Less Is More
04/12/2002
Special To The Jewish Week
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Turn on your television and run the dial. If you have cable, you will find Fox 5, FX, Fox Sports World, Fox News Channel, Fox Movies, Turner Classic Movies, Turner Broadcasting System, the Turner-owned CNN, f/CNN and CNN/SI. One of three daily newspapers in New York is owned by the same company that owns the Fox networks and the Fox movie studio.

All of the magazines published by AOL/TimeWarner, the Warner Brothers studio, and TimeWarner cable, the local carrier for all those TV channels, are owned by a single corporation, which also owns the various Turner networks.

Get the picture?

At a time when media power is concentrated in an ever-decreasing number of hands, diversity of viewpoint, so necessary to a healthy democracy, is endangered.

Which is why this seems like the right time to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Media Arts Fellowship program, which provides financial support to independent voices in the media. In recognition of this landmark, the Museum of Modern Art is showcasing the work of many of the more than 200 film and video artists who have been beneficiaries of the program.

For many of the recipients, the fellowship represents a way to complete a feature film. Among the most memorable results of this relationship on display at MoMA are Chris Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” (Friday, April 12, 1 p.m.); Julie Dash’s masterful “Daughters of the Dust” (Saturday, April 13, 1 p.m.); Elia Suleiman’s meditation on the political situation of a Palestinian family, “Chronicle of a Disappearance” (Sunday, April 14, 3 p.m.); and Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger,” a wonderful injection of the folkloric into daily life in Los Angeles (Monday, April 15, 3 p.m.).

But in some ways the most valuable contribution the program makes is to film and video artists who chose not to work in full-length features. For these men and women, there can be no commercial considerations, as film exhibition patterns make no allowances for works that are an hour or less in length. Four such films in this series will be of considerable interest to Jewish Week readers.

Jay Rosenblatt is a confrontational artist. His films are deliberate provocations that use home movies and found footage from long-forgotten industrial, scientific and theatrical films to challenge our media-shaped view of the world. “King of the Jews,” made in 2000, is an 18-minute essay on how Jesus is depicted by the mass media and how that depection intersects with historical anti-Semitism.

Cunningly structured, the film moves from the personal and verbal — Rosenblatt’s recollections of growing up Jewish in Christian suburbia — through the historical and finally ends in images that combine the meretriciousness of Hollywood spirituality with a more sinister set of echoes. The film, which is being shown on Friday, April 12 at 3 p.m., makes an excellent lead-in to “Color Adjustment,” an incisive examination of how television depicts the African-American experience, by the late Marlon Riggs.

At the risk of upsetting my feminist friends, I would say that the father-son relationship is as fraught as any in human experience.

And I offer in evidence Alan Berliner’s “Nobody’s Business” (Saturday, April 13, 3:15 p.m.), a funny and poignant portrait of the filmmaker’s father. Oscar Berliner is less than happy to be the subject of a documentary, barking at his son, “I’m just an ordinary guy who led an ordinary life.” Alan spent months digging up records of his father’s family history in a shtetl in Poland, only to have his father dismiss the effort with a wave of the hand, “I don’t give a [bleep].” Oscar is profoundly lonely and bitter, a misanthrope who seems never to have recovered from his divorce some four decades earlier. His son pays him the ultimate tribute of allowing his point of view be heard in all its corrosive ill will. The result is witty and sad.

In the works of writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino — and in the thought of the great kabbalists — the world is a gigantic text in which everything exists to be deciphered, a text where no juxtaposition is accidental or casual. In “Lost Book Found” by Jem Cohen, and “Lodz Symphony” by Peter Hutton, New York City and Lodz, Poland, respectively, are treated much the same way, to hypnotic effect. Showing them together (Sunday, April 14, 5:00 p.m.) is a masterstroke.

Hutton’s film is a hauntingly beautiful black-and-white silent rumination on a city still scarred by the Nazi destruction of its Jewish population and by the collapse of its once-powerful textile industry. Hutton renders Lodz in a series of desolate images, disconnected from one another by several seconds of blackness. The streets are always empty, but for a single figure sweeping, one or two bodies gliding soundlessly across the screen, or a handful of chimney sweeps at work, with only television antennae to remind us this was the 20th century and industrial smokestacks against a vacant sky. Roger Greenspun has written that films about the Holocaust try to depict what is missing, for a “cinema of absence.” Hutton’s film is a brilliant effort to show what is no longer there by a combination of hints and allusions and a rhythmic manipulation of time and space.

Cohen’s “Lost Book Found” is a more humorous effort but unmistakably a blood brother to the Hutton film. Ostensibly, his subject is New York City, but he is really more interested in rendering the world as a series of texts to be read in a witty collage-montage of seemingly unrelated images. His New York is a vast library of detritus — graffiti, posters, signs old and new, the rantings of street-corner preachers and the carny-style pitch of bargain basement salesmen. This city is familiar and strange, comforting and disturbing. The same may be said of this clever and, finally, moving film.

“Commitment: The Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowships at 15” will be presented at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) from April 11-15. For scheduling and ticket information, phone (212) 708-9400 or go to the museum’s Web site at www.moma.org.

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