CultureJew: Not Much at the Movies, But Great Viewing on PBS

It’s been slim pickings at the local multiplex, hasn’t it? Aside from the excellent thriller “Wind River,” I can’t think of a really enjoyable movie I’ve seen in the last month. “Viceroy House” offered some excellent performances, but this costume drama about the partition of India and Pakistan spent way too much time on a totally extraneous romance and too little on the political maneuverings that led to partition and civil war to satisfy me. It was fun to see Gillian Anderson though, even with that hunch she adopted, as Lady Mountbatten.

It’s been equally arid in indie-land. Janicza Bravo’s “Lemon” is an archly absurdist take on one of those characters who is a failure in every aspect of his life. Brett Gelman plays Isaac, a sometime actor/acting coach whose blind girlfriend dumps him, which sends him into a deeper psychological void than he ordinarily inhabits. He attends a bizarre family Seder and then goes to an African-American barbecue with a woman he’s courting (Nia Long). This allows “Lemon” to trade in both anti-Semitic and anti-black stereotypes, which may pass for humor in some circles. The only good thing in this mess is Michael Cera, who plays an actor Isaac alternately flatters and insults. Cera’s scenes are actually funny, and there’s not much of that in this annoying comedy.

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards” is the directorial debut of British fashion journalist and published artist Michael Roberts.  Roberts has held editorial and style-director positions at “The Sunday Times,” “Tatler,” “British Vogue,” “The New Yorker,” and “Vanity Fair,” which should give you an idea of the film’s prevailing culture. An extended infomercial for Manolo Blahnik, the favorite shoe designer of “Sex and the City,” the film flits from fashion icon to fashion icon so they can praise Blahnik’s charm and talent, with lots of shots of Manolo’s amazing shoe designs.

Blahnik was born in the Canary Islands and landed in London in the early 1970s. An exceptionally handsome young man, he soon became a fixture in the fashion/celebrity/media scene. He originally wanted to be a designer, but a fashion editor steered him towards shoes, and it’s there that he made his name and fortune. This film is fun for fashion addicts, but if you are looking for a deeper look into Manolo himself or the world of fashion, you won’t get it here.  But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s all glittering surface and artifice.  The most interesting section of the movie shows how Blahnik sculpts his original design out of wood before passing it to an artisan to complete.

A very different documentary introduces us to a bunch of female comedians who comment on plastic surgery, particularly nose jobs. Filmmaker Joan Kron spent many years as a contributing editor at “Allure,” a well as other well-known magazines. She’s written extensively on plastic surgery, fashion, and beauty. Now at 89, she has made a film populated by a lot of funny women, many of them Jews, who are struggling with whether they should change their faces through cosmetic surgery. Phyllis Diller, Roseanne Barr, Joan Rivers, Totie Fields are all comedians who have been open about their plastic surgery and the pressure they felt to be more attractive. The film follows two comedians, Emily Askin and Jackie Hoffman, one a newcomer, the other a veteran, as they deliberate whether they should have their noses and other work done.  It’s a funny and sympathetic portrait of an issue that impacts millions of people.

The Vietnam War

Movie starved, I’ve been bingeing on television. Ken Burns’ astonishing documentary “The Vietnam War” on PBS has me enthralled. I lived through the war and the protests against it and remember all of it clearly, but there is so much in this 18-hour series that is entirely new. The first episode delves into the 100-year long colonial history of Vietnam and its struggle against the French. That casts the American misadventure there in a different light. Then there is so much fascinating interview footage with men and women from both North and South Vietnam. We are so immersed in our own experience of that war, we forget it was just as important and traumatic an event for the people we were fighting. That perspective is entirely new, at least for me. I can’t recall encountering it before.

As he often does in his films, Burns follows several individuals to personalize historical events. You feel that you’ve gotten to know them as a result and that makes their fates deeply moving. You have to sympathize with these very young men who are at the mercy of military leaders who seem unable to understand what’s going on. The incompetence of the American military leadership in Vietnam is terrifying. The research Burns and his team has done is amazing–everything from private phone calls between Lyndon Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to diary entries from a young Viet Cong volunteer to stunning footage of John McCain just after his capture. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.

Watching the documentary, it’s impossible not to see our current leaders trotting out the same assumptions and rationalizations in contemporary conflicts, such as Afghanistan. Another mysterious faraway country, about which we know next to nothing, where we have been at war for 16 years, with no resolution in sight and no understanding of what we’re trying to do. The only difference is there is no draft, so young people with better options don’t have to go and it’s easy for the rest of us to ignore.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.