Documentary Portraits of 2 Giants in the Arts

Times Staff Writer

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the UCLA Film Archives' Contemporary Documentary Series continues today at 8 p.m. at the Melnitz Theater at UCLA with a pair of illuminating and imaginative studies of two giants in the arts, Amran Nowak's "Isaac in America--A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer" and Albert Quendler's "Remembrance: A Film With Oskar Kokoschka." Neither film is a critical survey of the man's work but rather is a warm portrait of the artist and his times, drawn largely from his own words.

Small, bald, witty and humorous, Singer comes across as an unalloyed delight, a writer with a deeply ingrained passion for the folkloric and the supernatural who can quip in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that he writes in Yiddish because "nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language." Nowak shows Singer both in his daily routines and in public appearances, but his happiest inspiration was to follow the writer to Coney Island and its environs, where Singer, who grew up in the Warsaw ghetto, first lived upon coming to America in 1935.

As Singer wanders around the decaying, once-elegant Seagate resort, we hear in voice-over a reading of portions of some of his autobiographical short stories, which powerfully evokes the past and gives us an idea of what life was like for a young emigre. Singer finds the large, now-boarded-up rooming house which was his first residence in America--and even discovers his first landlord still living nearby, hearty and alert at 102! The present is effectively intercut with the past through stills--both in Seagate and later on in a now-derelict Coney Island and Brighton Beach, where Singer has the good fortune to arrive at his favorite cafeteria on its very last day of business.

As different in appearance and personality as Singer and Kokoschka are, they both agree on the primacy of love in their art. For Singer, love is the "human personality's fullest expression--in all its strengths and weaknesses." As for Kokoschka, his advice to the would-be artist is, "Just be in love with life." Clearly, the Austrian-born painter, who died at almost 94 in 1980, followed his own advice.

Quendler makes the most of his several strokes of good fortune. How lucky he was to be able to have captured Kokoschka on film so extensively, filming him in many situations similar to those in which Nowak placed Singer. (Like Singer, Kokoschka is relaxed and open in front of the camera.) It's also lucky that much of Kokoschka's memorabilia and correspondence has been preserved and that Quendler had access to it. The result is a mosaic of past and present even more ambitious and richer than the Nowak film. There's an intense, feverish quality to Kokoschka's paintings, matched by his life.

If Singer is an archetypal Jewish uncle, Kokoschka is the equally archetypal virile, romantic artist, a restless wanderer for much of his life and a man involved in various tempestuous affairs, the most notable of which was an early and stormy affair with Alma Mahler. At the same time Kokoschka shared with Singer a deep and enduring sense of family--and the profound impact of two World Wars. Even in old age Kokoschka remained a tall, striking figure, with strong, weathered features and a sense of youthful vitality. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to either Singer or Kokoschka than these two inviting documentaries.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World