Hava Nagila (the film) and Frances Ha

These were the two films we watched on New Years Eve.

I wish I liked Hava Nagila better, although many of the scenes were fun to watch and I did learn something (I think). The story follows Roberta Grossman’s (the film maker) search for the origin of the well known song.  She traces it, more or less, to a small town in the Ukraine and follows it to Palestine/Israel and then to America, and tries to explain how it became THE Jewish song to be played at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs (although I don’t think she mentions bat mitzvahs), and became so well known to the non-Jewish world.  Unfortunately, as a movie, it was not that well made, and the narration left something to be desired.  But I give her an A for effort. And I do think it deserves something better than the 4.3 rating it gets on IMDb.

But can you believe the history?  For some reason, I am not sure.  Although the words to Hava Nagila were written in Palestine, Grossman concludes that the tune first appeared, it a much slower form, as a Hasidic nigun/prayer in the former shtetl of Sadagora, now in the Ukraine, and that it spread from there to Palestine where the words were added either by A.Z. Idelsohn, well known Jewish musician and music ethnologist, or by his pupil Moshe Nathanson, who became a well known American cantor and songwriter.  The Nathanson family claim is that Moshe N. wrote the words to the song when he was 12, as his classroom homework in Palestine, where the students were asked to put words to this European tune.  From the film, you would think that the Nathanson claim is a stretch and that Idelsohn probably wrote the words (apparently, early editions pointed to one or the other, but never both, as the lyricist).  Looking quickly at the Internet, however, I think that you would conclude that the words were Nathanson’s.  Perhaps, because they were teacher and student, their talents were combined.  Both were very accomplished musicians and scholars.

In any event, Grossman traces how the song was adopted by the early 20th century Israeli pioneers, and then used as one of the songs to which the hora was danced in the Israeli kibbutzim, with steps choreographed specifically for the tune.  Thus it was sung at the time of Israeli independence, when it caught on the America, becoming the most played “Jewish” song in the country, although for some Jewish (and especially klezmer) musicians, it became overplayed, or as Henry Sapoznik puts it, it became like an introduced species that crowded out all the other indigenous species.

There are many clips of the song being played – some old Palestinian films, some American bar mitzvah parties, and some by professionals, including an Allan Sherman/Roberta Peters duet, a Harry Belafonte/Danny Kaye duet, an awful version sung by a young(ish) Bob Dylan, and even one by Chubby Checker.

The song seems ubiquitous now, but it was not a song that I ever heard growing up.  In fact, the first time I remember hearing the song was when I was in high school (probably about my junior year), when it came out on the Harry Belafonte recording and I identified it with him as much as I did his Banana Boat Song and his Kingston Town.  (It was only later that I read that Belafonte was an old Spanish-Jewish name and that Harry Belafonte had Jewish ancestry.  Whether he knew this at the time, I am not sure.)

At any event, it was a nice, relaxed, pleasurable film to enjoy on New Years Eve.

And then there was Frances Ha, which I would have to describe more than anything else as an odd film, or perhaps quirky.  This does not make it a bad film, although I think what is most appealing about it is its quirkiness and oddity.  If it were one of a group of similar films, I think it would lose a lot of interest.

Frances is a 27 year old dancer trying to make it in New York, and not succeeding.  In fact, she is not doing well at anything.  She breaks up with her boyfriend, her best girl friend (with whom she lives) decides not to renew their lease and instead to move with another girl in a better part of town, she loses her position as an apprentice in a dance company where she had hoped to become a full company member, she moves in with two male friends (who pronounce her undatable) and watches as they bring a never ending series of girls to the apartment, she runs out of money, she takes a temporary position at her alma mater, Vassar, so she can take some additional dance classes only to learn that employees are not eligible to take the classes. But in the end, things seem to be going in the right direction although it is not exactly clear how the turn around has happened.

The movie is filmed in black and white, which gives it the appearance of film noir, although it is anything but.  It is well acted, everyone seems very natural, reality-show like. But there is no real plot, just one day following another, and one problem following another.  (It should be noted that Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the script, bears up remarkably well considering her continuing misfortunes.)

Would I suggest you run out and rent Frances Ha?  Not really.  But I wouldn’t run away from it, either.  Especially, if you are a fan of quirky.



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