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Sunday
Oct142012

Footnote

A man can be jealous of anyone but his son or his pupil.

                                                                                                            Eliezer Shkolnik

For some of us gentle souls, no explosion, alien, or free fall could be more thrilling than intellectual discovery.  Surely, physical achievements in sport or on other battlefields may distract us, even inspire us, because youth's brawn and bravery will always possess a certain appeal.  But for those who believe this world to conceal another existence, one of spiritual and intellectual purity, if that is indeed our fate, it is ultimately what we do with our brain and our soul that really matters.  To wit, our soul should be clean of all wickedness and our brain should be brimming with many lifetimes of knowledge, of understanding, of insight, so that we may pass into our next existence with an idea of what this life is for.  An albeit thin idea, but an idea nonetheless.  And it you would be hard-pressed to find thinner and subtler ideas of what life may constitute than the choices depicted in this fine film.

The coy title of our first vignette is "The most difficult day in the life of Professor Skholnik," especially coy when we consider that shkol'nik is the Russian word for "schoolchild."  We quickly learn that there are two Professor Shkolniks: Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a Talmudic scholar already past retirement age in many countries, and his fortysomething son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), also a scholar, if one of both lesser and greater ambition.  Eliezer spends his days in silence in the national library and his evenings with ear plugs at home pursuing precisely the same interests: a comparison of a vast and indefinite number of versions of the Talmud in search of discrepancies that may help future scholars better understand the glorious history of the Hebrews.  Uriel, bearded and bug-eyed in that manner commonly incident to madmen and charlatans, is a great popularizer of pseudo-academic works, and very much embodies what the faddish among us like to term a 'rock star.'  As such, it is Uriel not Eliezer who has won nearly every Israeli academic prize imaginable and, as we begin our film, it is Uriel not Eliezer who is being welcomed onto a stage and into the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.  An average film would spotlight Uriel as he spouts one platitude after another; a more serious film, however, would, if possible, pan to the person in the audience most affected by the speech, which in this case is a grumpy old Talmudic scholar who happens to share his last name.  Uriel expresses his gratitude to, in order, President Shimon Peres, an academic by the name of Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who will figure into our story's plot in more than one way, and last and perhaps least, his father.  Even if his father is thanked almost perfunctorily as a segue into one of those 'real-life' stories so lame as to justify the need for fiction. 

When Uriel was but a wee lad, eight or thereabouts, he was tasked with a school questionnaire that included the query, "What is your father's profession?"  He had wanted to put "professor," but didn't know whether that was really a "profession" (hysterical laughter from the crowd; perhaps the Hebrew pun is less insipid than the English).  His mother had gently suggested "Talmudic researcher"; his father insisted simply on "teacher."  He was disappointed and ashamed.  "Who boasts at school about his father, the teacher?" wondered an eight-year-old Uriel to his favorite person, himself, and told his father: "I have teachers at school.  You're not a teacher!"  His mother then proposed "senior lecturer" (more hysterical laughter).  But, in the end, a dutiful son heeded an overbearing father's orders and learned to appreciate the profession of a teacher, of "taking from the past generation and passing down to the next."  Uriel's speech concludes with vaguely sincere thanks – sincerity is not his most natural trait – to his father, who all this time appears to have been wincing in pain. 

Then comes one of those scenes that seem to occur only in movies but which actually do happen in real life, in perhaps somewhat less dramatic a fashion.  Our dear Professor Shkolnik – the elder, that is – wanders outside from the fabulous reception and all the fabulous guests and sits for a while alone, his head still down.  Someone on a cell phone is screaming ebullient plans to return to New York for a fundraiser; the guests are all inside, all happy to be with one another; in short, the world is continuing, as it always has, without Eliezer Skholnik's direct participation.  As he attempts to reenter the reception, however, he is stopped by a menacing guard who looks at his hands and asks him the occasion of the reception, a question he refuses to answer.  "Are you a member of the Academy?" asks the guard.  "No," his whole body replies, his face still examining the pavement.  When the guard, with some pity in his beady eyes, finally admits that all he wants to see is a blue wristband (of the kind intimately familiar to binge-drinking American college students), Shkolnik senior has an epiphany of sorts: he looks at all the guests and sees a blue wristband on each one of them.  Now he is not only the one person who doesn't belong at the reception, he also recognizes a deep irony in this oversight as a manuscript expert trained to block out big-picture cohesion for the sake of every individual detail.  At the reception once again thanks to the suddenly benevolent guard, Eliezer's ears are assaulted by those ridiculous 'academic' theories and buzz words that make one cringe in their fraudulence, and then his eyes meet those of the newest member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.  And one look exchanged between the Professors Shkolnik indicates that father has always considered son to be one of those frauds.

Here surfaces one of the hardest of family dilemmas.  Every good parent wants his child to fulfill his potential and succeed to the utmost; but what if the parent thinks his child's success is wholly undeserved?  This is not merely a case of jealousy or envy, but of objective discernment.  Most everyone with enough ambition, luck, and a car salesman's sense of what people want to drive this year can write bestselling mumbo-jumbo; very few can make lasting and original artistic contributions.  What Footnote wisely does not do, however, is sidestep this dilemma by spouting off some nonsense about the meaningless of writing for the future, for immortality, for the perfect reader who may be born decades or centuries after the writer's death.  From its bold introductory music to its rather tantalizing ending, Footnote takes its subject matter very seriously.   The result is twofold: we are inexorably drawn into one crisis after another, and the characters become hilarious because they are not indifferent.  In one scene, Uriel's clothes are stolen from a gym locker room, which leads him to don full fencing garb, a disguise in which he will accidentally spy on his father talking to a female coeval far prettier than Uriel's mother.  In a second, Shkolnik senior grudgingly gives the best-looking journalist God could have ever created (Yuval Scharf) an interview whose most memorable line involves potsherd.  And in a third, Eliezer, who has walked the same route from home to the National Library and back every day for forty years, pauses at a plaque for another scholar, murdered on a similar commute twenty years earlier, which makes us wonder whether the pause has become part of his routine.

Yet for all its comedic wisdom, Footnote remains a generational struggle between two men who go about similar jobs so differently that the distinction must be intentional.  The title itself is proof enough: while Uriel is an unabashed glory-hound, Eliezer contents himself with his once having been mentioned by name, a long time ago it seems, in a footnote in the most authoritative scholarly work on the Talmud.  So when at the very middle of the film a decidedly marvelous event takes place – an event that will embroil both father and son – we begin to learn a great deal more about these two arrogant men and their commitment to their discrete concepts of fairness (perhaps unsurprisingly, the only time that Uriel sounds sincere is when he defends his father's academic achievements to others).  The result is a masterpiece of timing, subtlety, and understated acting the likes of which we rarely see in our days of big, bang, and boom, but this quality in and of itself should not astound us.  If one indeed believes that the written word can endure for millennia and triumph over the trends and trash washed ashore every generation in slightly varied forms, then it is through the written word that we will arrive at the truth.  And why does Uriel's wife call him a coward after he admits that he never cheats on her?  Perhaps because she knows that certain types of people like their truth whole and lovely like an old pot. 

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