Movie Review: the Tollbooth
The Arts; Posted on: 2009-01-27 18:16:57 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
by Rob Winfield
As illustrated by Kevin MacDonald's excellent trilogy exploring group evolutionary behavior, the Jewish people has developed a number of evolutionary strategies to keep their bloodlines pure in spite of spending thousands of years in diaspora. As the American descendants of the European diaspora will soon be outnumbered, a close examination of the adaptability of these evolutionary strategies for our own purposes is warranted.
If you want to see what sort of movies are made for explicitly Jewish film festivals, rather than for general consumption, watch "The Tollbooth" (2004), with Marla Sokoloff as the just-graduated Jewish girl from Brooklyn Sarabeth Cohen (whose name is a combination of the names of two aunts who perished in the Holocaust), and her Irish-American boyfriend Simon Stanton from Pennsylvania played by Rob McElhenney. McElhenney as the lone non-Jew in the movie, aside from a short scene in Pennsylvania, is cast as the moral dilemma for a Jewish heroine torn between true love, and loyalty to her family and tribe and ultimately a reverence for the Holocaust surpassing religion.
Rich in layered symbolism in a mode reminiscent of Philip Roth's early short stories pertaining to Jewish identity such as Goodbye Columbus and Defender of the Faith, The Tollbooth, as the movie's title, is the turning point where the Jewish heroine's decisions must be made. After all, our decisions have costs associated with them, and the tollbooth between her Brooklyn-Jewish world and Simon's blue-collar Gentile world imposes not merely a cost for leaving her familiar surroundings, but imposes both a barrier and cost to her return once such a decision has been reached.
The symbolism doesn't stop at the tollbooth; but is rather present at some level in practically every scene. For example, the heroine's Gentile love interest, Simon -- as devoted, mild-mannered and unobjectionable as can be imagined -- is a model rocket hobbyist. At an explicit level, early in the movie Sarabeth expresses a mild culturally-anchored contempt for his hobby in comparison to her own interest in feminist painting; but at an implicit level, as rocketry was developed by the Nazis, the symbolism indicates that, as a reader recently wrote to the New York Daily News, "there's a little bit of Hitler inside every Gentile."
This point is illustrated more explicitly when Sarabeth visits Simon's blue-collar non-cosmopolitan family in Pennsylvania. During a barbecue.Simon's sister's fiancÚ has a Mel Gibson moment while inebriated saying, "The Jews stole our technology and gave it to the Chinese,"
This happens to be a 100% factual statement, and a pretty mild one at that. But Sarabeth is horrified that the non-Jews in Pennsylvania even notice, much less mention, such behavior.
Simon dutifully yells at the sister's boyfriend though he's too kind and mild to really express anger, and then he starts profusely apologizing to Sarabeth. But Sarabeth's understanding of non-Jews implicitly signified by Simon's rocketry is explicitly confirmed as she says to Simon, "If I wasn't here you guys wouldn't have yelled at him! You'd be laughing along! You probably say this kind of stuff all the time!"
On the Jewish side of the tollbooth, Simon Stanton is a perfect gentleman, guilty of nothing more than being a Gentile and enjoying model rockets. He helps the Jewish women in the kitchen and dutifully puts on a yarmulke at their Sabbath dinner while taking the kvetching Jewish parents who are battling Sarabeth because she has to either marry a rich Jewish guy or get a real job in good humor. All the while Sarabeth is moaning that she has to live in Brooklyn while she really wants to live in Manhattan. Her parents constantly remind her about her aunts Sara and Beth who died in the Holocaust, to make her feel guilty and bring her back into the fold of ethnic exclusivity.
The non-Jews in this movie are mere props for Sarabeth's journey back to an exclusively Jewish life after her rumspringe period dabbling with universalist things like love and feminism. If Simon were less than perfect, maybe the audience would expect Sarabeth to call off the engagement for some other reason than being a non-Jew.
Sarabeth's moral dilemma is solved when her artwork switches from the evils of patriarchy to garish paintings of her deceased aunts, Sara and Beth. Her feminist paintings had been rejected by the art world; but when she changes her subject from the universalist subject of feminism to the particularist subject of Judaism/Holocaust, she finds her artistic muse. She has an exhibition of Second Generation Holocaust survivor paintings and experiences some success, thus beginning her career as an artist in earnest.
The successful exhibition of art pertaining to her deceased aunts is also the turning point of the film when Sarabeth realizes she must reject what the Jewish Post refers to as the "Silent Holocaust" of intermarriage.
Sarabeth and Simon have their ups and downs as couples do, and then Sarabeth decides to make a trip to Pennsylvania to see Simon. But as she approaches the tollbooth, she hears the voice of her grandmother: "Sarabeth, if you have a choice to follow your heart or follow your stomach, then follow your stomach. Don't do something that makes you feel sick." Sick with Jewish guilt, that is, as well as fear of the unknown non-Jewish world outside of New York City.
So Sarabeth turns around and goes back to her cocoon just before the tollbooth, and lives in a distinctly Jewish milieu ever after.
The message of the movie is that individualist notions such as affectional marriage (i.e. love) and feminism have a cost such that when they interfere with larger issues pertaining to one's social group (such as genetic continuity); the interests of the social group as a whole need to come first.
There is something useful to be learned here.
The Jewish folk have maintained genetic continuity in the face of thousands of years of sometimes forced assimilation in nations where they have constituted less than 2% of the population. This is no small feat, and requires a keen sense of identity (and the value of one's identity) that translates into strong social and psychological barriers to intermarriage.
Both the social and psychological barriers to intermarriage are illustrated in The Tollbooth.
The psychological barriers are demonstrated in Sarabeth's reaction to a true statement related to Israel re-selling classified American technology to the Chinese government. It doesn't even cross her mind to consider whether or not the statement has a factual basis. Just the mere mentioning of the fact is sufficient for her to equate not just the person making the statement, but all non-Jews including her betrothed, with Nazis. The heroine's sweeping generalization of the moral unreliability and degeneracy of Gentiles in response to a statement of fact demonstrates the results of her early inculcation with an extremely ethnocentric value system.
The social barriers encompass not just the obvious disapproval of immediate family along with all of the future hardship that a cut-off from family support would entail; but the spectral images of ancestors who rely upon her to keep the bloodline pure -- including ancestors who died at the hands of Gentiles. So the social barriers include not just a positive obligation to ancestors to continue the bloodline intact, but the negative reinforcement of the likely loss of support in the here and now. Other social barriers exist in the form of differences in cultural expectations -- art galleries versus barbecues and feminism versus rocketry.
Obviously, many Jewish men and women intermarry with non-Jews and live full, happy and fulfilled lives with loving partners, wonderful children and compassionate extended families. So it cannot be said the The Tollbooth is a movie by all Jews, for all Jews, about all Jews. Rather, it is a movie by SOME Jews about SOME Jews that will only be viewed by a fraction of the Jewish population. This is the sort of movie that is custom-made by a subset of the Jewish population that is concerned about the Silent Holocaust of intermarriage; and intended for similarly concerned Jewish parents to show to their daughters.
Within this context, the movie is witty, thought-provoking and well-done. It is the kind of movie that can awaken and evoke deep emotional responses that can result in behavioral changes or head-off intermarriage before it occurs.
What European-Americans need is similarly well-made movies along a this vein with an emphasis on European rather than Jewish themes for parents to show our children. While it is clear that not all of the social and psychological barriers to intermarriage demonstrated in the movie can translate to the European diaspora, some of them can be translated with relative ease.
Editor's note: Rob Winfield is EAU's coordinator for Re-localization of Agriculture.
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