by Ruthi Director, ha'Ir' Magazine, May, 1997.
The association of Ziva Postec, much-acclaimed editor of Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, and the charismatic Moshe Gershuni, raises high hopes for The art film we have all been waiting for. But with a final product in which “atmosphere” has the supporting role, clichés prevail and the director deprecates herself before the artist, it looks like we'll just have to wait.
It started well enough
It starts like this - the camera slowly pans a horizontal black line, drawn on white quadrille paper, which ends in a small circle. Pathos and drama kick in from the start. Then, following a series of dramatic shots of the artist's works and a reconstruction of Gershuni singing 'Yad Anouga' ('delicate hand') in Tel Chai, the camera finally focuses on a hand holding a brush. The brush barely touches the white, virgin canvas, a first touch, leaving a yellowish blot. At this point, skilled viewers already know the situation's critical. A film that starts with the artist's brush ever so lightly touching the canvas, with no sound, with all the drama of a first intercourse with the canvas, makes anyone with hours of art film viewing behind him cringe and go into accelerated heartbeat - please, not another slow and touchy saga in search for the secret behind the act of creation. But this is precisely when Ziva Postec's camera performs one of the greatest stokes of genius in the film - it zooms out, taking some distance from the hand, and we see that this hand is young and smooth, far from being the man of a 60-years old man; and it keeps zooming out until suddenly the situation is revealed - the drawing hand belongs to Aram, Gershuni's son, who is drawing his father sitting in front of him on an armchair (wearing a red shirt; we'll return to Gershuni's shirts).
Big sigh of relief from the viewer. For a brief moment, it seems that the immediate trap, in the form of the requirement to see an artist at work, has been safely avoided. We have been spared the embarrassing moments of a camera gone astray (due to excessive anxiety, ecstasy and unnaturalness of the scene), or an artist gone astray, and the unavoidable artificiality of the scene. But it's not only relief - there's also the feeling of an illusion, a trick played on the viewer - they give us an artist in action, but it's not the artist we came to see; not to mention that Aram Gershuni, the artist's son, does in fact steal the show in those moments when he sits on a chair and draws his father's portrait, completely engrossed in his work, surprisingly impervious to the presence of the camera, doing his own thing.
But that which seems to be, in those first moments of the film, a promise of awareness to the clichés of the genre, turns out to be a continued effacement before those same clichés. The camera returns to the portrait, time and again, it is being created before us, reminding us of too many a scene from documentary or feature art films.
Imaginary Tel Aviv
How, then, in spite of the slowness of the shots, or the addiction to aerial views of Tel Aviv and the sea, in spite of the Lanzmann-like rhythm, the film still manages to hold 90 minutes?
First, thanks to Gershuni himself. As long as he is on screen - with his eternal cigar, with his plethora of shirts, with his charismatic physical presence - as long as he's there, the film does not lose any beat or tension. Beyond that it's an acquired taste - either you like the language dictated by the film and try to accept Gershuni himself with it, or you develop an aversion (as was the case with several people during the projection) and only see the archaism, the over-artistic mannerism and the pathos.
And the film's language really does take some serious risks in its closeness to lyricism and poetry (a question also found in Gershuni's paintings) - Tel Aviv from a bird's eye view can be surprisingly photogenic, not at all sweaty and Mediterranean, Rothschild avenue almost looks like a boulevard, a puddle somewhere turns into a poetry-inspiring body of water, cypress trees like in Provence, and the little downtown street where Gershuni lives looks as pretty as any small and picturesque Parisian backyard. Everything is filmed in a bluish-gray that gives Tel Aviv such a concentrated autumnal essence that it would take years to accumulate. Not only that it is remote and watched from above, but it also dwells by a gray sea, almost Nordic in its presence, a city whose natural sounds are the sounds of Mozart, Shostakovitch and Mahler, a city that throws reality away, to another time and another place.
Anything but the Israeli here-and-now. The Music that Gershuni listens to, his citations of Bialik, the Yiddish songs, the nostalgic Israeli folk songs he sings, the versicles he reads, Grünwald and Van Gogh that he mentions, those are the elements composing his picture of the world, and in the background we see Tel Aviv as an imaginary city by a gray sea, with no newspapers, no newsflashes, no identifying trait that could link the film to any specific or concrete reality. The film's most significant decision is to forgo commentary. You won't hear at any point a voice speaking "about" - not a speaker's or anyone else's - saying things like from 1979 and on, the importance of, the influence of, the transformations of a theme, etc. The only voice that speaks is Gershuni's own voice and his discourse about art is intuitive, associative, made of childhood memories that turn into picturesque images (a group of mentally handicapped children with wreaths of flowers on their heads, walking in file and singing), key sentences and certain artists. From the Israeli art scene he admiringly mentions Aviva Uri and chooses to visit, of all people, the old and almost forgotten Dov Feigin, in an exceptional and quite unexpected homage. If you get into the mood offered by Gershuni's film (and not 'the film on Gershuni'!), then there is no need for a voiceover. And if there is, it is not for the an authoritative aspect, but for a slightly more distant outlook, that could be capable of cooling things down a little and putting some order in everything, a look that could make a distinction between Gershuni's total charisma and the implication of some of the statements he makes, a look that might bring about the director's touch. In any event, the absence of verbal commentary is largely compensated for by visual commentary, which at times works and at times seems to slightly overstress analogies between reality and painting - you see a real puddle followed by a painting that looks like a puddle, you see a close up on Gershuni's eyes, followed by a painting of two black circles, you see Gershuni walking back and forth at home and then you see a picture with the word "alone".
The true moments
Even if Gershuni's discourse on art is not fully structured and organized (as opposed to Raphi Lavie's), you really want to listen to him talk about art a little more. The missing text, the artist's text, is actually to be found elsewhere, for example, in a cycle of conversations held last winter with the artist at "The Freudian Place" in Jaffa, which were published in "Studio". In front of a live audience and facing two professional psychoanalysts, knowing that what he says will appear in print, Gershuni says everything he does not say in the film. He refers to his last paintings as "rehearsals for departure", words that are used in the film's title, but are otherwise absent from the film itself, he speaks of death, of sexual identity, eroticism, the personal crisis he has gone through which caused the dramatic change in his work, the creative process, the meanings of forms. One might almost be tempted to recommend that the viewer should hold the transcript of those conversations from "Studio", like a music score, while watching the film, to fill in the blanks.
But let me say this right away: No! The film must be allowed to speak the way it speaks, we must respect the decision to show a total person, a man of music and singing and poetry, and to leave loose ends, untied and undeciphered. But the moments of genuine truth in the film are not those of mood or formal exposure. Between the slips, and in spite of the somewhat excessive lyricism, the moments of truth in the film are those in which the director manages to slip away from the artist's remote control, and grasps not only the man's charisma but also his ambivalent presence.“ hedonistic and sensual on the one hand, with an eternal cigar, elaborate shirts and a striped robe; ascetic and monastic on the other. Gershuni and David D'aor in the duet of "Avinu Malkenu" ("Our father our king") is one such breathtaking moment“ sitting face to face, both wearing black, a glass in each man's hand, between them all the drama and eroticism in the world, and the text of the poem tears the screen apart: "Our father our king be gracious unto us and answer us for we are wanting in good deeds". Pity the film does not end right there.
By Ruthi Director