(Cinema of Talmud) Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar)


Riffing gently off the title of Pasolini’s essay “Cinema of Poetry,” let’s call Joseph Cedar’s most recent release an exercise in the “cinema of Talmud.” To be sure, Norman has to be viewed with an eye towards the narrative arc. But it’s the form of the film that matters. What makes a film Talmudic in structure I will hazard to say is a particular conjuncture. It consists of [1] a peculiar sense of the real coupled with absurd and accidental deviations along with [2] an alternate sense of the present in [3] a tight warren of constricted social and mental spaces through which a [4] a bizarre sense of the possible and [5] the quiet apparition of sublime glory flit through at unexpected juncture points. To borrow an idea from Menachem Feuer at Home of the Schlemiel, the cinema of Talmud reveals the large in the very small. My mother saw Norman twice, once without me and once with me. She objects to the subtitleThe Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” Indeed, the rise is in a certain way immoderate and the fall is more complicated than simple. Cedar’s film is a fable about destiny, in which all the disparate parts are brought together, improbably.

A schledpedik figure, a schlemiel par excellence, Norman is a fixer who can’t fix. He is shown early in the film always after the company of powerful people, sucking up to them, following possible human connections always promising them connections to money and influence which he can’t possibly deliver –until that precise point in the film at which, now, he suddenly can. Throughout the entire arc of the film, he lies to everyone. He lies to the real Jewish money-men who shun him, to a rabbi of a struggling synagogue with whom he’s on friendly terms, to a low ranking Israeli politician, a deputy minister named Amir Eshel. He will humiliate himself more than once. The plot twists quickly around Norman’s relationship with Eshel, whom Norman finds at a low point in his career, at the nadir of his ambition and confidence, alone and slightly lost on a government junket in New York. Norman follows him, believes in him, connects to him, buys him a pair of expensive shoes, insinuates himself in his life, loves him. And Eshel seems to love Norman, confides in Norman, and remembers Norman, raising him up in the world, after his own election to the improbable rise to the very top of the Israeli political pyramid. There’s a political scandal hatched by the political enemies of the new Prime Minister with the improbable ambition to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Come the inevitable fall, the scandal, we the viewers understand before anyone else, is based on nothing, even as it carries forward with its own peculiar logic.

As a character sketch, Norman is himself nothing. An improbable and utterly implausible figure, he is shown to have no home, no real occupation, no family. From the looks of it, he barely owns a change of clothes. Am I misremembering this point? Does Norman wear in almost every single scene the same sort of sad camel coat and light brown plaid hat and scarf? It’s not definitely quite clear where the money comes from, only that it is not anywhere near enough to deliver on the promises he proffers. Norman is not a macher. An anti-hero, Norman is an anti-macher who makes things happen, but everything that he makes happen happens by accident. Like a dog, he is intensely loyal. In his review in the NYT, A.O Scott gets the basic character right with this description, that there is, indeed, “something almost selfless in Norman’s hustle. He doesn’t want wealth or power as much as he longs for proximity to them, for entree into a world where important things happen. He calls himself a businessman or a consultant, but he is really running a kind of social pyramid scheme, promising extravagant returns on small investments of kindness and courtesy.”

[[You might want to stop reading here if you have not seen the movie already and don’t want me spoiling the punchline of the movie.]]

Eshel’s ascent to the Prime Ministry is the moment at which the plot comes together. Norman waits with his nephew at a reception line to greet the newly elected Prime Minister at the AIPAL (sic) conference. He’s not sure Eshel will remember him. The Prime Minister looks up, instantly recognizes Norman, call him out spontaneously by name and warmly embraces him in front of bank of news photographers. We’re now in on the joke; the heavens open up. Norman, the schlemiel, is suddenly the man of the moment. Does he truly have the Prime Minister’s ear or is the relationship between the two men only sentimental? It’s unclear, but now, in the moment, Norman has been moved as if by fate into the center of everything until he goes back under, all over a pair of shoes. Norman, it seems is the unlikely figure at the center of the bribery scandal, as if he were some billionaire buying the Prime Minister with expensive gifts. Norman’s fate is sealed by nothing more than that pair of shoes.

The other joke in the movie involves the synagogue that Norman wants to support. In part, he needs the rabbi to perform a wedding for his nephew who is marrying a young Korean woman. But Norman has something of a real relation to the place. He is in and out of the synagogue on a regular basis, but always alone, at night when the old wooden pews are empty, up in the dark sitting up in the balcony resting while the congregational choir practices. The synagogue is both elegant and rundown. The congregation needs fourteen million dollars to save the building. Norman claism to have secured the money, which he has failed to do. Only late in the film, after the funds are finally secured based on inside information about the bribery scandal in Israel, are we shown that the balcony is where the choir performs. It’s only at the end of the film that we are given to understand that Norman habituates the transformed shabby place where angels now sing.

The fundamental premise in Norman is that our political and religious life is built on a foundation of delusions and lies. Its sense of place is one in which nothing is real. New York resembles a larger scale version of the army position in Beuafort, Cedar’s movie about the Lebanon War, or the academic libraries and reading rooms in Footnote. Always shot from the inside, the city streets, rooms, and tunnels are dark and claustrophobic. Outside the lighting is overcast in a perpetual winter with snow on the ground. In these narrow spaces, in this constricted place of exile, anxiety and desire will gradually build into panic and paranoia. Norman who pursued power is now pursued by power; to be precise, by two kinds of power, one which is this worldly, and the other unexpectedly revealed as otherworldly. That all of the intricate plots hatched by Norman and by Eshel actually pan out in the end is the comedic miracle of the movie. But this comes at a price, or is it a reward? Revealed in the last minutes of the film are these disguised figures: a prosecuting attorney, the angel of death, an act of martyrdom, a vision of the heavens, a divine chorus, the providence of an omnipresent God who, faceless, remains hidden from view.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Cinema of Talmud) Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar)

  1. Pingback: Here’s a Wonderful Essay by Jewish Philosophy Place on the new Joseph Cedar Film, “Norman” (With a Schlemiel Theory Cameo) | Schlemiel Theory

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