Contemporary psychology encourages us not to blame our parents for how we live our lives. While I agree with this as an aspiration, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
There is wonderful scene in Jennifer Westfeldt’s (Jon Hamm’s girlfriend) movie Ira & Abby where a couple trying to work out their issues have a meeting with their therapists -and their parents and their parents’ therapists. When the aforementioned issue sparks a heated debate, the therapist played by Robert Kline asserts “Blame is good.”
This issue struck me watching two seemingly unrelated documentaries at this year’s festival.
When Jews make the toast L’Chaim (To Life!), it is done with fervent joy, intended as a celebration of life -the converse of the French C’est la vie, most often used cynically or in a spirit of resignation. I understand this seems completely counterintuitive, but là voilà, there you have it.
So, I was expecting a documentary with this title to be a celebration of life. After all, the festival’s description of its subject Chaim Lubelski was that he is a “scholar” and “was once part of the St. Tropez jet set and had a successful career as a businessman in New York.” I was expecting an Israeli version of Supermensch.
The movie’s Facebook page describes him more accurately as a “charismatic man.”
Oy vey, was I misled. This is one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, surely made more so by my heightened expectations.
Scholar…? Yes, if one is comparing him to another very religious man like say, ….Pat Robertson. Chaim is very religious; very religious Jews spend a significant portion of their lives studying the Torah and the Talmud, and they tend to have a lot of books.
Jet Setter…? He has friends in St. Tropez, France. So do I, but I’m not (yet) a Jet Setter. The man who wrote the book on the Jet Set, Massimo Gargia, was essentially a gigolo. The Jet Set is not made up of business people, it is populated by those with inherited wealth, titles, and good-looking prostitutes such as the author. Also, not so many Jews.
Successful business man…? I would say he used his personal geography to his advantage. He imported Levi’s jeans from Brooklyn to Israel the moment before ebay could kill such an opportunity. He made millions of dollars in a short time and spent it just as quickly. He dealt drugs for a time but never branched out into a record label or clothing line.
One could perhaps say he was a hippie; he wandered from place to place with no clear goal during the late 1960s when many people did the same. He had a talent for chess, but lacked the will or self-belief to stick with it.
His other life, exaggerated above, is a distant memory. He only revisits it when prompted by the movie’s director Elkan Spiller, his cousin. He lives in the present.
A conversation midway through the movie made me think this movie was intended to record his mother’s experiences in a Concentration Camp during the Holocaust. The director, his cousin, is also a child of survivors.
He lives to care for her. He clearly loves his mother but it’s not an easy task. He is able to meet her needs because of his deep religious conviction that caring for her is his duty and smoking hashish to ease the stress.
I concede there is a necessary glut of Holocaust documentaries, but few of them bear witness to a form of PTSD called Second Generation Syndrome. First recognized in Israel, it is trauma that Holocaust survivors pass on to their children whether they discussed their experiences or not.
The singer I mention in my review of Cupcakes, Mike Brant, suffered from this condition which contributed to his suicide.
This condition is clearly part of Chaim’s family. His sister battled addiction until it killed her; Chaim goes to great lengths to conceal her fate from his mother fearing it will be too much to bear. Sadly, it seems to be the right choice. That his life apart from her was aimless and now only has direction as her caretaker seems to fit this condition.
Chaim looks like a Jewish Fidel Castro; it’s funny when he’s in temple, but it’s a sad kind of funny. He doesn’t care what he looks like, doesn’t care to have friends, he’s only alive for his mother and once she dies, he has to go on because his religious beliefs don’t allow for the option of suicide.
“My whole attitude to life is good in a negative sense. I see now what my parents saw. Everything in life, the hustle and bustle, is an illusion, nothing has value.”
“Fear is genetic for Jews. It followed my family from Russia, to Poland, to Belgium.”
Oy. It’s no wonder Jewish holidays celebrating suffering.
SlingShot is a documentary about another Jewish man and his family.
Dean Kamen invented the Segway. He is the actual inventor, not the guy that died on one. That guy was Jimi Heselden who owned the company that made Segways. RIP.
Dean grew up in a happy, not-as-religious Jewish home. His father was an illustrator who worked at home after the family ate dinner. Dean assumed his father loathed his job when he asked him why he had to work at home.
His father answered that he loved his job, he was grateful that he could continue to work in the evenings.
Dean learned that not only should you choose to do something you love but also not to assume something negative can’t be immanently positive.
So when he reveals that he has dyslexia, he explains it as an asset that helped him learn engineering. Better than most, it’s clear.
SlingShot refers to his most recent invention and should make him more famous than the Segway, which I believe is a few decades ahead of its time.
When Kamen learned that lack of access to clean water could empty half of the world’s hospital beds, he set out to invent a solution.
He created a portable machine, the SlingShot, that recreates the process by which water is renewed in the atmosphere. Any fluid can be introduced and clean distilled water will exit.
It’s taken several adaptations to make the machine portable enough to be able to be used in the underdeveloped regions of third world countries where access to electricity is unreliable.
Once he had a functioning prototype, he approached the UN to help make it accessible to those who needed it.
You will be shocked, shocked (!) to learn that the UN’s response was a collective shrugging of shoulders. Um, isn’t this the kind of project for which they exist?
Peu importe. Kamen was smart enough not to fight City Hall, I mean the United Nations, and he set about finding a distributor. It didn’t take him long to realize that there is a potable beverage that somehow finds its way to the most remote corners of the globe: Coca-Cola.
He was also smart enough not to lose his focus by worrying about partnering with a company that makes a product almost as deadly as tobacco.
They agreed to help him if he helped them, and you can see and use the beverage dispensers he redesigned for them in Five Guys Burger shops.
He’s going to literally save the world.
Aside: this past Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes‘ lead story was about how there is a clean water crisis in the United States. Currently, it is being addressed by ireparably depleting the water table (scary) and recycling sewage water (gross). No mention was made of SlingShot. Pourquoi?
His parents are very proud, as one would expect. But one might not expect them to be completely okay with what he calls the most confident decision he’s ever made: not to have children.
They, and many of the young people he’s mentored through his First Robotics Competition, are convinced he would make a wonderful father. He doesn’t disagree.
Kamen contends that having a child would take away his most precious resource: time. He has so many projects he feels compelled to realize that he knows he couldn’t possibly be the kind of father he had and do his work, necessary for mankind, at the same time.
In other words, his father was so wonderful that he inspired his son not to have children. And his parents don’t kvetch or nag him about this or his not having a wife.
Both of these men are following the Sixth Commandment: to honor one’s parents, but in markedly different ways. Their happiness, or lack thereof, is clearly evident in the lives these men have lived.
L’Chaim: To Life! : Germany, 2014, 88 min., German with English subtitles, Wednesday, November 19th at 6:00pm Plaza Frontenac
Slingshot: U.S./Paraguay/Ghana, 2013, 93 min. Friday, November 21st at 7:30pm Webster University, Moore Auditorium