Thursday, April 12, 2012

Footnote

Alternate Title:  Grumpy Old Jews


One sentence synopsis:  The undistinguished academic father of a distinguished academic son mistakenly receives his son's prestigious award.



Things Havoc liked:  What a strange film this is.

Billed, or at least masquerading as a comedy from the trailers, what we have here is a quirky, psychological portrait of two men, a father and son played by Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi. The former plays a man who is simply neurotic, a philologist of such extreme academic focus as to test the credulity of even a Jewish academic. This is a man who feels his life's work is validated by a single footnote in an obscure journal, and who feels no shame in publicly denigrating anyone, including his own successful son, who doesn't meet his arbitrary definitions for scholarship. Bar Aba's performance is seething and bitter, a solopsistic bastard who never does anything specific that one could call out, but nevertheless leaves his contempt for everyone around him slathered all over everything he touches. Though I would not call him comedic, his is probably the best performance in the movie.

But only slightly less good is Lior Ashkenazi as the younger, more successful Professor Shkolnik. Much less insane than his father, he spends the first half of the film trying to convince the governing authorities to grant the prize to his father and the second half regretting it. The first half is his better work, as the movie wisely does not make him out to be an asshole or arrogant about his success. We see him fight for his father in the face of men who want to give him awards, and laud his father's accomplishments before crowds of dignitaries at ceremonies in his honor. The elder Shkolnik may be an asshole, but he is this man's father, and it shows.

I described the film as "quirky" a moment ago, and that's a reasonable descriptor for the filming style. The characters of these two professors are explained to us in a series of vignettes, complete with graphical presentation and subtitles. It works pretty well for what it is. Moreover while the movie is not a comedy, it does have moments of levity, particularly a hilarious sequence with the prize committee and their meeting room. Without ever saying a word about it, the film draws attention to the pettiness and absurdity of the posturing academicians in their incredibly narrow fields. If only more of the film could have been taken up with such material, I would have liked it better.



Things Havoc disliked: But the base fact is that most of the film is taken up with sequences, the purpose of which are wholly opaque to me, even after a week's reflection.

I've seen slower movies than this, but not many. And while nothing in the film is done incompetently, the fact is that sequences that should take thirty seconds require six times as long due to the need to apply the proper "style" to them. The father's revelation, the son's descent into jealousy, all of these themes are perfectly workable, but the montages that accompany them seem to be moving much less fast than the brains of the audiences, and we are left sitting there, having figured out fifteen seconds into a montage what is going to happen, and then waiting for six minutes for it to actually finish. When this happens multiple times in a film, it becomes old rapidly.

More seriously however, the problem with this film is that Bar Aba does his job a bit too well. The elder Professor Shkolnik is such an unlikeable bastard that we start to wonder how anyone, even his own son, can possibly put up with his bullshit. The man visibly seethes with jealousy of his son, contemptuously dismissing all of his accomplishments and mocking the very notion of being a teacher ("Philologist!" he screams to himself, insulted). Having finally won the award, he turns around and eviscerates his son (and most of the rest of academia) in the press for being lesser, corrupted, charlatans, in language that would drive theology professors to reach for their knives. I have literally had college professors threaten to commit vehicular homicide against my person for lesser slanders than this, and the fact that nobody ever calls Bar Aba to account makes everyone involved seem masochistic, stupid, or both.

Finally, without spoiling too much, the entire last section of the film, intended I believe to be ambiguous, is not. A movie such as Inception can get away with trickery in their endings, because of the care and time established to permit multiple points of view that can be paid off logically. Despite what some might think, there is actually a difference between being ambiguous, and between being lazy. Telling the audience a story is the job of the film-maker, and making them do all the work in a situation wherein the audience does not have the evidence necessary to infer it for themselves is a dereliction of the film-maker's duties. One risks at such times falling into a situation where the audience begins to suspect that the film ended where it did not because the story was finished, nor because the filmmaker had crafted it to end there, but because the writers could not figure out what they wanted to happen next.



Final thoughts:    Most movies I see get a little better in my memory after a few days. This one did not. It's hard to illustrate exactly why, as nobody in it is bad, nor is the story naturally uncompelling. But the behaviors of the characters are at such odds with one another, and the filmmaker is allowed to meander on to a forced conclusion in a way that I found fundamentally dis-satisfying. Perhaps there is a cultural element at work here, and that audiences in Israel are accustomed to interacting with the stories they are shown in a different manner. But here in the States, to my mind, there was an element to this movie that simply left me feeling like I had missed something fundamental.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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