Paul Morrison: 'Footnote' asks what is central
Brilliant film screened for Brandeis friends, supporters and alums in Los Angeles
“Footnote,” Joseph Cedar’s brilliant new film, opens, appropriately enough, with the cinematic equivalent of a footnote: in a font characteristic of academic Hebrew footnotes, the words “the worst day of Professor Schlonik’s life” are typed across the screen. But there are in fact two professors of that name in Cedar’s film, and it is initially unclear which of the two – father or son – is having a bad day. Professor Scholnik the younger, a charismatic and popular academic of “the cultural studies” variety, is being inducted into the Israeli Academy of Sciences, and in his acceptance speech he pays what seems to be gracious tribute to his father, Professor Scholnik the elder. The father, however, is an academic purist, a philologist of the old school, and he has utter contempt for the popularizing words and work of his son. (The elder Scholnik’s one claim to academic fame – or what passes for it – is that he is cited in a footnote by a far more eminent Talmudic scholar.) Were “Footnote” standard Hollywood fare, the induction of the son into the Academy would be a very good day for both professors. In Cedar’s darkly comic drama of Oedipal academic rivalry, however, the triumph of the son is the necessary eclipse of the father.
In a question and answer session following a recent, pre-release screening of “Footnote” (Sony Pictures Classics) at the Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles – a well-attended event hosted by President Fred Lawrence and Professor Kathy Lawrence, and arranged by Professor Alice Kelikian and the Brandeis Program in Film, Television, and Interactive Media – Cedar reflected on the implications of his title. The footnote is a paradox. Its purpose is to establish a stable and hierarchical division between what is central and marginal in a text, yet in practice it tends toward the opposite. In Talmudic scholarship, the sheer abundance of footnotes easily overwhelms the “primary” text – the marginal thus becomes central – and as Cedar astutely observed, what is relegated to the margin or the bottom is often of greatest interest. Footnote is a finely observed study of the arcane passions and politics of individuals who produce, among other things, footnotes. But the movie asks: at what cost? Is the pursuit of truth “even unto its innermost parts” a proper life’s work? (It is impossible to watch “Footnote” without the Brandeis motto echoing in one’s head.) Should it be central? Or is the pursuit more or less marginal, a footnote to what is, or should be, the defining concerns of life: love, sex, family, friends, colleages?
“Footnote” does not admit of easy answers. The movie is critical of the academic fixations of the father, Professor Eliezer Scholnik, whose maniacal commitment to textual purity alienates him from his community and family, particularly his son. Yet the man who initially seems to be his redeemed counterpart – Scholnik the younger – turns out to be not so very different after all. The “worst day” of Eliezer’s life is soon followed by the “best.” He is informed that, at long last, he has been awarded the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor, which makes for a very good day indeed. But as with virtually all things in “Footnote,” alleged opposites converge. The best day becomes the worst when Eliezer learns that the powers-that-be have contacted the wrong Professor Scholnik, that the prize was always intended for his son. In one sense, the mistake drives the plot; in another sense, however, Cedar slyly suggests that there has been no real mistake, if only because father and son are functionally interchangeable. The superficial differences are readily apparent. Eliezer is pedantic, withdrawn, a creature of the library; Uriel is engaged, charming, a born teacher. Yet Uriel’s dysfunctional relation to his own wife and son is virtually a carbon copy of his Eliezer’s, and the strained relation between Uriel and Eliezer seems predicated on a non-difference that neither is willing to acknowledge. “Footnote” delights in suggesting the non-efficacy of the oppositions it nevertheless promotes, which extends to the implications of its title: Eliezer’s “marginal” occupation, the production of footnotes to a “central” text that can never be fully reconstituted or recovered, is the movie’s governing metaphor for life itself.
Paul Morrison is a professor of English; his areas of expertise include modernism, film, and theory. “Footnote” opens in U.S. theaters on March 9.