Monday, 19 December 2011

Fiddler on the Roof at Forty and Footnote (Spoilers)

As if my prolonged absence from Blogger and Twitter weren't already deserving of chest-beating enough, during that period of radio silence was a truly significant event that I had hoped to blog about - namely, the fortieth anniversary of the UK release of the film of Fiddler on the Roof (FotR) (December 8 1971). Now, I find most anniversaries and whatever quite silly and generally meaningless, but I was going to use it as a hook to introduce what will (assuming I actually write anything) be a significant part of this blog, i.e. writing about FotR, which I consider to be a true masterpiece, both cinematically/theatrically and Judaically.

I was going to open the run with an examination of the musical's place in a more recent film, Footnote, a stunning piece of Israeli cinema of astonishing sophistication and depth. If you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to delay reading this until you've watched the film. Or just watch the film. I can't stress enough how important it is that you watch the film.

Anyway, FotR features in the film when the family goes to see the musical in Hebrew, and then Prof. Eliezer Schkolnik (the father), who at the beginning of the film had refused a lift in his son's car, happily gets in, humming one of the melodies from the show. I may be leaving myself open to the charge of over-analysing the film, but I believe this small vignette goes to the heart of the theme of academic and cultural worth expressed in the film.

Other critics have picked up on the inclusion of the FotR scene, but to my mind only scratch the surface of the many implications. Kurt Brokaw, it seems to me, is miles off the mark when he says: "there’s Tevye the milkman, striving to maintain a balance between tradition and change, struggling to love his children in a world he trudges into, heavy with doubt." Not only are the last two points, I would argue, complete nonsense (does Tevye struggle to love his children? is he heavy with doubt?) or at least gross simplifications, but I don't think he quite gets the point with his vague and platitudinous "balance between tradition and change". Certainly Footnote does deal with tradition and change, but Brokaw's subsequent points demonstrate that he doesn't understand how the FotR reference enhances it - or, to be less harsh, doesn't sufficiently explore the relevance.

Meanwhile, Niv Shtendel's (superior) article contains the following (excuse the shoddy translation, which is mine):

שנים אחר כך, בחזרה מטקס של האקדמיה למדעים, בוחר האב לחזור הביתה בגפו, בנפרד ממשפחתו. במקרה אחר, כשהמשפחה חוזרת מהצגת תיאטרון ("כנר על הגג" - ישן מפני חדש יוצא ואב שמפיל את סולם ערכיו בפני צאצאיו), סגור האב בתוך עצמו, מפזם לעצמו את אחד משירי ההצגה
Years later, when returning from the ceremony of the Academy of Sciences, the father chooses to return home by himself, separate from his family. On another occasion, when the family is returning from a theatre performance ("Fiddler on the Roof" - the old departs in the face of the new, and the father who drops his value system because of his children), the father shuts himself off, humming to himself one of the songs from the performance.
I absolutely agree with Shtendel here about the specific parallelism of the father forsaking his beliefs in light of his children's behaviour, and I'm amused to note that he picked up on the same echo as I did (from ceremony to performance), but I think he's interpreted the two occasions wrongly in understanding the father's behaviour as the same both times. To me it's clear that the first instance exhibits exactly the alienation and isolation that Shtendel identifies, but the second, surely, is meant to demonstrate a transition. Instead of frowning, he smiles; instead of walking, he rides. Rather than alone, he is squeezed into the car with his family.

For my interpretation, it is crucial to point out that FotR, when it first came out, was panned by high-brow critics for being sentimental and vulgar. Stephen J. Whitfield of Brandeis has compiled here quite a comprehensive list: Cynthia Ozick deemed it "naive [and] pre-modern"; Robert Brustein, in a metaphor of which Shkolnick Sr. might be proud, pronounced that the play "bears about the same relation to its source as unleavened cocktail wafers do to Passover matzoth"; to Irving Howe, it was a "tasteless jumble", which almost is the metaphor used by the older Shkolnick when describing his son's work.

We would expect Eliezer Shkolnick, the serious philologist, to despise FotR as a bastardisation of the original short stories of Sholom Aleichem, which were proper literature. FotR (he might think) is to those acclaimed Yiddish stories as Professor Uriel Shkolnick's (the son's) scholarship is to his father's work: dumbed down, generalised, popularised, smoothed out, spoon-fed.

But, like Tevye in FotR, the father of the Shkolnik family abandons his old belief that the Israel Prize is worthless, and takes on his son's belief that it is indeed a huge honour. Previously as intractable and stubborn as Tevye, he now, like Tevye at the end of FotR, accepts the supplanting of his own value system (you will remember that Tevye says, "And God be with you" to his daughter, despite claiming that she was dead to him).

Here's the juicy part: that last scene, where Tevye accepts Chava, is only in the stage and film adaptations. Sholom Aleichem's stories contain no such acceptance. That is, in fact, one of the key examples given by critics when slating the adaptation as a sentimentalisation and distortion of the source material. So the very parallelism between Eliezer's and Tevye's respective yieldings to the new world order exists only because of the transition that Sholom Aleichem's Tevye has undergone. This is a new Shkolnik, just as FotR portrays a new Tevye. His capitulation is encapsulated by his humming of the tune in the car, by his decision to get in the car rather than keep himself separate - by his preference of the easier mode of transport, riding over walking.

To conclude, the scenes involving FotR in Footnote are key to understanding Eliezer's character progression as a gradual selling out of his supposed principles, exposing the high-minded statements (especially as made to the journalist) as mere posturing. He has made the transition from Sholom Aleichem's Tevye to Broadway's Tevye, but shows no self-awareness regarding the change.

As further food for thought, mull over these quotations from FotR (which, may I remind you, I consider to be a spectacular work, and by far my favourite musical):

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack,
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern Wall
And I'd discuss the Holy Books with the learned men
Seven hours every day
And that would be the sweetest thing of all...

They would ask me to advise them,
Like Solomon the Wise
If you please Reb Tevye...
Pardon me, Reb Tevye...
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!
And it won't make one bit of difference,
If I answer right or wrong:
When you're rich, they think you really know.

For Papa, make him a scholar,
For Mama, make him rich as a king...