Art Spiegelman just wants to be left alone. Or, rather, he would really like it if parts of his career and biography were minimized, and others celebrated more. The central tension, both in the long conversations he had with University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute, the germ and base level of “MetaMaus” (2011), and now in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s new documentary, “The Art of Spiegleman,” is the anxiety of success. Spiegelman is painfully self-aware that he will be forever known (and, often, only known) for the path breaking Maus (1980-1991); fearful that he will become the “Elie Wiesel of comics”; and worries that he cannot seem to escape the autobiographical voice. Somehow, some way, his career turned from the one he imagined and he’s never been able to get the old one back.
“The Art of Spiegelman,” now screening as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is a medium-length documentary. At 45 minutes, it’s perfect for television. Most of the movie consists of interviews with Spiegelman, though his wife and daughter become increasingly prominent as the movie progresses. There are photographs of Spiegelman’s early years, and archival footage of Spiegelman and his wife printing Raw, the legendary little magazine of what we now call sequential art, but really should just call comics.
Non-Spiegelmans, like the illustrator Charles Burns, make appearances, but they are there to tell personal stories and to contextualize Spiegelman’s life. Learned, bespectacled academics with receding hairlines are sadly absent. This is not a critical documentary devoted to analyzing the contributions Spiegelman made to either his field or the whole of arts and letters, but one that allows him to tell his own story. It is a good, entertaining documentary, though limited by everything just mentioned. Those who already know Spiegelman’s work will wish it cut deeper, while those unfamiliar with his art will only have their interest lightly piqued.
Every frame in Rachel Loube’s “Every Tuesday: A Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists,” now screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, together with “The Art of Spiegelman,” threatens to dissolve into cliché. There is the premise itself: Every Tuesday, New Yorker cartoonists, young and old, submit their work, and then go for lunch. It is a beautiful, invisible New York tradition, the kind that Gay Talese would have celebrated in luxurious prose, the kind that the media is intent on reminding us no longer exist. The restaurant is appropriately shabby. The food scenes are all set to jazz.
There is no question that if “Every Tuesday” were any longer it would become unbearably familiar and impossible to watch. But at 20 minutes, it’s perfect. The cartoonists come alive in short bursts. Zachary Kanin, a Harvard Lampoon alumnus, is legitimately hilarious. Their very different apartments and workspaces quickly tell us about their different styles and approach to the craft. We watch some cartoonists revise and edit their work on imposing Apple Monitors, and others retrace their cartoons on top of a light box. Some aim for perfection, while others have started to embrace artistic imperfection. Wouldn’t it be better if a rectangle weren’t so rectangular?
“Every Tuesday” is everything you want in a short film: It brings you into a unique world, gives you enough information to make you feel like you understand the key issues, and leaves you absolutely wanting more.
Watch a teaser for ‘Every Tuesday’:
Both Jonathan Lee’s “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” a biography of the now obscure New York Intellectual, and Pony Brzezinski and Lina Chaplin’s “Writing as I Should,” a documentary about the late Israeli author Batya Gur, make you want to read more of their subjects’ work, though for opposite reasons. The two films screened November 3 as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which was the initial grounds for comparing them. But watching these two very different takes on two very different writers made me wish that there was a dialogue between them — that “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” had some of the revealing nearness of “Writing as I Should,” and that “Writing As I Should” had more of an outside perspective on the meaning of Gur’s work.
“Paul Goodman Changed My Life” tries and fails spectacularly at capturing every nuance of Goodman’s multifaceted career. The film introduces us to Goodman the poet, Goodman the novelist, Goodman the anarchist, Goodman the social theorist, Goodman the teacher, Goodman the charming guest on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” Goodman the bisexual, Goodman the not-always-affectionate father, and Goodman the jilted elder statesman of the New Left.
The craft of acting, like writing, is a very difficult thing to talk about without sounding like a dallying idiot. Perversely, it’s also one of the hardest topics to stop talking about once you’ve started, since it’s rife with irresolvable quandaries about “intent,” “truth,” and the nature of Little Red Riding Hood’s relationship with her mother. Like all shop talk, it’s a conversation that gets tiresome very quickly for the non-actors in the room.
Such is the problem with “Maya,” the latest effort from director Michal Bat Adam, which screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in November and returns at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival February 13 and 21. This movie can’t stop talking about acting, but it doesn’t know how to do so without sounding like a frustrated high school drama teacher who’s being a little bit condescending. Thus we get helpful tidbits like, “It has to be more real for you”; “You’ve to choose if you want drama or truth”; and my personal favorite, “Acting is not just reciting words from memory.” Yikes.
A tragic event can provide a filmmaker with compelling material for a movie, but simply presenting calamity on the big screen doesn’t necessarily result in a good story. In director Fabian Hofman’s semi-autobiographical “I Miss You” (“Te Extraño”), which screened in November at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and will be shown on January 22 and 23 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, he comes close to making this mistake.
“I Miss You” is about a Jewish family coping with the disappearance of their eldest son, Adrian, during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Fearing for the life of their second son, 15-year-old Javier, the parents send Javier to live with his aunt and uncle in Mexico until some degree of stability is restored back home. During his time away, Javier vacillates between despair over the needless loss of his brother and the impulse to join the remaining members of a resistance group, the Montoneros, to seek revenge.
In the aftermath of Israel’s victory over Egypt and Syria — key Soviet allies — in the 1967 Six Day War, the Soviet Politburo, which had already barred Jews from positions in the Communist Party, seized on the war as a way to weaken Poland’s opposition movement and purge what they labeled the Jewish “fifth column.” As a result, many Poles — regardless of whether or not they were Jews — were branded as Zionists and stripped of citizenship. “Little Rose,” a film set in Warsaw in the days leading up to 1968’s student riots, tells the story of one of them.
The film, which won the top award at this year’s Polish Film Festival, and screens on November 14 as the closing film at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is based loosely on the life of the Polish writer Paweł Jasienica. After Jasienica’s death, it emerged that his wife had been an agent of the security services and had informed on her husband for years, to the point of reporting on his funeral. In “Little Rose,” director Jan Kidawa-Błonski turns his focus to the informant herself. Like the 2006 German film “The Lives of Others,” “Little Rose” is a compelling portrait of Soviet repression and its insidious perversion of love.