The Sublime and the Absurd - A Journey through Amos Guttman's Oeuvre

Edited by Amir Kaminer
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When director, Amos Guttman, died on 16 February 1993 of AIDS-related complications at the age of 38, I felt as though Israeli cinema had just been orphaned. I went on television at the time to eulogise him and concluded that “Amos Guttman was a prince.” Indeed, Guttman was the Israeli Prince of Decadence, and the many clichés and nicknames that had stuck to him over the years were all based in truth: “A man ahead of his time,” “A prophet is not without honour but in his own country,” “the fringe and gutter poet,” “The Israeli Almodóvar,” etc.
In his all too short life, Guttman was able to make a total of seven films: three shorts – Returning Premiers (1976), A Safe Place (1977), and Drifting (1980) – and four feature-length ones: Drifting (1983), Bar 51 (1987), Himmo, King of Jerusalem (1987), and Amazing Grace (1992). With his passing, I felt like he had now joined the ranks of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and all other film martyrs who had died prematurely at a young age and whose deaths have left us bereft with frustration and with the most bitter, lingering sense of loss, lamenting the many magnificent films they had yet to make and which, no doubt, would have made our lives all the brighter and richer.
Guttman was a bold, subversive, and daring man and creator; a pioneer who came out of the closet in a time when only a handful had the courage to take that step. In his films, in which he explored fears, passion, and death, he managed to get under the film establishment’s skin, not to mention a good few critics and also, the LGBT community. At every step of the way, Guttman was met with hurdles, obstacles, snubs, and resistance; all of which made his greatest passion – filmmaking – all the more difficult to pursue. The 1992 Israeli Oscars marked the peak of his shunning when members of the Israeli Film Academy unceremoniously snubbed Amazing Grace; this, despite being that night’s undoubtedly deserving winner with several nominations in multiple categories.
Over the years, Guttman came under fire for supposedly creating ‘outsider’ characters and as a whole, for making films that were completely removed from, and out of touch with Israeli reality. However, not only were Guttman’s films timely and relevant, they were also staunchly political and did not shy away from some truly hard-hitting criticism and scathing indictments of Israeli society on a scale much harsher than many other so-called contemporary, critical, and socially-conscious films of the period dared to attempt.
Guttman was the first filmmaker to have made camp, postmodernist films in Israel, knowingly and intentionally. ‘Camp’ is a term coined by Susan Sontag in the early 1960 – hailing it as kitsch’s conscious, ironic, theatrical, and over-the-top successor. Camp also became the secret language of gay men in a dark era when so many of them were forced to lead hidden, underground lives. For me, personally, the campness that was oozing from Guttman’s films was the main draw into the world he was creating. In my final dissertation at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television Studies, I set out to apply camp theory on Guttman’s filmography. It later appeared under the title, And We have our Own Art, in the long-departed magazine, Films (‘Sratim.’)
Guttman and I, overall, shared a special bond that was every bit as personal as it was professional. My first-ever published film review was of Guttman’s Drifting; from then on, I continued to follow his career. In April 1991, four years after Guttman became a shut-in following the unjust critical and box-office flop of Himmo, King of Jerusalem, when he would spend his days in bed starting at the ceiling and watching TV, I launched an appeal in my personal column in Tel Aviv (a local weekly publication of the time) in which I asked/pleaded the following, “Amos, come out of your Ramat Gan exile. Israeli film needs you.”
As it turned out, my plaintive plea had its desired effect. Four months later, in an interview with local magazine, Kol Ha-ir reporter, writer and poet Shva Salhoov, Guttman revealed that it was my public appeal that made him come out of his self-imposed exile and dive into Amazing Grace: “Until about a month ago, I was still carrying this awful feeling that’s followed me around ever since Himmo tanked the way it did, that maybe I should go and find something else to do. And then, Amir Kaminer wrote that magazine column and just like that, that feeling was gone.” As a token of his gratitude, Guttman cast me in a role which he described as “The Guardian Angel” in the club scene in Amazing Grace. And though it technically was just a bit part, Guttman nevertheless made me bleach what little hair I had left at that point. I surrendered willingly to his every whim.
When he died, I wrote, “We are orphaned. Amos, you have left us – orphans of the storm; the fringe citizens; the damned; the lonely and the drifting – all on our own in this terrible world.” It has been decades since Guttman left us and his absence remains every bit as palpable. In this age, a time when straight men and women now flock to pride parades, when gay and lesbian characters enjoy prominent onscreen representation, when a young trans girl makes the cover of broadsheet, Haaretz’s supplement, and the government has an openly gay cabinet minister, one might struggle to wrap their head around the sheer scope of Guttman’s trailblazing, pioneering feats, not to mention his invaluable contribution that would pave the way for a great many artists down the line. With that in mind, I now give you a dozen instances that establish the enormous extent of his merit and why, for me, Guttman remains the greatest, single-most influential, and fascinating creator to have ever come out of Israel.

Movie clips

Returning Premiers – The Erotic Hallucination

Guttman always favoured the expressionistic over the realistic, the artificial over the natural, the imaginary over the real. Paying close attention to the way things looked, were shot, and stylised was always of the utmost importance to him. He created a self-aware mode of cinema. An Expressionist ambiance and subjective point-of-view were often achieved via hallucinations and daydream scenes that in turn, were accompanied by classical music or opera sequences or sometimes, by muting the music altogether. The use of hallucinations as a film device is already evident in his debut film, Returning Premiers: a sensitive teen (Tzvika Shmueli) who works in a puppet theatre locks himself in his room where he holds a private ceremony of sorts, complete with candles, makeup and record-playing, during which he fantasises about one of the puppet theatre’s crew members – a strapping, dark-skinned, curly-haired man. The majority of hallucination sequences in all of Guttman’s films have since featured homoerotic overtones.

A Safe Place – Sexuality in the Cinema

As was the case for countless gay men in the age before the LGBT Pride revolution, for Guttman too, the movie theatre offered refuge and sanctuary. In a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in many countries, the films (ranging from gripping melodramas and extravagant, highly-stylised musicals to horror movies) provided respite and a safe haven; a place one could escape to and leave all their troubles at the door; forget about the need to hide your true self, the homophobia, the rejection, and the endless other woes which in those dark times, punctuated every gay man’s existence.
Guttman loved film with every fibre of his being. He was tremendously erudite and had the most impressive VHS tape collection. His films were littered with homages to the great divas (from Anna Magnani to Romy Schneider) and tributes to his favourite films and directors. In an interview he once gave, Guttman even described how he felt that “film has saved me.” It is therefore perhaps of little surprise that his follow-up film was titled, A Safe Place. That safe space being the movie theatre to which the film’s protagonist (Doron Nesher) – a lonely teen confronting his surging hormones, horniness, and burgeoning sexuality – would escape every chance he got. His bedroom walls are adorned with images of Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich; he prefers the darkness of the cinema to the classroom and the company of his schoolmates, whilst his bored and depressed mother huffs at him, “you watch way too many films.”
When our hero goes out to watch The Sound of Music, the movie theatre is suddenly no longer as safe a place as it had been until now – a strange, older man sits at his side and uses the darkness as his chance to hit on him and cop a feel; an explicit scenario that plays out in contrast with the merry sounds and saccharine sweetness of the film showing onscreen. Our hero then flees the cinema in terror. Guttman notably dedicated the film to Margaret Leighton, who was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance in The Go-Between, and who died of MS in 1976.

Drifting (short) – The Opening Number

The theatrics, the art of impersonation, and performative “role-play” are all part and parcel of camp culture which Guttman would use extensively and successfully, time and again. Already at the start of Drifting (the original, short version), he included a scene in a gay dive bar that’s trying to glam itself up a bit, and at the centre of which is a cabaret act performed by an effeminate Boaz Turgeman who is seen prancing about to the tune of Kate Bush’s ‘Full House’ whilst flirting and fondling the punters. The same Turgeman later returns in the feature-length version of Drifting; this time, with an eighties-esque performance piece. Guttman famously included performance sequences in his films – from the striptease and the preppy singer performing a ridiculous song in Bar 51 to a number by singer and cabaret artist, Hamuchtar in Amazing Grace. When asked about it, Guttman remarked how, “in each of my films, I’ve always tried to show the sublime, operatic, and absurd side by side.”

Drifting (Feature-length) – The Opening Monologue

Tel Aviv’s Paris Cinema, Hayarkon St., 1983. The small movie theatre that specialises in cult films and midnight movies and is famous for showcasing a different, wild, subversive, and ‘other’ type of cinema – from the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Monty Python movies, to a range of arthouse films – is the scene of Guttman’s feature-length film. The opening scene alone serves as a proverbial punch in the gut: film protagonist Robbie (played by Jonathan Sagall), a dashing, sarcastic, cynical, and contemptuous young director addresses an “unseen” producer, the camera, or perhaps the audience themselves. He delivers a monologue that is rooted in Guttman’s own arduous, obstacle and hurdle-riddled path en route to fulfilling his dream of making a feature-length film, “the gay guild doesn’t even want to know about my shorts,” Robbie lashes out in defiance. “They’re not positive films. They don’t portray gays in the right light. They also didn’t make a penny.”

Drifting made history – it was the first time a gay male character appeared as the lead in a feature-length Hebrew-speaking film; a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded, multi-layered character whose good and bad sides are equally represented. It hardly comes as a surprise then, that the gay community of the time didn’t take kindly to the brutally unfiltered mirror Guttman held up to its face in his films. Incidentally, the self-righteous monologue Guttman gives his Drifting protagonist – “why bother making another full-length picture on this subject, huh? To prove that you exist, that you have a voice, that you’re worth a damn. What is this film about? Whatever’s left. And there isn’t much. Only the need to make this film…” – epitomises a running theme in his oeuvre. The majority of Guttman’s film protagonists are in desperate need of some form of creative outlet. As such, their artistic proclivities will always reflect their own existential reality.

Drifting (feature-length) – Independence Park

In the days before the Internet and online dating apps exploded into our lives, Tel Aviv’s Independence Park, stretching out west of Hayarkon St. and nestled between Atarim Square and Nordau Blvd., was famously the prime mingling, cruising, and cottaging location for the city’s local gay community. In Drifting, Guttman set three scenes in this bewitching, unruly, primal and controversial location, which could easily also have been a terrifying, violent place. The first of these three scenes is also the most memorable – Robbie goes to the park one night with a married, good friend (Ami Traub), in search of some casual sex. Guttman portrayal of the pair’s exploits through the park is poetic and erotic, but also very explicit; and staying true to form, even the most graphic scenes are tinged with his trademark, Guttmanian humour. For instance, when punk-rocker Effie (Boaz Turgeman), mockingly bursts into song in his nasal voice mid-cruising, singing, “Oh, ye lovely Israel; so lush ye, Land of Israel.” As it were, there is perhaps no greater contrast to songwriter, Dudu Barak’s vision of the “lush and lovely Land of Israel,” which he described in his song, than the setting of Independence Park.

Drifting (feature-length) – The Sketchy Audition

The Twilight of the Gods motif (Or the Sunset Boulevard heroine, Norma Desmond archetype) is a recurring theme in Guttman’s body of work – i.e. the grande artiste who has known great success but has since fallen from grace and is now on the decline; with only a string of failures and cringeworthy comeback attempts to their name that have relegated them from public consciousness, ultimately leading to their sad demise, fast-tracked by self-destruction, addiction or changing tastes and fashion. In the audition scene which I consider to be Drifting’s most powerful, unsettling and cruellest moment, Guttman pays homage to silent film star and heartthrob, Ramon Novarro, whose film career did not survive the transition to ‘talkies,’ and who ultimately met a tragic end.

In the scene, Robbie who is struggling to get his film off the ground, invites his sister, Effie (Hadas Turgeman) over, along with a rent boy (Ben Levin). At his flat, he takes all his bitterness and frustration out on them, giving them a dubious, mock-audition. In the course of this so-called screentest, he bullies and berates them, whilst telling them all about Novarro who, “one night, when he was already an old man, he took home a couple of twin hustlers – Burt and Daniel , they were called. I always wondered what happened that night. They killed the old man. Stuck a marble phallus down his throat which Valentino once gave him as a present.” At least Robbie didn’t meet a similar fate.

Bar 51 – The Old Central Bus Station

Tel Aviv is always portrayed in Guttman’s films as a stylised, outlandish, dreamy, expressionistic, and out-of-touch city. At the same time, it is also often depicted as a nocturnal, decayed, and decrepit place. At times, one is left feeling a fairytale-like sense of detachment – as if they might as well be anywhere – but also a loss of innocence. The scene that is most evocative of Tel Aviv life a-la Guttman is undoubtedly Bat 51’s Old Central Bus Station scene, immaculately shot by Yossi Wein. At the heart of the film are orphaned siblings, Thomas (the late Juliano Mer-Khamis) and Marianna (Smadar Kilchinsky), who leave their small town and head to the big city. The two find shelter in the Old Central Bus Station area and Thomas goes out to explore their new surroundings. Whilst out and about, he is exposed to a dark, violent, hostile, exploitative and sexualised world with criminals and prostitutes galore. Through the smokey emissions of the last buses pulling into their depot for the night, she emerges – Apolonia Goldstein (Ada Valerie-Tal); the sequin-clad queen of the night, with her plunging neckline and fake jewellery. She asks Thomas to join her for coffee and some sandwiches and later, to set up shop at her place and in her bed. Their fateful encounter will end up upending the lives of all those involved.

Bar 51 – Apolonia’s Suicide Attempt

In his work, Guttman loves contrasting good-old, upstanding, institutional Israel of yore with the decadent, fringe world of the gutter dwellers. Together, this discord and dissonance produce biting, ironic commentary (the kind of irony that is the very substance of camp), as well as a statement on macho, militaristic and so-called “proper” Israel. One scene that best illustrates this contrast finds Apolonia who is left feeling hurt after a row she’d just had with Thomas, her young lover, going for a soak in the bath.

Marianna, meanwhile, is sat in Apolonia’s tacky and kitsch-fuelled lounge, watching the grande dame of Hebrew folk music singalongs, Sarah’le Sharon on TV, trying to entertain the troops: “Some days, you start having all these thoughts and you just want to cry. But instead of crying, you sing. And when you sing in a group, you end up feeling amazing. That is the feeling I want all of us to experience here tonight; together. It’s a chance to sing only with our boys and girls in uniform, whose face may be a bit tired, but who are definitely up for a singalong.”

Whilst an accordion plays in the background and someone is heard singing, “a kind and fair-eyed girl we have in the Land of Israel / and the nicest ever boy you could ask or pray for,” Marianna notices all the bath foam overflowing from the bathtub into the living room. As it turns out, Apolonia, who could not be further removed from this image of the kind and fair-eyed girl, has just slit her own wrists.

Himmo, King of Jerusalem – The Euthanasia

At the heart of Guttman’s films, one always finds some form of impossible, taboo love – usually, same-sex love between two men but also, incest amongst siblings (Bar 51.) Himmo, King of Jerusalem is based on Yoram Kaniuk’s 1966 novel of the same title. The plot is set in a Jerusalem monastery that has been converted into a hospital during the 1948 Independence War’s siege of the city. Guttman’s film adaptation focuses on a burgeoning love story between a woman and a man who, for all intents and purposes is a zombie: Nurse Chamutal (Alona Kimhi) is devoted to Himmo (Ofer Shikartsi), a handsome, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who was once nicknamed, ‘King of Jerusalem’ but was then wounded in combat which left him a maimed and blind, quadruple amputee.

Himmo is covered in bandages, with only his extraordinary mouth still visible – a relic of his erstwhile beauty. “Oot me… Oot me,” his screams pierce the air. He is pleading to be shot and put out of his misery. Chamutal’s devotion to Himmo and the bond that they form, ends up making the other veterans jealous. They are outraged that because of Himmo, Chamutal has forgotten all about the other wounded soldiers and urge her to marry him. “It wasn’t death I was drawn to,” Guttman told me when I interviewed him in 1987. “I was drawn to what the fear of dying brings out in people in a small, confined space. Once your love interest is this ‘bandaged-up bundle’ then obviously, what you’re looking at is an impossible love. But it’s the way those around them react that turns this love into something taboo.”

On the heels of an absurd night of passion, Chamutal decides to put Himmo out of his excruciating misery and administers him a lethal injection. She holds a private ceremony where she gives him the gift of eternity he has been pleading for, and then rings the bells. Chamutal kills Himmo because she has chosen to align with the living. She will not become the dead man’s bride.

Himmo, King of Jerusalem – The Closing Scene

In his book, Himmo, King of Jerusalem, Yoram Kaniuk recalled the trauma of the Independence War as he set out to settle his long-open score with it. He fought in that war as a combat soldier with the Palmach, hurt his leg in battle during the ill-fated attempt to seize control of the Old City and was treated in a monastery-turned-hospital which gave him the inspiration for his book, including the character of a critically-injured soldier. The epilogue of his novel is set 12 years after the war. Chamutal finally makes it to Jerusalem and discovers a place where people have ice cream. Life goes on.

In Israeli mythology, 1948 remains a highly charged topic: an idea; a longing; a dream; a promise unrealised; an opportunity missed. Guttman, a Transylvanian immigrant himself, once said that for him, 1948 holds no myths. “I wasn’t interested in what things were actually like back then. In Himmo, I didn’t feel like I was hitting some kind of national nerve. For work purposes, I dropped the ‘the’ people always put before the year .” It is therefore unsurprising that Guttman opted for an altogether different ending: the siege of Jerusalem is broken; the wounded soldiers abandon the makeshift hospital, and the mute daughter of the monastery’s caretaker is seen walking down the waterlogged corridor, holding her amputee doll – Guttman’s ironic way of saying that life has indeed resumed.

Amazing Grace – Going Clubbing

Guttman’s soft spot was not exclusive to great artists who have crashed, burned, and fallen from grace. His heart also went out to failed, would-be creators and aspiring stage performers; pathetic losers devoid of any and all self-awareness; bit players who will never get top billing – a little like Bar 51’s backup dancer whose career peaked when he appeared in a children’s live action special.

These artists aren’t always aware of their own lack of talent and as such, they never give up the ghost. This is the case with the bartender (Dov Navon) at the club Amazing Grace’s protagonist (Sharon Alexander) ends up in with his younger date (Gal Hoyberger). The exasperating bartender who does not possess a shred of self-awareness is badgering Thomas, telling him how “I’ve written some songs for Eurovision. I’ll probably end up performing them myself. Yes, I will. “

Guttman digs his catty claws even deeper into the cringeworthy lyricist by letting him further embarrass himself. “Urgh, it’s such a drag,” he complains to Thomas. “I’m missing the one word for the chorus that would work both in Hebrew and in Arabic, cos this song, yeah? You, Me and This Land, in case you haven’t noticed, is a bit political. For years, I resisted mixing politics and art, but you can’t ignore the state of things anymore, can you?” Thomas is simply unable to mask or stifle his sniggering, contemptuous laugh.

Amazing Grace – Bidding the Mother Goodbye

Amazing Grace, Guttman’s final film, is his most personal, moving, and wholesome work, “I’m in all the characters in the film. My blood runs through it,” he confessed at the time. “I wrote the script from the deepest place in my gut.” The director who, whilst making the film, was living with full-blown AIDS, and was doing everything in his power to hide the fact of his illness, was articulating his fears and emotions here. Thomas, the main protagonist, an Israeli living in New York who has come home for a visit and is hiding the fact that he is critically ill (with an unnamed disease), is very much the mirror-image of Guttman who was harbouring this terrible secret.

Death hangs over the film (“I try and show different approaches to death in the film,” Guttman explained. “I am trying to say that dying is awful. When it comes to death, we are all a bunch of scared little kids.) Its presence is felt both in witty and amusing dialogue exchanges, and in the insights its characters have (“flower or no flower, she’s also gonna die”; “I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner, I’m not really very good with funerals, you see”; “What have we got left, huh? Just errands and death”; “My head’s a bit all over the place today. Every week, it’s someone else’s funeral.”)

The film’s most touching scene is when Thomas is saying goodbye to his mother (Rivka Michaeli) whose character was no doubt based on Guttman’s own mother. Immediately after he’s finished sitting Shiva for his elderly, departed grandmother and just moments before he packs his bags to get on a plane back to NYC, Thomas sits down for a hearty meal with his mother whom he showers with love and affection. “If something happened to you, would you tell me?” his mother asks. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Thomas assures her. “I’m fine.” But the mother knows and full-well realises that he is terminally ill and that this is the last time they’ll ever see each other. At the end of the meal, he gets up, stands behind his mother who is still sat at the table, and gives her a long, lingering farewell hug. It is a crushingly heartrending scene that is the very epitome of amazing grace; much like the film’s own title.

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