Shortcut #37: Fiddler on the Roof

I’ve loved this movie since I was a child.  I don’t know when I first saw it, except that I’m sure it was on account of my parents.  I’m pretty sure that we had a recording of the music, either from the movie or from Broadway, and we must have listened to it, the songs pulsing throughout the house, just as I remember Phantom careening around corners to find me in the upstairs rec room.

And I should’ve guessed that I’d react to A Shoggoth on the Roof as well as I did because the music underlying the Lovecraft-laden lyrics is almost exactly the same, and it is that music that catches me up into

Shortcut #37: Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof poster

so thoroughly.  Really, the movie is three hours long, but I never feel it dragging (except, perhaps, during the Entr’acte, when the screen is just the word on a red background for two minutes of solid music – music which interests the ear just as seductively as the rest), a fact which amazes me.  It’s rare that there’s any film that doesn’t have a point or two where I find myself cleaning my nails or trying to identify filmic flaws the director overlooked.

Megan and I stayed up till 3 am last night watching the movie, a fact that might say more of the film’s mesmerizing draw if we hadn’t been staying up till 3 am the two nights previous as well.  But in this case I knew I was tired, but my eyes and ears were given no time to rest.  I suppose some might find the dancing scenes dead space, but even those play multiple roles, pushing forward the action of the story through the purely physical.

Fiddler on the Roof is not what I think of as a typical musical.  It’s too dark.  The subject matter – that of poor Jews in Tsarist Russia – begins with a celebration of village life that, as the musical progresses, turns from joy to fatalism as the true experience of Jews in Russia overtakes the romanticism.  Which is not to say that the musical ever blinds itself to reality.   The songs that are so catchy and fun are always aware of the poverty and suffering that hope and joy are simply rafting on.

I feel like I’m trying to convince you that Fiddler on the Roof is a great musical.  But unlike other shortcuts, my goal here is not to bring to your attention cultural ephemera you might otherwise miss.  If Fiddler isn’t on your cultural radar, you’re the one who is poorer for it.

What I want to talk about are two elements that strike me about this viewing.

1. I know that I’ve seen the movie before, but I don’t remember when or if I saw it more than once.  I feel like I knew everything that was happening, though it wasn’t like I knew what would happen before it happened.  Every scene was familiar to me, and yet still a surprise.

I haven’t seen the musical on the stage and, watching the movie again, I find it hard to imagine.  I’ve seen pictures so I can visualize what the musical would look like on the boards, but the issue I have is that the movie is so perfect that I questioned whether it actually came first, spawning the stage musical afterwards.

Norman Jewison directs the film with such visual splendor that, to my imagination, the stage version can only seem barren.  The life of the village of Anatevka is embodied through a whirlwind of cuts showing different villagers and key moments of village life, but instead of each seeming static, iconic, or cliché, care is taken to make each individual, as if these scenes are slices from what you’ve seen during the day rather than crafted attempts to represent the whole.

It makes little sense to contrast a film’s use of space with a stage musical’s, but that’s exactly what I felt while watching the movie: the musical is so perfectly suited to film, how could it compare on stage?  I still don’t know, and I can’t say I’m eager to see the differences.  I’ve been spoiled, perhaps, and am acting like a rabid fan of a book refusing to see the movie for fear of spoiling the love.

Then again, my memory of the film is already skewed. From my childhood, I remembered a reprise of “Sunrise, Sunset” as the Jews are forced to leave Anatevka, sung as they walk down the road through the wastes of the winter countryside.  But that never happens.

Fiddler on the Roof still

2. The other aspect of the film that codifies the experience is Topol, the actor who stars as Tevye, the milkman.  He grew famous playing the character on stage in London and jumped from there to the film and his experience must’ve helped.  He captures the character so beautifully and intently it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

This isn’t to say that his acting stands out like a flower in a field of weeds.  No, the acting in the movie is excellent all around.  What it is about Topol is that he’s the start, and so the face with which the film presents itself.  He’s the narrator, he’s the fulcrum for all the action, and he’s the one who goes through changes in the film.  And though Fiddler on the Roof is well-written, it’s not the writing that captures the eye, but Topol’s intensity.  Any decent actor could fill out the role equitably, but only a formidable one can hold your attention simply with the set of the mouth.

I didn’t realize it until reading the net for this post, but Topol also starred in another of my favorite movies: Flash Gordon.  He plays Dr. Hans Zarkov and, in a movie so cheesy it could feed a family of mice for a year, he manages to bring conviction to his character and honesty of intention.

And just to let you know, if Flash Gordon isn’t on your cultural radar, you’re the one who is poorer for it.

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