Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I saw three programs at the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I had tickets to four programs but missed Bobby Fischer Against the World because I was invited to a San Francisco Giants game.

Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal, Death; documentary with reenactments; German, Spanish and Hebrew with subtitles; (2010)
The Juggler starring Kirk Douglas & Milly Vitale; directed by Edward Dmytryk; (1953)
Jews in Toons; one episode each from The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park

I saw all films at the Castro Theater.


Eichmann's End was absolutely horrible. You would think the capture of Adolph Eichmann is a story you couldn't mess up. I was unaware that Eichmann's son was dating a concentration camp survivor's daughter in Argentina and that the teenage girl helped to positively identify Eichmann who was living under an alias. I was unaware that certain agents of the West German government conspired with Israeli operatives to capture (kidnap?) Eichmann and try him Israel for fear that former Nazis in the German Dept of Justice would conspire to lightly punish Eichmann. This is the story Eichmann's End is trying to document. However, quick edits, clumsy reenactments and clumsy talking head interviews made following the story an effort which I ultimately gave up on. Eichmann's End is a poorly made documentary which could (and should) have benefited from a better direction and editing.

The Juggler stars Kirk Douglas as a German Jew Holocaust survivor recently expatriated (along with thousands of others) to Israel in the early 1950s. Suffering severe psychological problems from his time in a Nazi concentration camp, Hans Müller (Douglas) escapes from the refugee camp he has been placed in (which looks suspiciously like a POW camp from some WWII movie). Outside the camp, Müller attacks a police officer and flees to the Israeli countryside. He falls in with Josh (Joey Walsh), a teenage boy. Frankly, their relationship is kind of creepy. First, Müller is using the boy as cover and as a guide to help him elude the police. Second, it just seems strange that a 40something year old man would roam the countryside with a 13 year old boy he just met.

Eventually, Müller & Josh wind up in a minefield. Josh is injured and receives medical treatment in a kibbutz where they encounter Milly Vitale who certainly knew how to fill out a pair of hiking shorts. Apparently not yet liking girls, Josh continues to be fascinated by Müller and the art of juggling. Müller wants Ya'El (Vitale) to lead him out of the kibbutz which leads them dangerously close to the Jordanian (or was it Syrian?) border. Drawn largely by Ya'El (who is sending obvious signs of attraction), but somewhat by Josh, Müller changes his mind and returns to the kittutz.

All throughout the film, the tough but fair-minded Israeli police inspector is closing in on Müller who has taken a liking to life on the kibbutz. After folk dancing and "bonding" with Ya'El, Müller agrees to perform for the kids in the kibbutz hospital despite his better judgment to flee. Bad choice as the police arrive while Müller, dressed as a clown, is performing. He barricades himself but Ya'El talks him into surrendering where undoubtedly he will receive compassionate psychological treatment from the Israeli penal system and eventually be released so he can reunite with the carbine packing Jewish mama.

The Juggler is a bit silly by today's standards but the film is more interesting as the collaboration between director Edward Dmytryk who "named names" during the HUAC hearings and Douglas who, seven years late, insisted blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive screenwriting credits for Spartacus. Dmytryk's testimony helped to put Trumbo on the blakclist.

Beyond that interesting intersection of 1950s cinema and politics, The Juggler was part of a general pro-Israeli attitude coming out of Hollywood in the 1950s which was best captured in Exodus (screenplay by Trumbo).

I can't say The Juggler is a great or even good film. I can think of a dozen other Kirk Douglas films I'd recommend before The Juggler. I can't recall Douglas playing a Jew in another film. Festival Director Peter Stein (or whoever introduced the film) said Douglas stated this film kicked of a religious reawakening in him. Douglas didn't so much begin practicing his faith again (eventually he would) but he was more at ease with his Jewish background and youth than before.


Jews in Toons consisted of the three television episode (without commercials) and followed by remarks from Mike Reiss, a longtime writer from The Simpsons. The program drew a healthy crowd at the Castro - younger and more numerous than Eichmann and The Juggler. Let me digress by saying, the SFJFF draws the most mature crowd of the festivals I have attended the past several years. There are a lot of middle aged and older Jewish ladies in the audience.

Reiss' remarks quickly segued into a stand-up routine with periodic clips from episodes of The Simpsons. I left while he was still talking as I wanted to get home early that evening.

The Simpsons' entry in Jews in Toons was titled "Like Father, Like Clown. Twenty years ago, I read that the Krusty the Clown character was loosely based on David Letterman. I recalled that tidbit when Letterman admitted he had sex with several female members of his staff. As I have watched The Simpsons for the past 20+ years, I look for Letterman in Krusty. To be honest, I'm not sure.

However, I have noticed that Krusty is Jewish. Krusty (real name Herschel Krustofski) will occasionally mutter Yiddish when under stress. I also had the benefit of seeing "Like Father, Like Clown several times on television. In that episode Krusty reunites with his father, the Rabbi Hyman Krustofski (voiced by Jackie Mason). Parodying The Jazz Singer, the Rabbi wanted his son to follow in his footsteps but young Herschel had clowning in his blood from an early age. When he discovers Herschel clowning against his direct orders, the Rabbi disowns his son.

Twenty five years later, Krusty is depressed and feels ennui. Bart and Lisa try to convince Rabbi Krustofski to reconcile with his son and hi-jinks ensue. This episode won an Emmy or maybe Jackie Mason won the Emmy. Regardless, this episode was the least anti-Semitic of the three in Jews in Toons. In the hyperbolized world of animated television comedies, the more anti-Semitic, the more hilarious. "Like Father, Like Clown was also made in 1991 which is so long ago and perhaps television boundaries had not been pushed so far as to allow the more outrageous antics which followed.

When You Wish Upon A Weinstein is a 2003 episode of Family Guy. Made in 2000 during the show's original run on Fox, the episode was not aired until 2003 when the show was on the Cartoon Network. The broadcast history tells a the story. Nine years after "Like Father, Like Clown, Fox (which also airs The Simpsons) was concerned that the show's anti-Semitic humor was offensive. It took another three years and a different network to run the episode.

Was the episode anti-Semitic? I didn't think so and non-practicing goys with blogs are the best arbiters of what is and what is not anti-Semitic. Max Weinstein's car breaks down and he asks to use the Griffin's phone. Back in 2000, everyone didn't have cell phones? Anyway, the Griffins are having some financial problems due to Peter's stupidity. Peter's benighted prejudice leads him to latch on to Weinstein as his financial advisor because Jews are good with money. It didn't really required a high-powered Jew lawyer to get Peter's money back but in grand Family Guy tradition, Peter is convinced that the salvation to all his financial problems is to have a Jewish financial advisor. When Weinstein departs, Peter decides his son Chris will convert to Judaism and the Griffin family fortunes will be guaranteed.

However, the Rabbi (was that Ben Stein's voice?) refuses Chris' conversion because he hasn't performed the requisite tasks. So Peter takes Chris to Vegas for a quickie Bar Mitzvah. WASPy Lois (isn't her mother Jewish?) frantically drives to Vegas to interrupt the ceremony in a parody of The Graduate.

Most of the anti-Semitism in this episode comes from Peter's ignorance which is the source of much of the humor and offensiveness of Family Guy. I had not seen this episode before so it was extra treat.

The final part of Jews in Toons was a notorious episode of South Park called The Passion Of The Jew. In this 2004 episode, Cartman is giving Kyle a hard time about being a Jew which is nothing unusual for the series. However, Cartman's usual anti-Semiticism is amped up with knowledge gained from repeated viewings of The Passion of the Christ.

Cartman dares Kyle to see the film so he can learn the truth. Surprisingly, Kyle empathizes with the Christian viewpoint and begins to urge his synagogue's congregants to apologize for the Crucifixion. Meanwhile, Stan and Kenny also see the film. Their reaction is equally intense; they hated it and decide to go to Malibu to get a ticket refund personally from Mel Gibson. The Mel Gibson they encounter is a raving lunatic with masochistic tendencies. I wonder why Mel Gibson didn't sue. Of course, Tom Cruise didn't sue over another episode which openly questioned his sexuality.

Cartman begins a Passion fan club which quickly takes on the trappings and accouterments of the Third Reich. Cartman begins to speak in German and talks of "the cleansing." It's all over the top and silly, depending on one's taste or distaste. The audience at the Castro ate it up.

There was one moment that I found fascinating. Kyle's congregation marches down to the movie theater to protest The Passion. While there, they encounter Cartman's mob. There is exchange that goes like this:

Rabbi - "This film is anti-Semitic. It's made one of our young Jewish boys want to apologize for the Crucifixion."
Adult in Cartman's Mob - "Well maybe you should."

This was followed by a pause on screen and a moment of dead silence in the Castro theater. The pause was pure genius. It appeared to be there for comic effect but instead it brought an awkward moment that made me wonder if the suggestion wasn't valid.

Of the three shows, I watch South Park the least so I wasn't some of the humor wasn't lost due to my relative lack of familiarity . I noticed Kenny didn't die for example. The humor in South Park has never quite been to my liking but I'm glad I finally saw The Passion Of The Jew.

Jews in Toons was my favorite program of the three I saw the 2011 SFJFF.

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