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February 22, 2007 By:
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Leon Fleisher is the focus of Nathaniel Kahn's Oscar-nominated film.

 Aleft-handed compliment need not be a two-fisted slap in the face.

Just ask Leon Fleisher, the classically trained class act of a music man whose body of work has been limited to left-hand scores for so long due to an enduring war with dystonia.

It is a neurological battle he has nerve enough to win; as Fleisher has keyed in on a career, it helps that one hand is aware of what the other one is doing.

How appropriate then that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put its hands together to tout this man of artistic bent and scientific benefits, applauding a master class of a film created by Philadelphia's Nathaniel Kahn.

"Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story," nominated as best short documentary, is an inconvenient truth Fleisher has had to live with for decades, a classic case of an artist dealt a bad hand compensating with an extraordinary exercise in a deft defense against life's vicious vicissitudes. études as attitude? The remarkable story of this Curtis Institute of Music professor who wouldn't let his career be curtailed by the disease is made even more so by a stunning sentient sense of artistry by Kahn.

But then, Kahn is no stranger to the arts as he is no stranger to Oscar, this being his second nomination after acclaim and plaudits for "My Architect," his 2003 flying buttress of a beauty built on the legacy of his late father, the legendary Louis Kahn.

For Kahn, it's a case of two documentaries of two Jewish icons, eyeing two father figures who have figured prominently in his life. Fleisher's story goes hand in hand with the filmmaker's refined sense of aural and visual imagery.

"This is just the kind of movie I love to be involved in," says Kahn of "Two Hands," the story of someone "able to create beauty, his struggle to do so and the persistence needed."

Ironically, the icons were relative strangers to the filmmaker. Born out of wedlock to Kahn and Harriet Pattison, an associate of the architect, Nathaniel Kahn, the documentarian, documented his days with his father and beyond even as Louis Kahn died when his son was yet a tot.

And with Fleisher, fleeting was their association ... at first.

"Actually," acknowledges Kahn, "I had never met him," but knew him through his music.

"My mother used to play piano, and she came to Philadelphia to study and would always play records" of people she considered masters, which is why "Fleisher's Beethoven concertos were well familiar to me."

Also familiar was the story of a man overcoming adversity. "When I heard what happened to Leon, I knew I'd like to meet a guy like that, a guy who was a little like my father, a man with great gifts who took a long time to get back to using them."

Both had built followings albeit, admits Kahn: "Leon, a prodigy, was much more known early in his career than my Dad was."

Architect and arpeggios -- perfect together: "They both reinvented themselves and, like Lou, Leon also became a wonderful teacher. Theirs are very instructive stories for young people," he says of two men who were old hands at hitting the high notes -- and high beams.

Ironically, both had marathon careers though neither was a marathon man, each acknowledging that their "work was not a race, and the important thing was to enjoy the journey -- or struggle with it."

Homeland security is something they never had; Louis Kahn initially scratched out a profit without honor in his hometown, constantly pushed back by the Protestant-pitted professionals who protested a Jew joining their club. Fleisher felt helpless at first with a handicap that caught him off-guard.

"But I had a feeling as I was listening to Leon's music, a feeling of his coming home; I hear that in his piano and in the music," says Kahn.

And on the screen, where, undeniably, Kahn has captured a timeless story in a 17-minute time capsule without any sense of shortchanging his short subject's changing career. No little effort has been made to assure a great film that follows Fleisher from victim to victory.

Indeed, in no way did Kahn consider a 17-minute documentary as selling the story short.

"I've always been drawn to shorts," he says. "I remember my mother took me to the Bandbox Theater on Germantown Avenue -- it was a seedy area at the time. I saw this short about a little boy who loved a chicken -- it took place in France -- and wanted it as his pet. He asked and then convinced his father to bring the chicken into the house."

But, alas, as in many a French saga of love and loss -- and fliegels -- one morning they heard the chicken cock-a-doodle-do, dooming his fate. "They realized the chicken was a rooster," and his next roost was in a scalding pot of hot water.

"It was funny, sad and touching -- and all in 15 minutes."

While the chicken had its 15 minutes of fame, Kahn's career has far surpassed that. He has been involved with a number of films in a career as notable as a nicely nurtured nocturne.

As sensational a story as Fleisher's is, Kahn can take credit for not sensationalizing it. "I am not interested in that; I am interested in the emotions of the man," who now, with some difficulty, has overcome his handicap and can play with two hands.

Fleisher's career is an ongoing unfinished symphony; there are highlights yet to happen. One may come this Sunday night when Fleisher accompanies Kahn to the Oscars.

No matter what, "Two Hands" has been handed the best critical approbation by the very man who kept his disability at arm's length and the finger of fate off-key. "His review?" and Kahn reviews the moment the film concluded and darkness ceded to light with Kahn in the ultimate critic's chair.

Thumbs up -- or down -- for "Two Hands"? The business as usual and busy Fleisher was ready for his close-up: "He wiped away some tears, said, 'I think it's wonderful,' and then got up and declared: 'I have to go practice; excuse me.' "

Tony, Maria and the Gang ... Come Over and Meet the Falafel Kids

When you're a Jew, you're a Jew all the way, from your first bagel/lox sandwich to your last dying oy vey ...

Wait a minute. Stop the music! Are Tony and Maria converting? Who turned the gymnasium into a Hillel mixer?

Has "West Side Story" suddenly gone Mideast?

In a way ... yes. "West Bank Story" is a comically musical exam of mishpocah gone bad, where Star of David-crossed lovers exchange furtive glances and glatt-kosher killer stares as Jews and Palestinians tangle over tahini.

Fatima, I just met a girl named Fatima, and suddenly that name will never mean the same to me ...

But it means a lot to Ari Sandel, the young filmmaker whose "West Bank Story" is banking on an Oscar come Sunday in the category of live action short.

Sandel likes to be in America -- of course he does; he's a native, a Californian closer geographically to San Gabriel than the Sinai.

But Oscar voters may be able to shake the sand out of Sandel's socks by opening the envelope for a filmmaker who knows how to push it. Sandel is hoping to go mano a mano with Oscar for his 21-minute film about David the Israeli soldier and Fatima, the Palestinian next door, whose families are engaged in a ferocious food fight over falafel.

One hand, one heart -- one headache.

One more thing; it was shot in the desert storm that is California.

But oh, so funny a film, with original songs that jet in and out with a witty snap and a shark's bite.

Taking Sides?

Which side does Sandel -- whose Oscar candidate was actually his MFA degree submission when he was a filmmaking candidate at USC -- take?

"I don't take a side," he says, pausing. "I'm on the side of peace."

And "West Bank Story" is all a piece of that thought process. The son of an Israeli father, Sandel is no stranger to the dunes and don'ts of Mideast diplomacy. He has studied both Judaism and Islam, as well as Mideast history, and has traveled all over the region extensively.

"I am obsessed with all things Middle Eastern," he notes.

The falafel filmmaker?

Put that in your pita! But he's so much more.

"Can peace come with one big falafel? No, of course not; it's far from that simplistic," concedes the artist whose more recent project moved from Mideast to Wild West; he helmed the feature length "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights -- Hollywood to the Heartland" to a hearty response.

But after seeing only negative press and coverage of the Middle East, he thinks why not give peace a chance -- and maybe a schtickel of hummus and humor.

Not that everybody thought the notion of Jews and Arabs dancing together in the film would be ... kosher. But have a negilah -- and some Arabic dancing too, thought Sandel.

"When I started, everyone said, 'You can't make this movie.' No one will laugh, they said, at a comedy about the tragedy of the Mideast."

His short film gives such talk short shrift. Not that "West Bank Story" started out dancing and dealing with the Mideast political football; it was more ... explosive. "Originally, I was going to make a film about suicide bombers at checkpoints."

Check, please! Upon further thought, Sandel reasoned: "What do Jews and Arabs have in common? Food!"

But that was still one big matzah ball hanging out there until the movie took a marvelous moonwalk through the Sundance Film Festival and brought its dooby-dooby-do sense of humor to ... Dubai. "Now this is a country that doesn't even recognize the State of Israel," says Sandel. "And, according to the party line, there are no Jews in Dubai," which is a dubious census survey since there actually are.

And there they were, opening night, along with Dubains "who had never seen an Israeli soldier [such as David] who wasn't a villain."

The image of a jaded Jewish Officer Krupke crumbling before them? A walk in Sandel's sandals seemed more than a mile; it seemed a mirthless marathon: The 10-minute post-screening Q&A suddenly morphed into an hour-and-a-half heated exchange of verbal missile sorties, the sort he was expecting.

Had Sandel stuck his neck out too far by creating a light-hearted romp that would have Romeo and Juliet hiding the family jewels? Or should he have taken Anita's advice: Stick to your own kind.

Kind questions weren't the order of the day. It was almost a hostile takeover until one "Palestinian woman stood up and said, 'I'm from Gaza, and I think this is hilarious.' "

"The entire energy changed," recalls Sandel, who had gone from ashen to Ashkenazi icon. "Suddenly, people wanted my autograph; one guy said to me, 'I don't like your film at all, but I want to shake your hand because I respect what you do.' "

So have innumerable film festivals, where "West Bank Story" has played to acclaim since and generated much purchasing power at Sandel's Web site (www.westbankstory.com).

And one of Sandel's biggest fans? His dad, the Israeli. "You can't come to the house without him asking if you've seen my film and then him making sure you watch it. He's just like a Jewish mother," jokes Sandel.

And one with a son who just may make the red carpet part on Sunday.


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