I only decided to see “Four Seasons Lodge”, now playing at the IFC Center in New York, because it was filmed at a bungalow colony in Ellenville, New York, just 10 miles from my home town. As a relic of a once thriving tourist industry geared to New York Jews, the lodge had the potential to stir up old memories like the madeiline dipped into a cup of tea in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”.
I was far less interested in the fact that the lodgers were all holocaust survivors. I feared that the movie would exploit the sentimentality that comes naturally to this topic, and even worse that it would serve the interests of what Norman Finkelstein calls “the holocaust industry”. As it turned out, not only did it avoid these tendencies but amounted to one of the most moving documentaries I have seen this year and give it my strongest recommendation.
In 1980, a group of holocaust survivors bought a bungalow colony out of a sense of community not that much different from other colonies in the Borscht Belt going back to the 1930s when Communists, Socialists, vegetarians, etc. set up their own resorts on what we would called an “affinity group” basis in the 1960s.
All of the lodgers are in the eighties and nineties and are dealing with the infirmities of old age and the bitter memories of their internments at Auschwitz and other death camps. This does not prevent them from having a grand old time on their summer vacation and for these Jews this especially means 8 course meals with lots of herring and schnapps. The movie does not dwell on the misery of their youth and spends the bulk of its time showing them enjoying themselves thoroughly even as they realize that they don’t have much time left on earth. When they are not eating, drinking, playing cards and bickering with each other (we Jews call it kvetching), they are recounting what it was like to be in a death camp. One man says that he was determined to live no matter what, even if it meant eating grass. He had to tell the world what had happened.
The big question facing them is whether the colony can go on. We learn at the beginning of the film that they have sold it and that this might be their last vacation in the Catskills. Two men, both survivors, have been maintaining the grounds since 1980 and simply are not robust enough to do the necessary work. While they consider it a burden, other old-timers are distraught at losing the lodge and are pushing to nullify the sale.
I could not help but be reminded of another documentary about old folks and their ties to an institution. “Sunset Story” (
) dealt with a retirement home in Los Angeles that was set up for elderly leftists. Like the Four Seasons Lodge, their lodging, called Sunset Hall, was about to close. No matter now infirm the characters in either film, they retain the spunk of their youth. In order to stand up to the Mengeles of the world, you need a strong spirit. While Joe McCarthy and his ilk were pale imitations of the Nazis, you certainly had to have a “survivor” mentality to stick to your radical beliefs over the decades in the U.S.A.
The movie was directed by N.Y. Times reporter Andrew Jacobs, who met the Four Seasons Lodge denizens during his time reporting from the Catskills in 2005. I have vivid memories of his writing from this period, which was the newspaper of record at its best. An article on orthodox Jewish youth hanging out a local bowling alley from my youth and a more recently constructed Wal-Mart and acting—within obvious limits—like teenagers from time immemorial was exceptional reporting:
With the sun safely beneath the horizon, Yudi Kaufman and Yoel Hillelsohn put on their long-sleeve Oxford shirts, jumped into Mr. Kaufman’s Toyota Scion and cranked up the Yeshiva Boys Choir. By midnight, having picked up three friends at far-flung bungalow colonies, they headed to Wal-Mart in Monticello, its parking lot already crammed with baby carriages, camp vans and packs of teenagers practicing blowing smoke rings in the amber glare of the overhead lights. For many people, however, shopping was not on the agenda.
“This is the place to be,” said Mr. Kaufman, 19, as he and his friends languidly roamed the aisles looking for familiar faces, the fringes of each one’s tallit, a garment signifying religious devotion, dangling at his hips. “Everyone who’s anyone is up in the mountains, and at some point, they’re coming through Wal-Mart.”
Finally, it should be mentioned that Jacobs enlisted the participation of Albert Maysles, one of the U.S.’s greatest documentary film makers. Born in 1926, he is about the same age as the subjects of the movie and clearly sensitive to their feelings as anybody in their twilight years would have to be.
I ordered the 2008 documentary “Valentino: the Last Emperor” from Netflix, hoping that it might be half as good as the 2007 “Lagerfeld Confidential”. It turned out that my anticipations were on the money. It was half as good, but still very much worth watching.
Now you might be asking yourself at this point why an “unrepentant Marxist” would have any interest in haut couture fashion, unless you have stopped asking yourself such questions after my rave review of a movie about aging heavy metal musicians. I guess I have a weakness for Marx’s favorite motto, taken from the Roman playwright Terence: “I consider nothing human alien to me.”
There, of course, is also the factor that my wife is a fashionista herself, an enthusiasm of long standing sharpened by her job as an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We both enjoy Project Runway, a cable reality show that pits one aspiring designer against another and even find time for the fashion shows that air on WNYE on Friday and Saturday nights. The sight of 5’10” models strutting down the runway with trance music throbbing in the background is an acquired taste, I admit, but we find it more interesting than situation comedies to say the least.
Beyond the entertainment value, the careers of Valentino and Lagerfeld, both of whom are considered throwbacks to the day when luxury goods were hand-crafted in Paris or Rome workshops and outside the sphere of globalization, illustrate some very interesting points about the nature of commodities. I won’t rehash them here but urge you to read my review of the Lagerfeld documentary.
Valentino Garavani was born in 1932 and became one of the fashion industry’s top designers in the 1950s. The movie is a chronicle of his last year before retirement, when his company would become absorbed by one of the huge multinationals that now dominate the luxury goods industry. In one scene, as he strolls along arm-in-arm with Lagerfeld at a display of his gowns at a French museum that is the scene of a spectacular retirement party, they realize that when they are gone there will be nothing but “rags”. As Valentino puts it toward the end of the film, “Après moi, le déluge”.
But above all, this documentary is a love story about two men, Valentino and his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti who have been together since 1960 when they met on the Via Veneto in Rome. For those of you, either straight or gay, who have grown weary of weepy Hollywood movies about doomed gay men like the characters in “Brokeback Mountain” or “Philadelphia” (played by straights), this movie is the perfect antidote. This is a story about a couple of homosexuals who have enjoyed each other’s company for close to forty years and allows us to enter their domestic lives without the lurid perspective so necessary, it would seem, for commercial acceptance—not to speak of the bigots of the world who hate the idea that same-sexers can lead happy lives just like the rest of us. Or be as miserable for that matter.