Revisiting ‘Uncut Gems’ eight months later

Images courtesy A24.

I’ve been revisiting a lot of recently streaming favorites in quarantine, and I wanted to take a few minutes to write about a movie that I don’t think I gave its due on initial examination.

Uncut Gems is a frustrating film to analyze because everything characteristic about it is in its technique and atmosphere, but it’s so focused on Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) as a character that my strongest instinct is to focus on its narrative. You can ram your head into a wall trying to find some grand meaning in the story, but that’s not what writer/director duo Josh and Benny Safdie were doing here.

Uncut Gems is oriented toward plausible realism, more of a practical joke than a written and planned movie. Every technical aspect about it, from the color grade to the lenses to the sound design to pulling people off the street to fill out the cast to filming on a 47th Street still filled with everyday passersby, is designed to sew it into the real world.

The Safdies even went so far as to write the film into Kevin Garnett’s real-life playoff series – and the film is very much written into the series, not the other way around. The central black opal is presented as the reason for Garnett’s up-and-down performance, directly positioning the real-world playoffs as more important than the movie even within the text.

There’s no grand solution, but there are a couple of clear reasons why I think I keep coming back to this movie.

I love Howie

Ratner is obviously reprehensible as a person, doesn’t seem like he’d be pleasant to be around and isn’t even all that fun to watch, but his charisma possesses and drives the film. He is constantly, if stealthily, winning other characters over, and he wins viewers over as well. This charisma, which exists in the absence of any other charming or redeeming qualities, merits a closer look.

A media studies 101 point is that viewers will always sympathize with highly motivated characters regardless of that character’s values or the overall values of the movie. It’s why we love scumbags like Walter White and Tony Montana, and it’s why we love Howie Ratner. The movie is laser-focused on him, and he is laser-focused on his own goals.

The black opal should take a place as one of the great McGuffins of film history. It’s at once the object of Ratner’s ambition and the symbol of his general ambitiousness, imbued with its own meaning by nature and meaning yet more to Garnett, who sees his own life story when looking into its depths.

Ratner only maintains that laser focus by imposing his will on other characters. Almost every conversation he has in the movie is first an argument over what the conversation is going to be about – a common complaint about Uncut Gems is that everybody’s talking over each other, and that’s accurate, but once you actually parse this dialogue, this argument is almost always what’s going on during those sequences. Ratner wants to solicit participation in whatever his scheme is at the moment, but he already owes something to most of the people he’s talking to, and that’s what they want to discuss. Ratner is constantly winning these battles of will.

In addition to clearly being the most determined character, Ratner is also the most ambitious. All of his schemes are home runs. He eschews the idea of merely getting out of debt, which he could do at several points in the film, or of selling his black opal for less than his seven-figure valuation, going so far as turn down multiple six-figure offers from Garnett because he’s so gripped by the fantasy of its price running into the stratosphere at auction. He sees the brightest possible future for himself and pursues it relentlessly. By the end of the film, he’s even brought around Garnett – in the keynote “This is how I win” speech – and his loan shark Arno Moradian (Eric Bogosian), the two people he’s fucked around the most, to his way of thinking.

Jewishness in media

In January, while Uncut Gems was still in 930 theaters, I went out to see a 2019 Oscar reject called The Song of Names, which was sunk by uninspired photography and sparse, unenthusiastic performances from leads Clive Owen and Tim Roth. In the film, Polish-Jewish violin prodigy Dovidl Rapoport (Luke Doyle, Jonah Hauer-King and Owen – the film spreads over three time periods) is adopted as a 9-year-old by a London family to study with a renowned teacher months before the Blitzkrieg. Twelve years later, just before a concert that has drawn national attention, Rapoport vanishes, ruining his adoptive family, who had invested its savings into putting the concert on. The main timeline of the film, by narrative but not by runtime, is 17 years after that, when his adoptive brother Martin Simmonds (Misha Handley, Gerran Howell and Roth), now a high-level music critic who seeks out new violin prodigies, sees a pre-performance flourish similar to his lost brother’s, and goes on an intercontinental quest to find him.

As a 9-year-old refugee of the Nazis, Rapoport struggles with his stature, from the Hebrew traditions he is obliged to maintain to the pressures on him as a prodigy to his survivor’s guilt. This climaxes when the modern State of Israel is established in 1948, after which Rapoport destroys his kippah and kallit and formally renounces his favor in Jehovah’s eyes.

While finding a star who’s career would fit into their narrative was clearly their primary goal, the Safdies spoke glowingly about Garnett’s acting ability.

When Simmonds finds his brother in New York City with a wife, a mortgage and a pile of kids, he learns that the afternoon before the abandoned performance in 1951, Rapoport, who did not know what happened to his family after he was adopted, met an enclave of survivors of the Treblinka extermination camp, where an estimated 700,000-900,000 Jews and Romani were murdered. In keeping with Jewish tradition that dates back to Moses himself, the survivors have composed a song of the names of the known victims. The song takes five days to perform in full. This is how Rapoport learns that his entire bloodline has been exterminated.

Understandably, he drops everything to compose a violin version of the song, goes to Poland and performs it at the camp to lay the victims to rest, then heads off to New York to make Jewish babies, forswearing the violin.

An hour into Uncut Gems, an extra who will never appear again wishes Howie Ratner a happy Passover as they cross on the street. Ratner shouts, “All right Larry! You’re a Jew again? Welcome back.”

I was born about a year and a half before Schindler’s List released in 1993. The dreary, graphic depictions of the Holocaust that followed, front and center of the Best Picture race through the early ‘00s and continuing despite limited success since then, have been the primary depictions of Jewishness in mass media for my entire life — The Song of Names is a good example. Rapoport’s Jewishness is a burden, 6,000 years of tradition chaining him to a family life he doesn’t want. In Uncut Gems, Jewishness is a joy, a 6,000 year heritage woven into and enhancing a vibrant present-day life, a source of strength and meaning, not fear and sorrow. Ratner’s traditions are not burdens, they are privileges. This is a man who has never had time in his life to read an anti-Semitic conspiracy or listen to some screed about George Soros.

And Nazis? Can you imagine Howie Ratner being scared of Nazis? What Nazi is going to navigate the most aggressively multi-cultural city in the world, one running at the breakneck pace presented in Uncut Gems, to play out a grievance with this one two-bit jewelry dealer, only to be told to get in line behind a squadron of other Jews?

I don’t know anyone remotely like Howie Ratner, and if I did I wouldn’t for very long, but I recognize this character as if I have known him my entire life. I know him instinctively as a relatively near cousin, but one who’s heritage is incorporated eagerly into his identity instead of a readily discarded remnant of genetics. This gleeful, completely shameless, guiltless, fearless and Holocaust-less Jewishness is something that I’ve never actually seen before.

Seeing Jewishness like this, completely divorced from persecution, is something I wasn’t really prepared for.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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