Thursday, February 27, 2014

Is Everything Awesome, or Should We Just Let It Go?

Much as I love movies, with an eight-year-old and a five-year-old at home, more often than not our movie going these days involves family-friendly fare.  And recent releases have fallen squarely into my kids' wheelhouses.  The Disney concoction "Frozen" gave our daughter not one, but two princesses to admire (and dress up as).  More recently, "The Lego Movie" took our son's favorite playthings and brought them to life.  Both films have done incredibly well at the box office, and their built-in kid appeal makes it easy to see why.  But when even the critics are taking the time and the column-inches to gush over these movies as though they were on par with Bergman or Fellini, one has to acknowledge that there's something deeper at work.

While I enjoyed both films, I felt that "Frozen" was more successful in its story telling.  Let's be frank: "Frozen" was designed to help sell princess dresses, dolls, and theme park tickets just as much as "The Lego Movie" was designed to sell interlocking brick sets.  Disney's production team was just able to make the commercialism a bit less obvious, beginning with the fact that they didn't blatantly call their film, "The Movie That Will Force Your Parents To Take You To Anaheim or Orlando to Meet Anna and Elsa in Person."

But when you slice through the merchandising ploys, you find that these are "message movies," mores than they initially let on.  "Frozen" celebrates being yourself and [minor SPOILER ALERT] sibling love, assisted by catchy melodies  worthy of the Broadway stage.  "The Lego Movie" uses its earworm of a theme song (with emphasis on the wrong syllable!) to drive home [SPOILERS AHEAD] the importance of teamwork, the power of creative play, and the idea that one does not need to have particularly special talents or outstanding features in order to be truly special.

Used for illustrative purposes only.  I claim no ownership.  Disney please don't sue me.

Warning: This song WILL get stuck in your head.

Coincidentally, some of these same themes are played out in this week's Torah portion, Pekuday.  In it, the mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness, is finally erected.  A careful accounting is taken of all the furnishings, equipment, and priestly vestments that will be needed as part of the function of this facility.

In many years (but not in 5774), Pekuday is read as a double portion with the preceding portion Vayakhel.  When this occurs, we get a fuller picture of what is needed to create the mishkan: not only material goods, but also skilled craftsmen to bring the vision to realization.  Bezalel (from the tribe of Judah) and Oholiab (from the tribe of Dan) are selected as the foremen for the project.  Bezalel is skilled in construction and metallurgy; Oholiab is a weaver whose forte is textiles.  Only by banding together, and using the innate powers and skills within each of them, can the mishkan be built.  And once it is built, it will be an equal-opportunity edifice, a house of prayer for all the "brothers and sisters" of Israel (are we sensing a theme here?).

One final thought: As I started thinking about it, I realized that there are other Jewish connections in these movies as well.  The names of each of the key characters can be linked to Hebrew words.  For instance, the central character of "The Lego Movie" is Emmet- not a far cry from אמת, (emet), meaning "truth."  When we acknowledge the special nature that God has implanted within each of us, we see the truth of our own abilities.  The heroines of "Frozen" are Anna and Elsa.  Anna is similar to ענה (ah-nah), meaning "answer."  Sometimes we discover that the answer we seek has been accessible to us all along.  Elsa may be a bit more of a stretch, but has a parallel in אל שא (El sa), "God has lifted up."  When we do good work for (and with) others, we find that God has lifted us and our spirits.

In fact, one could even make an argument that the world's greatest nebbishy Jewish snowman, Olaf, is actually the אלוף (aluf), the general or chief who makes everything happen.

Just don't ask me to do any wordplay with Wyldfyre or Vetruvius.

My Issues With "The Lego Movie"

OK, if you've clicked here, I'm assuming that you want to read this review.  But in the event you've clicked by mistake, there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.  You've been warned...

Many critics, and many of my friends, are talking about how fabulous "The Lego Movie" is.  So I was a bit surprised that I found it "meh."

Sure, there are some clever moments and nods to nostalgia.  But the central conceit, the "big twist" that reviewers tripped all over themselves to avoid revealing, was, in my humble opinion, telegraphed pretty early on in the movie.

The minute that I realized that Vitruvius was holding a half-eaten lollipop, and the minute that I saw the other detritus (such as discarded Band-Aids) in Lord Business' office, it became clear to me that this story was unfolding as the imagination of a little boy playing with Lego.

Unfortunately, that's also where it began to fall apart a bit for me on analysis.  I'm all for the suspension of some disbelief when going to the movies.  And my 8-year-old son does a lot of creative play with Lego, so I know that a child's mind can come up with some pretty creative things.

The movie never defines the age of Finn, the boy who is at the center of the movie.  An internet search for info about Jadon Sand, the kid who portrays Finn, suggests that he is about eight, so I think it's fair to assume that his character is close in age.  Well, my 8-year-old second grader could probably figure out the label on a tube of Krazy Glue, even if the "zy" and "u" were rubbed off (particularly if there were a dozen more tubes of the stuff lying around in the basement)!  On the other hand, my son would never in a million years come up with the name "Vitruvius" (in fact, this is his new favorite movie and he couldn't even recall the character's name a few hours after seeing it).  I get that it's a reference to Vitruvian Man, but how many grade-schoolers know the scientific works of Leonardo Da Vinci?  The name "Wyldfyre" for the heroine also rings false for me.

For that matter, "Taco Tuesday" is paralleled with Lord Business' plan for TAKOS, an acronym whose exact makeup I can't remember.  I'm not sure that my son would understand how to even begin creating an acronym.

Now, maybe I'm being nitpicky.  Maybe Finn is just more precocious than my kid, or has had exposure to different experiences that have shaped his creative play.  But at the end of the day, while I liked the broader message, the film itself didn't do it for me.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

This Land Was Made for You and Me

I was born late in 1970; I missed the heyday of the folk music movement in this country.  But the genre has always been one of my favorites,  Influenced in part by my parents' musical tastes, I grew up listening to Pater, Paul, and Mary; the Weavers; the Chad Mitchell Trio; and other giants of folk music.  While all of these acts made seminal contributions to the field, perhaps the dean of them all was Pete Seeger, who died last week at the age of 94.

Seeger, like so many of the other voices of his era, identified and spoke to the changing zeitgeist of America: the longing of a generation steeped in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement; a longing for peace, justice, equality, and brotherhood.  It's no wonder that if you examine the early songbooks from NFTY (the Reform Jewish youth movement) or UAHC (now URJ) camps, you'll find songs like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "If I Had a Hammer," "Blowing in the Wind," and "Tom Dooley" almost as frequently as you will find Hebrew songs.  They were a natural part of that time period.

But the folk songs continue to be part of the Jewish canon up to this day, and I think that speaks to certain specific aspects of the Jewish experience.  I remember, for instance, attending rallies in the mid-1980s in support of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, and later in support of Ethiopian Jews.  At one, Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary), led the crowd in "Blowing in the Wind;" at another, Peter Yarrow (of the same group) introduced his anthem "Light One Candle."  We were able to co-opt these lyrics and melodies to fit the causes and passions of the day.  Their messages were universal, as was the conceit that kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh, all Jews are responsible for one another.

This Shabbat, we read from Parashat Tetzaveh.  Among other details, it describes the priestly vestments to be worn by Aaron and his sons.  These include a breastplate with twelve precious stones (each stone representing a different tribe of Israel) and a frontlet to be worn on the forehead that would read "kodesh la'Adonai- holy to Adonai."  Now, some might argue that these articles of clothing served to create a caste system, to separate the priests from the rest of the Israelites and mark them as "holier-than-thou."  But I think that these clothes actually drew the priests closer to their fellow citizens.

Think about it: the clothes (at least, the headband) would mainly be seen by the people as they drew near to the priests to offer sacrifices, not by the priests themselves.  The people could look at these garments and not only be moved to reflect on the status of the priests, but they could also gaze upon the stones and read the inscription on the frontlet and think, "I, too, am holy to Adonai."  And at the beginning and end of the day, as Aaron and his sons put on or removed these garments, they could reflect upon their meaning, asking themselves, "Did we do our best to serve the people represented by these stones?  Did we act in a way that amplified our holiness before Adonai?"

There's been some controversy stirred up in recent days by an advertisement that Coca-Cola ran during the Super Bowl this year.  It features a montage of a diverse group of Americans while the song "America the Beautiful" is sung in a number of different languages (and, of course, copious amounts of Coke products are being enjoyed).

Some people objected to the idea of this tune being broadcast in a language other than English, and/or to the depiction of Jews, Muslims, gays, or immigrants as valid contributors to the fabric of America.  But I think the message of the commercial (besides selling Coke) is similar to that of another classic Coke commercial from 1971:
That ad, also showing that we can come together as a multi-national, multi-ethnic community (and enjoy a Coke while we do so), echoes the sentiment of our Torah portion: all of us contribute to the well-being of our society, all of us are holy to, and beloved by, Adonai.  And that in turn echoes a little ditty that is perhaps one of the most well-known songs of the folk era.  The words and music are originally by Woody Guthrie, but they were popularized by many other giants of the genre, including Pete Seeger.

May we each come to recognize the holiness in ourselves and in one another.  May we come to celebrate the fact that this land, and indeed our whole world, was made for you, for me, for everyone.