Menahem Golan's desperately vulgar movie version of the Isaac Bashwcia Singer novel, The Magician of Lublin," ranks as one of the grosser cultural atrocities of the season. While the book seemed like dubious movie material to begin with -- as hard to look forward to as the film version of "The Fixer" a decade ago -- it could have been transposed with far more common sense and dignity.
Golan's adaptation is remarkable in the main for campy excess. A superlative example: Shelley Winters as a peasant shrew smacking her porky, loutish son with a stick while shouting, "You never brought a ruble into this house!" As she keeps up the whacking and thumping, you know that there's no chance for this movie to sustain serious pretensions. The spectacle of Winters and Valerie Perrine and Alan Arking and Lou Jacobi in ethnic period drag is bound to have spectators snickering and rolling in the aisles.
Arking, for example, can never act his way out from under a ludicrous, slicked-down hairpiece (meant to make him appear dashing, I suppose) or a diction that persists in recalling Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry. Who could contemplate Valerie Perrine as a peasant wench in turn-of-the-century Poland without surrendering to hysterics? One might as well cast her as Eleanor Roosevelt and expect audiences to keep a straight face.
"Magician" degenerates so rapidly into Theater of the Preposterous that I'm half convinced I must have dreamed certain moments. For example, did Perrine really gaze deeply into Arkin's eyes and coo, "You make me feel like a whore," prompting Arkin to murmur, "Ah, Zaftel, my zaftig one"? According to my notes, they did -- but surely this was some fleeting comic fantasy.
In a similar respect, I wonder if some poor actor actually said, "Shut your mouth, peasant!" I don't know if that's an untranslatable Yiddish colloquialism, but it sure sounded unspeakable.
The protagonist, an ambitious entertainer named Yasha Mazur, is a challenging character. Introduced while performing a tightrope act on the streets of a small town, he is soon revealed to be a man struggling to overcome a precariously balanced career and personal life. A gifted acrobat and illusionist, he longs to break into the theatrical big time, represented by the Alhambra, a prestige vaudeville house in Warsaw. Confronted with the hostility of an anti-Semitic impresario, Yasha is willing to entertain stunts that are literally beyond his powers, notably flying.
Behind the scenes he tries to juggle old mistresses and acquire new ones while maintaining a wife and home in his native village. Ultimately the tangle of aspiration, obligation, lust and deception proves impossible to control. His juggling act collapses, and the disgrace drives him into a life of religious penitence.
Golan, evidently straining for an inspirational note, has tagged on a looney epilogue which allows Yasha to escape his earthly destiny by metamorphosing into a wild goose. I think it's the first time a flock of geese has been cast the the deux ex machina.
Even amid the shambles created by Golan's miscasting and misdirecting, the idea of someone like Yasha -- a clever, aggressive, necesarily devious Polish Jew attempting to transcend his origins and limits -- remains compelling. While it's impossible to rescue Arkin at this remove -- even by the grace of goose wings -- you can feel for him. He had to perceive him as a great opportunity. It's bound to be humiliating when you discover that your highest artistic hopes have somehow resulted in an object of riducule.