Sunday 17 January 2010

Meeskeit (2009)

Director: Neil Ira Needleman

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2010.
Meeskeit is a Yiddish word that means a person who is more ugly than ugly and also means that I really need to start learning Yiddish, because they have so many words for things we English only dreamed about. Meeskeit is also a fictional documentary, which is an intriguing concept and one that director Neil Ira Needleman pulls off with panache. If this was a real story, it would be one of the saddest things I've ever seen, a 63 year old narrator who is some sort of social outcast because of her looks reaching deeply into the soul of another social outcast after her suicide. As it's fictional, it's merely really really sad.

The suicide is Sarah and she leaves all her paintings to our narrator, who I don't believe is ever named but who is a distant relative and a fellow meeskeit, in her will. Most amazingly, this comes completely out of the blue: she didn't even know Sarah was an artist until the paintings arrive. They're a varied bunch, painted in different styles, designed for different genres and set in different locales, but they all have one thing in common: they all feature members of their family in highly ironic settings. This was Sarah's revenge on her rather twisted relatives, though much of it could be seen as wish fulfillment, and we learn their stories through the deceptively quiet narration.

Every member of this family has some sort of personality quirk or physical deformity, it seems, some more serious than others. There's the husband who murders his adulterous wife and her lover, so they're painted in a romantic clinch. Bitter rivals who would never stoop so low as to be seen in the same place at the same time are drawn together. Some are ironically negative, such as the thief who becomes a bible toter or the big shot investor who is turned into a pretzel seller, working out of a street cart. Some are ironically positive: a cripple is restored to health to become an award winning baseball player and a recluse parties on down at the Stork Club with a host of celebrities. Murray, the religious member of the family, who joins Jews for Jesus only to be killed by a suicide bomber in the Holy Land, is ironic enough already so he's merely painted as the son of God.

For a quiet and sad apparent documentary, this is deceptively deep. There's nothing flash or technically astute. The camera merely moves over paintings and drawings while the narration explains them, telling stories of revenge, of wish fulfilment, but always of ironically sad jokes. It's a wonderful piece that continues from where I left it with a few more layers of melancholy, as the connections between the two meeskuits grow in a painting and a number of drawings. I wonder where the idea came from, whether it sprung from seeing the artwork, which is really all by Herb Rogoff, or whether the paintings sprung from the idea. I'm happy imagining the former and extending the concept to real life. What stories could I conjure up with thrift store art? It could become a hobby, one worthy of a Randall Munroe strip at xkcd.


Neil Ira Needleman said...

Thank you for your kind words about my video "Meeskeit." I'm glad you were touched by this sad story. (Sad stories are unusual for me, by the way.)

I've collaborated on several Jewish-themed videos with my good friend (and wonderful artist) Herb Rogoff. For "Meeskeit" I wrote the stories to fit his paintings.

Our video "A Trip to Prague" will be screened in February in the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival: Thursday, March 4th, 2010 7:00 PM at Harkins Chandler Crossroads 1. It'll be screened with "A Matter of Size," which looks like a terrific film. I hope you can make it.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Neil.

I'll certainly try to make it, and if I do I'll post a review.

By the way, which year does Meeskeit count as? I'd like to update the question mark...