Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

Lucky


The late great Harry Dean Stanton gives us one last hurrah.

(2017) Dramedy (Magnolia) Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong, Bertila Damas, Ana Mercedes, Sarah Cook, Amy Claire, Ulysses Olmedo, Mikey Kampmann, Otti Feder, Pam Sparks, Alan Corvaia, Rhandy Torres, K.C. Page, Bonnie Williams. Directed by John Carroll Lynch

 

Hollywood lost one of it’s all time greatest character actors in Harry Dean Stanton on September 15 last year. Fittingly, he had one film left in the pipeline that turned out to be an appropriate farewell for the late actor.

Lucky (Stanton) is a curmudgeonly World War II vet and nonagenarian living in a small desert town in the Southwest. He has an unvarying routine; yoga in the morning, breakfast at the local diner while he does the crossword puzzle, a stop by the local corner grocery to pick up milk and cigarettes, then back to his house to watch the afternoon game shows and water the cacti. Finally, over to Elaine’s, a local watering hole where he drinks down an adult beverage in the company of friends, most especially Howard (Lynch) who is grieving the loss of a tortoise. The tortoise didn’t die, mind you, he just wandered off.

Stanton rarely played lead roles but on the occasions that he did he always shined. This is a Seinfeld-esque film all about nothing really; there’s some lank attempts at deciding who’s figured out life better but in reality this is simply an excuse to watch Stanton do his thing and that in itself is all you really need. There are some fine character actors backing him up (James Darren, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabaka Henley) and one behind the camera – John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David), best known as Drew Carey’s brother on his sitcom some years ago, who does a pretty decent job of setting the tone and allowing his lead enough space to shine.

This isn’t really a eulogy as such but it is a nice way to say farewell. Stanton was always more of a cult figure than anything else but he still had some moments in films like Alien, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Repo Man and particularly Paris, Texas. This probably doesn’t hold up with any of them except the second but still in all not every actor gets a sendoff like this one and it’s nice that someone who didn’t get the acclaim he deserved generally got one.

REASONS TO GO: Stanton’s final performance is a strong one. The soundtrack is righteous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points feel a bit contrived. The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a healthy amount of profanity, some sexual material, a bit of violence and a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton passed away at the age of 91, two weeks before the September 29, 2017 release date for the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Low
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Wind Traces

Big Sonia


Big hearts can come in small packages.

(2017) Documentary (Argot) Sonia Warshawski, Regina Kort, Caroline Kennedy, Morrie Warshawski, SuEllen Fried, Debbie Warshawski, Marcie Sillman (voice), Chris Morris, Ehsan Javed, Rachel Black, Kollin Schechinger, Grace Lamar, Isabella Mangan, Leah Warshawski. Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski

 

After the events in Charlottesville and as we watch the rise of white nationalism and an emergence of racism in the wake of last year’s Presidential election, one has to wonder what Holocaust survivors must think, particularly those who came to the United States to heal, raise families and move forward with their lives. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for them to hear our president characterize those low-life scumbags as “fine people.”

Sonia Warshawski is one of the dwindling number of concentration camp survivors living in the United States, in her case in the Kansas City area. 90 years old at the time of filming (she turned 92 this month), she continues to run her late husband’s (also a Holocaust survivor) tailor shop, the last remaining storefront in an otherwise deserted mall. It is her lifeblood, where she is able to interact with long-time customers, sew and help people dress with somewhat more panache. She’s the kind of gal who is fond of leopard prints and is unembarrassed by it – “(they) never go out of style” she crows at one point in this documentary. Still beautiful even in her 90s, she has a style and glamour all her own.

A somewhat recent development in her life has been her willingness to speak out about her experiences in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She had rarely spoken to her own children about the war, although they were aware that both their parents were haunted by their experiences (daughter Regina Kort speaks about John screaming in his sleep at night which is why she never hosted sleepovers at her own home). However when she heard about Holocaust deniers and American Nazis, she felt it was her duty to those who didn’t survive to speak about her experiences and share them with high school kids while she still could.

Even more recently Regina has been accompanying her mother on these speaking engagements, usually presenting a sobering preamble before her mother speaks. Displaying a family photograph of about 20 people, she points out an 11-year-old Sonia and her sister as the only two who survived. Sonia’s entire family was wiped out almost overnight. At 15, she witnessed her mother being herded into the gas chamber; she recalls vividly that the last act she saw her mother perform was to comfort a fellow prisoner headed for certain death. Afterwards, she would discover that the fertilizer she was spreading in the fields was the ashes of the victims that had come straight from the crematorium.

Speaking at a prison, hardened convicts describe her as “WAY tougher than (we are)” and reduced some of them to tears. One high school student, Caroline Kennedy (not JFK’s daughter) was so moved by her encounter with Sonia that after graduation she formed an organization to help inspire other students called Empower. Sonia has that effect on people.

Like many Holocaust survivors, family is of the utmost importance to Sonia and she has instilled that value in her children, her grandchildren (one of whom is co-director of the film) and even her great-grandchildren. Sonia makes homemade gefilte fish for Passover and Rosh Hashanah and seems to be surrounded by members of her family nearly all the time.

Her life isn’t without challenges though; the property owners of the mall are dithering whether to demolish the property and build condos or rebuild it. Either way, Sonia’s beloved tailor shop is in a state of flux in many ways. She’s survived so much worse however and it is clear that regardless of what happens she will survive this too.

This is absolutely a labor of love; yes, her granddaughter is one of the directors but it goes beyond that. Much of the film revolves around an NPR interview Sonia gave a few years ago with Marcie Sillman, but that’s only a framework. The centerpiece of the movie is Sonia herself.

Nearly everyone who encounters Sonia in the film becomes an admirer but the filmmakers manage to give the film a sense of balance. Sonia is no saint, but she’s pretty dang close. Some of the interviews with her children are heartbreaking, recalling how guilty they’d feel for giving their parents hell when they’d both lived through hell. Morrie, Sonia’s writer son, breaks down while reading a poem he wrote about his mother during a passage where he describes her whistling a tune her brother used to hum to her while they were hiding from the Nazis, an uncle who he would never meet. There are quite a few scenes of similar emotional power.

Buoyed by almost incongruously light animated sequences that show visually some of the most horrible moments from Sonia’s time in the camps, the movie isn’t a downer although it could well have been. Rather, this is uplifting that makes you want to cry and laugh and sing. You will want to take this woman in your arms and give her a hug and it might even give you a renewed determination to see the forces of racism and tolerance be made to slink back under the rocks they’ve crawled up from under. Those who shouted “We will not be replaced by Jews” should only be so lucky.

In any case, this is a movie that can change your life and I don’t say that lightly. It played the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival here in Orlando recently and has begun a brief theatrical run in New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City and hopefully other cities will show the film as well. This is certainly one of the year’s very best and I can’t recommend it enough.

REASONS TO GO: Sonia is a major inspiration. This is most definitely a labor of love. The pain she and her family feel isn’t kept hidden. A movie that makes you appreciate the things you have.
REASONS TO STAY: There is some repetition that goes on with Sonia’s presentations.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very adult themes regarding the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The diminutive Sonia stands at 4’8” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Despicable Me 3