“Footnote” by Joseph Cedar

Chasing the Wind

Some people believe life is ruled by fate, which implies a predetermined order of things. Others say fate is just pure chance, suggesting we live in cosmic chaos.

Fate or chance?

No one has a clue, and no one ever will. But that’s okay. What matters is that sometimes the consequences of either are absurd.

So absurd that all we can do is watch and laugh our heads off. 

Footnote (2011), Joseph Cedar’s comedy-drama, tells an interesting story about three distinguished Talmud scholars.

Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a lecturer at the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a creature of habit if there ever was one. Rain or shine, he walks from home to the library every day, always by the same route, and studies in the same carrel, wearing headphones to cut himself off from the outside world.

His proudest achievement is a footnote dedicated to him by the famous Y.N. Feinstein, not to be confused with Einstein.

Does that mean he’s stupid, or lazy?

Not at all. He is a fine, honest, meticulous scholar of the old school.

The problem is, he has too many enemies.

Other than that, Professor Eliezer Shkolnik is a very odd fellow, maybe even a little meshuga. When others are busy networking and self-promoting at conferences, congresses, fundraisers held by the “friends of the university,” and whatnot, he pores over books, searching for truth, however corny that may sound (by the way, shkolnik is Russian for student). Worse, he has no mercy for the dilettantes and folklorists sowing confusion in his field, or for their fashionable pseudo-scientific piffle.

He doesn’t belong to any coterie, clique, old boys’ club, or other mutual adoration society.

He is a minority of one, the most vulnerable of all.

To quote one of his colleagues, (…) he is the greatest researcher of our times. He has an integrity that you don’t find in the faculty anymore. Or anywhere else.

In a different world he would probably be cloned or declared an endangered species, like the tiger or the gorilla, and protected from extinction. But since he is the wrong specimen of the wrong species, he slogs through life, ignored and sidelined, in an increasingly hostile environment.

Why hostile?

Because our postmodern world – the world of muddleheaded scholars, driveling philosophers, philistine artists, goofy influencers, fake news, alt-facts, and insane commercialism – has no use for suckers like him.

This world promotes, and amply rewards, role models cut from an altogether different cloth.

Among the heroes of our time is Professor Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), Eliezer’s ambitious son, a rising star of the post-truth era in academia and beyond.

Shkolnik père and Shkolnik fils are a study in contrasts.

Uriel, unlike his cranky father, is sociable and very popular. He is a smooth talker, of course, and a fun guy to be around, as you can imagine. But behind that grinning mask lurks a narcissistic bully. A friend of his said, You want to be on his good side. He won’t harass you or anything like that, but…if you disagree with him, even on the smallest of subjects, you’ll be out of the department within a couple of years. He expects you to be in a constant state of mild admiration. Is it any wonder Uriel is in conflict with his teenage son?

Uriel, in stark contrast to his father, is a conformist. He is pragmatic to the core. He knows, for instance, that it doesn’t pay to be a real scholar these days and, understandably, he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. His wife Dikla (Alma Zack), a sharp-eyed observer, summed him up best: You’re a coward… [Eliezer] follows his truth to the bitter end, and is willing to pay the price. You’re a nice man, who’s afraid to confront others, me included. As you would expect, Uriel doesn’t get along with his uncompromising father. 

Eliezer is the department’s best-kept secret, while Uriel basks in scholastic glory. True, the younger Shkolnik doesn’t bother with solid research or strong evidence for his startling discoveries because he is always in a hurry, always on the move. You can’t work on it for eighty years, he says, referring to one of his numerous projects. You have to keep moving or you’ll fall back. 

All this in a field known for the painstaking manner in which truth is established.

But since there are no truths, only interpretations, why bother?

It’s important to be practical and not to waste time on minutiae, right? 

Everything in this world is relative, subjective, uncertain, ambiguous, abstruse or so vague as to be open to all kinds of interpretations, often contradictory, and there are mouths to be fed, too; so let’s not be judgmental.

Let’s be tolerant and inclusive, always. 

Professor Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn) is a celebrity scholar with tremendous clout in academe. Grossman is one of those shadowy, behind-the-scenes puppet masters who think they have the godlike power to decide people’s lives. He paves the way to fame for some, e.g. Uriel, or makes life miserable for others, like Eliezer. At one time Yehuda Grossman and Eliezer Shkolnik were looking for a coveted manuscript, a different version of the Jerusalem Talmud. But while Eliezer went over thousands of books to find it, Grossman stumbled across it in an Italian monastery and published his discovery ahead of Eliezer.

Chance or fate?

Either way, Grossman, like all fakers or impostors, lives in constant fear of being exposed. And, out of fear, he blocks Eliezer’s progress, hides manuscripts from him, sabotages him, and even awards Shkolnik the son to spite Shkolnik the father.

Oh well, as Joseph Cedar said at New York’s Yeshiva University, there is a Grossman in everyone’s life. (YouTube, February 27, 2012) 

Then again, Grossman is a sacred cow, a pillar of society, so he can do no wrong. Unless he goes politically incorrect, or self-destructs in some other way, he has nothing to fear.  

Finally, after a twenty-year wait, Professor Eliezer Shkolnik gets the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, which upends his life, and then…. No, I’m not going to reveal all the twists and turns here. Just do yourself a favor and see the movie because it’s really worth it.

Like all memorable films, Footnote has its share of memorable moments.

Take, for example, the scene where Uriel sports borrowed fencing gear after his clothes are stolen at the swimming pool. This whole incident is more significant than it seems, because it foreshadows Uriel’s fight with Grossman for Eliezer’s good name, call it a verbal fencing match if you like.

Try the scene where Grossman and his pals on the prize committee have a sit-down with Uriel in a laughably small room (the university, as David Lodge would say, is a small world) to decide who should receive the Israel Prize or, rather, who shouldn’t.

Or sample the last scene where Eliezer and his wife Yehudit (Alisa Rosen) arrive for the general rehearsal before the Big Day, take the elevator underground (to the underworld? to Hades? to Sheol?), wander through the maze-like corridors, and meet a group of ballet dancers, of all people. Then the make-believe awards ceremony starts, with step-by-step instructions on where to walk, when to turn, where to stop, who to shake hands with, what to do next. Eliezer, who – well, let’s face it – looks a bit like a clockwork dummy, crosses the room, approaches the Prime Minister, holds out his hands for the prize, and grasps nothing but air. 

This reminds me of a story about the Polish artist Bronisław Linke, whose last name roughly translates as rope.

One day a writer friend visited Linke in his Warsaw studio. It was spring and the bright sunlight was flooding in through the open window. Workers were fixing something on the roof opposite. Suddenly one of them yelled: Linke! Hey! Linke!

See? said Linke, with a straight face. This is real fame!

He came up to the window and bowed to the worker, who was tying a bucket of mortar to the end of a rope.

For more information about Bronisław Linke, click on https://culture.pl/en/artist/bronislaw-wojciech-linke

 

 

©  by Krzysztof Mąkosa

 

 

Director: Joseph Cedar

Writer: Joseph Cedar

Cinematography: Yaron Scharf

Music: Amit Poznansky

Starring: Shlomo Bar Aba (Eliezer Shkolnik), Lior Ashkenazi (Uriel Shkolnik), Alisa Rosen (Yehudit Shkolnik), Alma Zack (Dikla Shkolnik), Daniel Markovich (Josh Shkolnik), Micah Lewensohn (Yehuda Grossman), Yuval Scharf (Noa the reporter), et al.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

komentarzy

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