Dancing Jews and Fancy Shoes
No-one with any say in the matter would want their lovingly-made movie to only run in theatres for a week, and so with a new stellar conflict movie looming, not to mention the grisly onset of a mob of singing cats, people with big studios behind them have been holding off on releasing any new films. This has been happening for a few years now, which means that early December has become a bit of an opportunity for documentaries to get a bigger release than usual, filling the result gap.
It's still not necessarily a very big gap, which is why Max Lewkowicz's Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles was only running once a day, usually at lunchtimes, at the local multiplex. It is fair to assume this impacted on its audience – I like to think more sympathetic scheduling would have meant more people seeing it. The alternative, that there is no audience for a film celebrating Fiddler on the Roof, is too grim to contemplate.
The movie does all the usual things, covering the origins, historical context, creation, initial staging, etc etc, of this beloved and extraordinarily successful Broadway musical (one of the many factoids the film reveals is that the curtain has gone up on a performance of the show at least once a day, every day since it opened in 1964).
There is, as you can perhaps imagine, a lot of ground to be covered here, and the film does not seem to approach its task with a great deal of focus or discipline: it is, to be honest, all over the place in this regard. However, it stays very watchable, partly because Fiddler on the Roof is such a wonderful show, partly because of the quality of the interviews and clips it has managed to hunt up. Norman Jewison, director of the movie, reveals he is not in fact Jewish. Topol informs us that his performance of 'If I Were A Rich Man' was informed by a bad case of toothache. The Temptations appear in archive footage singing a very funky version of the same song; a slightly more aggressive version also appears, courtesy of the punk band Yidcore. A more youthful Topol appears, singing in Hebrew with Danny Kaye.
The problem faced by any of these celebratory films is that they make you want to stop watching them and watch the thing they're actually celebrating instead: I imagine I will be watching the movie again at some point over the next few weeks, and I am quite sorry not to be able to watch the productions featured here in full: there's a Broadway revival, a British show with Omid Djalili as Tevye, a Japanese production, a university show from Thailand, and so on. I think I would happily watch them all.
What the film makes clear is that Fiddler on the Roof, a film concerned with a very specific time, place and outlook, finds an audience wherever it goes – 'It's so Japanese,' one of the producers of the Tokyo version apparently told his counterpart from the States, 'how do Americans understand it?'. Quite how something so personal finds such universal appeal is more than a film like this can deal with, properly: it is the paradox at the heart of all great art. This movie is a cheerful reminder of this and much else besides.
Four times as many people turned up to see Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker, another beneficiary of the December documentary boom. (Or, to put it another way, four people turned up.) The subject of the film is Imelda Marcos, whom we initially encounter cruising around downtown Manila, literally throwing money at poor children, in full view of the documentary camera. At once questions pile up like diamante slingbacks: is she aware how she is coming across? Does she even care?
Mrs Marcos' happiness to talk about her role as mother of her nation, and possibly the world, bringer of world peace, ender of the cold war, etc, etc, certainly suggests answers to some of these, and the director is bright enough to realise that all she needs to do is let her subject talk, while occasionally inserting a contribution from another interviewee with, maybe, more of a grip on reality (which is to say, any kind of grip on reality). 'We had to find a place with no people where the animals could live,' recalls Mrs M, thinking of her crack-brained scheme to start a safari park with imported giraffes in the Philippines in 1976. This is immediately followed by the appearance of one of the villagers who were forcibly displaced to make room for the giraffes, to give her side of the story.
Any suggestion that the Philippines under the Marcos regime was not heaven on Earth – one is tempted to say anything resembling a criticism at all – pings off Mrs Marcos' gargantuan self-regard like pea-shooter pellets bouncing off a zeppelin. The effect is initially blackly funny – she resembles a grotesque joke more than anything else – but then a subplot about her attempts to get her son Bongbong elected to the vice-presidency becomes central, and everything takes a darker turn.
The Marcos clan, it seems, have retained a sizeable chunk of the vast sum of money they embezzled from the government – Mrs M's personal fortune is apparently somewhere in the region of thirty billion dollars – and they have used this to facilitate the election of Trump-like hardman Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines. Duterte seems to be hard at work rehabilitating the Marcos' reputation, and it does seem that there are forces in play who are reluctant to let anything as trivial as a democratic vote stop Bongbong taking his rightful place in power. It makes for an ominous, even chilling conclusion to the movie. As character flaws go, corruption, egomania, and a flexible attitude to the truth are not hardly the sole preserve of political leaders in Asia, but if the likes of the Marcos family can make a comeback, we really are in trouble as a species. Nevertheless, this is a very intelligent and well-constructed movie.