SCHOOL TIES (Robert Mandel, 1992)

During the run of the television series Seinfeld, its gifted star, Jerry Seinfeld, opined that anti-Semitism no longer exists in the United States. On the surface it would certainly seem so, with Seinfeld’s own immense popularity and success—Seinfeld is Jewish—certifying this happy development. However, reports of the demise of American anti-Semitism are greatly exaggerated. Public acceptance of Jewish comics and comedians is very much like public acceptance of African-American athletes; it reflects little, if any, acceptance of the minority group as a whole. Indeed, it may be a kind of mental ghettoization by which non-Jewish Americans, the vast majority, consign Jewish Americans to an official category of acceptance, in the case of Jews principally to offset the majority’s uneasiness about the statistically high number of Jewish Americans to be found in professional categories—people whose services members of the majority may employ, but often, perhaps, with some ambivalence. It may also be the case that certain quarrels between the Jewish-American and African-American communities have masked the extent to which, in the eyes of some, bigotry against African Americans has subsumed anti-Semitism. For a great many people, hating black people automatically means hating Jews also. In any case, I wasn’t surprised when, in the late 1990s and early in the millennium, there was an outbreak of violence in the U.S. against both synagogues and African-American churches, as well as Jewish cemeteries. I regret to say that this sort of thing never surprises me.

Nor am I quite sure what to make of it when someone remarks in relation to American bigotry, “But things are so much better now than they were in the past.” My difficulty here is on two fronts. The implication that there is an acceptable level of hatred against groups of citizens appals. It seems a tacit admission that a certain amount of hate isn’t merely behavioral but institutionalized, making its presence in the U.S., to some degree, permanent. Defeatist acceptance of this fact seems, to me, the wrong response. My other difficulty is this: I’m not sure what “better” means. Does it mean that there’s more genuine tolerance in the U.S.? Or does it mean instead that intolerance has been suppressed, is better (and more cleverly) hidden from view? It’s a complex country, and it’s probably the case that the answer to both these questions is yes.

Ironically, because of the strong impetus towards assimilation in the United States, all minorities, including Jewish Americans, themselves participate, or may find themselves motivated to participate, in behavior that tacitly helps direct bigotry against their own group, therefore helping to entrench the bigotry. This is one of the themes of School Ties, a “message movie” in which a high school boy who is Jewish “passes” for Protestant at St. Matthew’s, a fictitious New England preparatory school, in the mid-1950s. The working-class youth, David Greene, has been recruited by the school as a quarterback to give its football team a shot at a winning season; he sees this as his chance to gain later entry to an Ivy League college, a possibility that otherwise might not be available to him. Greene is advised by his coach to keep secret the fact that he is Jewish, and with good reason; it doesn’t take long for the boy to realize that anti-Semitism is an integral part of the banter among his privileged WASP classmates. With his Star of David tucked away in the top drawer of his dresser, Greene keeps a grip on his proud and (as we’ve seen earlier) violent temper, refusing to rise to oppose, lest he uncloset himself, any of the anti-Jewish remarks with which the air in his dormatory is routinely laced. All this exists only to set the plot in motion.

Greene seals the concealment of his Jewishness on a particular occasion. He becomes a campus star in his first game, which his team wins, delighting alumni. This is the problem: it’s Rosh Hoshanah, and instead of praying in temple he is out on the field playing ball. Neat: Greene chooses his “new life” over observance of the Jewish New Year. On the other hand, there of course is no temple at St. Matthew’s, and later that night, after a celebratory dinner where he is the big cheese, David retreats into chapel to recite prayers that scarcely fit into the Christian setting. Someone—perhaps the minister, perhaps the headmaster; I forget—comes across him and acidly asks, “Was winning a football game worth breaking a tradition?” Greene, pinned, lamely responds, “My tradition, or yours?” It scarcely matters what the boy says, because what the adult is asking him is cruel and sanctimonious beyond belief—and convincing. A mere high school kid is implicitly being asked to bear the brunt of responsibility for anti-Semitism in America. All he wants to do is have a better life, and he is being blamed for walking through a door that otherwise would remain closed to him. Of course it’s wrong that he denies (by concealing) his Jewish identity, but far worse is the fact that he is required to make this choice on the basis of the normal opportunities in life being denied him.

The movie slides into melodrama. A vicious, effete French teacher rides a sensitive student into a nervous breakdown. Someone who befriends him, Charlie Dillon, copes with feelings of envy towards Greene, who not only got the quarterback position that Dillon was in line for but also gets Amy, Dillon’s girl. When the truth comes out about Greene’s religion, thanks to a drunk alumnus, Dillon’s envy erupts into unbridled fascistic hate. Everyone turns on Greene for not telling them the truth, including Amy and Greene’s roommate, Chris Reece. (I don’t make up these names; I merely report them.) Reece seems genuinely offended, but Greene reminds him, “You didn’t tell me your religion,” to which Reece, unwittingly hilarious in this instance, retorts: “I’m Methodist. . . That’s different!” Translation: “It goes without saying that I was some form of Protestant, but if someone is Jewish, he has to tell!” It isn’t long before a swastika appears on David’s door.

The overheated plot is resolved in a crisis involving Dillon’s cheating on a test and the school’s honor code. The kids themselves are charged with coming up with the cheating culprit lest they all be expelled, and the kids choose Greene, presumably because, as a Jew, he is the one who doesn’t fit in. Here, too, the truth comes out; but, while Dillon is expelled, he reminds Greene upon leaving that he will still be a success in life whereas Greene probably will not be. Indeed, if one does the math one realizes that Greene may end up in Vietnam while Dillon, family-protected, will still be pursuing an elitist education.

The direction by Robert Mandel is emphatic, at times close to lurid. This is a very bad film. It’s compulsively watchable, however, and a good deal of fun—and, besides, it opens beautifully, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with a shot of the industrial smokestacks, and two or three subsequent shots, introducing Greene in his hometown, with the belching smokestacks in the background. (The superb editing is by Jacqueline Cambas and Jerry Greenberg; the fine color photography is by Freddie Francis, who in Britain, and in black and white, photographed working-class milieus in such films as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff, 1960) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960).) It would have been better had the film remained in Scranton longer, detailing David’s loving relationship with his father across an interesting generational divide, as well as the role of anti-Semitism in this working-class community. (All we get is a fist fight between David and a gang of anti-Semites. All this does is set up the facile irony that a boy quick to defend his Jewishness will end up suppressing this instinct.)

The script, from Dick Wolf’s story, is by Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan. Wolf is the writer-producer whose long-running television series Law and Order aptly predicts both the film’s weaknesses and relatively few strengths. The film itself is very close to being TV.

For the most part, the acting is insufferably bad. Brendan Fraser as David and Chris O’Donnell as Chris are incapable of coming up with a nuance between them. These are impossible actors, blunt and clueless. On the other hand, Matt Damon is good as Charlie Dillon—so good at revealing the pressure of family expectations upon Dillon, in fact, that the vicious bastard that young Damon plays emerges as a more sympathetic character than Greene does! One year away from giving what perhaps remains his finest performance, in Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Damon did his job. Fraser didn’t do the job that a subtler, stronger actor would have done. He is a wad of chewing gum at the center of the film, and he hasn’t given a better performance since.

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