I saw Crazy Heart recently and thought it was terrific. I haven’t seen every picture Jeff Bridges has done but I’ve seen a lot of them and he’s consistently tough, honest, yet vulnerable. Those are qualities you don’t find in many leading actors. In Crazy Heart, he played a washed-up country singer a la Townes Van Zandt, who finds one last shot at redemption in the form of a beautiful young woman played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The character’s name, Bad Blake, is perfection itself.
Besides Bridges’ straight from the heart performance, the music played a major role. It was produced and the original material co-written by T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the music for O Brother, Where Art Thou? As I wrote above, I heard echoes musically and in the plot of the life of Townes Van Zandt in the film. One of his most wonderful songs, If I Needed You, is even included in the soundtrack. As I watched Bridges face and listened to his singing voice I also kept hearing Kris Kristofferson, who would’ve done great honor to the role as well.
The film’s website quotes one of the most famous aphorisms about country music: “It’s three chords and the truth.” That’s what is so powerful about virtually every song by Van Zandt. It’s what’s so riveting about Bridges’ performance as well. You’re not on the outside looking in at this man. You’re right there with him. Every song he sings isn’t an act, it’s the hard-won wisdom of a man down on his luck, but clawing his way back from the brink towards redemption.
I haven’t seen Ajami yet but look forward to doing so. It was the losing nominee from Israel for Best Foreign Film. This is the third year in a row that an Israeli film was nominated and failed to win. Previous nominees were Waltz With Bashir and Beaufort. I was conflicted about the prospects for these films which, in many ways represented conventional liberal Zionist narratives about the Israeli-Arab conflict. But Ajami is different. It was directed by Israeli Jewish and Palestinian co-directors. The actors were largely not professional. Instead they were local residents of the Israeli Palestinian neighborhood, Ajami. This was the hard-luck story of the Israel left behind by the high tech bubble and bronzed bodies of Tel Aviv’s beach culture.
In a true to life story that would’ve fit perfectly into the plot, the Israeli Palestinian director’s two brothers were arrested by Israeli police two weeks before Oscar night for defending local children they claim were burying a family pet, and who police claim were concealing drugs. This is the conflicting narrative that is current Israeli society. The elites see the down and out as the unwashed, the enemy. The underclass see the police and political class as corrupt arbitrary forces that mean them no good.
What concerned me leading up to Oscar night was the embrace that even the most pro-Israel Diaspora Jews and Israeli government were offering the film. I became especially concerned when I heard statements endorsing the film by the director of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival while at the same time she specifically rejected the new documentary about Rachel Corrie’s life as being too downbeat (“the very first scene displays her death!”). Does this woman have a clue what she’s talking about? Ajami isn’t downbeat? Does she know a thing about this real place and the ferocious obstacles its real inhabitants face in living in modern Israel?
The problem with Ajami is it became the nation’s hope even though it ill-fit such a nationalist packaging. Earlier today, the director acknowledged this by renouncing his patriotic duty to represent Israel in the Oscars:
“I am not Israel’s national team and do not represent her,” Copti reportedly said. “It is an extremely technical thing…it says ‘Israel’ because that’s where the money comes from. The film technically represents Israel, but I don’t represent Israel. I cannot represent a country that does not represent me,” he said, according to Army Radio.
In truth, I think that Israel damages its Oscar prospects by representing its nominees as so closely a product of a national film industry and effort. Oscar voters may not dislike Israel per se. But they know things are ugly over there and they’re not inclined to wade into an internethnic conflict to make a statement on behalf of an Israeli film, even one that tells it like it is like Ajami. In future, I’d suggest as Yossi Sarid does here, that the Israeli government let its nominees speak for themselves as films and not place them in the awkward straightjacket of national pride. Israeli triumphalism in film or politics is not a message that resonates with Oscar voters or virtually anyone outside Israel (except perhaps a few thousand hardline pro-Israel Jews).
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- Film casts harsh light on Israel’s other Arab conflict (telegraph.co.uk)
- An Ajami Backgrounder (rabbibrant.com)
- Fabio Periera: Deconstructing Ajami (huffingtonpost.com)
- The real Ajima (warincontext.org)