- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (20/12/2019)
Updated: Dec 30, 2019
(Reviews of Long Day's Journey Into Night; Buddies; The Party's Just Beginning; Undocument; The Courier; Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles)
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.
Until the turn of the century, Chinese cinema had been dominated by graduates from the Beijing Film Academy, with the famous Fifth Generation doing much to alert Western audiences to an industry that hadn't always sought outside approval. As the torch was passed to the Sixth Generation, however, a new breed of digital film-maker (dubbed the dGeneration) emerged alongside what has become known as the New Documentary Movement. But a number of independent directors have started to find a niche in a strictly regulated industry, among them the 28 year-old poet Bi Gan, who follows up his impressive debut, Kaili Blues (2015), with one of the most audacious, if self-consciously stylised arthouse offerings of recent times, Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Throughout a picture that shifts into 3-D partway through, Bi readily refers to such titans of Asian cinema as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But there are also more oblique references to Alfred Hitchcock and Andrei Tarkovsky, while Bi has also acknowledged the influence of French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano and Chilean Roberto Bolaño, whose 1997 short story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, provides the Chinese title for a feature that has nothing to do with Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer-winning 1956 play, which was filmed by Sidney Lumet in 1962 and earned Katharine Hepburn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Following the death of his father in 2000, Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang) returns to his home city of Kaili in the sub-tropical province of Guizhou province. He has been running a casino since his friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-chi), fell foul of gangster Zuo Hongyan (Chen Yongzhong) and was found at the bottom of a mineshaft. Luo had remembered the night Wildcat had asked for his help with a barrow of rotting apples and he had been intrigued by the gun he had found under the fruit.
While visiting the family restaurant, Luo had found a photograph of a woman named Tai Zhaomei, with a phone number written on the back. In the course of tracking her down, he had run across Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), who had abandoned Wildcat for Zuo before his death. Clad in an emerald green silk dress, she claims to know nothing about Zuo's whereabouts and warns Luo that the cops are also searching for him. He tries to intimidate her by pulling her hair, as he lights her cigarette, but confesses that her smudged lipstick reminds him of a photograph of his mother, who had left home when he was a young boy. They kiss, with Luo facing the opposite way to Wan, as they lie beside a pond full of green weeds.
Pager (Chloe Maayan) discovers that Tai (Bi Yanmin) is in prison in Guiyang and he goes to visit her. She says the picture is of his mother and describes how they had been childhood friends who had fetched up in Kaili and lived on their wits. Tai notices the green book Luo is holding and relates how his mother had found it while they were burgling a house and she had read them a love story written inside while they were dividing the spoils in the woods. She had remembered something about a spell that could make a house rotate and is touched when Luo offers her the book as a keepsake of her friend, who had agreed to be sold to his father as a bride because he took her to the pictures.
Tai gives Luo a note with his mother's name on it and Pager tries to find out Chen Huixian's address in Panghai. She jokes that the name sounds like that of a Cantonese pop singer and hopes Tai finds her. He also hooks up with Wan to go to the movies and she eats pomelo fruit and cries during a sad song. In his voiceover, Tai muses that films are always fake, whereas memories are made of both lies and truth.
After the show, Tai breaks the news that she is pregnant and Luo stops her from smoking. He suggests they leave Kaili and start again on the other side of the country, but she is scared that Zuo will find her, as he regards her as his property. Luo has a dream about being manacled in a karaoke bar, while Zuo sings tauntingly and tries to goad Wan.
Hoping to find his mother, Luo takes a bus to the address Pager found. He meets a man (Tuan Chun-hao) who describes how she had moved into his rooming house and had told him stories in lieu of rent. They had married, but she had become bored and moved out. Occasionally, he went to a bar in Dangmai to hear her sing. But he has no idea where she has gone.
Returning to Kaili, Luo tracks down Wildcat's mother (Sylvia Chang) and finds her dancing awkwardly to the electro-music coming from the television. A flashback shows her son's body being placed in a coal truck and pushed along the mine track before being pushed down a slope. She badmouths Wan for betraying Wildcat and tells him to have nothing to do with her because she has had affairs with lots of men.
Determined to keep looking, Luo heads to Dangmai and is told by a woman outside the bar to go to the pictures to pass the time before it opens. Putting on a pair of 3-D glasses, Luo leans his head against a pillar. The screen goes black and the title, Long Day's Journey Into Night, appears.
When we next see Luo, he is traveling slowly on a handcart. He finds a lamp and explores a darkened room with some trepidation. A 12 year-old boy (Luo Feiyang) emerges from a cupboard and wonders whether Luo is a thief. He tosses the snapshot into the stove and despairs of ever finding his mother. But the kid offers to show Luo the way if he can beat him at ping pong. They have a quick game using the door as a table and Luo wins and borrows an overcoat for a scooter ride in the Winter Solstice chill. As they travel, the lad claims to be a ghost and Luo dubs him Wildcat. He asks if Luo has ever kissed a girl and is unconvinced by his excuse that he has forgotten what it felt like.
Wildcat entrusts Luo with his table tennis bat and sends him in a harness from the mine into a collection of huts below. Loud music can be heard as Luo descends and he finds himself in a pool hall run by Kaizhen (Tang Wei), who is trying to win the pomelo prize on a fruit machine. Two youths playing pool attempt to paw her and Luo shoves one of their heads against the cushion of the table and orders his mate to pot a ball or he will pulp them. He makes the shot and they run away. However, they have tossed the key to the door out of the grille and Luo and Kaizhen have to play pool while waiting for someone to come and rescue them.
Unwilling to hang around, Luo discovers that Wildcat's claim that the spinning table tennis bat will allow the holder to fly was true and he and Kaizhen float over the karaoke hall and land on a patch of grass, where a man is having trouble with a frisky horse carrying panniers full of apples. They spill on the path and Kaizhen kicks at them, as she orders Luo to stop following her because her boyfriend will get jealous. She wanders around the stage courtyard and buys something from one of the stalls. But Luo is distracted by a woman with red hair (Sylvia Chang) carrying a wooden torch and he follows her through the dark streets.
She reaches a caged gate and orders her lover (Xie Lixun) to open up so they can talk. He is reluctant to let her in because she has already torched their home and he wishes she would go away. Luo intervenes and pulls his pistol to force the man into letting the redhead enter. In gratitude (albeit at gunpoint), she gives him her watch and they drive away. Turning back on himself, Lou climbs a flight of steps eating an apple and returns to the courtyard.
Kaizhen has gone backstage to put on some make-up. Luo finds her and gives her the watch, which turns out to be broken, She keeps it because timepieces are a symbol of eternity and he accepts a sparkler because they stand for transience. As there is some time before she goes on stage, Kaizhen leads Luo to the house they had seen from the air and she explains that a couple had once lived there in loving bliss, even though the roof leaked. She recalls the husband telling his wife that a spell existed to make the house spin and Luo is intrigued because that was the story in the book his mother had cherished.
Sitting on the bed beside Kaizhen, Luo repeats the spell and the house begins to turn. He asks if he can kiss her and they embrace tentatively, as the camera veers away from them and glides out of the doorway. Crossing a forecourt, it returns to the dressing-room, just as the sparkler fizzles out on the make-up table and the screen cuts to black.
Both an experiment in time and space and a treatise on reality, dreams and memory, this is undoubtedly an ambitious project. It's not quite as novel as it seems, however, as Bi Gan also divided his debut into two segments, with the second being an extended sequence shot. By all accounts, it took seven attempts to nail the take and it required a month-long rethink and a change of cinematographer to accomplish it. But there's no denying the bravura ingenuity of Bi's blocking of the action or the brilliance of David Chizallet's photography, as the camera literally travels across the ground and through the air in keeping up with Lou's movie theatre reverie.
No attempt is made to explain the scene, but the recurrence of references to flowing water and suspended time provide a thematic continuity that is reinforced by the dual roles played by Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang. Apples, pomelo fruits and honey also crop up across the piece, as Luo not only tries to track down his missing mother, but also to come to terms with the childhood trauma of having lost her and the guilt he feels at not being there when both Wildcat and his father died.
But the plot is merely an excuse for Bi to keep Luo moving through the evocative sets designed by Liu Qiang and photographed by Dong Jingsong and Yao Hung-i with a fluent finesse that is matched by the ethereal electronic score composed by Hsu Chih-Yuan Hsu (aka Point Hsu) and Lim Giong. Even the screenplay concocted by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman for Howard Hawks's famously impenetrable 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep makes more sense than the scenario contrived by Bi and Taiwanese author Zhang Da-chun. However, Bi's intention was less to tell a story than to convey the emotions being felt by the characters caught up in situations they don't appear to understand themselves.
Given the emphasis on atmosphere, Huang Jue, Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang acquit themselves admirably in difficult roles (although those familiar with the Guizhou dialect will tell you that the accents are occasionally a bit shaky). The majority of the allusions specific to the milieu will also fly over the heads of non-locals. But anyone paying attention should be able to latch on to enough of the symbolism to follow proceedings that always place the viewer at the heart of the action. For all the technical prowess, though, this audiovisual poem rarely delves beneath the meticulously manufactured cinéma du look-like surfaces and one is left to wonder whether the copious self-reflexivity serves any purpose other than showcasing Bi's filmic intellect and stylistic acuity.
It's often claimed that Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.'s Buddies (1985) was the first American feature to discuss AIDS. In fact, the distinction should go to Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances, which was produced in 1984 and took two years to secure a release, by which time Bill Erman's An Early Frost (1985) had reached a sizeable TV audience. But the reissue of Buddies reminds us of how American cinema struggled to confront a crisis that extended far beyond the LGBTQ+ community. Indeed, it often resorted to platitudes and good intentions in pictures like Norman René's Longtime Companion (1990) and Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993), which earned Tom Hanks the Academy Award for Best Actor.
When print worker David Bennett (David Schachter) volunteers to become a `buddy' at a New York gay centre in 1985, he is hoping to show compassion towards those dying of AIDS rather than show solidarity by making a political statement. This reticence irks Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm), a hospitalised activist whose anger at the failure of Ronald Reagan's administration to address the stigma attached to an HIV+ diagnosis is exacerbated by the hurt he feels at being disowned by his homophobic family. Nettled by Robert's hostility, David tries to overcome his distaste at the graphic language he uses by keeping a journal of their encounters. He also begins doing some background research into the disease and the efforts being made to educate people about limiting its transmission.
Despite having a boyfriend in Steve (David Rose), David finds himself being drawm to Robert. as he speaks with affection about past loves. He is particularly moved by a visit to his new friend's apartment in order to collect some belongings and gains an insight into the life that Robert had led and the person he is. Connecting on a new level, David brings Robert some films to watch - including Bressan's 1978 documentary, Gay USA, and the 1974 porn flick, Passing Strangers - and even helps Robert pleasure himself. But his health begins to deteriorate and he confides that he wishes he could have one more day of strength to protest outside the White House.
Realising that he can use his buddy status to raise awareness of the virus and the demonising impact it is having on gay men, David agrees to do a newspaper interview. However, Robert dies before he can read it and David decides to pay a personal tribute by parading in front of the White House in an effort to alert America to the fact that AIDS is a condition that affects them all.
Although he was known for such porn movies as Forbidden Letters (1976), Pleasure Beach (1983), Juice and Daddy Dearest (both 1984), Bressan had also produced such pioneering items as Coming Out (1972), a 16mm colour short chronicling the first official San Francisco Pride march, and Abuse (1983), a drama in which documentarist Richard Ryder offers sanctuary to Raphael Sbarge, a teenager who is subjected to frequent violence by his disapproving parents. He wastes no time, therefore, in getting straight to the point by showing a printer churning out a list of male names accompanied by the words `Deceased' and `AIDS'.
Before the decade was out, both Bressan and Edholm would succumb to the disease, at the ages of 44 and 33 respectively. This is, therefore, very much a work of urgency, which was filmed in just nine days on a shoestring budget of $27,000. In order to keep the focus on David and Robert, Bressan and cinematographer Carl Teitelbaum show their faces alone and refuse to shy away from the physical manifestations of the disease. But Edholm and Schachter aren't always comfortable with the more emotive dialogue, which occasionally echoes the underdog sentiments of Bressan's idol, Frank Capra. Moreover, gay and straight audiences alike didn't want to be confronted with such blunt truthfulness (even when sugarcoated by Jeffrey Olmstead's string score) and, consequently, Buddies slipped out of circulation.
If nothing else, this restored version makes clear the influence that Bressan had on recent AIDS dramas like Robin Campillo's much-admired 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017). But, while an HIV+ diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, this bulletin from the 1985 frontline reaffirms the need for sexual vigilance in our own times and the fact there should be room for intolerance of any form.
THE PARTY'S JUST BEGINNING.
This time last year, Scottish cinema sprung a delightful surprise in the form of John McPhail's horror musical, Anna and the Apocalypse (2017). There's also a festive element to Karen Gillan's directorial debut, The Party's Just Beginning, although it has much more in common with Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (2002) and such Northern Irish offerings as Kieron J. Walsh's Jump (2012) and Abner Pastoll's A Good Woman Is Hard to Find (2019). For those who still think of Gillan as Amy Pond, who sidekicked for Matt Smith in Doctor Who (2010-13), this stark slice of Highland realism may come as something of a surprise. But it suggests that the 32 year-old is quite capable of building on her Best Feature nomination at the British Academy Scotland Awards.
When not serving behind the cheese counter in an Inverness supermarket, Liusaidh (Karen Gillan) spends her time binge drinking, having rough sex with complete strangers she picks up off the street and stuffing her face with chips. The 24 year-old has been grieving since her best friend, Alistair (Matthew Beard), threw himself off a stone bridge into an oncoming train and Liusaidh keeps having flashbacks to their last days together, when she had learned that he was struggling with his gender identity.
She blames herself for having been too self-absorbed to realise that Alistair was close to the edge. Yet, as she has a tendency to look down on people with a caustic sense of sneering superiority, Liusaidh also gives his closeted boyfriend, Ben (Jamie Quinn), a hard time for throwing himself into activities at the local evangelical church when she believes he should be embracing his sexuality instead of suppressing it.
At the end of another night's drinking, Liusaidh tilts her cap at Dale (Lee Pace) and they indulge in a knee-trembler. Much to her surprise, however, he tracks her down and they meet on a couple of occasions. Liusaidh's parents (Paul Higgins and Siobhan Redmond) despair of her behaviour and wish there was a way they could pull her out of her doldrums. But Liusaidh is down because Dale, a divorced dad trying to sort himself out, has announced that he is planning to move on. Meandering home from the pub, she passes the railway bridge and sees Dale lingering nearby. Desperate to prevent him from jumping, she tries to persuade him to stay. But, while he is grateful to her for supporting him, Dale decides that he has to head home.
Even though Liusaidh frequently has sex with her boss, Peter (Paul Tinto), in the supermarket washroom, he fires her in the run-up to Christmas for skiving work. With the anniversary of Alistair's death approaching, she goes on a bender and blacks out, leaving her vulnerable to three revellers who take it in turns to rape her. Staggering home, Liusaidh finds her parents hosting a small festive gathering and, not being in the mood to socialise, she slinks away to her room.
Needing to hear a friendly voice, she chats to the old man (Ralph Riach) she had befriended after he had misdialled a suicide helpline after his wife had died and his kids had cut off all contact. She tells him about her ordeal and breaks down into uncontrollable sobs, which her father overhears. He tries to console his daughter and coax her into opening up about her problems. But Liusaidh is in no mood for a pep talk, no matter how well meant, and she disappears into the night. Eventually, she comes to the railway bridge and contemplates suicide. However, memories of Alistair's tragic fate overwhelm her and Liusaidh wanders home to call her friend, Donna (Rachel Jackson), and tell her that she thinks everything might work out after all.
Despite solid supporting turns from Matthew Beard and Lee Pace, this is very much a vehicle for Gillan's talents as an actress and a writer, although there's something a touch too Irvine Welshish about her opening tirade about life in the Gateway to the Highlands. Her direction is geared to her performance, which recalls that of Emily Beecham in Peter Mackie Burns's Daphne (2017), which also charted the rite of passage of a self-destructive twentysomething and which also tied its loose ends together far too neatly.
Gillan might also have made more of Inverness, which is all too rarely seen in screen. Nevertheless, cinematographer Edd Lukas and production designer Jason Carlin capably convey the dead-end aura that crushes Liusaidh's spirit. Ultimately, however, this is primarily a study of what goes on inside a person's head when they are so overwhelmed by sadness that reckless decisions acquire an irresistible logic, in which it is so much easier to acquiesce than any more sensible, but harsher truth.
A canny bit of marketing has enabled London Film School graduates Amin Bakhshian and Kyla Simone Bruce to bundle four shorts made over the last decade into the feature, Undocument. Shaming those renowned British social realists who have steered clear of the migrant crisis, this notional cross-continental journey reveals the vulnerability of those seeking to leave war zones and build new lives for themselves in a country that once prided itself on its liberal values.
Previously known as `Cold Birth', Bakhshian's first contribution centres on Leila (Marjan Khaleghi), who has been disowned by her Afghan family after marrying for love. Arriving in Iran, she hopes to be reunited with her husband in London. However, she is pregnant and the mother (Nasrin Afshar) and daughter (Nazanin Fatemah Farahani) sheltering her in Tehran warn Leila that the traffickers will take a dim view of her condition and urge her to cross the snow-covered mountains as quickly as possible.
Bakhshian's second vignette was initially shown as `Deep Breath' and takes place in a cramped room in Greece, where eight year-old Parsa (Parsa Bahadori) and his mother (Maryam Davari) try to remain patient, while a short-fused trafficker named Leimis (Umit Ulgen) fumes about the fact that the two adult males sharing the lodgings (Sam Hafez and Rafid Golby) are nursing leg injuries of varying severity. Already frightened by his ordeal on the road, Parsa is shocked by the way Leimis treats his mother and the strangers who are too exhausted and dispirited to resist his intimidation.
London provides the setting for both of Bruce's episodes. In `Home', Laura (Julia Krynke) juggles a day job as a hairdresser with raising her teenage daughter, Alexia (Molly Jones), and studying for a veterinary exam. Since arriving in Britain before Poland became a member of the European Union, Laura has dreamed of becoming a vet. So, when immigration officials come to the flat while she is out at work, her Algerian boyfriend, Sami (Nabil Elouahabi), tells Alexia to say nothing until her mother has completed her course.
A conflict of interests also lies at the heart of `The Intepreter', as Ramzi (Ako Ali) feels his conscience being pricked while serving as a translator in a London courtroom. He quickly becomes aware during the case being heard by the jobsworthy magistrate (Jan Koene) that the man (Khalid Jabaly) with a small boy (Ismail Dar) is dissembling when he claims that a woman appearing via a temperamental video link from Dover (Chiraz Aich) is his sister and that she is applying for asylum so she can provide child care. Clandestine discussions in the waiting room and the man's failure to supply the required documentation convince Ramzi that the woman is the child's mother and he is warned by his girlfriend (Sally Reichardt) not to let his emotions cloud his judgement, as they can't afford him to lose his job.
While there have been a number of earnestly effective documentaries about the perils facing those at the mercy of ruthless people traffickers and the odd European drama about migrants struggling to find a niche in their new homelands, British offerings like Pavel Pawlikowski's Last Resort (2000) and Anthony Woodley's The Flood (2019) have been few and far between. This adds to the value of this anthology, which just about hangs together as a whole, although its strength lies in the quality of its individual components.
In the first story, Bakhshian makes evocative use of the lorry park and the whitened mountains to emphasise the insignificance and isolation of the pregnant fugitive, while he keeps the camera moving around the Greek bedsit to convey the restless confusion of the young boy seeking to read the body language of the grown-ups surrounding him and make sense of their baffling behaviour. Bruce also capably exploits the enclosed spaces of the family flat and the courtroom, as she examines the insecurities that linger after reaching journey's end.
As the daughter of Cream bassist Jack Bruce, the latter has previously reached her widest audience with the documentaries, The Making of Silver Rails (2014) and Sunshine of Your Love: A Concert For Jack Bruce (2018). However, she has a decent ear for dialogue and clearly favours a naturalistic style of performance. Bakhshian similarly opts for restraint and deft observation rather than sweeping statements. It will be intriguing to see how each fares when afforded the opportunity to work on a broader canvas.
Oscars can do strange things to people and Gary Oldman has followed up Martin Owen's instantly forgettable Killers Anonymous with Zackary Adler's indelibly dreadful, The Courier. But Oldman is not alone in slumming it in this capably made, but strictly formulaic actioner, as Olga Kurylenko, who played Camille Montes in Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace (2008), is joined by the dependable Dermot Mulroney, who has never quite fulfilled the promise shown in the 1990s.
Sporting an eye patch, Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman) is a criminal mastermind with his fingers in many pies. He gets them burnt, however, when his callous killing of a inconvenient nobody is witnessed by Nick Murch (Amit Shah). Scowling with contempt while being arrested in a church by Special Agent Roberts (Dermot Mulroney), Mannings is confined to his New York apartment after tipping daughter Alys (Calli Taylor) the wink to set in motion a dastardly plan. While he listens to opera, Munnings's musclebound goons go about their work under the supervision of the corrupt Agent Bryant (William Moseley) and his Interpol underling, Simmonds (Alicia Agneson).
Unfortunately, the only component that Munnings can't control is the anonymous London motorcycle courier (Olga Kurylenko), who is dispatched to deliver a cyanide bomb to Murch. She is clearly an adherent of the old tenet about not shooting the messenger and smuggles Murch into the underground car park, where she draws on her shrouded special ops expertise to discover what are presumably supposed to be blackly comedic ways of bumping off the various gun-wielding thugs in her path, while Munnings becomes increasingly furious about the calibre of minions these days.
Not for a second is the outcome in any doubt, as Adler demonstrates the kind of directorial finesse that made The Rise of the Krays (2015), The Fall of the Krays (2016) and Rise of the Footsoldier 3: The Pat Tate Story (2017) so thuddingly undemanding, He's competently abetted by cinematographer Michel Abramowicz and editor Nick McCahearty in staging the subterranean shootout, while Kurylenko - donning the kind of black leather outfit that Honor Blackman wore as Cathy Gale in The Avengers (1962-64) - brings a deadpan efficiency to the title role. But it's Oldman's combustible histrionics that will linger longer, as he gives the hilariously over-the-top William Moseley a lesson in how to play a character whose risibility wasn't entirely obvious when Oldman read the original pay cheque...sorry, screenplay.
FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES.
According to a closing caption in Max Lewkowicz's Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, the musical Fiddler on the Roof has played somewhere around the world every single day since it opened on Broadway in 1964. Adapted from Sholem Aleichem's story, `Tevye the Milkman', the study of domestic friction on a Russian shtetl in the days before a 1905 pogrom hardly sounds like the stuff of showbiz legend. But composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and book author Joseph Stein created a show that touches upon so many shared themes that it has continued to speak to the marginalised and the persecuted for over half a century.
Joel Grey, who directed the 2018 Yiddish version of the show, wonders why it speaks to so many people around the world, as the camera picks out Sheldon Harnick on a rooftop in Manhattan's Upper West Side playing the opening notes of `Tradition' on his violin. Academic Marc Aronsen suggests that New York in the early 1960s was Outsider Central and showed the rest of the country how to rub along with folks who didn't share your ethnicity, attitudes and preferences. Jerry Dauber, Sholem Aleichem's biographer, contends that this tension between tradition and progress ran through the Russian writer's prose and tapped into a sense of nostalgia and a recognition that things must change.
Over a Tess Martin animation that has been inspired by Marc Chagall (whose `The Green Fiddler' had such a profound influence on Boris Aronson's set designs), we hear a recording of `The Little Town Where Papa Came From', which was cut before opening night. We also hear the first piano demo that Jerry Bock sent to Harnick for `If I Were a Rich Man', as well as Aleichem's 1916 recording of the passage that would inspire the lyrics. Harnick admits that he borrowed heavily from the original texts, while critic Jan Lisa Huttner reveals how songs like `Matchmaker, Matchmaker' reinforce Aleichem's contempt for the concept of arranged marriages and avers that the fate of Tevye's daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, makes this a study of female empowerment at the very time that notions of women's liberation were beginning to form in the wake of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
Aleichem's Menachem Mendel stories had been filmed before and we see a clip from Alexander Granovsky's Jewish Luck (1925) showing Russian bridges being loaded on to a boat for Argentina. However, many were trafficked into prostitution and Aleichem was exposing the hypocrisy that underlay patriarchal treatment of young Jewish women. But he was also showing that fathers and daughters could ally to change things and Gurinder Chadha confirms that she took this theme and applied it to a British Asian scenario in Bend It Like Bechkam (2002).
Composer Stephen Sondheim knew that Bock and Harnick had created something special, but they struggled to find a producer until Harold Prince came aboard. He persuaded Jerome Robbins to direct and biographer Amanda Veill explains that he was reluctant because he had suppressed feelings about his Judaism and sexuality that this show gnawed away at. However, Robbins had revisited his Rabinowitz roots in 1958 when he had travelled to the levelled village of Rozhanka in Ukraine and his ambition for the musical to stand as a tribute to his lost kinfolk led to the writing of the opening number, `Tradition', which he saw as the key to the entire piece.
Actor Austin Pendleton, who played Motel in the original production recalls Robbins being highly temperamental. But he was also a genius and he conceived saw life in Anatevka as a series of circles that start to fragment as the story develops. Violinist Itzhak Perlman highlights `The Sabbath Prayer' as a key scene, as it extols the virtues of the family circle, while Yiddish actor Steven Skybell suggests that it shows that home was always somewhere you could return after making your own way in the world.
By contrast with this intimate and moving sequence, `The Bottle Dance' at the wedding is an eruption of energy. Yet, Robbins had witnessed such a dance and realised that it was about the balance needed to make a successful change of direction. Aronson was so taken with this number that he felt obligated to forgive Robbins for his many flaws and Sondheim and Fran Lebowitz agree that he could be a monster. So could Zero Mostel, who was chosen to play Tevye. Josh Mostel admits that his father's bumptious egotism could be exhausting, but he was also hilarious. He was also a man of strong beliefs and he despised Robbins for revealing names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee during the Communist Witch-hunt that led to Mostel being blacklisted. In fact, Robbins had testified to prevent being outed as gay, but he retained a lifelong guilt for his cowardice.
The fury that Mostel felt for Robbins was channelled into his performance and various contributors note - over a clip from Maurice Schwartz's Tevya (1939) - that the character has a universality that is epitomised by `If I Were a Rich Man', which has been covered by acts as different as The Temptations and Yidcore. It's certainly Fiddler's showstopper, but its heart comes from `Do You Love Me?', the duet about Tevye's 25 years of marriage to Golde, which was added after the tryouts in Detroit went badly and the reviews dismissed the property as a misfire. Harnick reveals that he wrote the song because it reflected the realisations that his own feuding parents never achieved and actress Jessica Hecht points to the poignant way that it translates daily cohabitation into unspoken affection.
A potential classic was culled, however, as it was felt that `When Messiah Comes' introduced too much levity at a time when the villagers realise that they are about to be evicted. Bock and Harnick were sorry to see it go, but it failed to get the laughs intended and the Washington reviews were much improved. Yet, when it landed at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway on 22 September 1964, Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune dubbed it `a very-near miss' and few had high hopes for an extended run. But word of mouth meant that queues formed around the block and a Bock knew he had a hit when attorney Richard Ticktin told him he could afford a new fridge.
Such was the show's stage status that a movie deal was struck almost immediately. But, as Alisa Solomon explains, a grace period meant that Norman Jewison's film had to wait until 1971, by which time, the world was a very different place, not least because perceptions of Israel had altered after the Six-Day War in 1967. Not everything in America had changed, though, and objections were raised to a cast of African-American and Hispanic kids presenting a high school version in 1968. But Bock, Harnick and Stein had no objection and it went ahead and broke down barriers.
United Artists hoped that the film would do the same, although there was an awkward silence when it was discovered that Jewison was a goy (a joke went around that he should convert and change his name to Christiansen). He also ruffled feathers when he decided to cast Israeli actor Chaim Topol instead of Zero Mostel, as he was a first generation Russian Jew and (despite having played Tevye in London) was less well known and would focus the audience's attention on Tevye's relationships with the women in his life and God, who was the only man he had to talk to.
We see Danny Kaye introducing Topol to American TV audiences and film co-stars Paul Michael Glaser and Rosalind Harris explain how he played the role from an Israeli rather than an Eastern European perspective that gave it a new potency. Topol himself discloses that the anguish in `If I Were a Rich Man' came from the fact that he was suffering from excruciating toothache during the three-day shoot.
While the film failed to match the show's scoop of nine Tony Awards or its run of 3242 performances, it did play for years on end in countries across the planet and introduced its themes to a new audience. We see a clip from a Thai student production, while Harvey Fierstein (who played Tevye on Broadway in 2005-06) explores the show's relevance to LGBTQ+ audiences today.
He also notes that it appeals to older viewers who have watched their own families fly the nest and `Sunrise, Sunset' is one of the few numbers in musical theatre to consider the passage of time with such intimacy and tenderness. By contrast, Hodel's `Far From the Home I Love' encapsulates a child's anxiety to reassure a parent that she is leaving only with a mix of necessity and reluctance. Topol chokes back tears, as he claims that he considers this the most affecting scene in the entire story. Yet, he also has to disown Chava when she marries a non-Jew and is baptised into the Russian Orthodox faith and Danny Burstein's stage rendition of `Chavaleh' plays over Neva Small reflecting on playing the part on screen and how Chava had failed to realise that the door she was closing could lock from one side.
Chava and Fyedka leave for the United States, as Anatevka is targeted by Tsarist forces seeking a scapegoat for the failed 1905 Revolution. As several contributors note, this was a warning from history that was ignored with catastrophic consequences across Europe during the 1930s and 40s. Harnick recalls seeing an elderly Jewish couple have a panic attack during the pogrom sequence, as they relived what they had endured in the old country. But these moments of brutal bigotry remain relevant. During rehearsals, Robbins had the cast improvise scenes around the Civil Rights protests that were going on in America and it's noted that the processional `Anatevka' ending is pertinent today because it relates to ethnic cleansing and the global migrant crisis.
Critic Charles Isherwood denounces the conservatism that turns a blind eye to such vicious barbarity, as Michael Bernardi (who followed his father Herschel in playing Tevye) flies to Ukraine to visit Anatevka. He also watches violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins play pieces from the Fiddler score at the Sholem Aleichem Museum in Kiev and sings `If I Were a Rich Man'. The pair also attend the first wedding in Anatevka since it became a haven for refugees fleeing from the conflict in the Donbass and they agree that the musical's message about family, belief, communal identity, prejudice and loss would be unbearable without the love and hope that somehow keeps us all going through the worst of times.
There's so much to talk about here that Lewkowicz could easily have produced a two-parter, with `Page and Stage' being followed by `Screen and Beyond'. But, while this feature necessarily has to skate over certain aspects, it provides a fascinating and affectionate introduction that will no doubt prompt fans to pop in the DVD while seeking out the nearest theatrical presentation.
In conjunction with co-writer Valerie Thomas and editor Joseph Borruso, Lewkowicz rightly devotes most time to the origins of the Broadway show. Moreover, he makes the most of the recollections of Sheldon Harnick, as well as the archive interviews with Jerry Bock and Joseph Stein (who both died in 2010) and Hal Prince, who passed away in July this year. But he might have lingered longer over the film version, especially as Norman Jewison and Topol clearly have much to reminisce about.
It might also have been useful to know which characters or backstage roles the modern talking heads took in the numerous revivals, as it's not always clear why they are speaking about specific scenes and their significance. A discussion about how the show has gone down in Israel and Eastern Europe might also have slotted in alongside the segments on Japan and Thailand. But this enlightens and entertains, while also making it clear that someone needs to make documentaries about both Jerome Robbins and his HUAC adversary, Zero Mostel.