I belong to the Samuel Goldwyn (film) school of thought. The Hollywood mogul once reportedly asked: "Why should people go out and pay money to see bad films when they can stay home and see bad television for nothing?" Hence, when it comes to the silver screen, I'm more often in the metaphorical dark than in a darkened theater. Most of what I know about movies I learn from reading the reviews and watching TV promos that show all you've got coming (to a theater near you) and, similar to the films themselves, leave almost nothing for the imagination.
A few movies have profoundly affected my life, but they were mainly at a formative stage: Discovering the fate of Bambi's mother was probably the curtain-raiser for my later vegetarianism and involvement in animal welfare, and I still believe, a la Mary Poppins, that there is no limit to what a woman can fit into her bag with a bit of imagination.
I also patriotically like watching, if not the movies, the progress of the Israeli film industry. Judging by the results of blue-and-white movies at recent international festivals, we might be losing many battles but in the cinema we are on a winning streak.
Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, the story of the last IDF unit stationed in Lebanon, won the Silver Bear when it premiered at the ultra-competitive Berlin Film Festival; Dror Shaul's depiction of a highly disturbing childhood on a kibbutz, Sweet Mud, which also won an Ophir (rather bombastically known locally as the Israeli Oscar), was awarded the World Cinema Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival; the documentary, Hot House, about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, directed by Shimon Dotan, garnered a Special Jury Prize in the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition. And Ari Sandel's West Bank Story, which Post Hollywood correspondent Tom Tugend noted "may not be as well known as [Clint] Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, but is a lot funnier" made some Jewish and Palestinian mothers proud when it won an Academy Award this week in the Best Short Film - Live Action category. The plot unfolds around competing West Bank felafel stands, the Israeli Kosher King and the Palestinian Humous Hut.
We've come a long way since the days of what are known in Hebrew as sirtei burekas (burekas movies), a genre known for its slapstick coarse comedy and Israeli ethnic stereotypes (they nearly all seemed to star Ze'ev Revach and Arye Elias), and the melodramatic "seret Turki" (Turkish movie) that made up so much of the bad television and films of the 1970s.
Those movies might have been eminently forgettable but at least there was a certain naivete. Nowadays, people seem to be running from escapism: When the plots of our top screen savers are based on the Lebanon War, a dysfunctional family on an unforgiving kibbutz and the Israeli-Palestinian security situation, can you blame me for just wanting to curl up in bed with a good book? As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: "A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theater admission and the babysitter were worth it."
Reel-life obviously intrudes now and again - and it's not a pretty picture: My favorite Israeli film is also a war movie, or more to the point an anti-war movie - which are locally far more popular. Avanti Popolo follows the story of two Egyptian soldiers, one a Shakespearean actor, stranded in Sinai during the Six Day War. The entrance fee and babysitter are more than covered in the scene in which the Egyptian actor performs Shylock's "If you prick us, do we not bleed" speech when he is captured by Israeli soldiers. I haven't made it to Beaufort yet, but I dutifully attended Ricochet (Shtei etzbaot meTziddon), on the first Lebanese war, which was, believe me, no funnier than any other war, although I recall the army cook in the film version comically explaining how everyone is literally gunning for him.
Eyzeh seret, as Israelis say. "What a film," as the phrase goes, is used to cover any negative experience, something that almost mov(i)ed you to tears, as it were.
The prize-winning might be unprecedented, but the filmmaker's focus is nothing new. As we say over here, Baseret hazeh hayinu ("We've been in that movie"), used to connote a feeling of deja vu.
Still, the country is obviously growing up: Yossi & Jagger, the 2002 movie about the homosexual love affair between two IDF officers serving on the Lebanese border, is a different world (or a "different opera" - opera aheret - as the Hebrew puts it) to the 1976 comic cult classic Givat Halfon Eina Ona (Givat Halfon Doesn't Answer) in which the love affairs were straight farce.
But at least we can still laugh at ourselves. As Ruvik Rosenthal's seminal Dictionary of Israeli Slang sums it up under the entry for blue movie (seret kachol): "Why does a Polaniya [a Jewish mother of any ethnic background] watch a blue movie all the way through? Because perhaps they'll get married in the end."