Saturday, January 5, 2013

Footnote: Our Academic Work, Ourselves

Footnote, a 2011 Israeli film about family politics, begins as a love letter to academic frustration, and ends as a poignant argument that what we write, and what we say about what we write and what others write, is really the deepest expression of who we are. The movie centers on the uneasy relationship between Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, a father and son who are both professors in Talmudic Studies. The younger Shkolnik, Uriel, is wildly successful, having published nine monographs and dozens of journal articles on topics like marital politics in the Talmud. Eliezer's greatest claim to fame is being the only living scholar referenced in a footnote in his mentor's magnum opus and writing the introduction to a textbook. As Uriel racks up award after award, Eliezer's very posture and facial expression becomes an avatar of jealous rage. Some might find a father's obvious and oft-expressed bitterness towards his son's success surprising. Those some are probably not academics.

The world of academia is by nature both close-knit and competitive, which means that often scholars are vying with their closest friends for positions and publications. It can be, shall we say, a bit awkward and emotionally complicated. Footnote is perfectly in tune with the feuds and pettiness that can infect academic disciplines, and using the language of scholarly dispute to explore the equally fraught realm of father-son dynamics is illuminating.

Eliezer and Uriel have wildly different approaches to Talmudic study, and correspondingly oppositional ways of being in the world. The father is brittle, cold, and isolated, choosing to write while wearing comically large noise-reduction headphones. He believes a strictly scientific approach to the Talmud is the only valid one. His professional disappointment and near-irrelevancy--his deep fear that he not only is referenced in a footnote but is merely one himself--is channeled into an almost pathological distaste for his son. The son is charismatic, forceful, and direct, and his work is more socially informed and interpretive. He also worships his father, who can barely stand him. When Israel's largest scholarly prize is awarded, the way Eliezer and Uriel speak about each other's work reveals volumes about how they feel about each other personally, and how Uriel might or might not replicate his father's paternal frigidness with his own son, Josh.

Footnote is one of those films that doesn't fit neatly into a pre-packaged genre. It's funny and sad and visually experimental--sort of like the love child of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. Definitely worth a spot on the Netflix queue.

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