The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the UCLA Film Archives' Contemporary Documentary Series continues today at 8 p.m. at the Melnitz Theater at UCLA with a pair of illuminating and imaginative studies of two giants in the arts, Amran Nowak's "Isaac in America--A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer" and Albert Quendler's "Remembrance: A Film With Oskar Kokoschka." Neither film is a critical survey of the man's work but rather is a warm portrait of the artist and his times, drawn largely from his own words.
Small, bald, witty and humorous, Singer comes across as an unalloyed delight, a writer with a deeply ingrained passion for the folkloric and the supernatural who can quip in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that he writes in Yiddish because "nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language." Nowak shows Singer both in his daily routines and in public appearances, but his happiest inspiration was to follow the writer to Coney Island and its environs, where Singer, who grew up in the Warsaw ghetto, first lived upon coming to America in 1935.
As Singer wanders around the decaying, once-elegant Seagate resort, we hear in voice-over a reading of portions of some of his autobiographical short stories, which powerfully evokes the past and gives us an idea of what life was like for a young emigre. Singer finds the large, now-boarded-up rooming house which was his first residence in America--and even discovers his first landlord still living nearby, hearty and alert at 102! The present is effectively intercut with the past through stills--both in Seagate and later on in a now-derelict Coney Island and Brighton Beach, where Singer has the good fortune to arrive at his favorite cafeteria on its very last day of business.