Foremost Sephardic film critic to speak at screening

Terrance Gelenter's last name means "learned one" in Yiddish. And the Mill Valley film critic, a self-proclaimed autodidact who dropped out of college after his first year, seems to be living up to the name.

Steeped in history, especially that of Jews and the cinema, Gelenter speaks four languages, including Hebrew, and is working on adding Italian to the list.

Spanish is his forte, learned from his ex-wife who, when he met her, spoke no English.

"I used to speak to her in French and she would answer in Spanish," he recalled. Born in Brooklyn to an Ashkenazi father and a Moroccan-born mother, he learned French as a boy from his Sephardic grandmother. He learned Hebrew from his Israeli relatives.

His love for film developed over years of watching movies on "The Late Show," "The Late, Late Show" and "The Late, Late, Late Show."

"I watched Bogart die a thousand different ways and observed how the actor develops his art," he said.

Gelenter put his two passions together some seven years ago when he began writing a column, "The Film Corner," for Spanish-language newspapers. The column is now in syndication. Gelenter's reviews and interviews of cinematic luminaries appear in the Bay Area's El Mensajero as well as in Spanish-language papers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Fresno.

"I define myself as the world's foremost Sephardic film critic," he laughed.

He writes under the nom de plume of Guillermo Medina, a combination of the Spanish version of his middle name, William, and his Moroccan-born mother's maiden name.

Local audiences will get a chance to watch Gelenter do his thing — live and in English — on Monday, Feb. 23 at Larkspur's Lark Theatre in the next installment of "Reel Lit." The series of symposium-screenings is sponsored by the Film Institute of Northern California, operators of the Mill Valley Film festival.

Gelenter will moderate a discussion with Eddie Muller, author of "Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir," a new book forthcoming from St. Martin's/Griffin Press. Following the discussion will be a screening of "Out of the Past," a classic of the genre. The 1947 movie stars Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.

Gelenter has strong opinions on the depiction of Jews in mainstream film. These views tend to run counter to those of the majority.

"I was one of the few people who did not praise `Schindler's List,'" he noted.

"I have a certain kind of respect for the Holocaust. The films I admire on the subject are Joseph Losey's `The Shop on Main Street' or Jan Kadar's `Mr. Klein' because they focused on one person and you saw this horror through their eyes. These films still resonate with me.

"But at no point in `Schindler's List' was I moved like that. I applaud what Spielberg was trying to do — to get back to his roots — but in the end it was a Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust."

Yet he praises two earlier films that troubled many Jewish viewers: "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" and "Goodbye, Columbus."

Gelenter admires Richard Dreyfuss' work in the former film's title role, saying the characterization evoked street-smart Jewish kids the critic knew as a youth in Brooklyn. And, while admitting that there are many stereotyped caricatures in "Goodbye, Columbus," he thinks the movie has "a lot of merit."

In the novel on which the movie is based, author Philip Roth "was showing a certain part of the subculture and, if someone wants to impute this to the whole, they are being extremely naive," Gelenter said.

But while most Jews have seen both sides of the coin, it is easy to wonder how the notorious "Goodbye, Columbus" wedding-reception scene — with its caustic portrait of conspicuous consumption — might strike a non-Jewish audience.

You can't create art to order, he explained.

"As an artist, I don't know how you can make a film or write a book for someone who may not understand it.

"The anti-Semite will see what he wants to see," Gelenter said.

"Things have changed since that film was made," he added. "The kind of anti-Semitism that our parents had to live with doesn't exist anymore, at least not in the Bay Area.

"We fortunately have reached a point in our history where you can be who you are, when Julius Garfinkel does not need to become John Garfield."