Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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The Pawnbroker and other things.

One of my classes this semester was "Genre." The subject material changes according to the professor and what they are pursuing. I was therefore quite surprised to find that the topic of the course I enrolled in was "The American Jewish Experience on Film."

Now, I am not religious at all*; organized religion to me is a series of mythologies and superstitions organized into an oppressive system. While I do accept that religion serves certain purposes in other people's lives, I have no real use for it myself. Furthermore, I absolutely loathe Hebrew, and proceeded to forget as much about it as is humanly possible after my Bar Mitzvah.

Happily, Professor Goldman is not concentrating on religion at all, but rather upon Jews as an ethnicity. There is a certain part of me that does indeed relate, on an ethnic level, to my Jewish background. I mentioned before how I love the holiday of Passover, not because of any spiritual reason, but because it is a family gathering and a ritual that is enjoyable.

The course therefore examines different aspects of Jewish identity in America over the course of the Twentieth Century. This touches on the plight of immigrants and the pull to abandon a more specific identity in favor of the larger, American über-identity.

One of the reasons why I am so happy to be back in school is that often film studies professors will illustrate their points with films that are not easily found. Royal Brown did this, and through him, I was introduced to such unusual filmmakers as Alain Robbe-Grillet and some of the more experimental films of more familiar directors, such as Robert Altman (two of his most important films, Images and Three Women, are now available on home video for the first time as special edition DVDs).

A film that has not been available for some time (it was released in December of last year by Artisan), but which I have heard about, both as a film stuydent and as a film score enthusiast, is Sydney Lumet's 1964 film The Pawnbroker.

The film is based around a hypnotic central performance by the vastly underrated Rod Steiger, whose ability to convey a completely emotionally numbed character while still evoking empathy is amazing. He plays a concentration camp survivor named Sol who lost everything that he has ever cared about. He is already dead, weighed down by the sorrow of having lost his wife and children, by having been a victim of numerous atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, by enormous feelings of guilt at having survived... and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the many arresting images in the film.

Boris Kaufman's austere black and white photography is something to behold, and the supporting cast is outstanding. Each time the viewer feels that they have been taken to the edge, the film goes a bit further, examining issues that run deeper and deeper.

The unfortunately out-of-print soundtrack album

Another element of this film that bears particular mention is Quincy Jones' evocative music. His "Soul Bossa Nova," which has grown in notoriety since its use as the opening titles in the Austin Powers pictures, is heard here, along with many other excellent source cues, but it is his dramatic sensibilities that, in the end, show how effective a film score can be. Each time the music score appears, it is so potent that it was remarked upon by several of my classmates. The music commands attention (it is very prominent in the sound mix), and is a masterpiece.

The Pawnbroker is one of the most powerful films that I have ever seen. It is the kind of film that I will own, even if I won't watch it very often, as it is a very painful experience.

If one is wondering why I am raving about such a harsh movie (I know at least one person who probably is), let me explain that if one views cinema as an art form, one must accept that there is a full range of human emotions that it can convey. Some of them can be unpleasant, as humans are wont to be. If a film moves me, even if it is a hard experience, then the artists that created the film were successful.

In the case of The Pawnbroker, as depressing as the film is (and it is one of the most depressing films I have ever seen, up there with Bertrand Tavernier's L'Passion d'Beatrice), it nevertheless leaves me with an ultimately positive feeling for two reasons. The first is that it proves that cinema can do something like what The Pawnbroker accomplishes. The second is that the depths to which Sol plummets, while understandable, are a sharp contrast to my own life.

The Pawnbroker is not an easy film to watch. If it was, it wouldn't have been worth a damn. Instead, it is courageous and frightening, a damning portrait of how inhumanity breeds inhumanity, unflinchingly dealing with the horrors that man can bring upon himself.

I saw this film several weeks ago, but it took me some time to process it. The impetus for me actually writing an entry about it was actually a pop quiz that was issued in the class today.

Incidentally, why is it that the room next door to this class seems to be hosting the class "Advanced Hot Chicks 301?"

Powdermaker Hall, Room 117

Trivia Time

Can anybody guess the source of this quote:
"How can I explain Nazis? I don't even know how the can opener works!"

* Now, while I do reject religion and rely upon science with regards to my overall worldview, I also have to say that my own life experiences have led me to qualify that not everything in the universe is explainable by science. I am not attributing these so-called "supernatural" things to any sort of deity, especially the monomaniac described in the Judeo/Christian/Muslim/Whatever traditon, but rather to unstudied aspects of nature that have formed the world we know of today. It is no coincidence that one of my icons is Egon Spengler.
Tags: cinema, film music
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