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Stanley Kauffmann On Films: Different Weights

SOME YEARS AGO I SPENT A weekend in Las Vegas and enjoyed it. The bounteous vulgarity in every possible way, from displays to entertainments to phalanxes of slot machines, seemed to me exactly what it ought to be. Anything more chaste and sensible would have been out of order, a disappointment. 

I watch the Oscars every year, and I have more or less the same reaction: that everything is in character. And every year, regular as a sort of intellectual clockwork, knowledgeable critics are ready to scorn: to disclose the industrial ogre beneath the artistic hoopla, to rip open the pretensions, to excoriate the lengthy and unexciting familial tributes and embraces. Each year I wonder what these critics expected. A coronation by the Muses on the slopes of Olympus, perhaps?

The super-lavish hall where the Oscars now take place, the unsurpassable grossness of the settings and the stage machinery—well, of course. Who would want anything Doric? The Oscars are out to supply once a year what ornate movie palaces of the past used to give viewers every week. The prizewinners are not worth discussing as artistic decisions: they are what an industry wants for its industrial well-being. Some people are still roiled by the injustice and neglect trumpeted by most of those prizes, but can they have thought that the film world would spend copious time and money to blazon worthy films, independent or not, that may have disappeared months ago?

I’m not suggesting the easing of critical rigor about the Oscars: I’m proposing a sense of the ridiculous. Our own taste and minds ought not to occlude what this bejeweled trade show is for. To judge it by the best standards at our command would be to debase those standards. For the most part, the Oscar broadcast is a glitzy attempt to attract and please the largest segment of the film audience. In this latest broadcast the only item that really bothered me was the appearance of the admirable Yo-Yo Ma, playing some Bach as background to one of the program numbers. Will the Yankees engage Pierre Boulez to conduct the band for the opening game of next season, just to class things up?

Ladies’ gowns for Oscar night always get a good deal of notice, and some of them are indeed breathtaking. (Once again, my heart goes out to the designers of the gowns worn by non-winners: no adequate display of their work.) But insufficient attention is paid to male dress. Many of the men clearly strain to wear something other than the usual white-tie or black-tie formal outfit. The host, Chris Rock, had the formal jacket and trousers but showed his daring by wearing an everyday shirt and cravat. Jeremy Irons, trying hard not to look forlorn at his appearance as a presenter, wore a kind of fantasy based on white tie and tails. But the radical winner, hands down, was Sean Penn, who came out to present one of the Oscars wearing an ordinary jacket and slacks and no tie at all. No tie at all! You had to marvel at the man’s sheer guts, his brave dismissal of convention, his declaration of self.

Once in a while the Oscar ceremony includes something that paradoxically doesn’t quite jibe with the ballyhoo and yet ameliorates it. This year it was the tribute to Sidney Lumet. His long career, like any long career, has had surges and sags, but there have been very few sags in intent, in serious ambition. I have been watching him since before the beginning of that career: I saw him play the boy Jesus in Maxwell Anderson’s Journey to Jerusalem on Broadway in 1940. To film direction he brought from the first a fervor of purpose and the beginner’s itch to prove his mastery of the medium. About one early work, for instance, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I can wish he had made it much later, when he didn’t feel the need to prove filmic virtuosity. He certainly achieved that virtuosity, intelligently selective yet rich. Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict are two of the best American films made during his active lifetime. It was good to see him up on that garish stage expressing his thanks simply.

Well, on to the seventy-eighth Oscar night. Meanwhile, those critics who see so piercingly through the flimflam of the occasion can warm up for next year by attacking the commercialization of Christmas.

All political thrillers, good or less good, have moral implications. The lesser films disregard them or use them only as plot zingers. An Israeli thriller, WALK ON WATER, one of the better ones, has grave moral implications and does not ignore them or merely utilize them.

In this screenplay by Gal Uchovsky, which takes place today, Eyal, a hardened and expert agent of Mossad, is ordered to find and to eliminate a surviving German general who was responsible for a number of deaths during the Holocaust. Eyal’s chief, Menachem, knows that the German is very old but does not take age as exculpation. Eyal is assigned to go to Germany, find the man, and take necessary steps.

In the opening scene we have seen Eyal at work. On board a Turkish ship approaching a Turkish port, he neatly and swiftly takes care of an enemy agent in front of that man’s wife and child. No concession to sentiment here, which, I suppose, mirrors the other man’s attitude about the things he had done. Thus from the start we see that the action is going to take place outside the restraints of ordinary regard. An official ethics replaces the usual sort; though, to make the shift more trenchant, Eyal is seen to be more than a robotic serf.

A thriller made by Israelis that begins with a murder by an Israeli agent and is headed toward another, that deals with justice in its own eyes and revenge on its own scale, must be aware of the careful footing it needs along the way. Complicate matters further by the fact that Eyal becomes friends with an attractive young German woman and her gay brother, both of whom are connected with the object of Eyal’s mission. The moral platter is full. Walk on Water has a moment literally on the shore of Galilee, but the title is figurative for the whole film.

The director was the experienced Eytan Fox, who was born in New York and grew up in Israel. Both provenances are part of his being. He is thoroughly an Israeli in insight and outlook, but (like other foreign directors of thrillers) his filmic inheritance is American—keen, lean, assumptive of the viewer’s agreement with his synoptic method. The same could be said of Lior Ashkenazi, the popular Israeli actor who plays Eyal. In temperament, in essence, he is Humphrey Bogart in Israel today. This is to imply not imitation but innate qualities and the tending of them.

The film’s “solution” of its moral complications is in an epilogue that takes place two years after the plot’s finish. Everybody, film-makers and us, can go home assuaged—maybe more than that.

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.