Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Academia Nuts

This week, the Saratoga Film Forum screens the Israeli film Footnote, which could perhaps be subtitled “Ibid., therefore I am.” This wry comedic-drama pits father-and-son professors against each other as they vie to win a prestigious scholarship prize.

The lowly footnote is one of the most contentious stylistic objects in academia as well as elsewhere in researchland. NASA, for example, goes to great lengths to explain best practices for footnote usage, while the U.S. Government Printing Office style book devotes several pages to footnotes (and, for the record, only features one footnote). Most stylistic authorities recommend minimizing the use of footnotes (although they are preferable to parenthetical asides—see?).

Anyway, back to the film. Although the characters and plot are purely fictional (“any resemblance to persons living or dead...” and all that), writer/director Joseph Cedar was inspired by the very real department of Talmudic Studies at the real Hebrew University:

The Talmud department at the Hebrew University is a remarkable place. It is the smallest department in the university, but it is famous worldwide for its uncompromising methods, and its unforgiving attitude toward the notion of “mistake.”

Once I started hearing stories from within this department, about mythological rivalries between scholars, stubbornness on an epic scale, eccentric professors who live with an academic mission that is bigger than life itself, even if its topic is radically esoteric, I fell in love with them all, and they became the centre of this story.

As for the origin of the title, says Cedar:

One Talmud researcher, who is known to be very sparse and dry in his writing, once explained to me his use of a footnote like this: “it is a piece of information, sometimes an anecdote, that is not necessarily verifiable, sometimes even outrageous, or silly, often only remotely relevant to the main text, but at the same time it is just too irresistible and juicy to leave out entirely...”

I heartily concur!*
And as befits the academic milieu, the actors did their, um, homework. Stage comedian Shlomo Bar Aba, who plays Eliezer (the father), returns to films after a 20-year hiatus, and spent six months preparing his character. Lior Ashkenazi, who plays Uriel (the son), took actual Talmud classes at the Hebrew University and spent six months letting his beard grow.

* I once co-authored a book that boasted no fewer than 160 footnotes, many of them jokes. When the printed book was converted to a Kindle e-book, the footnotes were converted to end notes (since the idea of a “page” is a fluid concept in an e-book), which is far less effective. This is my attempt at adding a footnote to a blog post. Meh. Score 1 for print!

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