Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sidney Lumet: An Appreciation and Jewish Perspective

The death of the great movie director Sidney Lumet reminds us that it isn't hard to distinguish a Lumet film. They are often filled with emotional grittiness. Challenging from the moment they start to the very end, they move quickly from scene to scene, barely giving audiences a chance to breath. He had "the touch" because his films were recognizable -- done with such an eye for detail, from the cinematography to the smallest object on a shelf. From each detail of the film, he utilized his creative imagination -- but it had to be authentic, in its service to the hard-hitting and (often) to a social conscience story.

The first Lumet film I remember is "The Pawnbroker." Tackling the subjects of the Holocaust and the poverty in Harlem, in one deeply etched, visual scream -- his scenes were layered with quick cuts of images and flashbacks. They brought the viewer into the mind of this Holocaust survivor even as it showed the inner city life of Harlem. By doing this, he constructed a landscape of suffering and the struggle to survive.

Yet Lumet didn't work in abstractions. He made it real. The details of every scene reflected the story Lumet wanted to portray. He even made this film very personal, by having his father Baruch Lumet in the role of a European Orthodox Jew. In one of the dream sequences, we see Lumet's father, Baruch, at a family picnic in Europe, and we know he will die in the Holocaust. Nevertheless Lumet doesn’t give in to pity and sentimentality. In this film, the force of the acting he extracts from Rod Steiger as the survivor Nazerman, transcends any sense of pity and breaks through the classical meaning of tragedy. All we do is fear.

Young Sidney acted on the Yiddish stage and in Yiddish film, starting at the age of four. His parents were in the Yiddish Art Theatre of Maurice Schwartz and the plays were by the great playwrights of the day, both Jewish and European. They performed Shakespeare, Russian plays, as well as Jewish content plays with a social message. Often the plays were about the “outsider” who was either an accused criminal seeking justice like Alfred Dreyfus or about other historic events when Jews were persecuted.

One of the Jewish roles (not Yiddish) Lumet most remembered was being in Kurt Weill’s 1937 pageant opera “The Eternal Road” directed by the great German director Max Reinhardt. He played “the estranged one’s son” and sang tenor. When interviewed he reflected on how it was this production that made him realize how great theatre and spectacle were and he realized this was the career for him.

Surely, the historic material must have affected him, as well. The opera, a six-hour extravaganza, is about the history of the suffering and persecution of the Jewish people over the millennia. It was specifically done as a protest to what was going on in Nazi Europe at the time and the world Kurt Weill had to leave.

Growing up in this milieu it is no wonder that Lumet as a young director after World War II, chose stories (starting out in early television) with lots of drama and a social message. Similarly to the filmmaker Jules Dassin (“The Naked City,” “Night and the City,” “Rififi”) who also came out of the Yiddish Theatre, he showed the city as a real character and would incorporate the action of the city and the personality of urban life (he mostly used New York City) as a counterpoint to the action in service to the story.

He was a stickler for this level of realism even when faced with the Hollywood studio system. In his memoir “Making Movies,” he tells the story of when Herman Wouk’s book “Marjorie Morningstar,” about the Jewish nouveau riche, was about to be made into a film. Lumet actually sought out to be the director because he was afraid of how it would be done. His fears were not unfounded.

Brought to Hollywood for a meeting with Jack Warner, he was about to walk into Warner’s plush office suite when he noticed the designs for the Catskill Jewish resorts where some of the early parts of the story are set. He looked at them and saw that they were the latest in Los Angeles “spa chic” and didn’t look at all like the simple camp-style of bungalows that the Catskill resorts were made of. So in their conversation, Lumet mentioned that he had seen the design renderings and they didn’t seem very authentic. Warner shot back, “"I want to make it a universal picture, one that will appeal to audiences everywhere." Lumet replied, "So does that mean that you aren't going to hire any Jewish actors?" The interview ended quickly and Lumet was on the next plane back to New York. He didn’t get the job.

Ultimately, though, it is Sidney Lumet who is the protagonist in his films. Having this strong connection to a prophetic Jewish social consciousness, Lumet looked for stories that he could “feel” with his heart and his mind, as he writes in "Making Movies." They are about the little guy, one could even say the schlemiel or Jewish anti-hero, who battles the system. “12 Angry Men,” “Fail Safe,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City,” “Network,” “The Verdict,” -- they have become part of cinematic vocabulary as “one of the best” and are unique in the way they depict the outsider, seeking justice. And yet there is still a Yiddish style shrug, "sometimes you win and sometimes you lose."

Lumet’s strong sense of authenticity led him to portray the inner and outer forces around being the “outsider” seeking justice relentlessly, as in the Biblical tradition of Deuteronomy 16:20, “tzedek, tzedek tirdoff – justice, justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live.

No comments: