A method was developed in the literature of commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures to flesh out stories that either seem to be hinting at something more than is on the page, or to fill in what appear to be gaps in logic. This amplification of the text is known as midrash, the root of which is the Hebrew word for ‘to search out a meaning’ or ‘to research’. When developing midrash the assumption is that the text is perfect. What appears to be inconsistencies are really our inadequacies of understanding. Repeated study and deepening familiarity with the text eventually reveals answers.
For example, Cain is forced to wander after slaying his brother. He finally settles in the land of Nod and has a family. Even the youngest student will say ‘Wait a minute, I though Adam and his family were the only people on the earth. Who are these Nod people?’ Midrash to the rescue! Perhaps God created other nations during the goings-on in the Garden of Eden. That would explain it! This detail was just left out of Genesis. Raising the possibility of these other nations serves an important purpose beyond this apparent game-playing with the text: by quashing a possibly nervous-making gap in the story, the student can move on to the real meat of the passage instead of being distracted by something not in the text.
But it can’t be a free-for-all. It is incumbent upon the reader to find a way that the text itself answers any questions. A possible solution must be teased out from what is on the page.
The whole notion of midrash came to mind when I was watching All About Eve with my dear friend Donna who had never seen it before. All About Eve is a film that I watch several times a year and one that I am evangelical about. If I find that you have not seen it and I deem you worthy, I will inflict its perfection on you. While this perfection is certainly not biblical, it is certainly among the one or two perfect creations of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Acting, writing and production values are greater than in just about any other Hollywood product I can think of. No, it is not Bergman or Bresson. We’re not talking about that kind of perfection. It is just a solid entertainment that somehow slips into the sublime.
When the viewing was over, my friend commented that while she liked it, she found the opening and set-up of the story contrived to the point that it almost wrecked the enjoyment of the rest of the film. I know the film so well that the beginning is just the beginning to me, just like the way Cain goes off to marry into this heretofore unexplained people. It is just what happened.
I always bristled at the comment that a film wasn’t believable. I always felt that critics who took this tack to deride a film (and the late Gene Siskel was a prime offender here), had no business reviewing films because they obviously were not equipped to deal with the artifice of the genre. My friend asserted that this was not the case with her. She was as ready to suspend disbelief as the next person. It was just that the particular setup was too clunky.
I thought about it for days. Was this most beloved film seriously flawed and I had just been blind to it? Midrash to the rescue! Donna felt that the set-up of Eve entering so completely into the lives of these theater folk was too slap-dash. Once the story got going, she was able to forget the problems she had with the set-up, and enjoyed the rest of the movie. Was there something midrashically implicit in the story that could be developed into something that could mollify my friend and let us all get on with the task of reveling in what was obviously wonderful about the movie? As a matter of fact, yes:
1- Karen’s first flashback starts with her getting out of a taxi and looking for an unnamed person who will turn out to be Eve. Eve emerges from the shadows, and the story begins.
2- When Karen describes Eve to Margo in the dressing room, Margo remembers her as ‘The mousy one with the trench coat and the funny hat’
These two points indicate to us who have viewed the film countless times, that even before the movie’s story begins, Eve has been hard at work zeroing in on her prey. Both Karen and Margo are aware of her peripherally and are predisposed to sympathize with her. Her pathetic image night after night at the theater, cultivated with just the right costume and hushed, modest voice had worked well enough that once she gets into the dressing room, she moves in for the kill. The group is putty in her hands. It’s all there in a few hints in the screenplay.
Will this midrash on All About Eve mollify Donna’s displeasure at a perceived plot gap? Maybe, maybe not. But it sure takes care of it for me an allows me to put it to rest.