Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie Review: Footnote

I just saw a movie entitled Footnote that has already been open and running (and apparently generating a profit) in the United States for six weeks the moral of which is: Don't try to pull one over on a philologist.

Restores just a bit of one's faith in humanity.

I can't say "what's not to love?" because it is, in fact, a flawed film. Narratively there's no real there there, and a lot of intriguing threads are left badly dangling. (Who did steal Uriel's clothes, anyway, and why?)

However and in spite of those flaws, it is the single best movie I have seen in a good long while. The character studies are just genius. I know versions of all of the characters in the film. Down to the details it's a good, honest, humane portrayal of homo academicus. There was something so familiar about the repeated treks back and forth through the library (all the moreso because it was shot in a library in which I've had the privilege of working) that I have to imagine would have been tedious to a lay viewer but were spot on to those of us in the know. I know very senior scholars who scan publications to make sure that they were cited and circle their own references, as Eliezer does. And the references within the film to scholars whose work I know in real life alternate between hilarious and cutting.

The movie traces the lives of father and son Talmud scholars Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik in the weeks between Uriel's induction as a fellow into the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, an honor never bestowed upon Eliezer, and the awarding of the Israel Prize, which was meant to go to Uriel as well, but which is mistakenly awarded to his father. Eliezer considers his son to be a scholarly lightwieght and is increasingly bitter over having been passed over for accolade upon accolade, after a career marked by a a thirty-year philological project that was scooped in an instant by a colleague (now, not coincidentally, head of the Israel Prize jury). Upon being informed of the mistake, and after a brutal argument over the value of truth relative to humanity that turns into a fisticuffs in a tiny windowless room where the chairs have to be rearranged and handed over people's heads any time anyone wants to get up (been there, too!), Uriel hammers out a compromise by which his father will be allowed to keep the prize and the mistake will never be revealed as long as Uriel himself writes the citation for the award and never submits or allows to be submitted his own name for consideration for the prize. While Uriel struggles to write the citation, realizing as he goes that his hero father's career really hasn't amounted to all that much, Eliezer gives an interview to the press in which he unequivocally rubbishes his son's career. When the citation is made public, he begins to realize that there are similarities between its language and his son's writing and no similarities at all between it and the writing of the head of the prize jury, who should have written it. His own skills bring him to the awful truth but also allow him to revel in his misanthropic disdain for all the dilettantes who otherwise populate his field.

At the end of the film we see Eliezer struggle what to do with this knowledge, although we never find out what happens: the biggest hanging thread of them all. Would he even know enough to realize that he had been bested by his son, who allowed idealism, family ties and "niceness" to govern his actions, or would he see that as a flaw, even if what he would have perceived as the correct course of action — admitting and fixing the mistake — would have devastated him? The film exposes as pitiable the high and mighty of our fields. They know the bark of the trees and expect to be adored for it by a word that has stepped back a bit, not wrongly so, to see that there is a forest, as well.

But for all of that, the trees are beautifully illustrated in the film, too. The flipping of pages, the detail of the print and the different types of books, even the imprint of the Magnes Press on the spine of the books on Eliezer's desk mean that the film is not rendering judgment about a school of scholarship, but rather about how scholarship is practiced by men.

I began by saying that the movie had restored my faith in humanity. That's not only because it allowed me to learn that I apparently inhabit a universe in which enough people go to see a movie entitled Footnote about philologists and Talmudists to justify it staying open for over a month. It restores faith itself by being a popular movie about the powers of philology (as Gumbrecht might have had it) but also about the value of writing as a human being, without a library and without footnotes. They're both necessary.

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