Why is it that the zeitgeist is so incredibly specific? The spirit of the age, as it were, doesn’t just give us politics, religion, gay marriage, Robin Thicke, and two ABC shows with “B” in the title any more. No, it gives us stories about Judaism, fathers and children, mystic speech, and the (impossible) desire for a language that doesn’t sicken and kill one generation after another.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about two new works that have exactly these themes in common – Ben Marcus’s recent apocalyptic novel The Flame Alphabet and the wonderful 2011 film Footnote, by the Israeli director Joseph Cedar. I don’t have time to talk about Ben Marcus’s book, and my friend Mike has already done a better job in his review of the novel. Instead, I want to talk about Footnote, which I think may be the greatest movie ever.
Well, maybe not the greatest movie ever, but the greatest movie ever made about academics and libraries, and about the existential loneliness they cultivate. The greatest movie ever made about contemporary Talmudic studies, about which I admittedly know nothing. And the greatest movie ever made about microfilm and footnotes.
Footnote is about a father and son, both of whom are celebrated Talmudic scholars and both of whom desire and are granted the top prizes in Israel for biblical scholarship. But the two men are remarkably different, both as professors and individuals, and the conditions of their prizes are in turn a source of conflict. The son, Uriel Skolnik, does sexy, postmodern biblical scholarship, subjecting a structuralist study of gender, community, and ceremonial law in the Torah to thinkers like Levinas. The father, Eliezer Skolnik, represents the opposite pole of scholarly rigor. In public, his son credits the elder Skolnik with having first taught him the one true virtue of being a “teacher” – a label that, in private, we learn his father actually disdained throughout his career. Instead, Eliezer proudly calls himself a “philologist,” and after years and years of painstakingly collating and comparing copies of the Torah by microfilm in the dark vault of the national library, he sees his own son as an uncareful charlatan. Oh, and they work in the same department.
All of this comes to a head in the film when the father, Eliezer, is awarded the prestigious Israeli Prize for Talmudic Studies, an award for which he has been nominating himself for over twenty years. Except, of course, the award was a mistake. As his son learns from the award committee when they phone him urgently, in private, the award was meant to go to Uriel. This isn’t too good, and Uriel, the conscientious, wise, deferential son – who knows all too well that this news will simply kill his father – must then try to protect his father’s public reputation through a series of quiet lies.
What’s so fascinating about Footnote’s premise, I think, is that it inverts the archetypal story of fathers and sons. In the ancient Hebrew and Greek models, the sins of the father are usually visited upon the children, and language as the sign of the father becomes – for Freud and Lacan – a site of anxiety. Here, in Cedar’s film, it is the son’s renewal and generous re-telling of the paternal logos that becomes the source of anxiety and great conflict for the father. Interestingly, the film develops this theme through two competing motifs of language: the footnote and the fortress. The bulk of Eliezer’s bitterness stems from the fact that he has based his entire personal and scholarly reputation as a “philologist” on one footnote, in which he was mentioned by name by his doctoral advisor in what has become the definitive reference work on Talmudic studies. This remarkably slight linguistic sign of intellectual accomplishment, despite Eliezer’s aspergers-like delusions, could hardly be the basis for the Israeli Prize, whereas Uriel’s work on the language of the Talmud was truly profound. Uriel had steadily elaborated throughout his multiple studies of early Jewish law and culture the importance of an entirely different economy of meaning and language than a purely textual one – the image of the fortress, the bulwark of the family and social practice that guards the law and holds its word in perpetuity.
The great irony in Footnote is that “fortress” – as word, as sign – ultimately betrays the son to the father, even as it protects, in a kind of mutual pact of silence, the reputation of both. The film wonderfully evokes this silence throughs scenes of lonely reading in darkened libraries, the silent “E” and “U” sound in Hebrew that sparks much of the confusion in the first place, and a bit of whispering during a ridiculously loud performance (in Israel!) of Fiddler on the Roof. But rather than reveling in that silence as a kind of mystic presence – some kind of cabbalistic solution to the movie’s conflict – Cedar’s film historicizes it. The silence of the two Skolnik men places the generational story of Jewish fathers and sons firmly in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, where the lingering divisions between positivism and theory, the pride of the greatest generation and the self-deprecation of generation x, and the awards and loneliness of academia, just now seem increasingly silly.