Little-known stories live large on screen

Several tales largely unknown to mainstream audiences are brought to the fore in many of this fall’s cinematic offerings.

Among these is “Kill Your Darlings,” a coming-of-age film about the celebrated beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg during his time as a student at Columbia University in 1944. The movie blends the theme of youthful counter-culture activity with issues surrounding sexual identity and a sensational murder that is rarely discussed today.

Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a shy Jewish boy from New Jersey helping to care for his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When he arrives at Columbia, he meets the beautiful, magnetic and rebellious young Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who jumps on a table during a tour of the library for new arrivals and recites a lurid passage from Henry Miller. Ginsberg is mesmerized by the sophisticated, androgynous rebel and becomes part of Carr’s fast-living circle that includes William Burroughs (Ben Foster), another beat poet slated for celebrity, and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who is obsessed with Carr. Into the mix comes Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a former football player and merchant marine who would also become a noted beat generation writer.

The group engages in a series of outrageous pranks, and, as Ginsberg and Carr draw closer,  Kammerer feels excluded and becomes intensely jealous. Events reach a crescendo when Kammerer confronts Carr hysterically and Carr stabs him to death. Ultimately, Carr claims that the murder was an honor killing, because he was defending himself from Kammerer, who was a homosexual. In 1944, that was an acceptable defense, and Carr receives a light sentence.

Director John Krokidas, who makes his feature film debut with this effort, said he has admired Ginsberg’s daring since he was a teenager.

“Like many an adolescent who grew up in a pretty regular family in the suburbs, reading the beats for the first time was extremely attractive, because they presented an alternate way of living your life, a more authentic life, a life full of spirit and rebellion and living for your art. What potential artist doesn’t romanticize that dream at the age of 16 or 17? Plus, at that time in my life, I was closeted, so imagine reading the works of Allen Ginsberg, where he’s so up front and honest about his sexuality.”

Ginsberg’s character is heavily influenced by the fact that he was Jewish, Krokidas added. “When he got to school for the first time — not just because of his sexuality, but because of his Jewish heritage — he was seen as ‘the other,’ was seen as different.

“I remember reading interviews with him, and when people asked, ‘Are you a Jewish poet?’ he said, ‘I am a Jewish poet. I’m Jewish. I am a poet. I’m also a gay poet, but, yes, I’m a Jewish poet. I wrote a poem called ‘Kaddish.’ You might have heard of it.’ ’’

Krokidas said his own mother is Jewish, but he is also of Greek-Orthodox and Italian-Catholic heritage. However, he grew up mainly in the Jewish community, and he considers his Jewish roots part of his artistic identity. In fact, several members of his cast and crew are Jewish.

“This was a very Jewish production,” Krokidas said. “That wasn’t a conscious decision, but you find out it’s in the people that you belong with, and in an artistic endeavor like a low-budget independent film, a lot of the instinctual decisions you make on who to work with are based on an idea of shared vision, academically, of course, but also a common emotional and personality shorthand and understanding.” 

“Kill Your Darlings” opens Oct. 16.

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus.” Photo courtesy of Clear Lake Productions

Another gem is the documentary “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” which chronicles the rarely publicized life of Jerome Felder, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who contracted polio as a child and remained dependent on crutches and a wheelchair but became one of the most admired and successful songwriters in the music business.

Felder’s daughter, Sharyn, spearheaded the project and serves as one of its producers. “I always knew, from the time I was a little girl, that my father’s dramatic life story was unparalleled,” she said. “His story just had to be told, and I was obsessed to make a documentary about him. I began working on this film about eight years ago.”

Felder’s story is filled with pain, joy, struggles, triumphs, heroism and a great deal of heart. He loved the blues, and, although disabled, managed, as a youth, to worm his way into singing blues songs in nightclubs. He changed his name to Doc Pomus so his mother wouldn’t see his real name on the marquees.

He came into his own as a songwriter with the advent of rock ’n’ roll, amassing an abundance of hits, including such standards of the era as “Save the Last Dance for Me” (even though he could never dance), “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and numerous others.

Felder married the woman of his dreams, had two children, divorced and then found another love. As he grew older, he became a mentor to aspiring songwriters and helped further several careers. He died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of 65.

The movie about his life is replete with music, archival material and sections from Felder’s journals read by singer Lou Reed. There are also interviews with Felder and many of his colleagues, including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, B.B. King, Dion, Dr. John and Joan Osborne, among other notables.

Asked why her father’s story is not more widely known, Sharyn Felder replied, “The songwriter in general is often largely unknown. You know the songs, but not the songwriter’s name. In addition, my father may not be well known because he didn’t travel and shmooze extensively, thus not making himself known all over, largely due to his disability.”

Ruminating on her father’s success against such great odds, she commented, “My father believed that you have to persevere. In his own words, ‘Some days the world owns you, but other days you will own the world, so you just have to push and shove, and there is a place for you.’ He was a very determined man. His entire family was that way. He would say to me when I was hemming and hawing about something, ‘Just do it!’ ”

She added, “My father had struggles his entire life that I was well aware of. But he was incredibly productive, a very loving father, a brilliant mind and hysterically funny. His struggles seemed minor in many ways.”

As for what she hopes audiences will take away from the documentary, “I want people to be inspired by and enlightened by my dad, the man, and, also, to become educated about his music and its impact on the music world.”

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus” opens Oct. 11.

Dorothy and Herb Vogal from “Herb & Dorothy 50X50.” Photo courtesy of Fine Line Media

From music, we segue to art with “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” the sequel to Megumi Sasaki’s 2008 documentary “Herb & Dorothy,” about retired postal worker Herb Vogel and his librarian wife, Dorothy. The couple began collecting contemporary art by young, as-yet-unknown painters soon after their wedding in the early 1960s. The paintings they bought had to be affordable and fit into their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.  

Over the years, they assembled a collection of some 2,000 works by artists who would go on to international fame, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Robert Barry.  

In 1992, they gave their collection, worth millions, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Vogels continued to buy art even after the gift, and the collection came to include about 5,000 paintings, more than the National Gallery could handle, so the Vogels decided to take 2,500 paintings and give 50 to one museum in each of the 50 states.

“50X50” is something of a travelogue as it follows the Vogels to 11 of the museums and shows them consulting on the hanging of the art, being entertained at the various institutions and appearing on panels and at openings.

The movie goes through the summer of 2012, when Herb died and Dorothy announced the closing of the collection. She is shown sifting through Herb’s effects and taking paintings off the walls of her apartment.

“Herb & Dorothy 50X50” opens Sept. 13.

Howard Lutnick at the missing-persons wall in “Out of the Clear Blue Sky.” Photo courtesy of Asphalt Films

As Sept. 11 approaches, we segue to the documentary “Out of the Clear Blue Sky,” which depicts the devastation of the bond trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald and the families of its employees who died during the terrorist attack. Cantor, which was a hugely prosperous firm and occupied the top five floors of the World Trade Center, was not widely known to the public before the events of that day. The firm suffered the greatest number of casualties of any one company, as 658 members of its staff were obliterated by the terrorists.  

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner was in the neighborhood and an eyewitness to the catastrophe. Tragically, her brother, Doug, was among the Cantor victims. The filmmaker recalled it as such a chaotic, confusing and highly emotional time that she was compelled to document what was going on around her. 

 “I was a documentary filmmaker before that,” she said, “and I never made anything about my life personally. Before this, I liked to go out into other worlds and other subcultures and learn about them, but, as I said at one time, all of a sudden I became the subject rather than the outsider.”  

Gardner, who happens to be Jewish, described her film as encompassing the twin worlds of both the grieving families and the business. She explained that the CEO of Cantor, Howard Lutnick, who is also Jewish, figures prominently in the documentary because he was part of both worlds: He ran the company, and his younger brother was killed in the attack.  

Lutnick was taking his son to the boy’s first day of kindergarten and was among the few staff members who happened to be out of the offices. People may remember the CEO, reputed to have been a cutthroat businessman, being interviewed numerous times and sobbing uncontrollably over the deaths of his brother and so many close associates. 

At first there was great sympathy for him as he tried to salvage the company and help the bereaved families. But very soon, when he hadn’t paid the salaries of those who were lost, the families and the media turned against him, and he became an outcast.

“People in the first week,” Gardner said, “would ask me, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing this?’ and, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing that?’ And I was thinking, ‘There’s a tremendous disconnect here. There is no Cantor. There’s a couple of people sitting in a living room frantically trying to figure out who’s alive.’ I remember thinking, ‘There’s no office. There are no people. I don’t know where you guys have been.’ ”

Lutnick regained favor when he subsequently announced that the firm would give the families medical coverage for 10 years and donate 25 percent of its profits to them for five years. A Cantor Relief Fund, run by Lutnick’s sister Edie, was also organized to gather donations, coordinate volunteer efforts, hold events for the families and their children, and provide other forms of assistance.  

Gardner said she found the support groups that were formed particularly helpful.

“The most help everyone received was from ‘fellow travelers,’ as it were,” she said. “I definitely needed to be around people who were going through what I was going through, because it was a uniquely horrible experience. The community that was formed was absolutely helpful. There was a memorial for the first five years. Then they said, ‘Let’s do that for the first 10 years.’ And now I don’t know if we’re ever going to stop doing it, because, honestly, you need a place to go. And the best place to go is where you know you’ll be understood.

 “Nothing’s ever OK again, and nothing’s the same,” she concluded. “I don’t accept what happened here at all, but you live. I don’t think we’ve moved on. We’ve made it part of us; it’s always there, but we chose to live.”

“Out of the Clear Blue Sky” will be screened one night only, on Sept. 11, in theaters around the country.

Dr. Warren Hern listening to a patient in “After Tiller.” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

Veering off in a completely new direction, we come to the subject of late-term abortion with the film “After Tiller.” Dr. George Tiller, who practiced at his clinic in Wichita, Kan., was one of only a few doctors in this country who performed abortions after the third trimester, defined as beginning at 28 weeks of a pregnancy. Having survived a couple of attempts on his life, Tiller was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist, leaving only the four doctors featured in this documentary to carry on his work.

The four include Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colo., who talks of being lonely after his first marriage ended due to threats on his life because of his work, until he met and married his second wife, who once performed abortions in Cuba; Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had to leave his practice in Nebraska when the state outlawed abortions after 20 weeks, with limited exceptions, and relocate to Maryland, where he was again confronted by anti-abortion activists; Dr. Susan Robinson, who trained under Tiller; and Dr. Shelley Sella, a former midwife, who alternates with Dr. Robinson at their practice in Albuquerque, N.M.

According to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for reproductive rights, third-trimester abortions account for less than 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States. The film illuminates many of the reasons women, some of them actually anti-abortion, seek to terminate a late-term pregnancy, including fetal abnormalities, rape or incest and, sometimes, failure to realize or accept they are pregnant.

The film also makes clear the doctors, far from cavalier about their work, struggle with the complex issues and decisions they must make.  

At one point, Dr. Sella, who is Jewish and a lesbian, says she realizes that third-trimester abortions involve the delivery of a stillborn baby, and that she can’t think of the babies merely as fetuses.

In another section, Dr. Robinson, after contemplating one woman’s reasons for wanting an abortion at 28 weeks, decides not to perform the procedure.

“After Tiller” opens Oct. 4.

From left: Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Al Gohani in “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

We travel now to Saudi Arabia, where movie houses are banned and women are not supposed to mix with men at work. Nevertheless, Haifaa Al-Mansour defied tradition to become the first female filmmaker from that country. Her movie “Wadjda,” centers on a 10-year-old girl living outside Riyadh, the Saudi capital, who also defies her culture’s rules by attempting to raise money to buy a bicycle in a society that considers bike riding a threat to a girl’s purity. 

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), wants to win a race with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and enters a school contest for Quran recitation in which the winner will get money. As she masters verses from the Quran, she begins to impress her teachers with her seeming piety. The competition is difficult, but the girl perseveres.   

Director Al-Mansour is quoted in the press notes as saying, “I hope I have made a film that is close to the lives of Saudi women and inspires and strengthens them to challenge the very complicated social and political encumbrances they are surrounded by. Although it is hard to deconstruct the deeply rooted traditions that deny women a dignified existence, especially since they are mixed with narrow interpretations of religion, it is a purpose that is worth striving for.”

“Wadjda” opens Sept. 13.

A still from “Salinger.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

J.D. Salinger, the elusive author of the iconic novel about adolescence, “Catcher in the Rye,” is the subject of a new biopic. Advance promotion promises that the film, “Salinger,” will include interviews with many of the writer’s friends and associates who have never before spoken publicly about him. Salinger was the product of a Jewish father and a mother of Scotch, German and Irish heritage.

Following the enormous success of “Catcher in the Rye,” the author became reclusive, moving from Manhattan to Cornish, N.H., where he died in 2010 at age 91. In the film, he is reportedly called “a modern-day Howard Hughes.”  To this day, he remains a figure about whom there is a great deal of myth and speculation.

In a New York Times interview published June 13 of this year, filmmaker Shane Salerno said, “Salinger is a massive figure in our culture and yet remains an extraordinary enigma. The critical and popular game over the last half-century has been to read the man through his work because the man would not speak, but the untold story of his life is more dramatic than anything he ever wrote. And that’s the story I wanted to tell: his life. Not the myth that has burned so brightly for nearly 50 years. I had three questions when I began this project nine years ago: 1. Why did J.D. Salinger stop publishing? 2. Why did he disappear? 3. And what has he been writing for 45 years?”

“Salinger” opens Sept. 6. 

“Jewtopia,” from left: Jon Lovitz, Rachel Fox, Rita Wilson, Joel David Moore, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Camryn Manheim and Tom Arnold. Photo courtesy Jewtopia

Finally, we end with the comedy “Jewtopia,” adapted from the long-running off-Broadway play. Childhood friends Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei), who is not Jewish, and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), who is reunite as adults. Chris is determined to marry a Jewish girl, because he wants someone else to make all his decisions. He persuades Adam to train him to pass as a Jew so he can marry Alison Marks (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Meanwhile, Adam is engaged to the gynecologist Hannah Daniels (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) but is uncomfortable in the relationship.

The film is a satire on the clash of cultures and abounds with over-the-top stereotypes; the non-athletic, intellectual, asthmatic Jewish boy; the materialistic, controlling Jewish woman; the guilt-inducing, smothering Jewish mother; the militaristic, blue-collar gentile addicted to hunting, etc. 

Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jon Lovitz, Wendie Malick and Rachel G. Fox round out the all-star cast.

“Jewtopia” open Sept. 20.

Israel’s bad boy of cinema gets L.A. fest

“My country, Israel, is full of contradictions and volcanic eruptions. We fluctuate between extremes. One morning you say peace is at hand and all problems will be resolved. The next day, it’s the apocalypse.”

The thumbnail description comes from Amos Gitai, who, more than any other Israeli filmmaker, has explored the emotional peaks and valleys of his people in more than 40 feature films and documentaries.

A retrospective of seven films, illustrating different stages in Gitai’s 30-year career, will start March 15 at the Skirball Cultural Center, continuing March 16 at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre and March 17 on the USC campus.

The organizer and sponsor of the three screenings is the Institut Français, an agency supported by the French government to promote French culture abroad and international cultural exchange.

At first sight, it seems odd that the Gitai fest, supplemented by a richly illustrated booklet in French, English and Spanish, falls under the French aegis, rather than under Israeli or local Jewish auspices.

By way of explanation, French diplomat Mathieu Fournet noted that Gitai spends much of his working life in Paris, and many of his films have been made in France, where he is fervently admired as an international auteur of the first rank.

Fournet heads the Los Angeles Film and Television Department of the French Embassy and is the chief organizer of the Gitai tribute.

If the French and other Europeans love Gitai the cinema artist, Israelis are conflicted, to put it politely, about Gitai, the disturber of the peace.

Though Gitai, now 60, is a Haifa-born sabra whose helicopter was shot down during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and he barely escaped death, his films upset many of his countrymen.

His first film, the made-for-television documentary “House,” was banned by TV executives for showing, in Gitai’s view, “that Palestinians have the same attachment to the land as Israelis.”

Though all his subsequent movies have been shown in Israeli theaters, they have generally been controversial.

For instance, the autobiographical movie “Kippur,” which portrayed the confusion and brutalities of the 1973 war with unrelenting graphic images, received a mixed reception.

Gitai likes to group his movies into trilogies, examining the same topic from three different perspectives. In his “city trilogy” of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the capital city is represented by “Kadosh” (Holy), set in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter.

Orthodox Jews bitterly attacked the film as presenting a twisted picture of their way of life.

In Europe, Gitai is admired not only for the content of his films, but equally for his cinematic virtuosity and diversity.

“Gitai is now one of the most respected filmmakers in the international arena, who continually explores new narrative methods and styles,” wrote French film historian Jean-Michel Frodon.

Such homages have earned Gitai awards at prestigious film festivals at Cannes and Venice, as well as retrospectives of his works in London, Paris, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Tokyo and New York.

By contrast, not once has the Israeli Film and Television Academy, which annually selects the country’s top film to compete for Oscar honors, chosen a Gitai work.

Gitai gave a short laugh when an interviewer asked him if he considered himself, as a filmmaker if not prophet, “not without honor save in his own country.”

“I don’t think this [lack of recognition] is strictly a political matter,” he answered. “Israel has a small film industry, which is very competitive. Maybe there are too many Jews concentrated in a small territory.

“But it is kind of bizarre,” he added, “and there is such a thing as jealousy.”

Gitai is an artistic multitasker, working simultaneously or separately as film director, producer, actor and scriptwriter, as well as author and director of stage plays.

His father, the noted Bauhaus architect Munio Weinraub, was imprisoned and then expelled from Germany by the newly empowered Nazi regime in 1933. He moved to Palestine in 1935 and married native-born Efratia Margalit, a Zionist activist.

Initially, Gitai, born in 1950, followed in his father’s footsteps, earning architecture degrees from the Technion and a doctorate at UC Berkeley. His son, Benjamin, a veteran of the second Lebanon War, is now studying to become an architect himself.

After decades of focusing on his countrymen’s lives and travails, Gitai is now turning his attention to the Diaspora, first examined in his 2008 film, “One Day You Will Understand.”

He is currently working on a movie, “Lullaby to My Father,” exploring the lost European world of his paternal forebears.

“As you get older, you think more about your roots,” Gitai said.

The Los Angeles Gitai retrospective will present the following films:

“Kippur”: Gitai’s experiences during the 1973 war.

“Alila”: The intersecting lives of residents in a run-down Tel Aviv apartment building.

“Kadosh”: Two ultra-Orthodox women question their lifestyles.

“Esther”: The Purim story set in a modern Middle East context.

“Free Zone”: An American woman (Natalie Portman) gets involved in a Jordanian-Israeli money scheme.

“Disengagement”: A Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche) and her Israeli half-brother are caught up in the Gaza removal of settlers.

“News From Home/News from House”: Last in a trilogy centering on a house in Jerusalem and its Arab and Jewish owners.

Venues, films and dates

Skirball Cultural Center:

“Kippur” on March 15, 8 p.m., features Q&A With Gitai;

“Alila” on March 30, 8 p.m.;

“Kadosh” on April 10, 2 p.m.;

“Esther” on April 21, 8 p.m.;

For advance tickets, phone (877) 722-4849, or visit

American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre:

“Free Zone” and “Disengagement,” March 16 double feature starting at 7:30 p.m. Q&A with Gitai between films, moderated by The Journal’s Tom Tugend; for tickets, visit”

Ray Stark Family Theatre, George Lucas Bldg., USC campus:

March 17; “News From Home/News from House” at 5:30 p.m.; “Disengagement” at 7:30 p.m., followed by Q&A with Gitai, moderated by USC Associate Dean Michael Renov; Admission is free but reservations required through”

Master Class: Israelis and Angelenos learn the secrets of show business

How do you get anyone in Hollywood to return your phone call? How do you sell an idea at a pitch meeting without seeming arrogant, desperate or, worst of all, boring? How do you protect your idea or script as it makes the rounds of producers and agents? And when that agent or producer finally returns your call, how are you supposed to behave?

Such quintessential “biz” questions proved to be hot topics for a select group of 25 film and television professionals from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv as they sat in a conference room July 13 at The Jewish Federation’s Goldsmith Center. It was still early in the morning on the first full day of the ninth annual Master Class in Cinema and Television, but already people seemed to be in the throes of furious note-taking as they listened to tricks-of-the-trade advice from several Hollywood veterans.

“I want to help you get through in Tinseltown,” summed up Joan Hyler, a prominent talent manager and former senior vice president at the William Morris Agency. “The ‘let’s have lunch and never call you back’ experience happens to so many people, but it doesn’t have to happen to you.”

“We’ll give you the inside track of the inside track,” promised Danny Sussman, another formidable talent manager who co-chaired the class with Hyler. And to the Israelis present, he added: “As pertains to film and TV, you have the thirstiest community.”

Taking place for the first time in Los Angeles rather than Tel Aviv, the master class has become one of the flagship programs of The Federation’s decade-old Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership — a city-to-city exchange of culture, education, health and human services. Spread out over 10 days, the class offered its mostly midcareer participants a whirlwind itinerary of panel discussions, lunches and dinners with seasoned Hollywood artists, executives and agents.

This year’s lineup of experts included David Sacks, who’s written for shows like “The Simpsons” and “3rd Rock From the Sun”; Gail Berman-Masters, former president of Paramount Pictures; Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, and Jon Avnet, director and producer of films like “Risky Business” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

“Not everyone in Hollywood is willing to jump on a plane and fly to Israel for two weeks,” said Jill Hoyt, The Federation’s senior director of international programs. “We wanted to provide even more opportunities for entertainment people to share their expertise.”

Calling the master class “a very successful model for engagement with Israel,” Hoyt pointed to past participants who went on to achieve significant international acclaim, like Nadav Schirman, whose award-winning film, “The Champagne Spy,” recently received its North American premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Dror Shaul, director of “Sweet Mud,” which won this year’s Sundance grand jury prize.

“I firmly believe that the next zeitgeist in the movie industry is coming from Israel,” said Hyler, who traveled to Tel Aviv in May to give a “mini” master class. “Israel is starting to experience in film what Italy did after World War II, then the French in the ’50s and England in the ’60s. Feeding and growing this exploding industry in Israel is very important to me.”

Hyler presided over that first morning’s proceedings, which included Q-and-As with Sacks and producer Zvi Howard Rosenman, who spoke about the difficulty of getting Jewish-themed work produced in Hollywood and how “this business is all about tenacity.”

“I’ve made 29 movies,” he said, “but I still wake up every morning praying to God to get me through the day, because 99.9 percent of the time, you’re dealing with rejection.”

Sacks focused on Hollywood etiquette.

“You never sit down and go right into your pitch,” he said. “Look at the person’s office. Comment on their paintings. The more they like you, the more they’ll like your idea.”

When discussing the dynamics of a television writers’ room, Sacks emphasized the importance of “never speaking definitively and outright saying you don’t like someone else’s idea.”

This elicited some incredulous yet understandable responses from the Israeli contingent, since “no” simply means “no” in their country.

“Look, this is the culture of Hollywood,” Sacks added in his defense. “If you use the Israeli model, you’ll get nowhere.”

For the most part, both the Tel Aviv and Los Angeles participants seemed very eager to learn from whomever took the podium. “We’re still in our baby steps, and they’re in middle age,” award-winning Tel Aviv-based actor and director Oded Kotler observed of Hollywood professionals. “These are the top people in the world for my field, and I feel that Israel still has a lot to learn from them.”

Arik Kneller, an established Tel Aviv-based agent who represents top Israeli talent like Joseph Cedar and Etgar Keret, decided to submit an application for the master class because

“I’ve gone as far as I can in establishing my network in Israel. Now I need to meet people in L.A.,” he said.

Other participants mentioned that it’s equally, if not more important, for them to network with colleagues and peers on similar rungs of the professional ladder.

“I want to meet people who struggle with the same issues as I do,” said Ravit Markus, an Israeli documentary filmmaker who now lives in Los Angeles. “I’m really looking to form good relationships of support and friendship.”

Markus echoed Hyler when she first welcomed the group and issued her “most important” piece of advice.

“Take the time over the next 10 days to schmooze with each other,” she commanded. “This business is all about relationships.”

For more information about the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Master Class, visit

Israelis Do the Riviera

Amid the celebrities and paparazzi crowding the Cannes Film Festival last week, Katriel Schory roamed the bustling boulevard Croisette like a proud parent.

“Israeli cinema has never had such a presence here,” Schory, director of the Israel Film Fund, said via the cell phone that seems attached to his ear.

Yes, Moshe Mizrahi was nominated for the top prize with his 1972 romantic drama, “I Love You, Rosa,” and Amos Gitai competed five times with his edgy, political films, winning a 2000 award for “Kippur.”

“But I’ve attended this festival for 30 years, and we have a higher profile now than ever,” Schory said. “We’re receiving unprecedented recognition in multiple sections of Cannes.”

The evidence may not appear earth-shattering by Hollywood or Cannes standards. By the time the 12-day extravaganza ends on May 28, almost 1,500 movies from more than 90 countries will have screened in the world’s largest international film festival and market. Yet, for the small but growing Israeli film industry, the progress is dramatic, Schory said. The festival will showcase 15 movies — up from nine in 2005 — some during the first-ever Israel film day, he added.

Two Israeli students, selected by a jury that includes American director Tim Burton, will vie against 15 peers in Cannes’ student competition, perhaps the most prestigious of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile, 40-something auteur Dover Kosashvili (“Late Marriage”), was bustling to meetings with more than 60 financiers — part of a 2006 festival program to help 18 promising directors complete new projects.

On the ground floor of the Palais des Festivals, visitors were streaming to Israel’s official booth, according to Schory: “People are asking, ‘What’s cooking?’ ‘What are the new titles?’ It’s completely different than even several years ago, when once in a while someone used to stop by.”

Schory said he is being wooed by leaders of other international film festivals, who previously ignored him.

“I used to have to beg them to take our movies,” he recalls. “But this year, the Locarno people insisted that I come to their party and that they want a closer relationship with us. And just a couple hours ago, the woman who schedules the Venice festival came up to me and said she wanted to talk as soon as possible about the latest crop of Israeli films.”

Schory’s Israel Film Fund finances up to 70 percent of all Israeli films with his annual budget of $7 million. He has theories about why Israeli cinema is generating interest at home and abroad.

Back in the 1980s, he said, homegrown cinema revolved around the Middle East conflict, a subject too specific to generate foreign sales. Even Israelis were sick of the topic from the news. In the 1990s, filmmakers focused on what Schory calls “navel-gazing” — movies so tediously personal they bored everyone. (Not to mention that the production values and storylines needed work, critics have said.)

In 1998, less than 1 percent of Israelis bothered to see Israeli films: “Our industry was practically dead,” Schory said.

Then came a new crop of artists armed with superior technical skills they had learned at Israel’s blossoming film schools or by working in the country’s bourgeoning TV industry.

“These directors are focusing on intimate dramas dealing with universal, day to day problems — family and social issues that are part of the life of every human being,” Schory said.

Kosashvili’s 2001 drama, “Late Marriage,” about a man torn between his lover and his immigrant family, was the first such film to “pull us out of our slump,” Schory recalls. It didn’t hurt, either, that the Los Angeles Times called “Marriage’s” hottest sex scene “the longest and most erotic, tender and passionate ever to occur in a serious film.”

The drama not only drew some 300,000 Israeli viewers, compared to around 15,000 for previous films; it also earned a slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition.

Also in 2001, France signed a co-production agreement with Israel that to date has generated 15 films, including Eran Riklis’ searing and highly acclaimed “The Syrian Bride.” Three years later, American distributors bought 9 of the 20 films produced in 2004, said Meir Fenigstein of the Israel Film Festival.

And Israeli movies sold 2.5 million tickets abroad — 1 million of them in France — the following year.

Many of the new directors depict unflinching critiques of Israeli society, a trend now reflected at Cannes. Yaniv Berman’s 30-minute student short, “Even Kids Started Small,” for example, dissects violence at public schools (see sidebar). Yuval Shafferman’s “Things Behind the Sun” depicts a family paralyzed by secrets.

Kosashvili’s new project, “Kishta,” is another kind of domestic drama, an erotic love triangle set in the third century. Cannes officials are providing invaluable help to the director and his producers as they hustle to raise the additional $3 million they’ll need to shoot the $4 million drama.

“The festival has set up meetings with bigwigs we would not have been able to get on our own,” producer Edgard Tenenbaum said by cell phone between appointments. “It’s also great because we don’t have to fly around the world to pitch.”

All this despite ongoing resentment toward Israel due to the Palestinian conflict — especially in European nations such as France. Schory believes this is one

case where art — and cash — transcend politics.

“No one invests in movies for philanthropic reasons or for any special affection for the Jewish state,” he said. “They invest because they’ve seen Israeli movies sell tickets, and they believe they can recoup their money.”

Not that politics are completely absent from the festival; they never are, he adds. Schory cites a panel discussion he just attended in which a Tunisian producer grilled him about the status of Israeli Arab directors.

Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, of the controversial suicide bombing saga, “Paradise Now,” is a judge in the top competition this year.

“That won’t affect us, because Israeli films aren’t participating,” Schory said. “But I don’t think Suleiman could be objective about an Israeli film.”

Even so, he adds, Jewish and Arab filmmakers are at least talking to each other, if only to lament the obstacles to co-production.

“At the end of the day, film is a universal language,” Schory said.

And with that, he headed off to meetings at the end of his day.


New Setting Could Bring New Faces

There is an old Jewish saying that if you change your place, you change your luck. The organizers of the 21st annual Israel Film Festival are putting it to the test.

Which means that this year, if you head out to Laemmle’s on Fairfax hoping to see a new crop of Israeli films, as in years past, you might be disappointed. The majority this year will screen at Sunset Five, another Laemmle cinema, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights Boulevard. Other films are scheduled for the Laemmle Fallbrook in West Hills.

Festival organizers want the films to reach a wider audience, including the more avant-garde types who troll Sunset Boulevard.

“Sunset Five has a different, more open audience, that we hope we can bring,” said Meir Fenigstein, the festival director. “And the Valley has a very strong audience for the festival, since there are a lot of Israelis there. But I am not looking for Israelis. I know it is hard, it is difficult, to bring Americans [as an audience] but that is the challenge.”

Other new ideas pertain to the filmmakers. The festival’s winning film will earn for the director and producer the use, for one month, of a $50,000-$80,000 package that includes a 35-millimeter Panavision camera.

The festival is also sponsoring travel for 40 Israeli directors to attend, the largest contingent ever.

The program itself will include a number of films that deal with issues of Jewish identity, such as “A Green Chariot” (directed by Gilad Goldschmidt), “Wasserman — The Rain Man” (directed by Idit Shechori) and “Catching the Sky” (directed by Roni Ninio and Yankal Goldwasser). The films will be followed by a program called “Jewish Identity in Israeli Films.” In previous years, panel discussions have focused on the state of Israeli cinema, so this sort of subject matter is new ground.

“The idea is to bring together different kinds of teenagers, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and watch a film that has a strong Jewish identity,” Fenigstein said.

Fenigstein and festival program director Paul Fagen generally pick films that have made their mark in Israel, either by winning awards there or in festivals elsewhere. The opening night film “What a Wonderful Place” (directed by Eyal Halfon), won the best film award at the Israel Film Academy, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, and will be Israel’s entry to the foreign film category at the 2006 Academy Awards.

“The Israeli film industry has a kind of foothold in America right now, and I believe that the festival had a hand in that,” Fenigstein said.

The film, “Ushpizin,” is currently playing in cities all over America. Last year, the Israeli film, “Walk on Water,” made about $3 million at the box office. And, slowly but surely more people are going to see foreign films. Last year at the Miami sector of the Israel Film Festiva,l there was a 100 percent increase in ticket sales.

“The films are getting a little bit better, and the distributors are starting to become more savvy and they see the niche market for these films,” Fagen said.

This year, about 20 film distributors are expected to attend the festival. About two to four films are likely to be picked up. For most of the films, however, the festival will be their only showing in the United States.

“It is very difficult for non-American films to get recognized in the States,” said Dan Fainaru, an Israeli film critic. “American audiences are not that interested in them. Compare an Israeli film that has done very well in the States — like “Walk on Water” — the income [generated] is maybe enough to cover the limousine budget in a big American production.

Nevertheless, organizers see their festival as an important tool for Israeli cinema.

“It gives an opportunity for the films to be seen by American audiences. It helps them to find distributors. It gives the Hollywood community a chance to connect with the Israeli community, and it gives the filmmakers an opportunity to come and meet the audience,” Fenigstein said.


7 Days in the Arts



The Workmen’s Circle focuses inward with the opening of its latest exhibit, “A Jewish Portrait Gallery.” The group show is filled with Jewish portraits with the intent of begging questions like, “How does a Jew look?” “How does a Jew see the world?” and “How does a Jewish artspace show its face to the world?” Get some answers at tonight’s artist reception.

7-10 p.m. 1525 S. Roberston Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.


Screenwriter Robert Avrech has launched a new young adult press for Jewish teens, in memory of his son, Ariel. The debut novel off Seraphic Press is his own, titled, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center hosts the book launch party this afternoon, at which Avrech will speak. A dramatic reading of selections from the book by high schoolers, as well as a panel discussion with high school newspaper editors moderated by The Journal’s Education Editor, Julie Gruenbaum Fax, is also scheduled.

3 p.m. 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-8403.


Celebrity violinist Itzhak Perlman makes his debut at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with just one performance this evening. Playing pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak and Smetana, he is joined by collaborator Janet Goodman Guggenheim on piano.

8 p.m. 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.


Orthodox hottie rockstars Evan and Jaron may be best known for their 2001 Top 10 hit, “Crazy for This Girl,” but they’ve since abandoned their label in favor of doing things themselves. Perhaps that explains their appearances all month long at the intimate Molly Malones. Catch them there Tuesdays in January, up close and personal.

9 p.m. $5 (cover). 575 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 935-1577.


A semi-staged musical production of classical Voltaire, “Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ with the New York Philharmonic,” airs this evening on PBS. Broadway actor-director Lonny Price stages the musical with Bernstein protÃ(c)gÃ(c) Marin Alsop leading the production. Kristin Chenoweth plays Cunegonde, with Paul Groves as Candide and Patti LuPone as the Old Lady.

8-10 p.m. KCET.

Invasion of the Creature Feature

In 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a mannequin-like figure mysteriously appears on a billiards table, a half-formed thing without hair, face or fingerprints. Meanwhile, a woman insists that her uncle isn’t her uncle, but an imposter who looks just like him; husbands say the same of their wives and children of their parents. The town doctor finally discovers the awful truth: giant, fluid-oozing pods are producing human clones, part of a plot to — what else? — take over Earth.

But the science fiction classic isn’t just another alien invasion B-picture, according to Jordan Peimer of the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s among a group of 1950s sci-fi flicks that mirrored red scare paranoia — four of which will screen at the Skirball’s upcoming “Red Menace Film Series.”

The films, which include “Red Planet Mars,” “Invaders From Mars” and “Invasion USA,” “played on the fear that Communists were secretly infiltrating America,” Peimer said. ” Suddenly people you knew and loved could be replaced by soulless automatons.”

The series, which accompanies the Skirball’s “Arnold Mesches: FBI Files,” began when Peimer first saw that exhibit at Manhattan’s PS 1 gallery about a year ago. There, he learned that the FBI started spying on Mesches, a one-time Communist Party member, during the McCarthy-era blacklists. The collages, inspired by his FBI dossier, included an image of Robby the Robot from the 1956 film, “Forbidden Planet.”

While looking at Robby, Peimer suddenly remembered another sci-fi classic, 1978’s remake of “Body Snatchers,” and reviews that described the original as a political allegory.

“I had always thought of those kinds of movies as guilty pleasures,” he said. “So the idea that they actually could contain a sociological message startled me.”

Peimer figured a series featuring such films could parallel the paranoia reflected in Mesches’ work. Accordingly, “Red Menace” includes movies such as “Red Planet Mars” (1952), in which radio signals reportedly from space spur earthlings into a mass panic. In “Invaders From Mars” (1953), a UFO turns humans into brainwashed (read Commie) aliens.

“The films all describe an inhuman enemy that threatens American society, and that wants to purge it of religion and emotion,” said Julianna Brannum, a consultant who helped plan the series.

If the movies seem melodramatic by today’s standards, consider the source, Brannum suggested.

“They reflect the level of hysteria people felt about the red menace,” she said.

“Red Menace” consists of two Sunday afternoon double features: On Feb. 22, “Red Planet Mars” screens at 1:30 p.m. and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” at 3 p.m.; on March 28, “Invaders From Mars” screens at 1:30 p.m. and “Invasion USA” at 3 p.m. For tickets, $8 (general per double feature), $5 (students and members), call (323) 655-8587.

A Life to the Mind

What you notice in almost every shot is the hair: abundant, snow-white, carefully coiffed.

It’s an apt metaphor for Jacques Derrida’s mind, which is prolific with ideas, yet well-ordered and consistent in its probity and depth. In a new documentary, filmmakers Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick make arresting cinema from the mind, memories and habits of a man whose life has been devoted to thought.

Derrida, a Jew born in Algeria in 1930, is identified with deconstructionism, a system of thought that challenges established assumptions about the knowledge of what is true and real. But the 85-minute film is far from a static parade of talking heads. Exposition of Derrida’s ideas comes mostly through voice-over readings from his books that accompany shots of the philosopher walking from one place to another or scenes of a gritty, industrial Paris rushing past a moving car.

In her interviews with Derrida, Ziering Kofman makes him a partner in breaking through the common conception of a philosopher’s life, as Derrida describes it: "He was born, he thought, and he died." We meet Derrida’s wife of 45 years, Marguerite, a psychoanalyst, and find out how they met; we see the Pampers kept handy for visits from their baby granddaughter; we watch Derrida fix himself a snack; we meet his brother and hear both sad and amusing anecdotes of other relatives.

Derrida was 10 in 1940, when Algeria, as part of Vichy France, came under German occupation. Algeria’s Jews were neither deported to the camps nor massacred at home, but they were subject to the Nuremberg Laws. Derrida and his siblings were expelled from school with all the other Jewish children, and suddenly his former classmates were calling him a dirty Jew.

Derrida’s wartime experiences resonated with Ziering Kofman, a graduate of Beverly Hills High School and student of Derrida’s at Yale who grew up the child of a Holocaust survivor. Ziering Kofman’s German-born father, Sigfried "Sigi" Ziering, who died two years ago, survived the Riga ghetto and several concentration camps as a teenager. In the United States, he earned multiple degrees in science and went into business. A 1973 investment in a biotech firm eventually made him the head of a multinational corporation.

One of the founders and a major financial supporter of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Ziering was also a

leading contributor to Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. He provided some of the funding for Ziering Kofman’s film, which is dedicated to his memory.

Ziering Kofman hopes the film will help people understand deconstructionism, which, in its refusal to embrace absolutes, is often attacked as condoning moral relativism. Derrida’s work "is fiercely ethical — it’s all about creating an ethical structure," she said.

"I wondered what Shakespeare and Plato were like, what their lives were like," she said. "I thought, there really should be some record of Derrida."

Groundbreaking Cinema

In “Hit and Runway,” a straight Italian-American naif teams up with a gay Jew to write a screenplay. In “Aimee & Jaguar,” a Jewish woman and a Nazi’s wife begin a torrid affair. In “Man is a Woman,” a gay man marries a woman, a Yiddish singer, who has never known a man.

“There is definitely something in the air,” says Alisa Lebow, a lesbian Jew and a filmmaker, of the three gay-themed films in the International Jewish Film Festival. Since the early ’90s, she has noticed gay and lesbian directors have been making movies about their Jewish experiences. The trend began later than other ethnic-gay films because of the Jewish tendency to assimilate, and because, for some, it’s difficult to reconcile the gay politics of oppression with Jewish privilege.

AIDS forced the issue in 1993, when movies like Gregg Bordowitz’s “Fast Trip, Long Drop,” focused on Jews and HIV. Around the same time, lesbians were making their own identity films, such as the Oscar-nominated short documentary “Chicks in White Satin,” about a lesbian wedding. By 1998, Lebow and her partner, Cynthia Madansky made “Treyf,” which bypasses “coming out” issues to focus on the filmmakers’ progressive Judaism.

“For some gay filmmakers, there has been a disconnection with Israel over politics and a weariness of identity based on the victimization of the Holocaust,” says Janis Plotkin, director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The result has been a number of bubbe films, in which directors seek a Jewish connection by returning to the love and nostalgia embodied in their grandparents.

Sometimes the filmmakers turn to grandma to find themselves. Andy Abrahams Wilson, director of the Emmy-nominated “Bubbeh Lee & Me,” says his solid Jewish grandmother “helped me straddle the worlds of being gay and Jewish, and find where I belonged.”

Today, almost a decade after the earliest gay-Jewish films, the trend is a “normalization” of gay characters in feature films. Filmmakers are creating protagonists who are not angst-ridden about their identity, but who happen to be gay and Jewish. The comedy “Hit and Runway,” for example, was based on the real-life writing partnership (and conflicts) between Christopher Livingston, a straight writer-director, and his gay-Jewish writing partner, Jaffe Cohen. “We decided to make a movie about our relationship,” Cohen says, “because the arguments we were having over our scripts were funnier than anything else.”

“Hit and Runway” screens Nov. 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Nov. 10 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. “Amy & Jaguar” runs Nov. 11 at the Music Hall. “Man is a Woman” screens Nov. 14 at the Music Hall and Nov. 17

Casting His Vote

Sixty one and still full of surprises, that’sWarren Beatty. This weekend, Beatty goes head to head at the boxoffice with “The Horse Whisperer,” starring that other senior iconRobert Redford. Redford, like his contemporary Beatty, not only starsbut also directs and produces his movie. May the best man win.

However, Beatty, never one to leave things tochance when he can micromanage every inch of his collected opus, isout there, looking for an edge — and selling his savage politicalfarce with the kind of intensity that would be exhausting if itweren’t so charming. In an era when movies poke bitter fun atpoliticos (most recently “Primary Colors” and “Wag the Dog,” bothcritically praised but not exactly box office dynamite), Beatty hasput his head on the line in the genre.

He playsincumbent U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth of California, just days away froman election and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the racerazor’s-edge close, he’s become a blubbering mess, a disenchanted,burnt-out case, with a philandering wife (Christine Baranski) andlittle to hang on to. So he comes up with a unique solution to hisproblems: He hires a hit man to kill him for a fat life insurancepolicy that benefits his daughter.

But along the way to being 6 feet under, Bulworthmeets the gorgeous Nina (Halle Berry), a bright woman, 30-plus yearshis junior, raised by 1960s activists living in South Central LosAngeles. Bulworth, understandably, decides to cancel the hit. It’stoo late.

What follows is a “Warren in the Hood” politicaltragicomedy-cum-farce, which gives the savvy Beatty a chance tosavage not only the hometown Hollywood industry, but to fire deadlyarrows at assorted sacred cows, from politics to racism. Beatty asthe demented candidate turns into a hip-hopping, rap-spoutingpolitico who decides the only way to salvation is to tell it like itis: about Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the entire U.S. politicalhierarchy.

Why should politicians follow through on theircampaign promises to blacks, he asks his audience at a South Centralchurch, when blacks don’t make financial contributions? Whateverhappened to federal funding? asks a congregant. “They told you whatyou wanted to hear,” he snaps back. “Half your kids are out of workand half in jail, so what are you gonna do, vote Republican?”

Then whisked to a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hillsmansion, he scans his speech. Gazing out at the fat-cat donors, hemuses, “Oh, mostly Jews here — I’m sure they put something in aboutFarrakahn.”

As for Israel, he tells the astounded group thatpoliticians say they will support it just to take your money.

The $32 million movie is Beatty’s baby. Heproduced, wrote, directed and, of course, is the on-screen linchpinof this outrageous caper — made, ironically, for theultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox.

Political movies, especially since they’re upagainst some fairly stiff competition from the real thing these days,are not an easy sell. So Beatty is hitting the campaign trail asnever before to peddle “Bulworth” to the widest possibleaudience.

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills,Beatty, who turned 61 in March, looks in pretty good shape: There area few silver flecks in his full head of hair, a few wrinkles, but thewhole thing is pretty well preserved and immaculately attiredcompletely in dark-green cords, suede jacket and matching tie.

Throughout his long career, he has had a love-haterelationship with the media, but this time out, he’s making nice.Like a politician on the stump, he walks into the suite anddeliberately shakes everyone’s hand, paying particular attention toblack journalists. He knows there’s an audience out there thatnormally wouldn’t be seen dead at a Warren Beatty film, and he’sanxious to grab them. (When he’s finished, he even sits patiently,signing photos and posing for pictures with some of the morestar-struck journalists.) This is uncharacteristic behavior, to saythe least, from a man who has shunned the media all his life.

“This,” he declares, as if to convince himself,”is the best film I’ve ever made. It has a certain energy and makesme laugh when I look at it.”

And it’s pretty lifelike stuff, its creatorinsists. “In order for the film to work,” he says, “it has to beviolent, sexy and funny — or else it turns into C-Span.”

This desire to get attention has sent Beatty intosome strange territory. There’s enough rap music in his movie to keepthe most ardent fan happy. And Beatty compares the rappers of the1990s to Russian protest poets of Moscow, circa the 1960s.

It is also the first time that moviegoers get achance to see Beatty unvarnished, unairbrushed, filmed without thelayers of gauze he has lately employed when he takes to the bigscreen. In most of his movies, including the most recent, “LoveAffair,” “Bugsy” and “Dick Tracy,” Beatty has been filmed with thekind of devotion that only a Barbra Streisand can top. In “Bulworth,”he is unkempt, unshaven and crazed — upon orders from Beattyhimself.

“I told [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, ‘Iwant to be ugly in this movie,'” says Beatty. “I wanted to do thething that was the most opposite to me.”

And, so, the man who says with some justification,although not as much as he thinks, “I’ve been famous longer thananybody alive,” is preparing to sabotage his legend.”

And how does it feel to go out there symbolicallynaked in front of the multitudes? Don’t expect a straight answer fromthe man who perfected the responseoblique.

“This is the kind of language you hear processedthrough the press,” he says sharply. “It’s so ephemeral and goofy. Ifyou were to get caught up in this whole image thing, you’d go down aroad of unrewarding narcissism. And that is something I have neverwanted to get involved with.”

He then goes on to give the lie to himself inspades. “To tell you the truth, I’ve dealt with this legend thinglonger than most people…longer than Robert Redford and JackNicholson. My first film [“Splendor in the Grass,” l961] was a hugehit. Those people had to wait decades longer before hittingit.”

Failing to quit while he’s ahead, he gilds thelily further: “If I put my career into perspective, this is what Isee: I’ve done some good work and got awards, got critical acclaimand made enough money to live happily. I have built up a body ofmovies to make it impossible to forget me.”

Wonder what Bulworth would say about that one?

Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weeklycolumn for The New York Times Syndicate.


The Movies’ Music Man

Composer Elmer Bernstein . Photo by Peter Halmagyi


The list of films for which Elmer Bernstein haswritten orchestral scores reads like a roll call of cinema’s all-timeclassics: “The Ten Commandments,” “The Age of Innocence,” “TheMagnificent Seven,” “Ghostbusters,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “CapeFear,” “True Grit,” “Animal House,” “The Great Escape,” “My LeftFoot”…just to name a few.

Bernstein was born in New York, in 1922, theson of immigrants from Ukraine and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hisfather, a teacher, and his mother, a dancer who once performed withIsadora Duncan, immersed the boy in the arts. After brief forays intopainting, acting and dancing, he began studying to become a concertpianist. At the age of 12, Bernstein started composition studies withAaron Copeland, Roger Sessions and, ultimately, StefanWolpe.

During World War II, he joined the Army AirCorps and arranged music for patriotic radio broadcasts and wrotescores for the dramatic shows. In the early 1950s, he scored”Saturday’s Hero” and “Boots Malone.” The score for “Sudden Fear,” afilm with Joan Crawford and Jack Palance, achieved widespreadattention for its use of solo instruments; Bernstein’s career seemedready to take off.

But Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt preventedthe composer from working until 1955, when Bernstein wrote thespectacular score for”The Ten Commandments.”

His film-scoring career now spans five decades,and the youthful, passionate Bernstein — who celebrates his 76thbirthday on April 4 — shows no sign of slowing down. The JewishJournal caught up with him at his Santa Monica office on a rainyThursday afternoon.

Jewish Journal: Thiscentury has seen the rise of great Jewish composers in America,something that had never really happened before. How do you fit intothat?

Elmer Bernstein: Inthe 19th century, if you were Jewish and wanted to be a mainstreamcomposer, you had to convert. That’s what Mendelssohn did andcertainly Mahler did in order to become director of the Vienna Opera.He couldn’t have done it unless he converted.

But I think 20th-century thought is basicallydominated by Jewish thought. I mean, when you stop to think of it,Jesus Christ was a Jew, and a lot of his philosophy was extrapolatedfrom the Old Testament. Karl Marx was a Jew, and that has had a greateffect on political thinking in the 20th century. Albert Einstein wasa Jew, and that has a great effect on scientific thinking. Not tomention Freud. So, in a sense, a lot of Jewish thought has come tothe forefront in the 20th century, and as that’s all loosened up, ofcourse, we find Jewish people in all walks of life and a tremendousoutburst of musical activity from Jewish composers.

I had a dear friend — who, unfortunately, hasdied — named Christopher Palmer, who was one of the greatestorchestrators who ever lived. Chris had gotten to the point where hewas absolutely certain that in order to be a great composer, you hadto be Jewish.

JJ: In 1981, youwrote music for “The Chosen” and “Genocide.” Please tell us aboutthose experiences.

EB: I spoke Yiddishbefore I spoke English. I was largely brought up, for the first fouryears of my life, by my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmotherspoke only Yiddish. My grandfather could get along in English andRussian but was basically a Yiddish speaker. They were “Fiddler onthe Roof” kind of people, like people from Anatevka. Their friendsused to come over and sit around the kitchen with the glasele te, and I stayed for thestories. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us — I was veryfond of her — was conventionally religious. She observed: Shebensch licht[lit candles] every Friday night, but she wasn’t a religiousphilosopher. My father’s mother was a religious lunatic. She neverate a meal at our house, because she couldn’t be sure that it waskosher. So I was very steeped in our tradition, and having the chanceto do a film like “The Chosen” was fun for me because there were alot of familiar things in there. “The Chosen” was a very goodmovie.

“Genocide,” of course, is not specifically Jewish,but that was a very moving experience.

I was brought up listening to my Grandmother singJewish songs all the time. The first songs I learned were in Yiddish.It influenced me in the sense that it’s powerful.

JJ: What are yourfavorite scores?

EB: That’s tough.Certainly, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “The Man with the Golden Arm” wasa seminal film for me. “The Magnificent Seven.” In more recent times,”The Age Of Innocence” and “The Grifters.”

JJ: After so manysequels to “The Magnificent Seven,” did you ever get tired of writingin that style?

EB: One of the waysthat I have kept myself interested down through the years is bytrying to avoid being pigeonholed. Sometimes, I’ve had to do veryconscious things to avoid it. There was a time after “The Man withthe Golden Arm” that people had this perception of me as a jazzcomposer. I was called upon to do a lot of scores about crime, like”Sweet Smell of Success,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and”Carpetbaggers.” Then I started doing westerns, starting with “TheMagnificent Seven,” and all the sequels and John Wayne’s last sevenfilms. Then I had to just stop it. I had to say, “I won’t do awestern anymore,” in order to keep myself fresh. Then I had 10 yearsof comedy. Success is a big snare. If you’re successful in a certainstyle, then everybody wants you to repeat it, and I was just notinterested in that.

Try out everything is more of my style. I have 10years of westerns and 10 years of comedy. In recent years, I havefooled around more with electronics. In a score like “The Grifters,”for instance, it was an electronic design. In recent years, I haveincluded an instrument, which I’m very fond of, called theondes martenot,which is a lovely instrument. It’s most prominently noticeable in “MyLeft Foot” and films like “Ghostbusters,” and very prominent in thefilm I just finished, “Twilight.”

JJ: You ran afoul ofSen. McCarthy. What happened?

EB: That was fun.From the ’30s on, in this country, most thinking people, especiallyin the arts, tended to be a bit left of center…. I can rememberstanding on street corners in New York right after World War II,handing out leaflets on behalf of the idea that black people shouldbe allowed to play baseball in the major leagues. That’s the kind ofstuff we were doing. But for some reason that I don’t understand, allthat liberal, left-wing thought scared the hell out of everybody. Alot of people made political careers out of selling the clear andpresent danger of the communists in the United States.

“The Ten Commandments,” is one of the films for whichElmer Bernstein has written orchestral scores. Photo courtesy ofABC TV and Paramount Pictures.


I wasn’t even a member of the Communist Party, butI was “tainted” and I was in trouble. I was basically rescued byCecil B. DeMille. When I was working on “The Ten Commandments
,” therestarted to come out all this press stuff about my left-wing leaning.DeMille called me into the office one day. He said: “Are you a memberof the Communist Party? I know I have no constitutional right to askyou that question, but I’m asking anyway.” I just said, “No.”DeMille’s belief in my answer made a very big difference because hewas very powerful.

JJ: Do you consideryourself a pioneer?

EB: In retrospect,yes. At the time I did all these things, no. I have only done thethings in film that I thought were appropriate at the time. To quoteMark Twain: “It just seemed to be a good idea at the time.” I canunderstand that the way I used instruments in “Sudden Fear” wasunusual. I tell my class at USC that I am inveighing against thepiano. Today, you can’t hear a score without a piano solo. In the olddays, you couldn’t hear a score without a violin solo. In 1952, thepiano was very unusual, but I had no idea it was so unusual. It wasjust appropriate to me. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which starts outwith only the piano playing one note at a time, was a thing I didbecause it seemed appropriate, because it’s a film about a kid.Retrospectively, I can see why that was seminal. I can see why thejazz score for “The Man with the Golden Arm” was seminal, but, at thetime that I did that, I didn’t think, “Wow, this is going to be somereal pioneering, boy.”

JJ: What inspiresyou now?

EB: Love of theprocess. I really enjoy looking at a film for the first time andbeginning to wonder what I’m going to do. That, to me, is all ittakes. It’s the challenge. Every film is a new challenge. They’renever exactly the same.

JJ: What’snext?

EB: I’m doing musicfor a film called “The Deep End of the Ocean.” It’s from a novel. Ithas Michelle Pfeiffer and Whoopie Goldberg and Treat Williams and isdirected by Ulu Grossbard. Look for it around the end of June.