Monday, June 20, 2022

Transitions: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

Jude Law and Dan Fogler in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

The third chapter of the Fantastic Beasts series, The Secrets of Dumbledore, begins with an exquisite piece of fairy-tale storytelling.  In the forests of China, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – the English magizooogist (i.e., scholar of and caretaker for magical creatures) at the center of the narrative, set in the 1920s – oversees the birthing of a calf by a rare equine animal known as a Qilin, pronounced Chillin. The mother has a woven golden mane and a face like a mask; her tender calf is skeletal, a golden glow pulsating through his fragile skin. When the minions of the series’ villain, Gellert Grindelwald, attack, felling the mother, Newt struggles to save the baby Qilin, but he fails. He has to watch, helpless, as the calf is kidnaped and the mother expires, a single tear rolling down her cheek. It’s only then that Newt sees what everyone has missed in the chaos:  that she actually gave birth to twins.

For sheer charm, nothing in this franchise will ever match the first entry, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) – especially the sequence where Newt introduces his newfound Muggle pal, the baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to the world of enchanted creatures inside his expanding suitcase. But the director, David Yates, and the screenwriter, J.K. Rowling – almost attached at the hip since Yates took over the Harry Potter movies halfway through the series, with The Order of the Phoenix in 2007 – have been working to deepen the narrative. That means darkening it, and, well, you can’t go home again. The first Fantastic Beasts picture ended with the revelation that Graves (Colin Farrell), a spy at the American Ministry of Magic who had been orchestrating the destruction of the peace between the magic and human (“non-Mag”) worlds, was actually the fanatical fugitive Grindelwald – and before our eyes Farrell morphed into an albino Johnny Depp. The second picture, The Crimes of Grindelwald, focused on the title character’s meteoric rise to popularity, as he enlists more and more devotees to his fascist cause, the enslavement – or possible elimination – of Muggles. In The Secrets of Dumbledore the Hitler-like Grindelwald, now played by the Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, is no longer a criminal, since the retiring International Minister of Magic, the chilly, clammy Anton Vogel (Oliver Masucci), exonerates him on the outrageous grounds of a lack of evidence, and he’s permitted to throw his hat in the ring as the minister’s replacement. (This scene’s clear evocation of the Republicans’ trivializing of Donald Trump’s role in the attack on the Capitol is particularly potent, more than a month and a half after the film’s release, in the light of the Jan. 6 hearings.) Grindelwald’s support is now world-wide. The significance of the Qilin is that it is drawn to the pure of heart and bows before the rightful next leader. Grindelwald slits the throat of the calf that members of his inner circle, led by Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), have made off with, and bewitches the dead creature so it will seem to endorse him at the critical moment. Newt has been commissioned by his old teacher and good friend Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to prevent Grindelwald from winning the leadership and plunging the world into unending darkness in which, as Dumbledore expresses it, “things that seem unimaginable today will seem inevitable tomorrow.”

Much as I enjoyed the second Fantastic Beasts picture, it had an overloaded plot and too many characters for the movie to flesh out. Narratively speaking, The Secrets of Dumbledore is on more stable ground, doubtless because Steve Kloves – who wrote The Fabulous Baker Boys (which he also directed) and Wonder Boys, and whose name is on most of the Harry Potter screenplays – has joined Rowling as co-screenwriter. The storyline is complicated but it’s been gathered skillfully around two themes. The first is the nature of true heroism, which hides its light under a bushel and which the world keeps confusing with its flashier, deceptive opposite number. The charismatic Grindelwald is the popular hero of the magical world, and, disturbingly, his charisma has drawn even one of the characters we love, the fragile Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), to his cause, as well as Credence, an ill-fated character whose potential for good Grindelwald has corrupted. Credence is an obscurial, a wizard whose repressed magical powers have retreated to a dark side of his personality and created a kind of monster. Clarence has also been blighted by his conviction that he’s the illegitimate child of Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (Richard Coyle), abandoned by his family and doomed to loneliness. (In the first Fantastic Beasts he was being raised by a fanatical anti-witcher, played by Samantha Morton, who believed strongly that sparing the rod would spoil the child. The obscurial in Clarence inevitably took its revenge on her.) By the beginning of the third entry in the series the forces of good who operate unhesitatingly as the world appears to be overrun by the forces of evil have been reduced to a small group of underdogs recruited by Albus:  Newt and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Head Auror in England’s Ministry of Magic; Charms Professor Lally Hicks (Jessica Williams); the French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam); Newt’s adoring assistant, Bunty Broadacre (Victoria Yeates); and Jacob (Dan Fogler), Newt’s non-Mag friend and Queenie’s inamorato. Kama infiltrates the Grindelwald camp. Vogel tosses Theseus in a supposedly inoperative German prison called the Erkstag, from which his resourceful brother has to rescue him. This tiny band of heroes, called on to save the world, are unassuming and pure of heart. The Qilin Newt and Bunty are hiding from Grindelwald is enamored of the gruff and gentle Jacob, whom the writers implicitly link, toward the end, to the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz.

The other theme is the complexity of brotherly love. The movie provides two fraternal pairings, the Scamanders and the Dumbledores. Newt and Theseus, initially estranged in the last picture, rediscover their bond in this one. Their connection is enshrined in the most sheerly delightful scene, a choreographed comic sequence in which Newt, with his usual calm and wacky logic, gets Theseus out of the Erkstag by distracting the baby Manticores nesting there – jeweled crabs whose terrifying, snake-like mother reappears periodically to toss them pieces of whatever prey she’s currently feeding on – by leading them in a dance. It’s both creepy and hilarious: Busby Berkeley meets Edgar Allen Poe. (Eddie Redmayne’s Newt is, as always, irresistible, which may make it easy for viewers to miss Callum Turner’s understated performance as Theseus.) Albus and Aberforth’s relationship has a sinister history.  Albus reveals his greatest regret – a fight he and his brother had in their youth that turned violent and had terrible, irreversible consequences. The other secret of Dumbledore indicated by the title occasioned the quarrel: Albus’s romance with his fellow Hogwarts student, Grindelwald, which prompted the two young men to create a blood pact that would prevent their ever visiting harm upon each other. That’s the reason Albus has to appoint others in the dwindling company of the virtuous to take on Grindelwald – and the reason Grindelwald has to enlist Credence to go after Albus.

Like each of its predecessors, The Secrets of Dumbledore contains one confusing large-scale setpiece. This one unfolds at a banquet inside the German Ministry of Magic, and its shortcomings are underlined by its being intercut with the dancing Manticores. The filmmakers still haven’t worked out a character for Yusuf Kama, who was introduced in the last movie, and his ability to act as a mole for the heroes is inadequately explained. (So are the several references to the voting procedures for the new Minister of Magic:  if he’s to be chosen by the instincts of a Qilin, any other vote would seem to be superfluous.) But the movie’s many pleasures easily override its flaws. There’s the ingenious way Yates, Rowling and Kloves build on the farce premise of the first Fantastic Beasts – the switching of Newt’s suitcase, which expands magically on the inside, and the one that contains Jacob’s sample pastries, with which he’s hoping to persuade a bank to get behind his dream to open his own bakery. There are the fairy-tale images, generally featuring such creatures as Teddy the Niffler and Pickett the Bowtrucket, who are never far from their beloved Newt, as well as the Wyvern, a bird that blows itself up into a balloon, a Phoenix that hovers ominously over Credence, and of course the surviving Qilin, glimpsed at one moment as it pokes its head out of Newt’s suitcase. (Stuart Craig is once more the indispensable production designer – as he was on both previous films and all eight of the Harry Potters. George Richmond steps in as cinematographer here, replacing Philippe Rousselot, who lit the first two pictures.)

Best of all are the actors. Sudol’s mindreading Queenie has been burdened by grief and sadness by her association with Grindelwald; embodying her name, she now has the look of a tragic queen. Separated from her, Fogler’s Jacob has aged and his face has hardened; we first see him in his bakery, its shelves nearly depleted. But when Dumbledore engages him in his mission to defeat Grindelwald, this new purpose animates him, and we finally get a scene between the distanced lovers. (It’s worth waiting for.) For once Queenie’s sister Tina isn’t at the center of the story; we’re told that she’s now head of the American Aurors. She doesn’t show up until the last scene, when she and Newt are reunited. Katherine Waterston looks more stunning than ever, in a silver dress that accentuates her magnificent slender frame. Ezra Miller, memorable as he was in both previous entries in the series, now has streaming, shoulder-length black locks; he looks like the shadow of death. I missed the slyness of Johnny Depp’s oratory in Crimes of Grindelwald and his practiced faux warmth, but Mikkelsen, a superb actor, brings his own kind of tension and malevolence to the role of Gellert Grindelwald. Victoria Yeates has much more to do in this movie than in the last, and her combination of modesty and heart enhances the film, as does the sexy southern lilt of Jessica Williams’s line readings.

Is Albus Dumbledore Rowling’s most compelling creation? (The closest contender would have to be Severus Snape.) Look at the actors who have graced the role – Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Jude Law. Law gives a beautiful performance – his best, I think, to date. And the movie concludes with him, as it should. There’s a celebration at Jacob’s bakery, but Albus doesn’t enter it; he remains outside, sitting on a bench in the gently drifting snow, watching the festivities through the window. Then he walks down the street, away from the camera, forever alone, and your heart goes with him.

Topol in Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

When you return to Norman Jewison’s film of Fiddler on the Roof, half a century after it was made, it seems more miraculous than ever – expansive yet intimate, muscular yet delicate, immense yet impressionistic. Three hours in length, it certainly feels like a saga, the tale of one part of the history of the Jewish diaspora, yet the movie sweeps you along, the final hour moving with the force of an avalanche. It’s just about as great as any movie musical, and though it may have felt conventional in 1971, you can see clearly now that it’s not. Daniel Raim’s heartening, unfailingly intelligent and deeply satisfying new documentary, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, co-written with the critic Michael Sragow, focuses on its inventiveness and defiance of the rules of adapting big Broadway musicals to the screen. There are no celebrities in the cast, though both Danny Kaye and, if you can believe it, Frank Sinatra wanted to play Tevye the milkman. Jewison cast Topol, an Israeli actor-singer with a rich, warm baritone who had taken the role in the London production. The actor and the director abandoned the vaudevillian rambunctiousness Tevye possessed in Harold Prince’s Broadway version, which had been played up by its original leading man, Zero Mostel and more or less replicated by the men who replaced him, such as Luther Adler and Herschel Bernardi. Except for Molly Picon as Yente the matchmaker, the rest of the film’s cast – led by unknowns or relative unknowns like Norma Crane as Tevye’s wife Golde, Rosalind Harris and Michele Marsh and Neva Small as their three older daughters, Leonard Frey as the tailor Motel Kamzoil, Paul Mann as the butcher Lazar Wolf, and Paul Michael Glaser as the Kiev student Perchik – gave naturalistic performances, tailored to the camera. (Anyone who has seen Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which he starred in on both stage and screen, can see that tailoring anything to the camera was beyond his capabilities.) Except for the Russian dance in the “L’Chaim” tavern number, the folk fable-style “Tevye’s Dream” and the bottle dance at the wedding, Jewison and Tom Abbott moved away from the style of the famous Jerome Robbins choreography and substituted movement that looks spontaneous, instinctive. And, working on Robert Boyle’s meticulously researched sets, the legendary cinematographer Oswald Morris, who had lit some of the landmark films of the British New Wave, underscored the landscape, capturing the actors in painterly harmony with it. (The crew shot mostly in rural Yugoslavia, reverting to London’s Pinewood Studios only when, given the weather, the safety of the dancers required it.) Jewison and Morris move gradually but inexorably toward the film’s most breathtaking images, the exiled Jews praying together on land before breaking up and drifting soundlessly over the water on a raft.

The Toronto native Jewison began in live television in the fifties, a period in his career that culminated in his shooting specials with Judy Garland, Danny Kaye and, unforgettably, Harry Belafonte; Tonight with Belafonte, a truly biracial variety event that aired in 1959, was ground-breaking. (The documentary includes a clip of Belafonte praising Jewison as “fiercely commited to social justice.”)  The director moved into features in the early sixties with light comedies like 40 Pounds of Trouble (Tony Curtis, Suzanne Pleshette), The Thrill of It All (Doris Day, James Garner) and Send Me No Flowers (Day, Rock Hudson). But after half a decade he turned out In the Heat of the Night, one of the sharpest and canniest of all social-problem dramas, with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier as a small-town southern sheriff and a Philadelphia cop who forge an improbable friendship in the course of solving a murder. Jewison is unquestionably the star of Fiddler’s Journey, conveying with wit, humor and tremendous articulateness his ideas for Fiddler on the Roof and the ways in which he and his collaborators, of whom he speaks with touching admiration, put them across. He’s also a merry, enthusiastic interview subject and a marvelous raconteur whose stories are vivifying – about his first encounter, as a young man just out of the Navy, with southern racism, about meeting Bobby Kennedy (when their sons sustained skiing injuries on the same day), about persuading the great Israeli violinist Isaac Stern to record the passages the composer Jerry Bock had written for the mute title character to perform.

The snippets from interviews recorded over the years are fantastic; nothing sounds stock or warmed-over. The subjects include lyricist Sheldon Harnick (we even get to hear him sing a chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset”!), composer John Williams (who conducted Bock’s score and wrote soundtrack music of his own), the three actresses who played Tevye’s marriageable daughters, whose resistance to the ways of the European Jewish shtetl sets his commitment to tradition against his profound love for them. You’re likely to fall in love with Michele Marsh, who plays Hodel in the movie and talks here about confronting her own insecurity in the course of making her character brave, forthright and independent of mind. I watched Fiddler on the Roof again last night and her performance, both in her scenes with Topol and those with Glaser as the revolutionary who wins her heart, is even better than I’d remembered. Her farewell scene with her father, at the lonely train stop where she sets off to join Perchik in Siberia after singing the ballad “Far from the Home I Love” (which has always been my favorite song in the score), shatters your heart.

We learn that production designer Boyle, whose wife had acted in the Yiddish theatre, discovered a book of photographs of shtetl life by Roman Vishniac that became the visual keynote for the movie, just as Chagall’s paintings had been for the Broadway show. (Those photographs are a knockout.) Since all of the synagogues in Yugoslavia were destroyed during the Holocaust, Boyle had to build his own, based on old plans his scholarship had unearthed; one of the last things we see in the musical film, after the Jews have been ousted from Anatevka, is the village Rabbi lifting the Torah out of its Ark and looking for the final time at the sacred texts on the walls. (It’s the actor Zvee Scooler’s finest moment.) Oswald Morris talks about his own inspiration: to shoot through a piece of silk stocking. Jewison thinks that the candlelit procession leading to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding is the most beautifully lit scene in any of his movies, and it’s hard to argue. When I watched the film again, I saw how the torches of the intruders who stage a pogrom that breaks up the celebration play visually against the candles that precede it, and how that filmmaking decision emphasizes the distinction between the two ways in which tradition is challenged in this part of the story – Perchik steps over the rope that separates the women from the men and insists on dancing with Hodel, and just moments later the sacredness and community implied in the wedding are smashed by the intruders. Jewison talks about making the pogrom more violent than it had been on the stage, and also about Joseph Stein, who adapted his own libretto, adding a scene where we see Perchik in Kiev making a political speech under the red flag until the crowd are charged by Cossacks (and he is sent to Siberia).

After Jewison, my favorite of the interviewees is Topol, who speaks eloquently about his acting choices (like his muting of the humor at key moments) and relates a moving anecdote about showing photographs he’d taken of Poland to his father, who grew up there and was the only member of his family to get out before the Holocaust. My response to Topol in Fiddler’s Journey (his clips were shot in 2009) extended my feelings about his portrayal of Tevye: he’s robust, spirited yet strangely elegant, and poignant in a way that never feels merely theatrical. He should have been featured in a lot more movies. The year after Fiddler he played opposite Mia Farrow in Carol Reed’s last film, The Public Eye, as a quirky P.I. who falls in love with the hippie her straitlaced husband (Michael Jayston) has hired him to tail. He and Farrow are wonderful together in it.

The documentary has an unusually lyrical voice-over narration, well read by Jeff Goldblum; at one point, analyzing Tevye’s relationship with God, to whom he monologues constantly, it opines, “Sometimes God is Tevye’s straight man, and sometimes Tevye is God’s fall guy.” Fiddler’s Journey contains other surprises, too. The film critic Kenneth Turan, who was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household (and who doesn’t share my affection for Topol, who he thinks comes across as Israeli rather than eastern European), compares the Russian shtetl in the narrative of the musical to the Yugoslavian locations, which are now also remnants of a place that no longer exists – “like Brigadoon,” Turan says. And then there are Jewison’s musings about how a goy wound up directing the quintessential Jewish musical film and how doing so changed his sense of his own identity. When he met David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister told him that anyone who is crazy enough to consider himself a Jew is a Jew – and, we learn, when Jewison married for the second time (his first wife died in 2004), he was wed under a canopy, just as Hodel promises her father she and Perchik will be, out in Siberia. “In a way, I found myself in making this film,” Jewison insists.  Appropriately enough, this inspiriting documentary ends with the director dancing to the podium to pick up the Irving Thalberg Award at the 1998 Academy Awards. “Not bad for a goy,” he quips.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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