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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.

Amir Kaminer
Journalist / Yedioth Ahronoth, Ynet
Amir Kaminer (born 1960) grew up in the rural community of Avihayil at Israel’s Hefer Valley which his grandparents (who were veterans of the Jewish Legion that fought in World War I) had founded. Kaminer studied Film Theory at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television Studies between 1982-1985 and twice made it into the Dean’s Honours List. During his studies, he became one of the founders of the now-defunct magazine, Films (‘sratim’). In 1986, Kaminer had a short stint working for the long-defunct weekly magazine Lahiton (‘Hit maker’) and in the summer of that year, joined the Yedioth Ahronoth media group as their in-house film critic. Since then, he has devoted himself to injecting camp, cult, trash, and fringe culture into all corners of Israeli society. In addition, he is also a regular fashion and culinary writer and critic. In the year 2000, Kaminer began covering the Cannes Film Festival on a regular basis and has since become one of the figures most synonymous with the festival. His festival sojourns, however, are by no means limited to the French Riviera and he has been known to cover many other festivals all over the world on a regular basis including Venice, Berlin, Marrakesh, Rome, Karlovy Vary, Zurich, and Macau. Throughout his career, Kaminer has interviewed the industry’s top tier directors (including Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Jane Campion, Pedro Almodóvar, Roman Polanski, Ethan and Joel Coen, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, and Bernardo Bertolucci to name but a few) and sat down with some of the entertainment world’s biggest names (including Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sandra Bullock, Penelope Cruz, and many more.) In the early ‘90s, Kaminer was considered one of the symbols of Tel Aviv’s hip ‘Sheinkin’ [trendy shopping and café street – EE] and local magazine culture, and even made a handful of cameos playing himself in numerous films set around Tel Aviv’s nightlife scene including Tel Aviv Stories, Amazing Grace, Strangers in the Night, and Song of the Siren. He also starred in Moshe Zimerman’s An Evening without Naama which was based on a story from Kaminer’s own partying days.