The 22nd Annual New York Jewish Film Festival runs through January 24, 2013 at the Walter Reade Theater, offering yet another dazzling year of short films, features and documentaries -- 45 films from nine countries -- that capture the breadth of the Jewish experience from around the world.
Far closer to home, however, is Neal Barsky's documentary, Koch, about New York City's iconic mayor, Ed Koch, who recently celebrated his 88th birthday and whose name is now forever enshrined on the Queensboro Bridge. The film offers a wonderful retrospective of the political life of a quintessential son of New York City. The former mayor has surely not been forgotten since he left office in 1988. His voice remains constant, serving as both artifact and soundtrack for an era of New York City that is always nostalgically recalled. Such disparate cultural moments as Saturday Night Live, Annie Hall, the Son of Sam, the rebirth of the New York Yankees, and the life and death of both disco and punk rock, all took place within the era and dawning of Ed Koch.
A quarter century later, Koch's political commentary and endorsements, even his restaurant and film reviews, arrive with greater regularity than the mail. He waddles throughout the film, but he is as steady as the Manhattan Schist that forms the bedrock under this island. The color and charisma that Koch once brought to Gracie Mansion now radiates elsewhere, as if losing that election for his fourth term could not possibly dim the lasting imprint he would leave on the city he loved.
The film is not merely a valentine to Koch. While its themes are fresh, the old controversies that took place during Koch's administration, and the adversaries he made as a reform-minded, yet fiscally conservative mayor, are faithfully recalled. So, too, are the nearly forgotten dark days of New York City, which included not only urban blight and blackouts, but also near bankruptcy. Koch, both the film and the man it depicts, are time capsules of an era when financial bailouts had nothing to do with banks, but with the municipal government going broke. Street crime was abundant, and buses and subways stopped running not because of freakish hurricanes, but on account of transit strikes.
Koch is properly credited with having rescued New York from financial peril, and perhaps even more importantly, raising the spirits of a city that had lost its swagger, forgotten its greatness -- all that luster scuffed up with the graffiti of malaise.
The film resurrects the rivalries between the Koch and Cuomo camps with a deft touch but not without an occasional bite. Ironies abound. Decades after that bruising 1977 Democratic primary and the 1982 gubernatorial election, Andrew Cuomo, then a teenager, is now the Governor of New York, while Mario Cuomo, whose mayoral loss to Koch ultimately catapulted him to Albany and a near presidential run, now presides over a large and prospering family, a retired statesman, out of the spotlight and seemingly without Koch's professed, if not obsessive, need to stay "relevant."
Koch has a bridge named for him that links Queens to Manhattan; Cuomo, whose ties to Queens are much greater, now finds himself bridged with the political future of his son. Together they form a New York political dynasty like no other.
There is a plaintive sadness to this film, a loneliness that doesn't quite register with its subject. Koch found love not in family, but by always staying focused within the lens of the public eye. Still very much beloved by former colleagues and staff, the film shows Koch making an appearance at his sister's home for a Yom Kippur break fast. She supplies the large family, as if they will have to do. Koch is very much a political titan's love affair with the city he governed for 12 years. While that love was not unrequited, one wonders whether it was ever enough.
Other standout films in the festival include the documentary AKA Doc Pomus, about the legendary blues singer and rock-and-roll songwriter, Jerome Felder (older brother of yet another New York legend, divorce attorney Raoul Felder), and the 1918 silent film, The Yellow Ticket, with a new live score by klezmer violin virtuoso, Alicia Svigals.