the rest of the information about him and his films elsewhere, he said. I will try to describe what went on in my head just then, while I responded with nondescript words like “OK” and “fine.”
I was surprised and still didn’t understand exactly where this conversation was headed.
What relationship was there between Cedar and me? He makes films and I write about them. Does that constitute a relationship between us? Alright, I am not a total imbecile. I had reviewed Cedar’s three previous films − “Time of Favor,” “Campfire” and “Beaufort” − and even though I had not panned any of them the way I had panned other Israeli films, and had even praised elements in them − and there are praiseworthy elements in each of the films − I had also expressed reservations about them. I realized this was what it was all about, but I told myself, alright, let’s hear what Cedar has to say.
Cedar told me he had only one opening statement (which turned out to be an opening question): In connection with one of his films I had written that he was the artist who walked between the drops. If so, why was I being allowed to remain dry? If I had not held back at that moment, I would have scratched my head at the question, but I held back and went on listening.
The word “daring” was a keyword in what Cedar had to say. A year and a half ago, the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem held a conference with the participation of many speakers, myself included, who articulated their vision about Israel cinema. In my remarks I urged the film students who packed the Cinematheque in Jerusalem to display daring − artistic daring, political daring (I don’t recall my exact words) − certainly as long as they were young. Cedar was present and heard my remarks.
About a year and a half later, he wanted me to tell him on what personal basis I had demanded daring from the young filmmakers in the hall. Had I paid a price for my writing? Did I understand the price that a filmmaker pays (this subject would recur during the conversation)? I had demanded an extreme and total experience from the students, Cedar said, and asked what price I paid in order to preach to him and others.
What personal experience was I bringing to the table? What is my statement, he asked.
What is the agenda for which I was paying a price? Had I risked my livelihood, Cedar wanted to know; had I risked my relations with my family and with the people close to me? Everyone who makes a film takes a risk, Cedar said, and it is a risk of epic proportions. That, in his view, is the meaning of daring beyond anything political, and in that realm, too, he did not know what my statement was. Here, Cedar said, he was giving me the chance to tell him what statement I am making in my writing and whether it contains daring.
Should I have explained to Cedar that every word someone writes and publishes is fraught with risk? Should I have explained to him that in that conference I was speaking to artists and that from artists I want daring, and that the parallel he was drawing between the two of us is not acceptable, and therefore neither was his demand from me, because I am a film critic. I am not an artist. Does the artist have the right to criticize the critic? Does he have the right to confront the critic? Of course. A critic who is unwilling to accept criticism is not a critic. But here, too, there have to be a few basic rules of behavior between people.
At this stage Cedar told me he had been tense for a few weeks because of the meeting with me. Would it not have been fair of Cedar to allow me to be tense, too? Would it not have been fair of him to call me a few days before the meeting and tell me what he intended to do, instead of taking me by surprise? Would the result not have helped more effectively to defuse the volatile relations which he believes exist between us?
I will try again to verbalize what went through my mind then and in the minutes that followed. If there is one thing I perhaps regret, it is that I didn’t get up after ten minutes and say: “Listen, if you don’t want to conduct a standard interview, then goodbye.” But something inside kept me from engaging in that kind of power play, and I also felt something for Cedar − compassion would be too strong a word, but something − even though it almost scared me to hear from him that what was happening in that office in those moments was the result of my dominance in his life.
No common language
I am not a psychoanalyst, and I make no pretense of analyzing Cedar, but I did discern an anger within him that found expression, in part, in the way he uttered the word “scandalous” in reference to the brief comments I had written after viewing his new film at Cannes − comments which had included, he said, “a scandalous spoiler.” I also flinched metaphorically when, at another stage of the meeting, he said the things we were talking about upset him and that he wanted them to upset me, too.
I know critics have an influence on the subjects of their reviews, but film reviews (or reviews of theater, music, literature, restaurants or any other area) are part of the game − at one point I asked Cedar if he is against criticism and he replied no, heaven forbid − and must be managed maturely and professionally on both sides. During my work as a film critic I have interviewed quite a few Israeli directors whose work I treated less generously than I have Cedar’s films, and they always behaved maturely and professionally, even when they reminded me that I had not always been sympathetic to their films.
I stayed to listen and occasionally also responded, in a few cases even a bit stupidly and above all unnecessarily, because I understood very quickly that Cedar and I do not have a common language and I did not want to get into a teacher-student posture with him. The word “agenda” had made the point clear. People who ask critics what their agenda is − a question often accompanied by another question: “What in your opinion makes a good movie?”, as though there is an unequivocal reply to the question, as though our thought and taste are not dynamic − are giving expression to very rudimentary cinematic thought. If in the course of writing about films for more than 30 years I had not succeeded in making my tastes clear to Cedar, then I had failed where he was concerned − and, I imagine, with regard to some other readers as well. No film reviewer can succeed with all his readers.
My awareness that I really had nothing to talk to Cedar about was strengthened when he said that from reading me he understood I preferred form to content. Did I really have to sit in an office on the fourth floor of a building on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv and explain to Cedar that the dichotomy between form and content is, how to put it, a little elementary?
That there is no such thing as preferring form to content (or vice versa)? That content serves form and form content? That the content is the form and the form is the content?
Further to his remarks about my preferring form to content, style to plot, Cedar said what I had written about his films had exerted exactly the opposite influence, and these days he is concentrating increasingly on plot and less on the stylistic side. Indeed, in my writing about his films, Cedar said, I had always focused on the marginal and not on the essence, on what Cedar viewed as marginal. Even when I was courteous to him, Cedar added, his feeling was that I was concentrating on the trivial and not the significant.
In one of my articles about one of his films, I wrote that Cedar’s virtues are also his failings. Cedar quotes this sentence to me and says that, like a philologist, he sits with it and examines what it says. In his view, what the sentence says is that the film’s virtues are what make it popular, and if it is popular it is apparently not good. Even though Cedar explains what I meant (and that of course is not what I meant), he also adds that it’s a circular sentence that says nothing.
He feels very wet, he says, returning to the image with which he began. In his films, he says, he takes enormous risks − which he is unwilling to elaborate on − but those who view them, and the radius in which they take place, will understand. If I think that instead of talking about the mainstream he is collaborating with the mainstream, then he wants me to write that, to explain and give grounds. From various points of view, that was the most interesting thing Cedar said to me in the meeting. In other circumstances I would have tried to develop with him what was contained in that remark, but by this stage I already knew that was not going to happen.
What makes a good critic, in Cedar’s view? Someone who is ready to fall in love and be head-over-heels enthusiastic (about the cinema, about a film); someone who is ready to reveal his weaknesses and his intimate experiences in his writing. Cedar went on to say, in this connection, that he does not know who I am. That I am cold and distant toward the subject I am writing about. Well, what can I do, but I really am not in love with Cedar’s films. I have regard for certain aspects of them but I am not in love with them.
Maybe that will happen one day.
I find it odd to think that I am sitting across from the most honored film director in Israel − a prize in Berlin, a prize in Cannes, an Oscar candidacy, recipient of the Israeli Oscar − and this is what’s bugging him: That I don’t love him and his films, or let’s say, don’t love them enough. It’s odd and also a little sad. I will not report here everything that was said − especially on Cedar’s side − during my meeting with him. There are two recordings of the event. At what was perhaps the high point of the meeting, Cedar said that what is happening between him and me is an attempt by him to overcome and contain my dominance in his life. He said that, after considerable thought, he had reached the conclusion that his professional maturity will be to say that he doesn’t care what I think of him. I really hope he has managed to achieve that professional maturity.
‘Footnote’: a ‘missed opportunity’
“Footnote” is about a father and son who are both engaged in the same professional field, namely Talmud research. The father (Shlomo Bar-Aba) has devoted his life to his research and is bitter because he has not achieved the recognition he thinks is due him.
He does not respect his son (Lior Ashkenazi), whose approach to his field of study is, he thinks, far more populist and superficial. The competition that characterizes the relations between father and son burst out in all their glory in the wake of a bureaucratic mistake, which forces the two of them to confront their attitude toward themselves and toward each other. On the basis of this situation, Cedar seeks to make a film that mixes melodramatic elements (which are unavoidable in any film dealing with the relations between fathers and sons) and comic elements. The resulting film, which contains fine scenes and highly precise moments, is only partially successful.
I appreciate what Cedar tried to do in his film. The story, at its core, is good. Cedar’s choice to deal with intrigues in the world of academe is fraught with many dramatic and comic possibilities which Israeli cinema has not dealt with heretofore. Also, the direct engagement with the relationship between father and son intensifies the ongoing discussion in all of Cedar’s films to date about the essence of Israeli masculinity and fatherhood. Both “Time of Favor” and “Beaufort” presented the image of symbolic fathers, who are both dangerous and cultivating; and even though the three main characters in “Campfire” are women, and the entire plot revolves around the aura of the father’s absence − he died of cancer before the beginning of the film − that film too deals first and foremost with the place of masculinity in an ideological reality that fuses patriarchy and nationalism, and it too depicts masculinity as deceptive: Dangerous, cruel, ugly, ludicrous and cultivating, all at the same time.
The problems in “Footnote” arise from several causes. To deal with father-son relations requires depth, but Cedar’s film lacks depth. Throughout the film I expected that depth to be revealed and even to burst out, but it doesn’t happen. That problem affects primarily the characters of the two protagonists, particularly that of the father, and the performance of Shlomo Bar-Aba − who for almost the entire film goes about with a grumpy look. We know what is happening to the two protagonists, we see how they react to what is happening to them, but the totality of their actions and responses does not fashion characters of heft and depth. Most of the time, other than for a few minutes which are the finest in the film, they seem like elements in a formula that does not develop into the comic drama that Cedar wanted to make.
Another problem, which stems from the previous one, is that Cedar doesn’t know how to develop the story. I appreciate the fact that Cedar refrains from navigating the plot in the way that, for example, American films about father-son relations navigate it − to generate a message that organizes life tendentiously, simply and simplistically; but Cedar does not find the substitute for avoiding this. Instead of becoming more intense from every possible viewpoint − dramatic, comic, emotional and human − as it progresses, his film melts away as it develops. There is something confusing about the way the film develops, something ungrounded and insufficiently focused, and this left me frustrated as I watched the film. Something slips away as the film progresses, and the loss is annoying.
A third problem, which accompanies the two problems already mentioned, has to do with the film’s style. Each of Cedar’s previous films had a look of its own that corresponded to the reality in which the film took place. “Footnote” contains a glut of styles, ranging from the comic − an over-clever style − to the hallucinatory and even slightly surrealistic, but most of all puzzling. There is nothing wrong with a clash of styles, as long as it works, but in “Footnote” it somehow doesn’t work.
The stylistic transitions underline the confusion, the lack of focus and, ultimately, the lack of dramatic and emotional depth from which the film suffers. The stylistic glut creates a degree of fussiness, which is perhaps proper for the occupation of the film’s protagonists but does not contribute to making the viewing of the film a genuinely pleasurable experience.
Through its story, “Footnote” wishes to be an allegory of the relations between fathers and sons, and thereby between the generations in the contemporary Israeli reality. It also incorporates elements from other allegorical sources, such as the Bible. The film’s aims could have made it an exceptional work, an important creation in the present-day local cultural landscape. But does it give rise to a truly significant statement about the subject it seeks to address?
Cedar’s handling of this subject is more schematic than analytical, and here lies the film’s primary weakness. The schematic aspect is seen, for example, in the film’s handling of the relations between the father and his son, relations which are not sufficiently developed, and in the place the film accords the women in the story. The characters of the mother (Alisa Rosen) and the son’s wife (Alma Zack) are fashioned as additional factors in the equation and not as characters with an independent existence; and, after all, no drama or comedy about relations between fathers and sons will succeed if the proper symbolic place is not given to the women who are observing the drama or the comedy. Cedar’s intelligence and abilities are apparent in the film and it has moments in which its latent potential is evident, but overall, “Footnote” is a missed opportunity.