Film Reviews: "Between Two Worlds" and "Love Etc."

Two documentaries attempt to address complex issues through the experiences of a few, with mixed results.

06/29/2011
Jewish Week Film Critic
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If you questioned everyone on the No. 4 bus in Manhattan, you might find enough common threads in their stories to draw some larger conclusion about the lives of New Yorkers, their hopes, dreams, loves, hates and so on. At the very least, you might learn something about mass transit. There is a certain hybrid type of documentary that combines several different storylines in almost that fashion, trying to find some deeper truth reflected in the experiences of the multiple protagonists.

You would be better off with the passengers on the bus; you’d have a larger sample to draw on.

Two new documentaries opening at the end of the week attempt to address very, very large questions through the experiences of a small sample. “Between Two Worlds,” produced, written and directed by veteran filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Friedman, takes the controversy at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival over the showing of “Rachel” as the jumping-off point for an examination of ostensibly widening rifts within the Jewish-American community. “Love Etc.,” directed by Jill Andresevic, takes a look at five individual New Yorkers and/or couples, trying to come to some conclusions about the nature of love and happiness. Together, the two films run just a bit over two-and-a-half hours, about the right time needed to cover these two vast subjects, no?

Snitow and Kaufman have a distinguished track record. They have been responsible for several excellent films made for PBS, including “Blacks and Jews” and “Secrets of Silicon Valley.”  The virtues they bring to “Between Two Worlds” are the ones that PBS viewers cherish: balance, calm rationality and a certain detachment. Those are certainly values generally not found in the debates the film touches on, the tensions between left and right in the Jewish-American community, the range of acceptable dissent in that community, the BDS movement and more narrowly focused battles like the dispute over the Mamilla Cemetery and the building of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

Sandwiching all of this, as well as the personal history of the two filmmakers’ families, into a mere 70 minutes, “Between Two Worlds” is a cinematic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder, flitting wildly between subjects, never pursuing a single issue to fruition. The film betrays Snitow’s background in TV news, reducing every controversy to a collation of sound bites and strong visuals, combining this approach with the soothingly anodyne tones of public broadcasting. Voices are almost never raised, nasty invective is mostly alluded to rather than experienced.

More damaging, the film really seems to have no structure rather than the rudimentary one of the year encompassed by the battle over “Rachel” in San Francisco and the following year’s controversy-free SFJFF. “Between Two Worlds” meanders from the free-speech issues that the film showing triggered to Birthright to the Museum of Tolerance to the political uses of the Holocaust to the divisions within Kaufman’s family that included a founding member of the Zionist Organization of America (her father) and a convert to Islam (her sister). And so on.

Every one of these subjects is worthy of a much longer film; the stories of the Snitow and Kaufman families would both make excellent features and are by far the most compelling elements of the movie. But the end result is bland, well-intentioned, platitudinous and much too familiar.

“Love Etc.” sets itself an even more daunting task, especially for a first-time director, and an only-slightly-expanded running time of 95 minutes. Andresevic follows five stories for about a year: an Indian-American couple in Jamaica Hills preparing for marriage; a divorced Jewish construction worker and father looking for a new mate in Forest Hills; two high school seniors wooing in SoHo; an elderly Jewish couple celebrating 48 years of marriage in Canarsie and a gay theater director living in Harlem, preparing for fatherhood while looking for a partner.

Four of these stories are compelling and rich enough to reward feature treatment. The engaged couple struggle with enormous differences in temperament. Ethan, the construction worker-dad, starts seeing the mother of one of his kid’s friends, but cultural differences seem an obstacle (she’s an Argentine Catholic, although not much is made of the religious element). Scott Ellis, the talented theater director, has to find a partner who wants to share the joys of fatherhood, which multiply rapidly when the surrogate mother delivers twins. Albert and Marian Mazur, octogenarian Brooklyn Jews and unsuccessful songwriters but wonderfully buoyant, must deal with her slowly encroaching dementia. These are terrific stories, and one suspects that if she were not saddled with the film’s arbitrary structure, Andresevic might tell any one of them adequately.

It also doesn’t help that the film strains for some overarching message, with participants asked to comment on the meaning of love and relationships. With no disrespect to Gabi, the male half of the teen couple, I don’t think you can learn much about building a long-lasting marriage from an 18-year-old, no matter how charming he may be.

“Between Two Worlds” will be featured at special screenings at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue) on Thursday, June 30 at 6 and 8 p.m. The filmmakers will be present. For information, phone 212-924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com. The film will be available on DVD from http://btwthemovie.org/buy-it-or-book-it.

“Love Etc.” opens July 1 at the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas (143 East Houston St.; 212- 330-8182) and the 86th St. East Cinema (210 E. 86th St.; 212-744-1999).

 

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