If you make a coming-of-age film that includes a bar mitzvah, we can expect to see certain things—reading from the Torah, proud parents, the gifts, the dancing. But in The Zigzag Kid, which opens the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, what about jewel thieves, a railway hijacking, and Isabella Rossellini as a sultry cabaret singer? Based on the Israeli novel by David Grossman and reset in ’70s Europe, this frisky caper comedy does eventually plumb some family secrets, yet its tone is anything but serious. Motherless young Nono feels ignored by his father, a no-nonsense Dutch cop. Rescue comes in the form of a kidnapping—or call it a criminal mentorship—by a dapper master thief in a white suit. Played with a Claude Rains twinkle by German actor Burghart Klaussner, Felix has more than mischief on his mind. He leads Nono on a kind of treasure hunt of memories, picking up clues about the kid’s mother en route to Nice, where they meet Rossellini’s chanteuse, Lola. (The dialogue alternates among at least four European languages.).
Director Vincent Bal gives this genealogy adventure a nostalgic, playful glow; it’s like Wes Anderson meets Columbo as Nono keeps uncovering secrets, false names, and hidden abilities (his among them). Though this charming picaresque is well-suited to kids, the 7:30 p.m. screening at Pacific Place is preceded by a happy hour (at 6:30 p.m.) and followed by a Tom Douglas dessert reception. So you can always Netflix it for them later. (The fest includes two dozen films over nine days.)
Then there are the docs. Perhaps the most familiar among them is When Comedy Went to School (Pacific Place, 9:30 a.m. Sunday brunch followed by 11 a.m. screening). The film was seen here last August, but gains sad new resonance by so prominently featuring Sid Caesar, who died just this month. Caesar was one of the most successful graduates of the Borscht Belt circuit of summer resorts up in the Catskills north of New York City. This was where, from the ’30s through the ’60s, so many Jews went to escape the summer heat. Before air conditioning and TV became common, it was also a breeding ground for a uniquely new American style of comedy, evolving from vaudeville to shtick and ethnic humor to personality-driven stand-up. And in clips and interviews, we see that pantheon evolve: Milton Berle, George Burns, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Alan King, Don Rickles, Jerry Stiller, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Robert Klein (also the movie’s host and narrator), Jerry Seinfeld . . . and then the parade basically peters out by the ’70s, no matter how much pleasure it gives my fingers to type those names.
Since too many of those funnymen (and -women) have passed, most of the interviews are canned—including Caesar’s. The doc has a time-capsule quality, like watching a ghostly reunion of guests from the Carson-era Tonight Show. The famous resorts, like Kutsher’s and Grossinger’s, have mostly closed; and this period of American humor now seems closer to Ellis Island than Comedy Central. What I wish the film explored more was the sense of striving here—both for the performers, their names so often Americanized, trying to make it to Hollywood; and for the guests, some also interviewed, who were so intent on becoming middle-class. And once they did, once they could afford air conditioners, television sets, and flights to Miami, the Borscht Belt was doomed.
Less familiar to me are the 19th-century musicians we meet in Wagner’s Jews (12:30 p.m. Sun., March 9, Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island). That Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite is well known, yet in a pre-Holocaust era where racism was commonplace yet relatively nonviolent, some amazingly talented Jewish pianists, violinists, conductors, and concert promoters were willing to help the cranky, egotistical composer. What’s more, he depended on them and—according to biographers and music historians interviewed here—had conflicted feelings about them. No less an authority than Leon Botstein insists you can’t draw a straight line from Wagner to Hitler. And he further argues that talented Jews were drawn to Wagner—even while holding their noses—because his operas were so dramatically new. (He even compares them to video games!) Look at Lohengrin, says Botstein: What European Jew couldn’t identify with an outsider hero of uncertain parentage who saves the entire society he hopes to join? (Note: Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins will give a talk following the screening, which ought to be fascinating.)
SEATTLE JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL Sat., March 1–Sun., March 9 at Pacific Place, SIFF Cinema Uptown, and Stroum Jewish Community Center. Most tickets $9–$12. 324-9996, seattlejewishfilmfestival.org.