Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Bubble - Brokeback Mountain meets Paradise Now

Day 2 back from Israel and I must say that the jetlag coming back was much worse than going out. Up at 4 am this morning and can't get back to sleep; but dead tired at 2 yesterday afternoon. Hopefully today will be the last day of this biorhythm torture. As long as I am awake, let's do a review of Eitan Fox's new movie "The Bubble" (ha-Bu`ah; opened June 29). Warning: spoilers to follow...

My friend Amy once joked that even Israeli comedies end with all the major characters dying from a suicide bomb. Well, while this movie is no comedy, it ends the same way. After giving us a phenomenally textured and surprising plot in "Walk on Water" (released in 2004 and an international sensation), Fox this time has concocted a cinematic cliche, artistically and technically superb (once again Fox's soundtrack selection is pleasantly Indie Rock with only the slightest attention to local Israeli music), but a plot line that causes one to roll one's eyes in disbelief. At a reported cost of $1.5 million, an extensive advertising campaign, and a series of merchandising and fashion tie-ins (look soon for "I LOVE LOVE TEL AVIV" T-shirts), this is one of the most grandiose projects in the history of Israeli cinema.

The "bubble" in question is the formerly trendy Shenkin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the hot spot of the avant garde and bohemian crowd in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century. Now a different south Tel Aviv neighborhood, Neve Tzedek, has become the metrosexual magnet for trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and urban gentrification. But until 2005, Shenkin Street was the place to be. And this is where screenwriters (and couple) Fox and Gal Uchovsky (who wrote "Walk on Water") set this movie, probably in the summer of 2003, when Shenkin was at its frothing pinnacle. They even re-opened for the shoot the already defunct CD store ha-Ozen ha-Shlishit, a fixture of the former glory days of Shenkin.

Our heroes are three flatmates, Noam (played by Ohad Knoller, who starred in Fox's first breakout made-for-TV mini-hit "Yosi ve-Jagger"), Yelli (played by Alon Friedman), and Lulu (Daniela Virtzer's first big-screen role). Noam and Yelli are gay men, friends for life, but no sex between them. Noam works at the CD shop, Yelli is a cafe owner, and Lulu, the straight woman, plans raves while working in a knock-off of a Bath & Body Works-type store. In the pre-credit sequence, Noam is a soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank, where he first encounters the fourth major player in the plot, a gay Palestinian named Ashraf (Yousef "Joe" Sweid, reprising the role of a gay Palestinian from "Walk on Water") who makes goo-goo eyes at Noam as he lifts his shirt on command to prove he is not strapped with explosives, a common checkpoint ritual. The checkpoint scene is gut-wrenching as a humiliated pregnant Palestinian woman collapses and gives birth to a still-born child.

Reserve duty over, Noam returns to beloved Shenkin (iPod in ear) to resume his trendy life. Life is full of witty repartee -- face-to-face and text-messaging -- between the off-beat "Three's Company," with lots of cappuccinos. Then Ashraf shows up at the flat (Noam had misplaced his wallet during the effort to save the stillborn). Within minutes Noam and Ashraf are in lip-lock. We the viewers -- but not they the characters -- will eventually discover that as children Noam (he of French Hill) and Ashraf (he of neighboring Shuafat) once played together in the same sandlot, destined to be together for all eternity.

I can't really reproduce all the convoluted plot lines of the story -- who is sleeping with who, who is betrayed by who. It really isn't all that important. Oblivious to the world around them, the characters try to live a po-mo life as if they were in Lower Manhattan. But Shenkin isn't SoHo; it is right in the middle of Israel/Palestine. Ashraf, with a perfect sabra accent, changes his name to Shim and becomes a waiter at Yelli's cafe. All is "Brokeback Shenkin" until Ashraf is outed for being a Palestinian, the real taboo of the movie. He runs home to Nablus, where his sister is about to marry a militant operative. Noam and Lulu go to find Ashraf, pretending to be French TV journalists. Surprise! As Ashraf and Noam lock up again in Nablus, the militant brother-in-law to-be stumbles into the room.

Meanwhile, Lulu is arranging for a "Rave Against the Occupation," the perfect expression of the ineffectual nature of Shenkin self-absorption in the face of the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ashraf, who was part of the early planning and ad campaign for the rave, finds his way back to Tel Aviv briefly to drop some ecstasy and dance with his beloved Noam.

Do you see where this is headed? The day after the wedding, Ashraf's sister is shot by Israeli soldiers in a collateral damage incident as they are chasing down armed militants in the streets of Nablus and dramatically dies in Ashraf's arms. The militant groom vows vengance. Ashraf, humiliated by his sexual orientation in repressive Nablus and with nowhere else to turn, offers to go in his brother-in-law's stead. And so one evening Ashraf reappears on Shenkin street with a bulging jacket and a button in his hand. Noam sees his beloved and the trigger, walks out to speak to his man, and then -- white out (a la "Paradise Now"). Two dead -- a suicide bomber and an Israeli victim.

The most disturbing intent of the screenwriters is their condescending Orientalism concerning Ashraf. Through this movie, we are taught that even a po-mo Arab, the trendy couterpart to the Tel Aviv triumvirate who so easily morphs into another young hipster, cannot resist the inchoate, primal call of istishhad (martyrdom). What an ugly, ugly message. All this begs the question: if a gay man is a shahid, what awaits him in heaven?

Despite the preposterousness of the plot, and the trendy "insider" sensibilities that only a small segment of either Israeli or overseas theatergoers will understand (actor Lior Ashkenazi, the star of "Walk on Water," plays himself briefly in a strange cameo appearance), this is still a movie to watch. It is a very personal movie, and Fox has claimed in the Israeli media that this is an unvarnished glimpse into the real life of the Shenkin scene, which he and Uchovsky know first-hand. It may strike the viewer as completely eccentric and bizarre, but it is part of the legend of modern Tel Aviv. What Sex & the City did for the Meat Packing District in Lower Manhattan, "The Bubble" tries to do for Shenkin. By the time these two pop-culture vehicles were aired, both neighborhoods were already so out. But they each had their moment. As a period piece, "The Bubble" is really rather interesting, though confounding beyond tolerable. Expect this movie to make the rounds at all the international, Israeli, and Jewish film festivals later this year with not nearly the success of "Walk on Water." To the degree that the creators were trying for something more -- a statment about "the situation," as Israelis often obliquely refer to the conflict -- they overreached, and totally failed in a crush of cliches.


A devastating review of ha-Bu'ah by Uri Klein appeared in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz (I haven't been able to find it on the English language site; for those whose Hebrew is serviceable, click here) the same day I blogged this review. The review (and the movie) were considered significant enough by the editors to be included in its entirety in this weekend's international print edition of Hebrew Haaretz, which always includes a digest of the week's most significant articles. Klein's review was much more extensive than mine, but along similar lines.

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