Currently reading : Jacques Katmor
The symbolisms found in the films of Jacques Katmor continue to dialogue with the history of post-WWII Israeli politics. Although heavy at times with the distinct aesthetic (and indeed, cliché), of 1960s counter-culture, Katmor’s films abandon traditional narrative plot in lieu of modernist seductions: imitation, cultural myth and experimentation.
Katmor was a filmmaker, artist and member of the Third Eye Group, a collective of artists working in 1960s Tel Aviv. The intent of the collective was to foster environments of cultural revolution in the young state of Israel. Dynamic and multidisciplinary, the Third Eye Group staged performances, made street art, distributed comics and magazines (most notably, a zine called Strip), and opened a record shop which imported hard-to-find albums and literature. Ingesting drugs was also seen as a way to further artistic pursuits. A retrospective titled The Third Eye: Jacques Katmor Is Wishing You A Good Death, was held at the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art in 2012, prompting a posthumous interest in the group. As Virginie Sélavy has said, “the [Third Eye Group] were aware of what was going on elsewhere, wanted to be part of the world and rejected the militarised identity imposed by a nation entirely defined by the Holocaust narrative.”
1969’s A Woman’s Case (Mikreh Isha) is Katmor’s only feature. The film follows the meeting of a man and woman who spend a day together in the bohemian spaces of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: coffee houses, parties, a sculptor’s studio. Somewhere along the line the woman ends up dead.
Katmor’s alignment with the aesthetics of European and American 1960s counter-cultures is significant not only because of his leftist political leanings but because of his precarious socio-geographical position. A Jew born in Egypt, Katmor moved to Israel in 1960. The varied nature of his upbringing (he was educated in Switzerland, spent a year in Paris and often visited France), granted his art a complexity of form. He borrowed where he saw fit, fusing assorted artistic languages and movements into his personal lexicon. Katmor was an immigrant in Israel, an artist from the Middle East whose influences were often born from Western cultures.
If the artist “must renounce religion, home and country,” what does Katmor’s imitation of Western film aesthetics mean in depicting the realities of 60s Israel? In depicting the lives of the Mizrahim? The Ashkenazim? Palestinians? Ex-pats? The burgeoning economic, social and militarized relationship of the state to the rest of the world?
Perhaps it’s the flexibility of Katmor’s symbolism, his playfulness, that is suspect in film. Just as “art for art’s sake” can be political, Katmor’s films prefer associative experimentation. A Woman’s Case uses the cinematic language of French Auteur Theory to denounce the conservatism of 60s Israeli culture, while at the same time suggesting the psychologies behind its resolute traditionalism. The film embraces any number of aesthetics, histories and realities. Perhaps this is its frustration as well as its success.
Despite the apparent non-committal attitude of the film, Katmor’s images do hold in themselves the symbols of the culture. For instance there is a very sensual scene in A Woman’s Case in which what looks like a necktie is draped along the body of the female lead, played by Helit Yeshurun. The fabric is used to draw slow circles around her torso, its wide, triangled end grazing the tip of her nipple, her body compartmentalized, calling to mind a sort of 60s music video. In the context of Israeli culture just after the Six Day War, the whole scene seems deliberately perverse. Perhaps the necktie can be understood as a weapon, a violent reminder of the instruments of genocide and removal that created the Israeli state. Perhaps the sensuality of the scene is a lengthy, somewhat cheeky portrait, which aims to make uncomfortable the strict religious and moralist sensibilities that Katmor rejected. Perhaps, plainly, it is a suggestion of radical intimacy, a visual poem, tipping a hat to Helit’s father, the great poet Avoth Yeshurun. Here symbolism is both all and nothing. It makes a series of convincing declarations then quickly retracts them.
A sense of eroticism is prominent in most of Katmor’s work, a theme which runs the gamet, rather flexibly, from radicalism and liberation to misogyny and fear.
The erotic themes of Katmor’s films not only attempted to ignite discussion between ancient and modern cultures but also suggested the poetic potential of the moving body. Like other modernist directors, Katmor’s images are decidedly self-referential, self-conscious, even sentimental in their insistence on artifice and surrealist disorientation. Unlike Truffaut’s famous freeze-frame shot of the boy on the beach in The 400 Blows, Katmor rarely lends moments of stillness to his romanticism. Instead his actors are continuously in motion, sometimes fragmented motion, suggesting a constant sexual energy, a discontinuity in movement, a loop.
The hyper-sexualized and violent images directed at the female in A Woman’s Case propose a mythical reading of the film. Judd Ne’eman suggests a feminist critique of its Eros/Thanatos theme: “a close reading of the film allows us to illuminate the postwar situation of the combatant and see the relationship between the memory of the threat of destruction of the male body and the film’s modernist style, both under the sign of the terror of the female body” (73). The injection of the female body as “threat” mimics historic demonizations of the female (a theme which is, frankly, so tired it’s almost ineffectual), especially in relation to sexuality; though it’s interesting to note the ways in which Katmor’s male characters represent a kind of battered masculinity. One which, for all its initial devotion to patriarchy, cannot re-enter the world of men by the films’ end.
Essential to Ne’eman’s reading is the possibility that grief, trauma and national insecurity inform Katmor’s attraction to myth. As an avant-garde film, it’s possible that A Woman’s Case embodies multiple artistic difficulties in regards to representation: the inability to portray the horrific events of the Holocaust, to depict the problematic relationship between Jews of different ancestry, between Israelis and Palestinians in relation to land. It’s also possible that there is no definitive way of portraying a national identity through cinema. Perhaps this is the reason for Katmor’s individualist, avant-garde style, and for his use of ancient, allegorical stories. For if there are political aspects to Katmor’s work they refuse to be political in the obvious ways, and myth is easily applied to current situations.
The images in A Woman’s Case act like a series of stills; moments contained within perimeters they set for themselves, somehow separate from what came before and what will come after, despite our knowledge that they are linked by a reel. The fragmentation of the images, the jump-cuts, the slant imitation of La Nouvelle Vague tactics, indicative of a Godard-like cool in its refusal to be didactic, the multiple non-sequiturs that make up the dialogue between the man and woman, banter which retains its charm through referential riddles, the psychedelic soundtrack by rock n’ roll band the Churchills . . . somehow the Israeli reality of the time gets exported outside of the film, any particularities confusingly absent. Not Paris, or New York, though both seem plausible. Not Israel, though sort of. Anywhere the viewer decides, which is a freedom that almost certainly belongs to a liberal bourgeois: The Right To Not Declare. To cosmopolitanism. The characters in A Woman’s Case inhabit a nowhere-place full of altered perception, of young, Jewish radicalism and imported diasporic idealism.