THE LAST WORD *Movie Review & Director Interview*


In THE LAST WORD, a retired businesswoman named Harriet (Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine) confronts her mortality as she sculpts her own obituary.  Harriet targets Anne (Amanda Seyfried), a reporter, to distill her life into its final success story.  The pair take a metaphorical–and literal–journey with Brenda (newcomer Ann’Jewel Lee), a pre-teen who has as much to gain from the relationship as the other two.  The movie also stars Thomas Sadowski, Anne Heche, Philip Baker Hall and Tom Everett Scott.  Mark Pellington (ARLINGTON ROAD, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, COLD CASE) directs.  

I spoke with director Mark Pellington about symbolism and themes in THE LAST WORD.  He sees the film as a study in mortality and what each of us leave behind at the end of our lives.  Pellington says:  “I want these characters to have suffered some degree of loss, yet I don’t want it to be through death.  I want them to be left alone in that they’re searching to become a little more whole, a little more complete.”

Harriet, Ann and Brenda come together as incomplete sides of the same coin.  Each is missing a specific person in their lives within the parent/child relationship, but lacks in other important ways, too.  For example, Harriet appreciates the qualities about Brenda with which she herself identifies.  However, these are the very characteristics she regrets in herself having let them rule her life.  Brenda’s ability to say anything and stick up for herself are laudable, though without a measure of regulation they will overtake her life the same way they have Harriet’s.

The women’s evolution is emphasized during a baptismal scene of cleansing as they go for a late-night swim.  Traditional film analysis looks at water from this perspective, and Pellington does as well.  “By the end, for her to take off her clothes, to let it go, to get messy is a change she was ready to go through because she had achieved these goals of seeing herself differently,” he explains.

The film shows that evolution is possible regardless of age or temperament and nothing is a replacement for personal connection.  Isolation comes in many forms.  The first shot of Harriet is standing in a dormer window looking out at the grounds of her home.  Ann sits in isolation, blaring loud music on her massive headphones, though she’s surrounded by coworkers.  Even Brenda’s first interaction sets her apart as she battles a recreation center supervisor.

The complicated relationship among the trio becomes an unexpected friendship in this coming-of-age story.  True to life, it is sometimes impossible to realize something is missing until you’re confronted by it.

For more about THE LAST WORD, including Shirley MacLaine’s thoughts on labeling women in Hollywood, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Holocaust, Jewish themes remain prominent among foreign Oscar offerings


The long-forecast “Holocaust fatigue” among filmmakers and their audiences has not yet arrived, judging by the entries for 2013 Oscar honors by producers and directors in numerous countries.

Each of a record 71 foreign — meaning non-English-speaking — countries has submitted its top film, ranging alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

So broad a representation of the world’s tastemakers and opinion-shapers, though hardly scientific proof, tends to reflect the topics and themes likely to attract home audiences.

So, just as in Hollywood, there are lots of movies on love in all its permutations; high and low comedies; and spy, action and detective thrillers.

But also entered are five movies that deal directly with the Jewish fate during the Nazi era and its aftermath, one film with talmudic roots and one on the wartime clash between Russian and German armed forces.

Also of special interest to Jewish moviegoers are the Israeli entry, and, after an absence, a Palestinian film.

Probably the least-expected entry is “Lore,” submitted by Australia. While the Aussies speak in what might still be considered colonial dialect, that would hardly be considered a foreign language by the standards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But “Lore” features an all-German acting and -speaking cast. The title character is a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a high-ranking SS officer and his like-minded wife, who are arrested by Allied authorities in the closing days of World War II in Europe.

Lore is charged by her mother to take her four younger siblings, one still a baby, across rubble-strewn Germany, pass through the Russian-occupied zone and find the farm of her grandmother in American-ruled West Germany.

Along the way, Lore is befriended and protected by a young man, to whom the adolescent girl is physically and emotionally attracted. To her horror, the Nazi-suckled Lore discovers that her protector seems to be one of the despised and evil Jews she has been taught to hate all her life.

The only Australian part of the film is its director, Cate Shortland, and under the Academy rules, that entitles her country to enter “Lore” as its own.

Shortland, who with the Journal during a visit to Los Angeles, was asked why she would make a film on this particular topic and in a language she doesn’t speak.

“I have long been interested in totalitarianism and, especially, what it does to children,” she said, adding that it was challenging to view ultimate evil from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Her decision was reinforced by her marriage to a man whose German-Jewish parents arrived as refugees in Australia, and by her own conversion to Judaism four years ago.

Aside from “Lore,” the other four entries dealing with the Holocaust were made in Eastern European countries dominated in the postwar decades by communist regimes, which largely ignored the extermination of its Jewish populations during World War II.

One of the entries is from Macedonia and another from Serbia, two countries established by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“The Third Half,” by Macedonian director Darko Mitrevski, has some of the elements of a Hollywood product — poor boy falls in love with rich girl, and the underdog team beats the champion.

In this case, a scruffy, low-class workingman and part-time soccer player pursues the aristocratic daughter of a rich Jewish banker, and his laughable provincial team beats the league’s top team.

What sets “The Third Half” apart is the time — 1941 — and the locale of Macedonia, occupied by Nazi ally Bulgaria. The occupiers introduce all of Hitler’s racial agenda, including the graphically depicted humiliation and deportation of the Jews.

Bulgaria, which saved its own Jews but turned the Jews of occupied Macedonia over to the Germans, has bitterly protested the film as a perversion of history. According to Mitrevski, Bulgarian authorities have retaliated by blocking talks for Macedonia to join the European Union.

The director remains unfazed. “I am fascinated by the individual stories of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “There should be 11 million such movies of Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual and political survivors.”

In Serbia’s submission, “When Day Breaks,” an elderly music professor, who has always considered himself a Christian, discovers that he is the son of Jewish parents, who left him with a farmer’s family and later perished in the Holocaust.

As the stunned professor wanders through present-day Belgrade, he finds that few people remember the war years or that the city’s neglected fairground served as a concentration camp for the city’s Jews. With his musician friends, he set about to establish a memorial on the site.

Like the professor, “I cannot not remember,” said director Goran Paskaljevic in a phone interview. “If we forget the crimes committed during World War II, and later in Bosnia, that opens the door to new crimes.”

The Czech Republic’s entry, “In the Shadow,” starts as a film-noir detective story, but as it evolves, it leads to the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic show trials of the 1950s, staged by the communist regime in Prague.

The Holocaust targeted not only Jews, but also other “racially inferior” people, particularly the Romas (Gypsies). Hungary, an Axis partner during the war, relives this past in its Oscar entry, “Just the Wind.” The movie depicts the murder of five Romani families in an isolated village and the subsequent trial of the suspects.

“White Tiger” is an enigmatic Russian film that centers on some of the devastating tank battles between German and Soviet forces during World War II. The title character is a massive German tank, which appears suddenly to destroy its Russian opponents and just as suddenly disappears into the void.

Critics have interpreted the film’s underlying theme as pointing to war as a natural part of the human condition or as a representation of the German lust for power and domination, which will fade away for some time and then suddenly reappear.

The Latvian movie, “Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg,” goes back to the biblical and talmudic legend of Lilith, the reputed first wife of Adam, who in subsequent reincarnations controls men through her sexual attraction.

Israel’s contender, “Fill the Void,” wrestles with profound issues of faith within the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Tel Aviv. Director Rama Burshtein, a New York native who became fervently Orthodox after making aliyah, focuses the film on whether 18-year-old Shira will follow her mother’s wishes to marry the husband of her older sister, who died in childbirth.

Shira is caught between the strictures of her community — whose rituals and lifestyle are depicted in loving detail and not without humor — and personal choice.

In the Palestinian film, “When I Saw You,” Tarek is a precocious 11-year old, who flees his West Bank village after the Six-Day War and ends up with his mother at a refugee camp in Jordan.

Seeking freedom and adventure, Tarek leaves the camp and falls in with a group of militant anti-Israel fighters.

The motion picture academy will winnow down the 71 foreign entries to an initial shortlist of nine semifinalists and is scheduled to announce the results on Dec. 21. Subsequently, five finalists will be made public on Jan. 10. The Oscars will be presented on Feb. 24.

Among film critics, the favorites for the top prize are Austria’s “Amour” and France’s “The Intouchables,” which were both nominated for Golden Globe awards. However, Israel’s “Fill the Void” and Australia’s “Lore” also are considered likely contenders, and the selection committees for best foreign-language film are well known for their often-unexpected choices.

In the meantime, though, the academy has already announced its 15 nominees for best documentary choices. Included are “5 Broken Cameras” by directors Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli; and “The Gatekeepers” by Israel’s Dror Moreh. “The Gatekeepers” consists of lengthy and surprisingly frank interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, discussing the past and likely future of the tumultuous regional conflicts.

Israeli director wins top documentary prize at Tribeca


Israeli director Alma Har’el took top honors at the Tribeca Film Festival in the documentary category.

“Bombay Beach,” her feature-length film, follows three down-and-out residents of a ghost town on the Salton Sea, a surrealistic landscape in Southern California filled with losers and dreamers.

Har’el, a Tel Aviv native now living in the United States, takes home $25,000 in prize money. She describes herself in her biography as a video artist and music video director.

The judges were unanimous in their decision, which was announced Thursday. They praised the film to reporters for its “beauty, lyricism, empathy and invention.”

Another Israeli, Dor Fadlon of Ramat Gan, also won special mention at the festival for “Eva—Working Title.” Fadlon, a graduate of the film and television department at Tel Aviv University, wrote and directed the 14-minute film.

The 12-day Tribeca Film Festival, founded in 2002, concludes May 1 in New York.

Danish filmmaker finds hope despite family’s dark history


Susanne Bier, whose Danish film, “In a Better World,” is a favorite for Oscar honors, is an anomaly.

She is a woman director in an overwhelmingly male profession, and she is emphatically Jewish in a country and industry in which such affirmation is hardly the norm.

After a Golden Globe win for helming the year’s best foreign-language film, Bier, who studied for two years in Jerusalem, is in a strong position to repeat in the same Academy Award category. However, she faces stiff competition from the other four finalists, who represent Algeria, Canada, Greece and Mexico.

Israel, which seemed close to its first Oscar when its entries made the final five cut in each of the last three years, struck out early this year with “The Human Resources Manager.”

Bier, youthful and animated at 50, was born in peaceful Denmark, but the fates and persecutions of forebears in Nazi Germany and Czarist Russia have deeply affected her personal and artistic outlooks.

Her paternal grandfather, a real estate executive in Berlin, was farsighted enough to leave Germany for Denmark in 1933, when his son, Susanne’s future father, was 2 years old.

Three decades earlier, her mother’s family arrived in Denmark in 1903, the year of the infamous Kishinev pogrom.

But the secure refuge in Denmark was shattered in 1940, when Nazi armies invaded the country. Both families were saved in the celebrated 1943 boatlift to Sweden, which saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews.

Susanne’s father, then 12, vividly recalled the experience to his daughter. The car in which the family was driving to the boat rendezvous ran out of gas, next to a German command post. After a very anxious time, a passing Danish motorist supplied the refugees with fuel.

After the Allied victory, both families returned to Denmark, but from their backgrounds and experiences they transmitted two life lessons to Susanne.

“I felt early on that even in the most secure life, there is always the potential for catastrophe,” she said during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

From left: Toke Lars Bjarke as Morten, Mikael Persbrandt as Anton, Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian. Photo by Per Arnesen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

On the reverse side, her parents taught her “to address the world in a positive way,” to look for the good even in evil times, and to deal morally and righteously with others.

Bier grew up as somewhat of a tomboy, preferring soccer scrimmages with the lads to playing with dolls; she was socially awkward, an avid reader and had a creative bent.

But upon finishing high school, she decided to explore her Jewish roots by studying in Israel. She spent half a year at the Hebrew University and one-and-a-half years at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

She left Jerusalem, after “two years of partying,” with a working knowledge of Hebrew and a vague sense that she would eventually marry a nice Jewish lawyer and have six kids.

Her religiously observant parents, whom she phones at least once a day, approved of this tentative life path. However, Bier discovered that “all the nice Jewish boys I encountered were just too boring” and she was more attracted to not-so-nice non-Jewish boys.

In her actual marital life, Bier has struck somewhat of a compromise, explaining, “My first husband was non-Jewish, my second husband was a nice Jewish boy, and I am now in a relationship with a non-Jewish man.” She is the mother of Gabriel, 21, and Alice Esther, 15.

Still searching for a fulfilling career, she studied architecture in London and then attended Denmark’s National Film School, graduating in 1987.

After these eclectic preparations, her movie career took off auspiciously with the Swedish film “Freud Leaves Home,” which won critical acclaim.

From left: Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Trine Dyrholm as Marianne. Photo by Per Arnesen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Her next effort, “Family Matters,” flopped badly, but Bier recovered, and her subsequent nine films, released at the rate of about one every two years, have been generally popular and well received by critics.

With the beginning of the 21st century, Bier really hit her stride as director and screenwriter. Her 2004 movie, “Brothers,” was a box office and artistic hit and was remade in an English version.

Two years later, she scored even better with “After the Wedding,” which made the final cut for an Academy Award. Now Hollywood came calling, and in 2007 she directed “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny.

Her current Oscar contender, “In a Better World,” was released in her native country as “Hoevnen,” Danish for “Revenge,” which seems a more pointed title.

The film stars some of the leading Scandinavian actors and a remarkable 12-year-old boy, William Johnk Nielsen, whom Bier discovered.

Like many of the director’s movies, “Better World” deals with complex family relationships, this one between two fathers and their respective sons, and the intense bond between the two boys.

Also typical of Bier’s outlook, the movie ends on a note of hope. “Too many European films celebrate pessimism,” Bier said, “but desolation is no good. It is better to communicate that there’s some hope in the world.”

A few years ago, Bier and her frequent writing collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, worked on a project centering on the Holocaust, but couldn’t get the script right and shelved the project.

She hopes to deal with the topic in a future film and rejects the notion of “Holocaust fatigue” among the public and movie producers.

That notion gained some currency this year when not a single feature movie or documentary dealing with the Holocaust, the Nazi era or World War II was submitted in the Oscar and Golden Globe competitions. Nevertheless, Bier is confident that in the future, Hollywood and European producers will return to that subject.

Producer Arnon Milchan’s goal: Broker Mideast peace


Arnon Milchan, ex-Israeli soldier, soccer star, shadowy arms consultant, international business entrepreneur and big-time Hollywood producer, does not lack confidence.

His next ambition, for instance, is to make peace between Arabs and Jews and take care of the Iranian situation.

In a wide-ranging interview, Milchan (pronounced with a soft “ch” as in “China”) reminisced about his past, discussed the movie industries in Israel and the United States and spoke of his plans for a Jewish-Arab university in northern Israel.

The occasion for the rare interview was last week’s gala dinner and show at Paramount Studios, hosted by the Consulate General of Israel and the Los Angeles-based Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, with Milchan as the guest of honor.

“I usually hate these events. I don’t even go to my own premieres, but this is for a good cause, Israel’s youth movement,” Milchan said. “I’m not personally involved in any way; it’s almost like a surprise party.”

Milchan provided his own surprise for the occasion, when, after accepting the Legacy of Citizens Lifetime Achievement Award, he called tennis champ Serena Williams to the stage and shared the award with her.

Milchan was born in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, 63 years ago as an 11th-generation sabra on both sides of the family.

“On one family side we go back to [the great medieval Bible commentator] Rashi, on the other side almost to King David,” he said. When he met Yasser Arafat, the late PLO leader, Milchan told him, “I’m more Palestinian than you are.”

During their meeting, Milchan also discovered another side of the old terrorist.

“Arafat told me that he had seen my movie, ‘Pretty Woman,’ at least 20 times,” Milchan said. “A bodyguard took me to Arafat’s bedroom, and there was a cassette of the movie.”

In the early 1960s, Milchan was a star center forward for Tel Aviv Maccabi and the national soccer team.

“I had the choice of becoming a professional soccer player or going to the university,” he recalled. “I made a mistake and went to school.”

He has four children, ranging in age from 5 to 40 and five grandchildren “as of yesterday.”

At age 20, Milchan inherited a debt-laden fertilizer company from his father and turned it into one of Israel’s largest agro-chemical concerns. Today, with worldwide business investments and profitable movies, he confirms Fortune magazine’s estimate of his worth at $3.1 billion.

Milchan served in the Israeli army during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After getting his feet wet in the Israeli and British movie industries, he was ready to take on Hollywood.

Now the founder and head of New Regency Productions, Milchan is credited as the producer of approximately 120 feature films. Among his best known titles are “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Brazil,” “Pretty Woman,” “JFK,” “Free Willy,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

Although he is involved in many facets of Israeli life, Milchan takes no part in the country’s film industry or, for that matter, in making Hollywood movies on Jewish or Israeli themes.

“I have a high regard for Israeli movies, but you’ve got to specialize,” he said. “You can’t make a ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ which opened in 3,000 American theaters, and then a Hebrew-language film with English subtitles that plays in a few art houses.”

Milchan doesn’t do documentaries or films on Holocaust themes, he said, “although if somebody brought me a great script, like ‘Schindler’s List,’ I might make it. But I’d rather give money to someone else who can do a better job than I could.”

He does give money to Israeli causes, such as $1 million to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, for which he also served as chairman.

Milchan said he put up $100 million for a pet project to establish a doctorate-granting university in the Galilee, with a top faculty (“I wished that teachers were the highest paid people in Israel”) to attract Jewish, Muslim and Christian students.

The project has been stalled for two years, which Milchan blames on “government changes, academic opposition and bureaucracy,” but if it doesn’t take off, he plans to initiate a major hydraulic energy scheme instead.

Milchan is not involved in the L.A. Jewish community “because I only live here, in Malibu, three months each year,” he said. The rest of the time he spends in Israel, where he has houses in Herzliyah and Bet Yanai, near Caesarea, or in his London residence.

In the mid-1980s, Milchan’s name frequently popped up as an “arms merchant” in a criminal case involving the illegal shipment to Israel of 800 krytrons, small electronic devices that can be used for triggering nuclear weapons. Milchan was never charged in the case, but he acknowledges that one of his companies served as a front in the transaction, “with the full knowledge of the Israeli and American governments.”

Milchan follows Israeli politics closely and is fond of dropping the names of his high-level friends, particularly Shimon Peres (“his first letter he wrote as president went to me”), but also Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud Party leader Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu.

ALTTEXTHe recalled that in 1965, he put up $3,000 to help David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Peres form the short-lived Rafi Party.

As always, he said, he likes to operate behind the scenes and asserted that he helped then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuade Peres to join the new Kadima Party. Currently, Milchan said, “I’m trying to make peace among the left, right and center.”

He is more circumspect about playing any role in American politics. “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, except in private, but I know the players,” he said.

Toward the end of the interview, Milchan mentioned a just-published 25-page cover story on him in Cigar Aficionado magazine written by its publisher, Marvin R. Shanken. Milchan, who said he no longer smokes stogies, offered to hand-deliver the magazine to the interviewer’s home, via his chauffeur. He emphasized that he had vetted the article before publication and that every word was true.

Milchan closes out the Cigar interview with some introspective thoughts.

“I really, really believe that I have the skills, the courage, the conviction and the know-how to make a difference in the peace process in the Middle East,” he said.

“I think I can get in a room, no different than I got into a room with Arafat,” Milchan said. “I can get in the room and work out a deal…. I can get with the Iranian guy. I think if I really want something, it is to work with the next administration in Israel and the United States, whoever is the president here, whoever is the prime minister in Israel, and get myself hired to be the go-between, between Arabs and Jews.

“I will deliver this one,” he added. “The point I’m making here, I’m the most qualified person I’ve ever met to make peace. It will be my best movie, and I can do it. That’s my big dream.”

Going home again is truly a family affair for filmmaker Azazel Jacobs


“I remember at an early age being told in school that Jews were a minority in the world,” filmmaker Azazel Jacobs mused. “And I remember just not believing that because I lived in New York City and thinking they must have things wrong because I was surrounded by so many Jews. That was the whole world to me.”

Jacobs left that world 11 years ago to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. But each time he returned home, he noticed more and more changes to his old world.

In an effort to document his birthplace and find some reconciliation with those differences Jacobs returned once again, but this time with a script and camera in hand. Almost 70 years after Thomas Wolfe’s classic American novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published, writer-director Jacobs echoes Wolfe’s oft-quoted title with his new film, “Momma’s Man.”

“Absolutely, you can’t go home again,” said Jacobs, 35. “I think this film is proof of that and it underlines it once more. If there’s any doubt ever, I can always go back to the film and remind myself that it’s really not a good idea.”

“Momma’s Man,” which opens at select Laemmle Theaters on Sept. 5, is the story of Mickey, a young man who stops by his parents’ loft in New York City while on a business trip and finds himself unable — or unwilling — to leave his childhood nest and return home to his wife and newborn child in California.

After moving back into his old room, Mickey becomes lost in his past as he rifles through boxes of memorabilia that include old love letters, songs he had written and comic books. The idea for “Momma’s Man” started as a “what if …” scenario that Jacobs began to fantasize about.

“It was a natural idea to wonder what it would be like to get away from the bills and everything else that’s going on in my life,” he explained. “But the more I got involved in it, the more seriously I started taking it and the more I started writing about somebody else. I didn’t believe that I would do such a thing so I came up with somebody who could.”

Although Jacobs considers his film a work of fiction, there are some similarities between himself and the character of Mickey, played by Matt Boren, who also appeared in Jacobs’ first feature, “Nobody Needs to Know.”

“There are a lot of qualities that Mickey and I share in terms of what’s in his room and what he’s going through,” Jacobs said. “That’s my old bed, my old love letter and my real old best friend playing my best friend in the movie.”

But what really blurs the lines between art and life in “Momma’s Man” is that besides shooting the film in the same loft where he grew up, Jacobs cast his real parents, avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs, as Mickey’s parents.

“I just couldn’t picture anyone else in their bed or kitchen,” Jacobs said.
Still, the director points out differences between the parents we see in his film and the parents who raised him.

“In reality my mom would not allow me to stay there for a day without realizing there was something wrong and confronting it,” he said. “My father plays kind of a quiet type in the film but that’s not the kind of household that I grew up in. He’s definitely a thinker and he plays with these toys but there was always a lot of discussion going on in that home.”

Those discussions served as the basis for much of what was instilled in Jacobs by his artist parents. Although the Jacobs are Jewish, they were not a religious family.

“We’re classic artist, Jewish, intellectuals,” Ken Jacobs said. “Aza was not raised with a sense of religion, but he was raised with a sense of morality.”

The senior Jacobs says he recognizes his son’s moral sense not only in his life, but his work as well: “Ever since he was a small child, Aza has always been very concerned about honesty and honest expression. He’s always interested in reality — what is real, and that’s what his films are about.”

One of the things that excites Azazel Jacobs about his new film is that he was able to include things he holds dear on a personal level, including some of his parents’ work. In what is supposed to be an early home movie of Mickey as a child, Jacobs crossed the art/life line again by using a shot of himself.

“There’s a clip in there from one of my father’s films, [the 1976 short] ‘Spaghetti Aza,’ which is from a longer piece called ‘Star Spangled to Death,'” Jacobs said. “I felt that in some ways I resembled Mickey enough for them to be the same person. And I love the fact that they’re sitting at that table now, and it’s the same table where this footage was shot when I was 4 years old. There are a few pieces of my father’s work in there and my mother’s paintings around the house, and these are things that I love. To have any chance of sharing the stage with what my folks have been doing is a great honor for me.”

As the son of a filmmaker and artist, Azazel Jacobs naturally had a love of cinema that began at an early age. One of his favorites was the surrealistic 1953 musical fantasy, “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T,” based on the works of Dr. Seuss.

“Aza had a tape recording of the soundtrack, and he would fall asleep every night listening to it,” his mother, Flo Jacobs, recalled.

Film played such an important part in the family’s life that when Aza turned 13, instead of a bar mitzvah, his parents took him to see “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour 1985 documentary about the Holocaust.

“We thought that was a good way to bring Aza into manhood,” his father said.
Jacobs attributes most of what he’s learned about his heritage to the things his parents exposed him to.

“My exposure and education of Judaism came from a lot of different places,” he said. “Lenny Bruce was a big influence on me growing up. Fanny Brice came from my folks, listening to my father’s records of old radio shows. A lot of the education I received came through art and politics.”

But his parents’ work and their commitment to it also made an indelible impression on him.

“I really loved how much they loved their work,” Jacobs said. “From a pretty early age I saw that it was something special and how much they put into it and got out of it. They weren’t making art primarily for money or interested in anything commercial. Their audience was each other.”

As for his own work, Jacobs would like it to reach a wider audience than his father’s experimental films attracted, but still maintain the personal integrity of his parents’ creations.

“Ultimately, I want to look back and feel a strong connection with each piece and feel like that’s a good, telling document of where I was and an honest depiction of things that were going on in my mind or at that particular point of my life,” he said. “If I can look back and see that the work all attempted to do something new and alive and respectful — then I’ll be really happy with it.”

“Momma’s Man” opens Sept. 5 at the Laemmle Theaters’ Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.

Jewish life in the City of Lights


Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies — wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras — but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press.

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal.

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker — telling an Israeli story — had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

Spurlock embarks on a cinematic quest for Osama


When writer/director Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) discovered he was going to become a father two years ago, he was concerned about the tumultuous state of the world into which his child was being born. Spurlock’s wish was to give his child a safer and more harmonious place to live. So, after a crash course in combat survival, the filmmaker set off on a journey through the Middle East to find the one man who has shaped the world’s perception of that region in recent years: Osama bin Laden. The results of that quest are documented in his new film, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?”

Spurlock’s cinematic search included stops in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel. He employed producers/guides in each country to help him get around and into neighborhoods where the people — not the media or politicians — could share their feelings about their lives, bin Laden, America and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Along the way he discovered a great commonality between the people of those regions and an America that is rarely portrayed in the media.

“One of the things I wanted to do was take the film out of these two-minute sound bites that we get on the news,” Spurlock said. “On TV, we always see these shots of people who scream and yell, and we don’t get to hear from everybody else. The thing that I really love about the film is that it shows that there really is a tremendous amount of humanity.”

Spurlock’s film also paints a vivid portrait of the devastation and violence in those regions.

“One of the goals of this film, for me, was to show what people face on a daily basis,” the director said. In parts of Israel, “there are rockets falling from Gaza every day. There are people in the Palestinian territories who are trying to maneuver through there, but between the wall and the checkpoints, it makes it almost impossible for them.”

Jeremy Chilnick, who co-wrote and co-produced the film (along with producer Stacy Offman), was profoundly moved by the footage of war-torn Israel that Spurlock was sending back to him at his New York production office.

“One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Morgan is sitting in a bombed-out school, and you see the look on his face, probably thinking about his own child,” Chilnick said.

Among other things, one of Chilnick’s key jobs, according to Spurlock, is to play the role of pragmatist.

“Jeremy is a great ‘no’ man. So when I say I want to do this, this and this, he says, ‘no, no, no,'” Chilnick added. “Except for when Morgan said, ‘I want to go looking for Osama bin Laden.’ That probably should have been a no right there.”

Spurlock and his crew faced constant dangers during filming. They traveled with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and while there was some comfort in having the protection of trained soldiers, there was an additional liability in being embedded with them.

“The most frightened I was over the course of this trip was with the military — because those guys are targets,” Spurlock said.

“Every day they’re targeted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda or militant extremists. One day we got called out of the camp because there was an ambush on the governor’s convoy. Another day there was an IED that was discovered in front of our convoy as we were rolling along, and they diverted us back to the base. There are scary things that happen when you’re out there.”

One of the more confrontational moments Spurlock faced in the film was not in the war zones of Afghanistan but inside an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. While walking the streets looking for someone to interview, Spurlock and crew were surrounded by a hostile crowd, demanding that they “get out!”

“I think it was distrust of the media and of outsiders,” Spurlock said. “I think the greatest part of that scene is when the people are confronting us, and one guy makes it a point to come up to us and say ‘These people who are screaming and yelling at you — most of us don’t think like them.’ That was such a beautiful thing to have happen. That one little bit mirrors and parallels a lot of the same voices that we hear in the film.”

This film has left Spurlock more optimistic about the world and its future, he said. His journey taught him that people everywhere share the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children. And that one of the great little-known commonalities between east and west is a love of professional wrestling. Now that his son, Laken, has been born, Spurlock has hopes that the lessons he learned from his film will be passed on to his child.

“One of the things that was instilled in me by my parents was the idea that you should try to make the world a better place for your kids than what was given to you,” the proud father said.

“And one of the things that I hope I can give to my son is to expose him to people and cultures and ideas that will broaden his horizons,” he added. “That will cause him to question things not only in our country, but outside our borders. I hope that in some ways I can inspire him to want to seek out answers on his own. I think that would be the greatest hope that I have.”

“Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” opens in theaters April 18.

‘Steins’ Skewers Simcha Rivalry


“Keeping Up With the Steins” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a funny, insider Jewish film, or that if you grow up in the Bronx or went to school in North Hollywood, you become a Jew by osmosis.

Case in point is the son-father team of Scott and Garry Marshall, with the younger one directing the movie and the older one just about stealing the show as a hippie Jewish grandfather, who teaches his yuppie descendants that there’s more to a bar mitzvah than throwing the most lavish party in Brentwood.

The film opens with an aerial shot of a Queen Mary-sized cruise ship, whose bow displays a giant banner “Mazal Tov, Zachary.” The theme of the modest celebration is the last voyage of the Titanic, complete with a huge iceberg mockup, from which emerge a bevy of scantily clad mermaids — and that’s just for the appetizer.

Hosting the simcha is Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), “agent for the stars” and his trophy wife, who met at a Texas wet T-shirt contest.

Among the guests, and gnashing his teeth, is Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, also slick agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage”), Stein’s business competitor, accompanied by his wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) and nerdy-looking son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara), whose own bar mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

Driving home from the Titanic bash, Adam Fiedler starts obsessing about his own heir’s bar mitzvah party. It’s not enough to keep up with the Steins — he has to put on a bash that will crush and humiliate his rival.

Safaris are so 1990, but renting Dodger Stadium is a possibility. At night, Adam dreams about a line of yarmulke-wearing Laker Girls as a bar mitzvah highlight.

As Adam’s fevered mind nears the breaking point, up pops his father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), pony-tailed and hippie-clad, along with his spaced-out blonde girlfriend Sandy (Daryl Hannah), whom he met on an Indian reservation, where her name is Sacred Flower.

Irwin deserted his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and young family 26 years ago, and Adam, who hasn’t seen or talked to his father since, has never forgiven him.

Father-son relations go from bad to worse when Irwin and Sandy go skinny-dipping in the family pool (in public view but backsides only), although the old hippie has better luck bonding with his grandson Benjamin.

Gradually it dawns on the boy, his parents and his up-to-date rabbi (who is busy preparing for his “Bill O’Reilly Show” appearance to discuss “The Passion of the Jews” and is portrayed by Richard Benjamin) that maybe, just maybe, the religious and spiritual aspects of the rite of passage are more important than the prize for the most ostentatious party.

Garry Marshall, born 72 years ago under the good Italian family name of Marscharelli, said that his son, the director, picked him for the grandfather role as “his 10th choice.”

In truth, agreed Scott Marshall, 37, he had first tried to cast Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks, but both balked at the skinny-dipping part. When he finally approached his father, the latter asked who would be his pool partner. Told it would be Hannah, Garry Marshall quickly agreed.

During a joint interview at the Marshall family-built and run Falcon Theatre in Burbank, father and son noted their qualifications as honorary Jews.

Garry, whose credits as comedy writer, producer, actor and director (film, television and now opera) stretch from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of the 1960s, through TV’s “Mork and Mindy” to such films as “Pretty Woman” and the recent “The Princess Diaries 2,” pointed to his Bronx boyhood and accent.

However, his real education came as decades-long comedy writer, when he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Jewish and Yiddish humor by his fellow scribes.

Scott, directing his first full-length feature film, passed the ethnic test when he had to convince “Steins” producer A.D. Oppenheim that he could do justice to the script by Mark Zakarin, even if he wasn’t Jewish.

“I told the producer that I married a Jewish woman, and therefore, in a way, I have a Jewish mother,” Scott Marshall said. “Luckily, that was close enough.”

He further strengthened his case during the interview by referring to “bubbe’s latkes” and his education at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

“When I was in seventh grade, I went to over-the-top bar mitzvahs all the time,” Scott Marshall recalled. “At that age, it was about the only place you could meet girls and socialize.”

He met his future wife at the school and even tried his hand at writing a youthful bar mitzvah party script.

“Steins” was shot in 25 days in Brentwood and other parts of Los Angeles, with the synagogue scenes filmed at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

After shooting three separate bar mitzvah ceremonies or parties for the movie, Scott Marshall noted “Through this experience, I feel I have finally become a man.”

“Keeping Up With The Steins,” a Miramax film, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

 

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film


The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.

“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”

Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”

In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.

In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”

After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.

In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”

Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.

All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.

Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.

1 — Original Sin.

Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.

2 — Faith vs. Law.

The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.

3 — The Messiah.

This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.

As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.

These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.

But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

 

Director Pays Price in Making ‘Capote’


Truman Capote, the legendary writer and subject of the eponymous Sony Pictures Classics release that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, spent six years writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that would cement his literary legacy while also leading to his spiritual downfall.

If the writing of “In Cold Blood” proved a Faustian bargain for Capote, the making of “Capote” has not left its principals unscathed. Bennett Miller, 39, who has received an Oscar nomination for best director, speaks over the phone with the world weariness of a much older man, one who has weathered many crises.

“I can’t imagine anything that’s going to prove as difficult,” he said about directing “Capote.” “It took everything out of me, and it took everything out of Phil [actor Philip Seymour Hoffman], as well.”

Caroline Baron, the film’s producer who worked with Hoffman on “Flawless” and has known screenwriter Dan Futterman and Miller for a number of years, said that all films present challenges, but that from the outset, she had “100 percent confidence in Bennett as a director and Phil as an actor.”

Hoffman’s presence in the project helped her convince investors to pony up $7.5 million for a movie to be directed by a first-time feature filmmaker.

Where Capote never forgave himself for betraying, or at least manipulating, Perry Smith, the murderer with whom he had bonded in writing “In Cold Blood,” Miller said that collaborating on “Capote” brought him, Futterman and Hoffman, who have known each other since they were teenagers, “even closer. Something like this challenges you.

“In the natural course of a friendship,” he continued, “it doesn’t always happen that one’s wants are up against another’s. Not just any wants. Deeply felt wants.”

Miller, who like Futterman is Jewish, met the latter in junior high in Westchester County, N.Y. He spent much time at Futterman’s house, even occasionally celebrating Passover together. If Miller is not very religious, he has been obsessed with filmmaking since he got his first camera, a Super-8, when he was 11.

He got some strong reviews but little recognition for “The Cruise,” a 1998 documentary that follows the quirky life of a homeless Manhattan tour guide who rattles off statistics about the Big Apple while riding a double-decker bus. “Capote” marks his entree into the A-list, just as “In Cold Blood” made Capote an international literary phenomenon.

Capote was already a darling of cafe society, renowned since the late 1940s for his short stories and later novels like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he saw the potential for creating a nonfiction narrative using techniques traditionally associated with fiction writing — interior monologue, differing points of view and voice. He wanted to get the reader so deeply into the heads of two murderers that the reader would not only be chilled but also feel a modicum of empathy for Dick Hickock and particularly Smith.

Miller, Futterman and Hoffman have honored the man some view as the greatest postwar writer by making a film that, like the best of Capote’s prose, has both a spareness and beauty. One of the frequent images in the film is a shot of barren trees in the early Kansas morning; they stand alone like sentinels that have failed to protect the Clutter family from violence.

Without a word of dialogue, these shots tell us what we have to know about Kansas, that it is a lonely part of the country with a lot of open space, and that there is something austere, even a little sinister, that could be lurking in this land.

If Capote disarmed people with his self-deprecating wit, his effeminate mannerisms and above all his bizarre voice, he also disarmed them with his surprising toughness, the kind that allowed him to brave a foray into Middle America, where few had encountered an eccentric like him before.

Still, it took its toll on him, just as it has on Miller, who relates a story from kindergarten. All the kids were asked to take those colorful, big blocks, known to all kindergarteners, and to construct “a kind of needle, a pyramid.” Miller hid underneath a desk and watched as the other kids assembled their structures.

“Finally, I ventured out to do it. I did it deliberately upside down.” With characteristic fatigue in his voice, he said, “That is how this movie feels to me.”

 

My Jewish King Kong


It’s a sunny winter day and a friend and I fear for our lives as my husband, Ron Magid, screeches our oversized Chrysler east down Sunset Boulevard. We’re speeding toward the ArcLight Cinemas and a press screening of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

The usually amiable Ron swears at traffic, and when we arrive an hour early, he leaves our pal, Freeman, and me in the dust.

“He’s running ahead, like a little kid,” Freeman muses as we breathlessly catch up, only to find the cinema’s massive glass doors locked.

It’s not surprising that my husband is the first in line at one of the earliest “Kong” press screenings. He’s loved the giant simian since he first watched the 1933 classic film on TV when he was 7. And not just because the giant ape kicked dinosaur a–, trashed Manhattan and chewed up both island natives and a native New Yorker.

“Kong in his own realm was king of the jungle, just like a little kid is king in his own imagination,” Ron recalls as we stand in the sunshine. But he was dethroned when he was captured, and tormented in the urban jungle of Manhattan. Ron relates because he was picked on in the urban jungle of school.

“I felt pigeonholed as a nerd who liked monsters and hated sports,” he says.

As a child, Ron didn’t understand that there also was something distinctly Jewish about his bond with monsters and Kong.

Jews have also been reviled and accused of unspeakable crimes, such as murdering babies for their blood. Ron reminds me that while Bela Lugosi’s Dracula does kill for blood, the vampire considers this predilection (and his immortality) a curse. “To be dead, to be truly dead — that would be glorious,” he says in the 1931 film.

In the here and now, it’s a revenge of the nerds for 44-year-old Ron, as for so many other film geeks who grew up to help shape popular culture. He’s considered a top journalist on special effects and genre movies; Premiere hired him to write about why the original Kong is still king.

Not that Ron has anything against the new film or its director Peter Jackson. A few years ago, he personally bonded with the noted director, a fellow “Kong” enthusiast, after a Writers Guild screening of Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Jackson looked exhausted when viewers rushed him after the Q-and-A. But he brightened when my husband shook his hand, recalling how Ron and a friend had restored a 2 1/2-foot-long stegosaurus puppet from the original “Kong.” Jackson had later purchased the puppet for a rumored $250,000.

Back at the ArcLight for the press screening, we wait more than 20 minutes before the cinema’s doors finally swing open and we snag the best seats in the house. Before long, a regiment of movie journalists surround Ron, because he co-authored (with Phil Savenick) the documentaries that are included on Jackson’s restored DVD versions of 1933’s “Kong.”

“I just geeked out,” Chris Gore, the founder and former editor of Film Threat magazine, gushes about the documentary featurettes. “I thought I knew everything about ‘King Kong,’ because I’ve been reading about it since I was a kid, but I was wrong.”

Clearly in his element, Ron promptly regales this mini-throng with tales about the original movie. He recounts how the 1933 film’s producer and director were themselves intrepid explorers who shot documentaries in distant lands. A fellow explorer inspired them to make the giant ape flick when he captured a Komodo dragon and brought it back, Kong-style, to New York, where it languished and died in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.

The original Kong may appear to be an uberbeast, but he was in reality an 18-inch-tall stop-motion puppet — a fact the studio kept secret to ensure viewers were properly terrified.

Despite special effects that are crude by today’s standards, the original Kong arguably reigns supreme because of his “performance,” which renders him an iconic tragic hero. Animator Willis O’Brien was somehow able to channel his personal angst into the character. His unstable wife — who had attempted suicide twice in the 1920s — suffered from cancer and tuberculosis as well as ongoing mental illness during the production. (Soon after the release of “Kong,” she fatally shot the couple’s two children at her Westwood apartment.)

At this point, the ArcLight conversation turns to movie child murderers, such as Peter Lorre’s creepy character in 1930s “M,” as everyone munches oversized buckets of popcorn.

“Ron finds monsters like Kong comforting because the real-life ones are far worse,” says Freeman, offering some freelance psychotherapy between bites.

But he’s on to something. Ron was shaken, as a child, to learn of the pogroms endured by his Polish and Latvian grandmothers; one had witnessed her mother being pushed down the stairs. And he happened to learn about the Holocaust, at Sinai Temple’s religious school, around the time he first saw “Kong” at age 7.

“I had a bit of a persecution complex to begin with and then I found out that being Jewish would make me even more of a target,” he says. Just as Jewish artists created Superman during the Shoah, Ron wished for a Kong-like superhero to stomp out anti-Semites (as well as the schoolyard bullies).

Kong, like many classic monsters, was “unloved and misunderstood,” Ron adds. His blue eyes tear up as he describes Frankenstein’s monster as “an abused child.”

Frankenstein was the first model kit he built, at age 5; two years later came Kong, who was bigger, more intricate and expensive ($1.49 instead of $.99 at a hobby shop on Pico Boulevard). After completing the figure, he scoured the TV Guide for a screening of the film, which helped spur him to meticulously research monster movies and moviemaking. He’d pull a book from under his covers at bedtime, and read with the help of light filtering into his dark bedroom from the hall. At the same time he was parlaying his allowance into what would become a prodigious collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia.

His therapy was his obsession; his obsession became his outlet; his outlet became his professional art and craft. How Jewish is that?

Ron is happy that the new “Kong” is getting Oscar consideration. And he drinks up the good notices for the DVDs of the 1933 version.

Nothing, though, will change him from the boy who loved to collect monsters.

Freeman, a movie poster and prop dealer, wants to know how Ron got his “Kong” props: spears, drums and shields as well as fellow simians from “Planet of the Apes” (Zira and Cornelius figures stand in our bedroom).

Ron replies that he bought them for bupkis two decades ago from propmasters at Culver Studios, who were about to throw them in the trash. Ron will never part with them, nor the luridly colorful press-book cover of 1933’s Kong rampaging across Manhattan, which dominates our dining room.

Ron is sure he’ll like the Jackson film, but for him, nothing will dethrone the original.

“The hat trick of that movie is that the filmmakers don’t do the clichéd things to make the character beloved to the audience,” he says as the theater lights dim. “He rages, has no regard for humanity, and every character despises him, even Fay Wray. The only people who love the original Kong are the audience members.”

And Ron perhaps most of all.

The 1933 “King Kong Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD and the “Collector’s Edition” are available in stores.

 

The ‘Munich’ Concern Is Us — Not Film


Lyndon Johnson once famously observed, “The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends.” His aphorism is no less apt today in discussing Jews and their treatment of one another. Since early December, there has been a disturbingly venomous campaign directed at Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Munich,” by machers, opinion molders and self-appointed pundits in the Jewish community.

Of course, there is room for different opinions about the complex issues raised in the movie, as there is with virtually anything written or produced about the Middle East. We recognize that there are those who may view the questions the movie poses differently than we do. However, many of these critical voices have chosen to assault, not critique, the movie and its director in a series of vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Spielberg.

Here is a sampling of what has appeared:

  • “…. Munich is about not upsetting terrorists … [it is] filled with fakery … made me sick to my stomach … thanks for blaspheming these murdered athletes’ lives, Spielberg … the memories of these innocent victims of terrorism are desecrated … Abu Spielberg — minister of disinformation.” (Debbie Schlussel, syndicated columnist)
  • “An anti-Zionist epic … not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them.” (Samuel G. Freedman, Jerusalem Post)
  • “By naming his movie ‘Munich,’ he advances the message of appeasement. It’s as if the writers and director were intent upon ignoring the questions of interest in favor of creating a politically correct ‘Mein Kampf’ for our time.” (Kate Wright)
  • “No, let’s overanalyze ‘Munich’ for what it is. It’s dangerous…. Steven you are naively taking on the role of ‘Tokyo Rose,’ and you don’t even realize it…. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth….” (Joel Leyden, Israel News Agency)
  • “Spielberg smears Israel … a falsehood at its core … cinematic manipulation rooted in lies.” (Andrea Levin, Camera)
  • “Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival….” (Andrea Peyser, New York Post)
  • “It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian.” (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post)

What could provoke such venom against the man who brought the world “Schindler’s List” — as important a film on the Shoah as has yet been made? The man who chronicled the visual histories of 50,000 survivors for posterity, and who, through the Righteous Persons Foundation, supports creative Jewish endeavors throughout America.

Were Spielberg another too-left Hollywood type who cavalierly flirted with the tough issues posed by “Munich” with no previous record of involvement or concern about Jewish matters, one might begin to fathom the nastiness of the attacks and the gratuitous personal barbs. But he comes to the movie with a distinguished, if not unparalleled, track record of achievement vis a vis the Jewish community, Israel and its image.

One has to ask: Why such vitriol?

There is a common subtext in these attacks that betrays a worldview that is anachronistic and fatalistic.

The critics seem to share a view that by portraying ambivalence on the part of the Israeli avengers or by allowing the terrorists to briefly enunciate their claim, the movie will encourage audiences to be equivocal in their understanding of terror and its perpetrators. Filmgoers will conclude, “A pox on both your houses, all you violent fanatics!”

It is hard to imagine that in a post- Sept. 11 world most audiences won’t have in their minds and guts a very clear view as to who today’s terrorists are and how they brazenly act in violent, irrational and heartless ways. The massacre at Munich is characterized as the original sin, distinct in its wantonness and brutality.

Any thinking American understands that responding to terror, even if violent and brutal, is qualitatively different than indiscriminately and purposefully targeting innocents. If you don’t get that message from “Munich,” you aren’t watching the film.

Equally mistaken, the critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they will no longer see Israel as a victim. If its avengers commit violence, while betraying some ambivalence about the acts they carry out, the case for Israel, the critics fear, is weakened.

Americans’ support for Israel is not contingent upon being perceived as either infallible or as a victim. Israel is one of the world’s leading military powers; its armed forces have very few equals, certainly none in the region.

Americans respect its achievements and successes. An honest discussion of the issues surrounding terror won’t change the reality of with whom most Americans identify.

Losing the victim label does mean greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny means occasional self-doubt and open, democratic questioning of how one acts. Israel was created precisely to give Jews power over their own fate, to act and not to quiver. Neither the Israelis nor we are powerless victims.

Like other democracies, Israel has its debates in the open. Anyone with an Internet connection can read and marvel at them. Spielberg hasn’t created those debates, he reflects them. The fear of washing our linen in public ought to be gone; Israel is a nation like others.

There is no need for a mentality of fear, for the embrace of victimhood or for the nastiness that permeates much of the anti-“Munich” diatribes. We can ask questions, we can worry about what we do, we can challenge each other in public and we need not fear for Israel’s security or our safety.

What we should fear is becoming like President Johnson’s former friends and devouring each other.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

‘Match’ a Winner; Keep ‘Rumor’ Quiet


“Match Point” marks a notable departure for Woody Allen, and not just because its story is set and was shot in England. Reminiscent in theme of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” though without the humor, there’s a new tone to this film. Enough so that anybody entering the theater not knowing who made this picture would be hard pressed to guess it was Allen.

Aware of his limitations as a professional tennis player, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) abandons the competition circuit to teach the game at a posh British country club, the kind his family would never be invited to join. Perhaps because of his appetite for the finer things in life, Chris has always felt like an outsider in class-conscious England. He has worked hard to eliminate his Irish accent and has educated himself in arts and literature, all in an attempt to disguise his nonaristocratic roots.

A chance friendship with one of his pupils, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), provides Chris entry into the upper echelons he so covets, especially when Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) develops a romantic interest in him. Chris likes her well enough, but his real attention is focused on Nola (Scarlett Johansson), the seductive young American to whom Tom is engaged.

Like Chris, Nola comes from a humble background and aspires to better things. Marrying well is part of that plan. Realizing he has no chance with Nola, Chris marries Chloe and settles into a privileged, if passionless, life.

All remains fine until Chris bumps into Nola a year later. Abandoned by Tom shortly after Chris and Chloe’s wedding, Nola is just as alluring as Chris remembered. The two begin an affair, attraction turning into a kind of obsession for Chris. It’s only when Nola ups the ante, demanding that Chris leave Chloe, that Chris realizes his very comfortable way of life is being threatened.

As in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the protagonist must make a moral choice: abandon his comfortable lifestyle for sexual passion or break up with his mistress. But as with the Anjelica Huston character in Allen’s earlier film, Nola won’t let him just walk away, and Chris has to decide how far he is willing to go to rid himself of the suddenly inconvenient Nola.

“Match Point” stands out as one of Allen’s best films. It reflects issues common to all of Allen’s work — morality, guilt, conscience and God (Jewish concerns, to be sure), but rather than the humor-laden approach of his comedies or the gloomy, Ingmar Bergman-esque path that characterized “Interiors” and “Shadows and Fog,” Allen here adopts a more cynical, astringent tone in examining the moral bankruptcy of one individual, a path that inevitably leads to questions about the existence of God.

“Match Point” also raises a concept not found in most of the director’s work: the role that luck plays in everyday life. Characters make choices and are responsible for their actions, but if their luck holds, they don’t have to face the consequences of those actions — be it the law or a guilty conscience.

If “Match Point” is Woody Allen at his peak, the same cannot be said for “Rumor Has It,” which was directed by Rob Reiner, another filmmaker whose work frequently reflects Jewish sensibilities. An unofficial “sequel” to the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” “Rumor Has It” is set in ritzy Pasadena in 1997 (the year is an important plot point) and focuses on 30-year-old Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston).

Sarah is getting cold feet about her secret engagement to Jeff (Mark Ruffalo). Home for her younger sister’s wedding, she learns from her grandmother, Katharine (Shirley MacLaine), that Sarah’s own mother, who died when Sarah was a child, experienced similar commitment fears and ran off with another man the week before her wedding.

Piecing together other bits of information, Sarah surmises that her family was the inspiration for the novel and movie, “The Graduate” — which would make Katharine Mrs. Robinson. To confirm her suspicions, Sarah abandons her fiance and flies to San Francisco to confront the real Benjamin Braddock. Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) is still sexy after all these years, and Sarah seduces him, only later realizing that he might actually be her biological father.

While moviegoers may be attracted to the marquee names here — Aniston, Costner, MacLaine, Ruffalo and director Reiner — anyone who loved the original Mike Nichols film will be appalled by this “update.”

The humor is either distasteful (Sarah’s realization that she may have slept with her own father) or hopelessly lame (Jeff and Sarah attempt to have sex in the airplane bathroom, followed by a fat man accidentally wedging into the bathroom with Jeff).

The screenplay by T.M. Griffin rests on too many unconvincing plot points. And while Aniston’s forte is comedy, she is done in by the script here. Ruffalo proves impressive in the film’s later scenes — when he finally gets angry enough to leave Sarah — but otherwise is his usual, sweet milquetoast self. Acting honors go to MacLaine, who relishes her acerbic character, but she deserves a better film.

If “Rumor Has It” and Reiner’s previous film, “Alex and Emma,” are any indication, the director appears to have lost his knack for romantic comedy. But given his long list of wonderful movies — “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Sure Thing,” “Stand by Me,” “A Few Good Men” — perhaps this can be chalked off to a momentary decline.

Jean Oppenheimer writes for American Cinematographer magazine, the New York Times Syndicate and the New Times corporation, as well as serving as a film critic on KPCC’s “Film Week.”

Â

Wiesenthal Larger Than Life on Screen


Simon Wiesenthal, whose dogged persistence led to the capture of approximately 1,100 accused Nazi war criminals, was the quintessential larger-than-life figure filmmakers crave. While there were some less-than-distinguished films made about him over the years, they were outweighed by fine documentaries, such as “The Art of Remembrance,” Oscar-nominated features such as “The Boys From Brazil” and several thoughtful telepics.

For Rick Trank, director of Moriah Films, the in-house documentary division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the first film about Simon Wiesenthal “that comes to mind” is “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” a 1989 HBO picture starring Ben Kingsley as the Nazi hunter.

“It was unusual for HBO to have made the investment without a theatrical release,” said Trank, marveling at the production values and “the care that HBO put into it.” He pointed out that Kingsley “spent time getting to know Simon.”

While some admirers have envisioned Wiesenthal as a Jewish John Wayne or James Bond, the diminutive Kingsley, who has played numerous Jewish characters in his film career, including Meyer Lansky in “Bugsy” and Fagin in the current “Oliver Twist,” depicts him as a much more modest man, frail after the camps, dedicated to his work, not given to swagger or seduction.

Up all night in his dark office surrounded by voluminous files, he almost conjures Bartleby the scrivener. We often see high-angle shots of him, as if we are spying on him.

Told in flashback, the film begins with a closeup of sunflowers in a field on a sunny day, and then we see an image of Wiesenthal, wearing the pinstriped uniform of a prisoner. His back is positioned against the back of a bloodied, bandaged Nazi, and the two men, arms tied to each other, struggle to free themselves. The scene is Wiesenthal’s nightmare, so haunted is he by a memory of visiting a bloodied, bandaged Nazi on his deathbed.

Images of the hospital scene re-surface throughout the film, as Wiesenthal confronts whether he made the right decision in not forgiving a man who gunned down Jews trapped inside a building that had been set on fire. Wiesenthal can never satisfactorily answer the moral dilemma of whether or not he was right in walking away without pardoning a dying, tormented shell of a man.

In Wiesenthal’s troubled dream, the shining sunflowers appear almost grotesque, but they are a reminder that there can still be beauty even in the midst of the Holocaust.

Flowers also play a role in “Max and Helen,” a 1990 TNT production starring Martin Landau as Wiesenthal. Based on Wiesenthal’s memoir, it tells the true story of two young Jews, Max, played by Treat Williams, and Helen, played by Alice Krige, who find each other after 20 years of separation following the Holocaust. The first time we see Helen, she gathers a bouquet of lilies, once again yellow flowers, vibrant and alive, but soon she and Max are taken to the camps, where she remains with her frail sister while Max escapes.

According to Trank, who won an Oscar for “The Long Way Home,” a 1997 documentary about Jewish refugees journeying to Israel after the Holocaust, “Max and Helen” represents the one time that Wiesenthal, who dedicated his life to fighting anti-Semitism, chose not to prosecute a war criminal “because it would harm the living more than bring justice to the dead.”

As it turns out, Helen has been raped by the Nazi commandant and has had a child, who is a dead ringer for the father. The disquieting presence of this seeming Nazi doppelganger initially unnerves Max, when he first sees Helen again.

Ultimately, Max realizes the truth of something Wiesenthal has told him, that nations cannot be blamed collectively; each person must be assessed individually. At the end of the film, Max decides to reunite with Helen and embrace his new life with her and his Germanic stepchild, while Wiesenthal backs off from pursuing the former commandant.

Trank said of Landau, “Physically, he didn’t look like Simon,” pointing out that Landau was “6 feet 4 and skinny, while Wiesenthal was 5 feet 10 and portly, but he captured an essence of him.” He plays him as a kind of Dr. Freud, comforting Max as they engage in an all-night therapy session, in which Wiesenthal slowly extracts bits and pieces of the story, which plays out largely through flashbacks.

By contrast, in the 1978 picture, “The Boys From Brazil,” Sir Laurence Olivier, essaying Herr Lieberman, a character based on Wiesenthal, portrayed the Nazi hunter as a “sort of a bumbling guy. That wasn’t Simon. Simon was very focused, had a photographic memory.” Trank noted that Wiesenthal was “doing his work before people had computers. He had a teeny office, no money,” yet successfully traced all those Nazis.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel, “The Boys From Brazil” shows us Wiesenthal as Mr. Magoo, water dripping from the ceiling of his office, his rent unpaid, chaos all around him. Olivier speaks with an authentic German accent, yet it’s so high-pitched and world weary that he almost sounds like a German version of an older Truman Capote, burnt out after all his friends had abandoned him.

Despite his bumbling nature, Olivier’s character does indeed track down Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck. In the fictional film, Mengele has masterminded a scheme, years in the making, to clone and breed a new Hitler. In order to replicate the environmental surroundings of the young Fuhrer, he must murder 94 Nordic men, all aged 65, who have blue-eyed, black-haired sons who are about to turn 14.

After the film’s suspenseful turns, Mengele is finally killed, and Olivier’s Lieberman refuses to give a young Jewish freedom fighter the information that will enable him to find and kill the boys. The Nazi hunter will not allow innocent people of German stock to be killed.

In reality, Mengele was never captured by Wiesenthal or any other Nazi hunter. His remains were found in South America, where he apparently drowned.

Though Wiesenthal was portrayed by Kingsley, Landau and Olivier — all Oscar winners — the performance that may come closest to the actual legend, who did indeed help the Mossad capture SS leader Adolph Eichmann, is that of lesser-known actor Shmuel Rodensky in the 1974 film, “The Odessa File.”

In that picture, Wiesenthal’s character has a small role, appearing in only two scenes, but Rodensky inhabits him in a way that his more famous colleagues did not. First of all, unlike Kingsley, Landau and Olivier, Rodensky physically resembled the bearish Wiesenthal. Both of them bore a girth that recalls Ariel Sharon, a fullness that suggested fortitude and a life well lived.

But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a poise and savvy, the way his smile conveys that he has seen it all, and that nothing will surprise him. This Wiesenthal understands that all men, even an idealist like Jon Voight’s freelance journalist, have motives and allegiances that may not match his own.

That is why he makes a photocopy of a picture of Roschmann, the film’s villain, rather than turning over his lone copy to Voight’s character. He’s too sophisticated to presume that this well-intentioned writer will finish the job.

Wiesenthal served as an adviser to that film, which is set in Germany in 1963, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a metaphor, perhaps a bit too heavy-handed, for the loss of innocence in the world. The plot is propelled into motion with the suicide that same night of a Holocaust survivor who leaves a diary.

That document prompts Voight’s young German writer to hunt down the one-time butcher of Riga, who murdered not only Jews but also Germans who disobeyed him. Along the way, Voight comes into contact with Mossad agents who train him. With their help, he infiltrates the Odessa, a secret society of former SS officers, who are developing a missile-tracking system for the Egyptians, who plan a nuclear attack against Israel.

Like Mengele, in real life, Roschmann was never extradited or killed. Responsible for murdering perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews, Roschmann reportedly died in Paraguay in 1977.

At the end of the film, Wiesenthal pores over the Odessa file provided to him by a German, which calls to mind a line from earlier in the film that “people are not evil; only individuals are evil.” In the film, the line is not spoken by Wiesenthal’s character, but it echoes the famous mantra of the real-life Holocaust survivor.

Kingsley’s ‘Twist’ on a Dickens Thief


Time-honored Jewish stereotypes and caricatures have fallen on hard times in recent movies.

Al Pacino’s complex and heart-wrenching portrayal of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” put a human face on the vengeful moneylender. And in the German film “The Ninth Day,” Judas is exalted for enabling Jesus to fulfill his divine mission.

Now comes Ben Kingsley in a new movie version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” where he endows Fagin, the trainer of young thieves, with some notably redeeming features.

For one thing, in contrast to stage and screen predecessors, the film’s Fagin is not identified or depicted as a Jew, a far cry from the “very old, shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted hair,” created by Dickens nearly 170 years ago.

Director Roman Polanski, last triumphant in the Oscar-winning “The Pianist,” follows the original story, while managing to reshape Fagin through some judicious editing.

Orphan boy Oliver Twist, brought up in a hellish workhouse for the poor, escapes his indentured service with an undertaker and is recruited by the Artful Dodger into a ring of juvenile thieves, exploited and mothered by the said Fagin.

The film has much going for it. On a huge backlot in Prague, Polanski recreated an early-19th-century London that is breathtaking in its crowded alleys, color and misery, and it unfolds like a succession of paintings on canvas by master cinematographer Pawel Edelman.

The milieu is as much the legendary Calcutta of ill repute as the London of old, with its jostling humanity, filth and vice — a place where residents throw their slop out of windows on streets and passersby.

As Fagin, Kingsley’s nose is elongated and his posture stooped, but he has shucked the preposterous proboscis sported by Alec Guinness in David Lean’s 1948 film, as well as Ron Moody’s nasal inflection in the 1968 musical production of “Oliver.”

Instead, Kingsley, or Sir Ben as he is properly addressed, said in a phone interview that he had adopted an east to southeast London dialect, “not exactly cockney.”

At times that dialect defies understanding, but not enough to mar an impressive performance. And he’s never better than in softer moments, as when he nurses the wounded Oliver back to health.

Eleven-year-old Barney Clark in the title role, one of a number of pleasant discoveries in the predominantly British cast, does his character proud. The famous scene in which the starving workhouse boy dares to ask for more food remains a classic.

But the carefully cast minor roles also stick in the mind, such as the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and his shrewish wife (Michael Heath and Gillian Hanna); the pompous beadle, Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift), and the judicial terror, Magistrate Fang (Alun Armstrong).

As for Fagin, could it be that having a Jewish director (Polanski) and a Jewish screenwriter (Ronald Harwood, who also wrote “The Pianist”) tilted the film, perhaps subconsciously, toward a more humanized Fagin? Kingsley himself has a Jewish grandparent on his mother’s side.

Kingsley wouldn’t go that way, although Harwood suggested that Polanski, who survived the Holocaust in the Krakow ghetto and in hiding, identifies with the lost childhood of Oliver, through whose eyes the story unfolds.

Polanski, rather than Steven Spielberg, was first considered as the director of “Schindler’s List,” but declined because the subject was still cut too close to his own childhood experiences, Kingsley related.

Kingsley, for has part, has committed a substantial portion of his career to reminding the world of that great evil.

“I have played Simon Wiesenthal, Anne Frank’s father and Itzhak Stern in ‘Schindler’s List,’ Kingsley said. “These films are part of my consciousness and I am passionately committed to.”

As for his Fagin, Kingsley said he did not set out to counter previous stereotypes of unmitigated Jewish villainy, but rather used two thespian devices to get into the role. One was to evoke the figure of a junk dealer Kingsley knew as a 9-year-old in Manchester, who “had teeth like a horse, green hands from handling metal, a stooped walk, high-pitched voice, and was always wearing at least three layers of overcoats.”

The actor also created his own “backstory” for Fagin’s character, in which the young Fagin was orphaned early in life and raised by his immigrant Russian Jewish grandparents, who spoke no English.

“My Fagin had to fend for himself, lived on the streets and decided to become the most adept street kid he could,” said the Academy Award-winning actor.

From a historical perspective, the Fagin created by Polanski and Kingsley can perhaps be best understood by considering the evolution of Jewish portrayals in films over the past 100 years. In the early silent movie era, the Jew, along with the Irish and blacks, was generally pictured as a buffoon, although he sometimes appears as a nasty moneylender.

In those days, as now, the movies reflected the racial attitudes of American society. We must remember that America evolved into a truly pluralistic society only recently,” said cultural critic Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” (Random House, 1990)

The 1920s featured love and conflict among America’s quaint ethnic minorities, led by “Abie’s Irish Rose” and including such forgotten epics as “Frisco Sally Levy” and “Kosher Kitty Kelly.”

The first real talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” had as its subtext the conflict between being an American and a Jew, a struggle deeply felt but never admitted by the immigrant Jews who founded the movie industry.

The reflections raised in “The Jazz Singer” did not evolve into greater sensitivity, but rather the exclusion of ethnicity, especially Jewish characters, on the screens of the 1930s.

“For instance, the great Jewish actor Paul Muni could play Zola, Juarez, Pasteur and a Chinese farmer, but never a Jew,” said Gabler in a phone interview.

Jews reappeared tentatively in World War II features, when the melting pot bubbled with patriotism. In film after film, the grizzled sergeant yelled out, “All right, Williams, Johansson, Kowalski, Marconi, Goldberg and Sanchez — hit the beach.”

The first post-war film to confront American anti-Semitism at some depth was “Gentleman’s Agreement,” produced in 1948 by Darryl Zanuck, who was, not so incidentally, the only non-Jew among the major Hollywood moguls of the day.

The breakthrough for Jewish characters (and out-of-the-closet Jewish actors) came in the 1950s through ’70s, riding on three popular waves: the rise of the ‘in’ Jewish novelists — including the Mailer, Roth, Uris, Malamud and Simon — whose best-sellers drew on the author’s happy or miserable childhood; the creation of Israel, which gave Hollywood an updated frontiersman vs. Indians theme, and, most importantly, the rise of the black, Latino and Jewish identity movements, which made ethnic differences not only respectable but saleable.

Since then, the “Jewish” and Holocaust film has become a genre almost unto itself, confident (or, say the critics, self-hating) enough to portray its Jewish characters, warts and all.

By the 1990s, a Hollywood observer could say, tongue in cheek, that “In the old days, all Jews had to be Americans. Now all Americans have to be Jews.” To underline this thesis, Gabler cited the character of George Constanza of “Seinfeld” fame.

“George is supposed to be Greek, but he is obviously Jewish,” Gabler said.

“Now Jewish ethnicity is not only celebrated but is the standard,” he added, and barring a major upheaval, he sees little foreseeable change.

“The movies sometime precede, but generally reflect, society’s standards,” he said. “Such standards change at a geological pace and, despite the current upswing in conservatism and nativism, I don’t think there will be any turning back of the clock.”

“Oliver Twist” opens Sept. 23 in Los Angeles.

 

Romantic Comedy Loser Finds Love


During a recent interview, Michael Showalter at times seemed as socially uncomfortable as the character he plays in his frothy new comedy, “The Baxter,” an ode to the romantically challenged.

Although casually dressed in jeans and a blue knitted shirt, he spoke formally and sat rigidly in his chair in the lobby of Le Meridien hotel. He squeezed the black straw that came with his iced coffee, pulverizing it into a lump. He rubbed his temples and placed a hand on his chest, sighing deeply.

“If I’m coming across awkwardly,” he said, “I guess my ‘Baxterness’ is coming out.”

The 35-year-old single Jewish actor-writer-director invented the word, “Baxter,” to refer to the character who never gets the girl in romantic comedies. He is the guy who has few social graces, two left feet, and not a clue of how to deliver the witty repartee that comes so effortlessly to, say, Cary Grant.

Think John Howard’s character in “The Philadelphia Story,” Woody Allen in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”

Now comes “The Baxter’s” Elliot Sherman, a nice but uptight accountant with hay fever and a penchant for reading the dictionary, page by page. As the film begins, he suffers the quintessential Baxter indignity: getting dumped at the altar by his beautiful wife not-to-be (Elizabeth Banks). The comedy flashes back to reveal Sherman’s disastrous prior relationships, and how he bumbles through assorted humiliations to win the right girl, a winsome female Baxter (Michelle Williams).

A fan of romantic comedies, Showalter conceived the movie when he developed an affection for the genre’s odd-man-out as a young man.

“Typically, everything comes easily to the male romantic lead, but for the Baxter it’s not so easy to fit in, to get along with groups of people, to exude charm and confidence,” he said. “It’s a struggle I identify with.”

Director David Wain, who co-wrote 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer” with Showalter, said “The Baxter” tweaks the romantic comedy genre.

“It focuses on the ‘wrong’ guy; gives that guy his own stage, so that he ultimately becomes the leading man,” said Wain, who has a small part in the movie.

While Showalter relates to the fictional Sherman, he insists the character is not autobiographical. Sure, he could be withdrawn at his Princeton, N.J. high school, but he also took the girl of his choice to the prom. He made out at his predominantly Jewish summer camp.

His long-ago camp flame, he told The New York Times, “was way more physically mature than I was. She was like twice my height.”

Back home, his Jewish mother, a Princeton University English professor, promoted feminist values, challenged traditional male role models and urged her son to question social norms. (Showalter’s father, a Rutger’s University French professor, is Episcopalian.)

One of young Michael’s first cinematic loves (that’s “love” in the admiration sense) was Woody Allen, because, “He was neurotic and insecure and went against what we think of as our typical American masculine hero,” he said. Showalter identified more with Allen than the John Wayne type as he went off to New York University, where he and Wain helped found a comedy troupe. The group eventually morphed into MTV’s sketch comedy show “The State” and Comedy Central’s 2005 series “Stella.”

In the “Meatballs”-esque teen comedy spoof “Wet Hot American Summer,” based on the co-authors’ Jewish camp experiences, Showalter played a Baxter named Coop — a counselor smitten by an indifferent brunette.

He viewed that kind of character from a different perspective while watching Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle” some years ago.

“I started to wonder, ‘What would happen if instead of watching Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks fall in love, we stayed with Bill Pullman’s character, the man Meg Ryan leaves behind?'” he said. “I wanted to know, ‘How did everything work out for him? Did he get love, too?'”

The result was “The Baxter,” a name Showalter chose because “it sounds stiff and formal yet regal.” He added that Sherman is a more WASPy kind of Baxter, stuck in traditional social norms and how he’s supposed to act. Whereas a Jewish Baxter, said Showalter, would be “more openly self-deprecating, self-aware, and intellectually superior, which in a way makes him more heroic.”

Neither type of Baxter is unworthy of affection, however. The Hollywood Reporter may have dubbed his movie “an aggressive loser comedy,” but Showalter emphatically disagrees.

“Elliot is not a loser,” he said, as he accidentally banged the table so hard that water spilled. “He’s just not your typical hero.”

“The Baxter” opens today in Los Angeles.

 

The Tao of Woody


 

First came God. Then came Godot. Then came Woody Allen. Actually, none of them ever showed up — not in the play “Waiting for Godot” or the newly acclaimed short feature film parodying it, “Waiting for Woody Allen.” In the 16-minute feature, two Chasidim — Mendel and Yossel — sit in Central Park waiting for the venerable filmmaker to show up and give their lives meaning. In the meantime, against this autumn backdrop of one day, they argue in their Yiddish-tinged accents about whether they should give up religion or they should wait for Woody, nu?

While “The Great One” might never make an appearance in this droll existentialist film, recent events may prove that there is a God: “Waiting for Woody Allen,” garnered its director, Michael Rainin, a $1-million budget to direct a film.

Beginning this year, the L.A. International Short Film Festival, which took place Sept. 7-13, chose four directors out of the 500 filmmakers for its Discovering New Artists Award. The winner, Rainin, will direct a feature-length film with talent attached.

“It’s my dream come true,” the 29-year-old director said about his first film. Rainin decided to make a short film about a year and a half ago, when he moved to Los Angeles, following a six-year stint in New York as a writer and a producer.

“Instead of spending $40,000 to go to film school, I decided to spend the money to make a film,” he said.

He scoured Craig’s List for a script (hey, those actually get made!) and was struck by Jonathan Brown and Daniel Wechler’s “Waiting for Woody Allen.”

“I grew up with the Jewish humor of my grandfather and father my whole life,” Rainin said of his father’s Russian Jewish family. “And he turned me on to Woody Allen’s film at a young age.”

Now, the production designer’s prize is to direct to direct “Learning to Fly,” a romantic comedy which has not yet been cast but is set to start filming in March. And then what?

“I want to make films,” Rainin said. “I want to make interesting and profound films for the rest of my life — hopefully this is just the beginning.”

From Woody’s lips to God’s ears.

For more information, visit www.waitingforwoodyallen.com.

Latkes Lose Again


by Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

The Chanukah stamp has a new look for the first time since the United States and Israel jointly issued the stamp in 1996. The U.S. Postal Service dedicated the new design Oct. 15 in New York. It will be available in post offices starting Saturday, Oct. 16.

The stamp, part of a holiday series, has for years featured a menorah of brightly colored candles. The new design displays a dreidel from Jerusalem in front of letters spelling “Hanukkah.”

Ethel Kessler, the stamp art director, said using a dreidel was not her first choice.

“A dreidel is playful and fun, but I was looking for something more serious,” she said. She visited the Jewish Museum of New York and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in search of ideas.

Kessler saw a menorah at the Skirball that had candleholders in the shape of the Statue of Liberty. She liked the symbol, which she thought represented religious freedom. But the intricate menorah was not right for the small stamp.

Kessler considered depicting an ancient menorah to show how long Jews have been celebrating the holiday. But she wondered whether the meaning would come across.

Then, the art director had the idea to show an old manuscript. But that would work for Purim, not Chanukah, she decided.

“I kept coming back to the joy of the holiday,” Kessler said. It was the dreidel that best captured the playful spirit of the celebration.

The winning dreidel belongs to a rabbi’s collection. It has a “quality of craft that’s interesting,” she said.

Kessler also liked that it depicts Jerusalem.

She added text behind the image to make the stamp “contemporary and understandable to a wide audience.”

Sixty million copies have been printed, according to Frances Frazier, a Postal Service official involved in publicizing the stamp.

For more information, visit www.usps.gov.

‘Almost’ a Beginning in Paris


Most boy-meets-girl movies end when the happy pair stands under the chuppah. After all, it’s not terribly dramatic what happens when they pick up the routine of daily married life.

It’s a bit like that with Holocaust films: The protagonists are either killed or liberated, but if they survive, we do not see how they get back to "normalcy" and cope anew with everyday life.

The modest, low-key French import "Almost Peaceful" ("Un Monde Presque Paisible") remedies this omission.

The year is 1946 and the setting is the old Jewish quarter of Paris, where Monsieur Albert and his wife Lea have re-established their pre-war ladies tailor shop.

They employ seven men and women, all scarred in one way or another by the war years and the Holocaust, but almost content with their steady jobs and harmonious workplace.

At first, the talk about customers and problems with the kids is quite normal, laced with a few Yiddish expressions. Only occasionally is there an almost inadvertent allusion to past experiences.

Leon, who is studying to become an actor, remembers that on the day Paris was liberated, he heard among the jubilation a few French patriots yelling, "Kill the Jews."

"The fascists are still here," Leon remarks, and young Joseph, the official shlimazel of the shop, confirms the observation when he goes to the police for a residence permit. He recognizes the inspector, as imperious as ever, as the same man who arrested and deported his parents.

The most deeply wounded worker is Charles (superbly portrayed by veteran actor Dennis Podalydes), who is still hoping for the return of his wife and children from concentration camps.

When a woman declares her love for him, Charles can only say, "Love is dead. It can no longer be spoken or experienced."

Director Michel Deville concludes the film with a picnic for all of Albert’s employees and their spouses and children, complete with sack races, laughter and much feasting.

The scene is as rustic and carefree as a Monet painting, but on the side sits a little boy obsessively playing with a vest pocket watch. Explains a guest, "That’s the watch his father left him when he was deported."

"Almost Peaceful" opens Oct. 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 274-6869.

Ode to a Great ‘Uncle’


Pearl Gluck sought her Chasidic forbears in “Divan”; Nathaniel Kahn pursued his estranged father in “My Architect,” and now Lindsay Crystal unearths family stories in “My Uncle Berns,” a quirky portrait of her wildly eccentric great-uncle.

For the 26-year-old director — and daughter of Billy Crystal — the subject isn’t surprising.

“Family is everything to us,” she said recently at her father’s Beverly Hills office.

Seated next to the computer where she finished editing “Berns,” she said she practically grew up on dad’s sets and played his daughter in both “City Slickers” films. She noted the passion with which he reunited with Russian relatives for his TV special, “Midnight Train to Moscow,” and commissioned 2003’s Museum of Tolerance exhibit, “Finding Our Family, Finding Ourselves.”

His hunger for family comes, in part, because when he was 15, his father, Jack, died of a heart attack.

“It was a subject we didn’t really talk about, because it was so painful,” his daughter said.

Then, in 2001, his mother died and Uncle Berns had to be evacuated from a nursing home two blocks from Ground Zero.

“I suddenly realized that Berns was almost the only relative left from that generation, and if I didn’t capture his stories, they would be gone,” Lindsay Crystal said.

So the NYU film school graduate focused her digital camera on Berns, an impish artist and jokester who wore outlandish masks to Thanksgiving celebrations, among other stunts.

“My initial intent was just to create a family document,” she said. But then she learned of the death of his sister, in his arms, when he was 14; his horrific experiences aboard a torpedoed World War II transport ship; the encounter with Gen. Eisenhower that turned him into an artist, and how he used laughter to heal the family after Jack Crystal’s death.

“He was the uncle you could play with,” as Billy Crystal says in the film. “He was hats, coats, costumes, masks, wigs. I always felt he was incredibly responsible for me becoming a performer.”

Lindsay Crystal credits her father, executive producer of “Berns,” for helping to mentor her directorial debut, which he calls “a great love story between a young woman and her 88-year-old uncle.”

It’s also Lindsay’s valentine to her father: “It’s a way for me to honor our family,” she said.

The film airs Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. on HBO. Additional airtimes include: Aug.8 at 11 a.m.; Aug. 13 at 11:30 a.m.; Aug. 17at 2:30 p.m.; and Aug 21 at 8a.m.

The Goriest Story Ever Told


USC film student Jennifer Tufaro left Wednesday’s midnight screening of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” emotionally drained, her eyes red from tears. She stood in the lobby along with hundreds of the estimated 1,200 people who had just watched the movie on three screens at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome and adjacent Arclight Cinema.

“The whole movie I was, like, shaking,” said Tufaro, 20. “I’m still disturbed by it. I’m not very religious right now, but as a child growing up I was, so I learned all the stories. And seeing it was a whole different experience.”

Tufaro’s response was typical of many people catching the pre-dawn “Passion” debut. Asked if she felt that the massively hyped film engaged in anti-Semitic portrayals, as some Jewish leaders have charged, the lapsed Catholic said, “I have a lot of Jewish friends that didn’t want to come see it tonight for that reason. When I was watching it, I didn’t think of it that way.”

It was a somber crowd of seemingly stunned “Passion” patrons that left the huge Cinerama Dome, with many — in typical Los Angeles theater protocol — staying until the last credit rolled. The movie’s end was greeted with applause, this after the film’s two hours of continual, violent images centered on the crucifixion of Jesus. The Cinerama audience sat in silence as blood, whips and torn human flesh filled the massive screen. Ushers standing beside the curtained doors were as transfixed as the patrons.

“The most violent film I’ve ever seen,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee, who joined priests and rabbis at a special Monday night “Passion” screening at the UA Cinemas in Marina del rey.

Greenebaum said the Jewish leaders depicted in the “Passion” were wrongly depicted as, “overdressed, overfed and overly cruel. And there really is no context in the film for Jesus being such a threat to the status quo.”

But, Greenebaum also said, “I didn’t feel that it was strongly anti-Semitic. Mr. Gibson could have made choices that would have made it appear as less anti-Jewish or choices that could have made it much worse. I think Gibson’s goal was to depict a physical suffering which Christians understand as the necessary ‘passion’ that leads to resurrection and potential salvation for humanity.”

As for the months of debate over the anti-Semitic issue, Greenebaum said after viewing the movie that the filmmaker and his detractors unintentionally created a strange, almost mutually beneficial alliance by constantly talking about the film.

“I think that the controversy has, in part, been manufactured by an odd sort of complicity on the part of certain Jewish organizational leaders and Mr. Gibson himself,” he said.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said he found “The Passion” to be, “a shockingly violent movie. I was kind of numbed by the violence. Overall, I didn’t see overt anti-Semitism, but I certainly saw instances that troubled me that, in the wrong hands, in the wrong spin, could be troublesome. I came out of the movie more determined than ever to spend more time and energy on Christian-Jewish relations.

“The first part of the movie with the high priests and the Jewish mob was most troubling,” Diamond said. “Jews and Christians are not going to see this movie in the same light; I don’t expect them to.”

The weekend before “Passion’s” opening, more than 30,000 Catholic priests, nuns, bishops, teenagers, schoolteachers and lay people gathered for the Religious Education Congress, the Los Angeles archdiocese’s annual three-day gathering at the Anaheim Convention Center. Talk of “The Passion” and anti-Semitism did not dominate the event; however, there were two related seminars on Sunday afternoon, in the eighth and final of the convention’s seminar blocks.

Several Hispanic Catholic women from Stockton expressed views on Jesus’ death common among “Passion” fans. As for who’s to blame for his death, one woman said, “It was done by the Jews,” and then added, “It’s not like we have hatred toward Jewish people. To walk away [from seeing ‘The Passion’] with hate for somebody, that’s not Jesus.”

The Rev. Michael Crosby, a Milwaukee-based author and congress speaker, said Roman Catholic Church leaders have not leveraged “Passion” back-and-forth to make Christians better understand the Bible.

“In the obsession of the institutional Catholic church not to be considered anti-Semitic, it is bending over backward not to use it as a teachable moment,” Crosby told The Journal. “The Scriptures aren’t anti-Semitic. The early Christians, when they had written those Scriptures, had just separated from [Jews] and as a result there were hard feelings and there were hurt feelings. And those get exhibited in the Scriptures, and nobody is showing how we really got to interpret the Scriptures today; they’re taking it as a literal thing, rather the understanding the historical division between communities, between ‘thems’ and ‘uses.’ Nobody’s showing how those Scriptures came out of a community at odds with another group.”

Rabbis involved with interfaith issues praised L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony for his statement on Christian-Jewish relations in the Feb. 20 edition of the archdiocese’s newspaper, The Tidings, discussing next year’s 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 document, “Nostra Aetate” (Latin for “In Our Time”), on Catholic relations with non-Christians.

“These guidelines provide an excellent means of educating all of us as we once again anticipate the season of Christ’s passion and death. They denounce an accusation that has provoked contempt for Judaism and persecutions of the Jewish people for centuries,” Mahony wrote in the article, which did not comment specifically on “The Passion” but is viewed by some rabbis as the archdiocese’s indirect way of addressing the film’s issues.

The archdiocese, as of Feb. 25, had made no official “Passion” comment. A Catholic church official said that as of Feb. 22, Mahony had not seen “The Passion,” and thus made no reference to it, or even to movies or anti-Semitism, during his sermon to more than 7,000 Catholics at the Anaheim convention’s closing Sunday Mass.

Bishop Malcolm McMahon, leader of Catholics in England’s Nottingham diocese, said that Christians need to use “Passion” chatter to move beyond history. “We can’t change what’s what,” McMahon said.

“Other people were also complicit in Jesus’ death. So it’s a wider circle than just anti-Semitism. We wouldn’t be Christians if it weren’t for Judaism. We share some of the same scriptures and we share quite a lot of the same background. And that is always a good basis to start — what we have in common.”

Wednesday’s Cinerama Dome screening of the film saw no protesters outside the Hollywood theater. Inside, it unfolded on-screen after trailers for Paramount Pictures’ upcoming, sunny girls-meets-prince movie, “The Prince & Me,” and Universal Pictures’ family movie, “Two Brothers,” about two lost baby tigers. Food and beverage sales were brisk as midnight patrons went into the relentlessly violent, gory film. The sound of popcorn being chewed contrasted with the blaring screen sounds of chains and whips pummeling Jesus’ body.

When the post-“Passion” crowd thinned out, a Reform Jewish woman and an evangelical Christian actress found themselves politely, but firmly, arguing the movie’s merits.

Daryl Pine, a 50ish accountant, worships at the Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, while actress Laura Pinner, 34, came to the “Passion,” with three other women from the Christian nondenominational In His Presence church in Woodland Hills. Both San Fernando Valley women were raised as Methodists. Pine converted to Judaism, and Pinner was drawn deeper into her Christian faith.

Their conversation was a microcosm of debate between Jews concerned about anti-Semitic images and evangelical Christians profoundly moved by “Passion.” Their talk started on the defensive, as Pine said of Pontius Pilate, “He had total control over the Jews.”

“Oh, he did?” Pinner said, flashing a skeptical frown. “Where did you go to seminary?”

“I’ve heard it said over and over by rabbis,” Pine said.

“Jesus,” Pine said to Pinner, “lived a Jew. He died a Jew.”

“Exactly,” Pinner said. “My favorite people in the whole wide world are Jews.”

“And [the apostle] Paul created a religion,” Pine said in reply.

As their debate ensued, Pinner said to Pine, “We just love you so much. I’m gonna pray for you right now.”

“I would appreciate that,” Pine said.

“That you receive that love that he [Jesus] has for you,” Pinner said.

“OK, all right,” Pine said.

“That’s all it is,” Pinner said. “It’s a story about love.”

“Did you notice how yellow the Jews’ teeth were?” Pine said. “They all had yellow craggy teeth. It was very creepy. Jesus didn’t have yellow, craggy teeth.”

“It’s probably because they didn’t have dentists,” Pinner said. “The bottom line, it’s just about love; it’s not about blame.”

“It’s about torture,” Pine said.

“If that’s all you see, just see with your natural eyes,” Pinner said. “We see with our spiritual eyes. It’s so hard to comprehend it.”

“There were many messiahs,” Pine said. “We’ve had about 50.”

The film is in theaters now.

Director, Neighbors Rescue ‘Collector’


In 1998, Alice Elliott received a disturbing call from Larry Selman, the remarkable man with developmental disabilities she was profiling in her Oscar-nominated short documentary, "The Collector of Bedford Street."

Selman had lived near the poverty level in a tiny apartment across the street from Elliott’s Greenwich Village row house. Yet over the years, he had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for others in need, trundling down Bedford street with his dog, Happy, while soliciting for causes such as muscular dystrophy.

"I’m a collector," he’d say, looking jaunty in his red suspenders.

"He’d talk about doing mitzvahs," Elliot told the Journal. "There was a tradition of service in his family that was part of their Jewish value system."

But as the director began shooting her film in 1996, she realized Selman’s situation was dire. His only caretaker, his uncle, Murray Schaul, 81, was growing more frail and forgetful. And Selman had already clashed with his co-op board over another kind of collecting: "I took the homeless people in because I was lonely," he says in the film.

Then came the distraught message he left on Elliot’s answering machine in 1998. Selman — who suffered from depression — suggested he was tired of being a burden, so he was going off to live under the Coney Island boardwalk. An alarmed Elliot immediately phoned her neighbors for help.

Her nuanced, sensitively wrought film captures how the neighbors banded together to help Selman, raising approximately $30,000 to establish a community trust administered by United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York. An advocate assigned by the trust promptly secured him in-home care and suggested a singles group where he met his developmentally disabled girlfriend, Ellie.

Elliott says her film was partly inspired by Ira Wohl’s 1980 Oscar-winner "Best Boy," another intimate portrait of a developmentally disabled man and his Jewish family in crisis.

"’The Collector of Bedford Street’ is the work of a mature person and filmmaker," Wohl told the Journal. "It’s a nonvoyeuristic look at an empathetic main character and a community coming together to protect him. It’s very pertinent at a time when there’s so little of that going on. It’s an example of the filmmaker as crusader."

Selman, now 61, has been a crusader in his own way since childhood. He learned about tzedakah while growing up in a Reform Jewish home in Brooklyn, when he accompanied his developmentally disabled father to solicit funds for charities such as the Police Athletic League. He was still living with his parents in the late 1960s when he returned home one day to find his father, dead, from complications of diabetes. Four months later, his mother died of a heart attack.

On his own for the first time in his life, Selman moved to Coney Island, but was soon traumatized by the neighbors who robbed him and tricked him into giving up his dog.

"I had a nervous breakdown because I was alone," he said.

He wound up in a mental institution, where he languished for months until his Uncle Murray witnessed the Dickensian conditions and signed him out. Around 1971, Schaul moved Selman into his new apartment in Greenwich Village, where the disabled man quickly befriended everyone and became known as the "Mayor of Bedford Street."

Elliot had equally protective feelings about Selman when she began shooting her 34-minute documentary in 1996.

"Sometimes I even questioned my ability to make the film," she said. "I wondered if I was tough enough, if I’d gone after the hard questions, to get Larry to say the things that needed to be said, however dark or unappealing. There were moments when I was crying while holding the camera."

In the film, a tearful Selman places a rock on his father’s tombstone — a Jewish custom — while a rabbi chants "El Malei Rachamim." When the ailing Happy is put to sleep, he visits his synagogue and lights a yartzeit candle.

Since the establishment of the trust and "Collector’s" 2003 Oscar nomination, Selman feels less alone. He was thrilled to accompany Elliot to the Academy Awards ceremony in March. While the movie didn’t win the Oscar, the attention has boosted his self-esteem.

"Now Larry knows that people all over the world will see the film and they’ll value him," she says.

"The Collector of Bedford Street" airs May 14 and 27 on Cinemax and opens May 24 as part of Laemmle Theatres’ "Bagels and Docs: New Jewish Documentaries" series, (310) 478-1041.

Digging For Jews


When director Andrew Davis first read Louis Sachar’s acclaimed children’s novel, "Holes," about a boy sent to a hellish Texas juvenile delinquent camp, he said he "detected a Jewish family." The story of the fictional Stanley "Caveman" Yelnats IV flashes back three generations to reveal how his forebears struggled to come to America, "which reflects the Jewish immigration experience," Davis ("The Fugitive") said.

No wonder his adaptation of the best seller is a Texas fable that feels oddly familiar. He cast Jewish actors Henry Winkler and Nathan Davis (Andrew’s dad) to play Stanley’s father and grandfather, whose favorite endearment is "boychick." Shia LeBeouf ("Evens Stevens"), who portrays Stanley, is a member of the tribe, and actor Khleo Thomas (Yelnats’ mysterious African American friend Hector Zero) has a Moroccan Jewish mother and an African American father, Davis said. After conversations on the set, Thomas decided to become a bar mitzvah through LeBeouf’s rabbi, according to Davis.

While Jewish author Sachar didn’t grant his characters any specific ethnicity, he said they embody the talmudic value of "making the world a better place."

Davis, 56, said he grew up with family lore that reminds him of the Yelnatses. "My great aunt had seven sisters, one of whom was dating a Russian officer who saved them from a pogrom," he said by way of example.

By the time he was growing up in Chicago, his parents were committed to progressive Jewish values, refusing to flee their South Side street when it became predominantly African American. Davis, in turn, helped register black voters in Alabama and made his first movie about his brother, the last white musician in the old neighborhood. He went on to direct films such as "The Fugitive," which involved a drug conspiracy, and "Collateral Damage," about terrorism in Columbia.

While observers say "Holes" represents a departure for the director, best known for action thrillers, he points out that the film, "like the ‘Fugitive,’ revolves around a person falsely accused of a crime."

Then there are the Jewish values. "’Holes’ teaches kids that by learning about their family’s struggle, they can empathize with others who are struggling in America," he said.

The film opens April 18 in Los Angeles.

Romancing Religion in the City of Lights


In French director Pascale Bailly’s latest film, “God Is Great, and I’m Not” (“Dieu Est Grand, Je Suis Toute Petite”), Michèle, a misguided 20-year-old, hates her family, has had an abortion and just dumped her loser boyfriend. In her despair, she asks God for help and turns to Buddhism. She braids her hair, wears Eastern-inspired clothes and attempts to meditate — all to no avail.

Salvation comes — well, almost — in the shape of a Jew. (And no, it’s not Jesus.)

Parisian Michèle (played by “Amélie” ingenue Audrey Tatou) meets François (Edouard Baer), a neurotic 32-year-old veterinarian, who, despite his complicated Jewish identity and Holocaust survivor parents, denies that he has any religion at all. The two soon fall in love and, naturally, Michèle discovers that Judaism may be her raison d’ être. She begins a serious study of the religion, to her lover’s profound indifference.

Bailly was inspired to write the film “by three different elements,” she said, speaking through an interpreter at the Empire Pictures office on the 78th floor of the Empire State Building. “The first element was autobiographical. The second, I wanted to do something about children’s relationships with their parents, the problems you can have when you’re young, trying to liberate yourself from your parents. The third: I’m fascinated by impossible love stories.”

“God Is Great,” the third film for Bailly, who is not Jewish, hints at a phenomenon of philo-Semitism and fascination with things Jewish on a continent in which public displays of Jewish identity are rare. Despite an increase in anti-Semitic incidents and pervasive anti-Israel sentiment, Jewish studies programs at European universities are flourishing. As Ruth Ellen Gruber points out in her new book, “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe” (University of California Press, 2002), more than 1,000 books on Jewish topics are published in German each year. Even supermodel Claudia Schiffer has jumped on board, lobbying for a Holocaust memorial in central Berlin.

“There is always an element” of Judaism in Bailly’s life, said the filmmaker. “I am fascinated by difference and differences in religion; my adopted daughter is of African descent.”

According to Bailly, 42, a relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew is an example of an impossible love story. “Some of her story is my story,” Bailly says of Michèle, whose character was inspired in part by the relationship the director had as a 20-year-old with an older Jewish man.

The romance, which she describes as “tragic,” profoundly affects her, 22 years later. “That meeting was very dramatic for me,” Bailly said. “In the ’80s, my generation had no understanding of the Shoah, the suffering of children of survivors. For me it was like planet Mars. I thought he was someone complicated, with problems, but afterward, I understood he was the son of survivors. I understood the process involved. I understood his rejection of myself. It changed my life, really.”

“Judaism for me was always a big enigma,” Bailly said. “Perhaps I made this film not to relive my story, but to understand it.”

Bailly’s treatment of the subject in the film, however, is extremely lighthearted and irreverent. Even though the film touches on weighty subjects such as identity, religion and the burden of the Holocaust, Bailly is interested in these differences to the extent that they elicit laughs: for example, after lovemaking, the happy couple lies in bed, François reading a veterinary trade magazine, Michèle reading about Jewish womanhood.

It’s the kind of film about Judaism that only an outsider could make — and yet, much of its humor plays like an inside joke for the Jewish community. Take the couple’s celebration of Yom Kippur. Michèle, determined to prove her commitment to Judaism, insists that the couple fast; François, on the other hand, knit yarmulke on his head, helps himself to chicken from the refrigerator. Naturally, a lovers’ quarrel ensues.

Bailly said she was surprised at the quick reactions elicited from the audience when the film premiered in March at a “Rendezvous With French Cinema” event at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

“Here, there’s a real understanding,” she said. “In France it depends who sees it. Some people get it; some people don’t. Here, people get it.”

“Getting it” in New York may have something to do with, as comedian Lenny Bruce once observed, “If you live in New York, even if you’re Catholic, you’re Jewish.” It may also have to do with the prevalence of intermarriage as a fact of American Jewish life, as well as a self-confidence within American society that makes it easier for Jews to poke fun at their neuroses.

Of course another factor may be Tatou — with her porcelain skin, doe eyes, button nose and zero body fat — who shot to stardom after “Amélie” became the highest-grossing French film in this country last year. “I directed [‘God Is Great’] with an unknown actor,” Bailly said. By the film’s French release last year, however, “I immediately had a huge star.”

“I wanted someone who was young and pretty, but with a lot of imagination and fantasy; someone who could be funny and dramatic at the same time.” Tatou, Bailly said, “was the only one who could play the role.”

Baer, a well-known TV comic who plays François, “was a real discovery for everyone. He wasn’t known as an actor,” Bailly said. “I think he accepted the role because the issues touched him. His father was quite old; he was Jewish and suffered a lot.”

In the film, despite Michèle’s attempt at conversion, the increasingly quarrelsome couple calls it quits. Although it is never explicit, Michèle suspects it is because she was not born a Jew. “If [François’] parents were different, he would marry her,” Bailly said. “But they’re who they are. Faced with his father’s illness, Michèle doesn’t exist anymore. She is rejected.”

In the end, Michèle and François meet again at a friend’s wedding, but Bailly is keeping mum about whether the two lovers reunite. “To be continued,” the last scene says, although Bailly has no intention of making a sequel. “That’s for each person to invent their own ending,” she said.

Bailly turned to look me in the eye. “What do you think will happen?” she asked. But before hearing a response she said, “Well, you are Jewish, so you probably think they won’t get back together.”

“Ah, but I am an American Jew,”I replied. “I believe in happy endings.”

“God Is Great, and I’m Not” opens Jan. 31 at the Laemmle Theatres. For more information, call (310) 478-1041.

Living Part Is Key for Brody


On a bitterly cold day in February 2001, actor Adrien Brody struggled to scramble over a wall into a nightmarish moonscape of a destroyed city.

It was the first day of production of Roman Polanski’s powerful Holocaust drama, "The Pianist," based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s 1946 memoir, but 30-year-old Brody wasn’t acting.

Previously slender at 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, he’d dieted to 130 by subsisting for weeks on scraps of eggs, chicken and fish. By the time he arrived on the set in an abandoned Soviet army barracks dynamited into rubble, he felt he was becoming the Jewish virtuoso who eluded the Nazis by hiding in and around the Warsaw ghetto. When Polanski — himself a Polish Holocaust survivor — ordered him to scale a wall for a complex crane shot, Brody could hardly clamber over. "My muscles had wasted away," he said softly, looking like the dapper, pre-war Szpilman in an elegant tweed suit and gray silk tie.

The radical weight loss was just one example of the lengths to which he went to shoot "The Pianist," which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes International Film Festival and is generating Oscar buzz for Brody.

To empathize with a character who loses everything, the actor also let go of his Manhattan apartment, sold his car, got rid of his cell phone, put his belongings into storage and didn’t see friends for six months. "My intention was to feel a longing for these things and not to have a safe place to call home," he said, an earnest expression on his angular face.

The drastic measures worked. The success of "The Pianist" hinges largely on Brody’s haunting portrayal of Szpilman from a dapper, collected musician to a disheveled skeleton cowering alone in bombed-out ruins.

"It was mesmerizing to see the little gestures he would make as his character was becoming hungrier and lonelier," said "Pianist" co-producer Gene Gutowski, a Polish Holocaust survivor who produced some of Polanski’s earliest films. "I remember his mouth moving at one point as if he were chewing on his own tongue. During another sequence, he was so compelling that the entire crew was crying."

His performance is the centerpiece of a drama that stands out amid the Holocaust-themed fare that has emerged since the 1993 hit "Schindler’s List" — everything from Tim Blake Nelson’s grittily realistic independent film, "The Grey Zone" (2002) to the schmaltzy NBC Warsaw Ghetto miniseries, "Uprising." What sets "The Pianist" apart is its lushly gorgeous depiction of shockingly direct, brutal violence and its dispassionate point of view, which matches Szpilman’s memoir. "Roman was always telling me he wanted less," Brody recalled of the shoot. "He wanted me to refrain from any sentimentality."&’9;

While sipping green tea on a recent evening at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City, the actor said he related to the subject matter partly because of the Polish-Jewish heritage of his father, Elliot, a retired public school teacher ("Brody" comes from the name of his ancestral town). His Hungarian-Catholic mother, photojournalist Sylvia Plachy, also had Jewish relatives who suffered in the Holocaust.

Plachy, who fled the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 at age 13, made her only child the subject of many of her photographs during his youth in Queens, N.Y. The teenage Brody felt comfortable enough in front of the camera to pursue a film career, landing a starring role in the 1988 PBS pioneer drama, "Home at Last." He went on to play a Depression-era delinquent in Steven Soderberg’s "King of the Hill," a mohawked punk rocker in Spike Lee’s "Summer of Sam" and a terrified soldier in Terrence Malick’s "The Thin Red Line" — although he was devastated when his role was all but cut out of that film. To portray a naive Jewish teenager in Barry Levinson’s 1950s drama, "Liberty Heights," he stopped listening to modern music and watching television.

While Brody had worked with a half-dozen prominent directors by 2000, he was shocked when the call came from Polanski ("Chinatown," "Rosemary’s Baby"), out of the blue. Over coffee in the director’s Paris office, he learned that Polanski had long hoped to make a Holocaust film, but found his subject only after reading a recent republication of Szpilman’s stunning memoir.

The filmmaker, who at 7 escaped the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a barbed wire fence, had already auditioned 1,400 actors for the Szpilman role. He suggested he was considering Brody because the actor had a vulnerable, charismatic screen presence and aristocratic looks, but was still relatively unknown. The job was his if Brody agreed to lose weight, learn some Polish and perform classical piano reasonably well.

Brody had played electronic keyboard, but had only rudimentary musical training, so he immediately began practicing four hours a day. On location in Germany, France and Poland, he had a piano in every hotel room and a teacher on every set, yet he continued to diet between takes.

Actor Thomas Kretschmann, who plays the compassionate Nazi officer who helps Szpilman, recalled that a restaurant outing with Brody "meant that I would eat dinner and he would sip Evian."

Brody told The Journal that starving helped him connect with his character’s feelings of loss and emptiness. "When I was at my thinnest and most isolated, playing the piano was my distraction from hunger and loneliness," he said.

The actor — who actually performs Chopin in key sequences — also found Polanski to be a valuable resource. "He shared many of his wartime memories, little moments and anecdotes, which meant everything to me," Brody said. "At one point, we were in Krakow and he took me by the hand and showed me the place where … a Polish soldier had allowed him to sneak out of the area where they were holding people for transport to the camps. It was like Szpilman’s experience of encountering a German officer who helped save his life."

But Polanski — who would lie down in the dirt to show an extra how to fake death — didn’t make many allowances for his weak, gaunt leading man. When Brody and another actor removed some encyclopedias from a heavy box they had to carry in one sequence, the director caught them and put the books back. "Then he scolded us for half an hour," Brody said with a laugh.

Polanski also didn’t flinch when his star claimed he had no energy to repeatedly scale that wall back in February 2001. He told me, "’What do you need energy for, just do it!’" the actor said, perfectly mimicking a Polish accent.

The grueling experience toughened Brody up, though the melancholy he felt as Szpilman lingers. "My friendships have suffered, and unfortunately my relationship with my girlfriend did not survive the movie," he said with a sigh. "I also haven’t worked for a year, because many projects seem superficial compared to ‘The Pianist.’"

"Actually it torments me to see myself in the film, because physically and emotionally, I was destroyed," he said. "Of course, any suffering I endured was minuscule compared to Szpilman’s. But I felt a tremendous responsibility to go to extremes in Szpilman’s memory and because I knew how personal the film was to Roman."

“The Pianist” opens Dec. 27 in Los Angeles.

Q & A With Steven Spielberg


Prior to the Shoah Foundation’s annual banquet on Dec. 5, Contributing Editor Tom Tugend conducted an e-mail interview with its founder, director Steven Spielberg.

Tom Tugend: Why have there been so many Holocaust-themed books and films in recent years?

Steven Spielberg: I think with the passing of time, and with current world events, survivors of the Holocaust are compelled to share their stories. Racism and terror are not isolated to World War II Europe, and atrocities continue to occur around the globe.

I think Americans came to realize this on a much more personal level after Sept. 11. I remember many people saying, "Why would they do this to us?" The Jews said the same thing back in the 1940s.

I hope that each book and film about the Holocaust brings us closer to understanding why such horrific events continue to take place, and how to prevent them in the future.

TT: Do you feel the success of "Schindler’s List" helped pave the way for these projects?

SS: "Schindler’s List" introduced the Holocaust to a new generation of filmgoers, and for this I am grateful. I’m delighted that films, as well as television miniseries, can continue to examine this part of history. There has also been a string of independent films produced in Europe about the Holocaust, and these films have also been well received throughout Europe, as well as in the U.S.

TT: Is there a danger that too many such films will cause people to become uninterested in the subject?

SS: Every time these films are shown, they reach a whole new audience — children, teens and adults. They encourage young viewers to ask questions, and this leads to dialogue.

There is a term called "Holocaust fatigue," which is slightly offensive, but I understand it. Most of us don’t want to hear about things that are disturbing and upsetting. On the other hand, the stories of survivors are hopeful stories … of people triumphing over oppression and racism and rebuilding their lives.

TT: What are you proudest of vis-à-vis the Shoah Foundation?

SS: I had no idea the Shoah Foundation would evolve into such an amazing global organization. We have collected almost 52,000 eyewitness testimonies around the world, and I am inspired by the courage these individuals have shown by sitting in front of a camera and reliving these events. To have this archive is, indeed, a gift to all of us.

And, I have seen students watch testimonies and become transformed by the experience. This is very rewarding. To affect one person at a time. To change a life in even the smallest way, so that they might stop and consider the consequences of their actions or choices. This is why the Shoah Foundation exists.

I want the Shoah Foundation to make a difference in the world. I want to someday look back and be able to say, "The survivors came from the ashes to change the world."

At the foundation, we continue to index the testimonies so that they will be available for research, and we are currently disseminating the archive in a variety of ways: through collections in museums and other institutions and through educational products, such as documentaries and educational CD-ROMs.

It is vital the testimonies be returned to the countries and communities from which they came, and we are establishing partnerships with institutions across the globe to do this. Our President and CEO, Douglas Greenberg, has just returned from Australia, where he met with potential partners and supporters to help bring the Australian collection to that community.

TT: Are you concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in places like Eastern Europe and in the Arab world? Do you feel this means people have not learned from the example of the Holocaust?

SS: Everyone should be concerned about anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred throughout the world. That’s why the mission of the Shoah Foundation is to work toward understanding among all people, so that hatred and bigotry can be diminished.

TT: Is the Shoah Foundation planning to do anything to reach out to people in the Arab world?

SS: The Shoah Foundation’s mission is to bring its message of tolerance to underserved populations throughout the world. We are currently focusing on communities throughout Europe and parts of the United States, and this is a mammoth task to undertake. While there are no current plans, I’m sure there will come a time when the foundation will reach out to the Arab world.

TT: Do you have any plans to revisit the Holocaust in a future feature film project?

SS: I think the global educational work of the Shoah Foundation is the most effective way I can reach an audience about the history of the Holocaust and the consequences of hatred and violence.

"Schindler’s List," while based on facts and historical incidents, is a feature film with actors and sets. There is nothing more powerful than watching a survivor look the camera — and you — in the eye and recall the personal events that occurred in his or her life.

TT: What is the Jewish content of your life today?

SS: We observe the High Holidays and the prime holidays throughout the year. My wife, Kate [Capshaw], bakes challah for the Sabbath, which is something the whole family observes to honor our tradition.

Last year, one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life was my son Theo’s bar mitzvah. Kate and I and our family are looking forward to other joyous celebrations.

TT: Have Jews in Hollywood been outspoken enough in support of Israel at this time? If not, please explain your theories as to why they have not been outspoken enough. How do you personally feel about the situation in Israel?

SS: We know there is a crisis that has been devastating to innocent victims, but it would be inappropriate for me to make a generalization about the Jews of Hollywood.

Finding ‘Frida’


Years before she directed her new film, "Frida," about Jewish Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, Julie Taymor saw Kahlo’s self-portraits at an exhibit in Oaxaca, Mexico. "I was shocked, drawn in and repulsed," Taymor said of the paintings, which included visceral images of miscarriage. "I was frankly put off by her work."

A surprising revelation from a wunderkind designer-director — known for her stunning staging of "The Lion King" — who is prone to theatrical grotesquerie. At the climax of her production of the Stravinsky opera, "Oedipus," red cloth streamed from the hero’s gauged-out eyes. Shadow-puppet locusts appeared to splatter, depicting one of the Ten Plagues in her 1980 pageant, "The Haggadah." Hacked-out tongues and severed heads rolled in her 2000 feature film debut, "Titus."

But Frida’s gory artwork was unappealing to Taymor until she met actress Salma Hayek, who’d struggled for years to make a Kahlo biopic against all odds and rivals (including Madonna and Jennifer Lopez). "Salma walked into my Manhattan apartment and she just takes your breath away, even if you’re a nice, heterosexual woman," the Jewish director told The Journal. "We sat on my couch and for two hours she passionately described Frida’s bawdiness, her brilliance, her raunchiness, her foul mouth, her drinking habits, her cigarette smoking, her bisexuality. It was a true seduction."

Taymor agreed to direct the biopic, which is already generating Oscar buzz. The bold, lushly photographed film chronicles Kahlo’s life from her crippling childhood bus accident through her rocky marriage to womanizing muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), her torrid affairs and excruciating spine surgeries.

Along the way — this being a Taymor film — Kahlo’s autobiographical paintings spring to life via special effects. One of the most disturbing is "The Broken Column," in which the famously unibrowed artist’s naked torso, punctured by tacks, rips open to reveal a cracked marble spine. "Frida’s artwork was an exorcism," said Taymor, who, at 49, is two years older than Kahlo was at her death in 1954. "She survived by transforming her emotional and physical pain into art."

Nevertheless, Taymor — speaking in strong, precise tones — insisted her film isn’t another suffering-painter biopic. "Frida wasn’t just this poor, abandoned woman who lived a life of torture in a bed," she said with Kahlo-like cheek. "She had more than her share of suffering, but she also had more than her share of pleasure and sex. Her life was a combination of extremes."

Perhaps no director was better suited to bring those extremes to the screen, said "Frida" producer Jay Polstein. Kahlo and Taymor "share a visual sensibility that combines fantastical imagery with the macabre," he said.

The painter and the director also share varying degrees of Jewish heritage. Kahlo’s father, Wilhelm, was a German-born Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Mexico, changed his first name to Guillermo, married Kahlo’s Catholic mother and did not raise his children Jewish. Yet, Kahlo wasn’t above ribbing the notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford during a dinner party in Detroit, when she impertinently asked, "Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?"

Taymor, for her part, grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Newton, Mass., and at 16, convinced her parents to let her study mime in Paris. In her 20s, she founded a theater troupe in Indonesia, where she survived malaria, a gangrenous injury suffered while skirting a live volcano and a Kahlo-like bus crash that carved her chin in two and paralyzed one of her perfomers.

Back in the States, Taymor met her life partner, composer Elliot Goldenthal, at a performance of "The Haggadah." "Someone told him he’d like my work because it was as grotesque as his."

To research "Frida," Taymor read Hayden Herrera’s 1983 Kahlo biography and visited sites such as the cobalt-blue house where the artist had lived in Coyoacan.

Only after the exhausting 2001 production wrapped did Taymor visit the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum — home to the world’s largest Kahlo and Rivera collection — and felt she had stepped into her own movie. On palatial grounds overrun by peacocks, she met Olmedo, who was Rivera’s mistress before he fell madly in love with Kahlo in 1928. "She ushered me into her private quarters and it was like being in Miss Havisham’s presence," Taymor said. "She was around 90, but she had these incredible fake eyelashes and this thick makeup and it was clear she didn’t like Frida one bit."

After her "audience" with Olmedo, Taymor realized how far she had come from her impressions at that Oaxaca exhibition years ago. "The mixture of beauty, the morbid and the sardonic wink of the eye are what make Frida’s paintings so compelling and provocative," she said.

“Frida” opens today in Los Angeles.

Shades of ‘Grey’


Before Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed his controversial Holocaust drama, "The Grey Zone," he set out to create a play about his family’s escape from Nazi Germany just before Kristallnacht.

"But it just felt like the same old survivor’s tale," the erudite director said during an interview at the Mondrian Hotel. "And with all the extraordinary work that’s been done on the Holocaust, I felt I’d better not go there, unless I could say something new."

He found it upon reading Primo Levi’s essay, "The Grey Zone," about the Sonderkommandos — Jews who ushered prisoners into the changing rooms, hosed blood and feces from the gas chambers and shuttled corpses into the ovens. Aiding the death machine bought them extra months of life with unheard of privileges, including permission to scavenge the food and belongings of the dead.

Nelson — who likes to describe himself as "a Jew from Tulsa" — said he grew up attending synagogue and Hebrew school, but had never heard of the Sonderkommandos. "I couldn’t have contrived a more extreme moral dilemma," he said. "As an able-bodied Jewish man in my 30s, I realized I could have been faced with their impossible choice, had I been swept into a cattle car in 1944."

Nelson, who attended Brown University and Juilliard, went on to write and direct an Obie-winning 1996 play, and a brutally realistic new film that follows Birkenau Sonderkommandos as they plot a rebellion and discover a girl still alive in the gas chamber. Loosely based on real events, the edgy drama — starring Harvey Keitel and David Arquette (see sidebar) depicts the squad’s grisly work in meticulous detail, including the repainting of soiled gas chamber walls and the handling of bodies with specially designed pokers.

Without the sentimentality of Holocaust films such as "Life Is Beautiful" or "Schindler’s List," Variety reports that the movie "may well evoke the mechanized horror … of the Nazi death camps more vividly than any fictional film to date."

Nelson explained that his goal was "to break many of the conventions of the Holocaust film. The Jews in this movie don’t pray or cower. They are crass and profane. They treat bodies like bolts of fabric. They seem to be working in a factory, which is what they had to do to survive."

Nelson, the son and grandson of survivors, said ethical concerns were paramount in his childhood home. His mother, Ruth, who heads Tulsa’s housing authority, served as president of charities such as Planned Parenthood.

"My grandfather often told me that I shouldn’t be alive, and my mother, in particular, spent her life ‘earning’ her right to be alive by improving conditions for others," the director said.

Nelson also hoped to make a difference by acting in weighty films, but was relegated to comic roles because of his appearance (he is 5 feet 6 inches tall and, in his words, "odd looking.") Although he turned heads with hilarious roles such as Delmar, a dimwit hillbilly in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" he began writing and directing his own work (including the 1997 parable, "Eye of God") to tackle serious issues.

To research "The Grey Zone," he read at least 7,000 pages of material, including Sonderkommando diaries found buried at Birkenau and the memoir of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish pathologist who was at Aushewitz, portrayed in the film by Keitel. On location in the village of Giten, Bulgaria, Nelson supervised construction of an almost life-sized crematorium based on Nazi blueprints.

The hyper-realistic set fueled the performances: "It was enough to literally make you sick," said Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, who plays a member of the camp underground. "It was so oppressive, that it was the only time in my life I felt I did almost no acting."

Like many of the other actors, Sorvino — who ate 600 calories a day for weeks to appear emaciated — agreed to minimal pay because of her personal connection to the material. "I’ve been obsessed with the Holocaust from the time I was 10, and I read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ and our German housekeeper told me to stop crying because it was all a lie," she said. "After that I had nightmares about being hunted by Nazis, which recurred after making the film."

Despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, the movie has already received criticism. Nelson said several viewers have objected to his depiction of Holocaust victims as less than angelic.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Museum of Tolerance said he declined to screen the film, because its graphic sequences would "upset our survivor constituency."

Perhaps the staunchest critic of all — at least initially — was Dario Gabbai of Los Angeles, who worked at Birkenau’s crematorium as the camp was "processing" 24,000 corpses in 24 hours. After his first viewing of the film, he complained about details such as the lavish feasting of the Sonderkommandos, which was not his experience.

But Gabbai — who changed his mind after spending hours with Nelson — cried during the premiere last month at a benefit for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. "Since seeing the movie, I am dreaming again about the flames and the bodies," he said. "But it is a story that needs to be told."

Illuminating ‘Moonlight Mile’


Brad Silberling heard the terrible news from a police detective the morning of July 18, 1989. His 21-year-old girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer (TV’s "My Sister Sam") had been shot dead by a stalker in the foyer of her Sweetzer Avenue apartment building.

On many a Yom Kippur since, Silberling — the director of "Casper" and "City of Angels" — has lit a yarzeit candle in her memory. This Yom Kippur, he’ll also remember Schaeffer in a more public way with the premiere of his intimate drama, "Moonlight Mile" — inspired by the relationship forged with her parents after he moved into their Oregon home for the funeral and shiva.

At the beginning of the film, as in real life, Silberling’s alter ego, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) places a spadeful of earth on his murdered fiancée’s casket. He dutifully stands beside her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) as the cantor chants the "El Malei Rachamim" memorial prayer. But when another woman unexpectedly enters his life soon after, he’s torn between following his heart and fulfilling his role as the bereaved son-in-law-to-be.

The movie, Silberling’s quick to say, is based on emotional, rather than literal truth. He was Schaeffer’s boyfriend, not her fiancé, though they’d just started talking about the possibility of marriage. He didn’t even attempt to go out on a date for two years after her death. In fact, it took him five years to muster the emotional distance he required to begin writing "Moonlight Mile."

"I wanted to explore this very strange journey that I’d never seen on film," the 39-year-old director said of the movie. "Like, how you go through every possible emotion in the aftermath of a death. For example, I’d be sitting with Rebecca’s parents, and we’d just be roaring with laughter, dishing on people who were mouthing [platitudes]. There would be this bizarre, completely inappropriate humor at moments you’d never expect."

Gyllenhaal, who spent hours quizzing Silberling about his experience, said he was drawn to the movie’s quirky-funny approach. "Brad taught me that what we consider strictly a sad time is actually filled with everything: humor, oddities, idiosyncrasies," said Gyllenhaal, whose mother, Naomi, is Jewish. "The movie isn’t a high drama about mourning, like ‘In the Bedroom.’ It’s more about the subtleties of everyday life after a tragedy."

On a recent afternoon, boyish, affable Silberling — who grew up attending Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village — is wearing faded jeans in his office, not far from Schaeffer’s old apartment. He recounts how he was 23 when he met her on a blind date in 1987 at the nerve-wracking premiere of his UCLA graduate student film. He knew he liked her when, sensing his anxiety, the dark-haired actress patted his knee and told him everything was going to be fine. "We just sort of fell into each others’ lives," said Silberling, who said he was surprised to learn that Schaeffer had once aspired to become a rabbi.

The morning she was murdered, Silberling found a loving message she’d left on his answering machine. It was the last time he heard her voice. Within a few hours, he was sequestered in a room at Cedars-Sinai, waiting for her parents to identify the body. Although he’d only met them just a few times, he bonded with them during endevors such as cleaning out Rebecca’s apartment, while tabloid reporters slapped $50 bills on the windows.

The director discovered that Schaeffer’s father, Benson, a child psychologist, had interrupted his lucrative practice for a time to study Yiddish theater. Her mother, Danna, a wickedly honest, salty-tongued writer, told Silberling "Of course, I’d like you to remain celibate for the rest of your life, but we can negotiate that." (Sarandon said that line in the film.)

The three became inseparable when Silberling moved into Rebecca’s old room for several weeks after the funeral. "I needed to be there partly because when all three of us were together, Rebecca was present," he said. "And I remember thinking, ‘It’s wild, but we’re kind of this weird new family, and I can see never leaving. But at the same time, I was aware of the people tugging at my sleeve saying, ‘You know, you’re it for them now. You are Rebecca for them, because she was an only child. So any time you can hang with her parents would be really good.’"

Silberling said he brought those conflicting sentiments to the character of Joe as well as "the swirl of emotions over, ‘How do you dare connect with another [woman]?’"

In real life, the Schaeffers were supportive when Silberling finally began dating again around 1991. They attended his 1995 marriage to actress Amy Brenneman (TV’s "Judging Amy"), where the bride andgroom read a tribute to Rebecca. (The couple now have a 1-year-old daughter, Charlotte.)

The Schaeffers were the first people Silberling allowed to read a draft of "Moonlight Mile." "I was nervous, but they liked it," said the director, who recently traveled to Oregon to show them the completed film. The screening, he said, was an emotional high. "I think they feel proud of the journey they’ve taken, and so do I."

Isn’t She ‘Lovely?’


Nicole Holofcener is laughing at her Caesar salad, a sparse, pathetic-looking thing she ordered with no croutons and dressing on the side. "I’m nuts," says the writer-director of the breezy new comedy "Lovely & Amazing," chastely dipping a romaine frond into the dressing. "You saw the movie; I’m obsessed. I think I weigh 121 pounds, and I’m like ‘Oh, I have to weigh 119.’ And at the same time, I’m conscious that that’s utterly absurd."

It doesn’t help that a group of Playboy bunnies have congregated one table over from Holofcener’s at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica. But then again, the director’s an old pro at dissecting a particularly American form of mishegoss: the insecurity women feel about their bodies.

In "Lovely & Amazing" — a hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival — Jewish matriarch Jane Marks (Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn) endures liposuction to get dates. Her eldest daughter, Michelle (Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener), stuck in a loveless marriage, flirts with anything that moves. Middle child Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), a gorgeous actress, is so neurotic about her looks that she flubs an audition with a studly star. Jane’s 8-year-old adopted African American daughter (Raven Goodwin), meanwhile, can’t decide whether to feel inferior because she’s black or Jewish.

"It’s as if she’s saying, ‘Which thing should I hold against myself?’" says Holofcener, 42, who grew up culturally Jewish in New York and Los Angeles. "As tragic as that is, it’s also funny."

If the Marks women are lovely and amazing, they’re also insecure and whiny: "There are so many intelligent and beautiful women who spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about their appearance," Holofcener says by way of explanation. As if to prove her point, the Playboy bunnies begin anxiously poring over their photo spreads.

Holofcener — like fellow independent filmmakers Allison Anders and Rebecca Miller — makes movies antithetical to the cuddly female bonding flicks Hollywood has championed (think "Boys on the Side").

It’s perhaps no accident that her self-deprecating comedies have been compared to the work of Woody Allen: Holofcener’s stepfather, Charles H. Joffe, produced all of Allen’s films and she virtually grew up on his movie sets. "I remember Woody sitting down and reading to me, but he could also be really glib and sarcastic," she recalls. "Once when I was 8, I had this big lollipop and I said, ‘Look, Woody!’ — and he took it from my hand and cracked it over my head." The incident sounds as humiliating as the most cringe-worthy sequence from "Lovely & Amazing."

Nevertheless, it was Allen who gave Holofcener her first movie jobs, initially as a production assistant on "A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy" and later as an apprentice editor on "Hannah and Her Sisters." She eventually earned a graduate degree in film from Columbia University and drew attention with some spry short films.

Holofcener honed her 1996 debut feature, "Walking and Talking" — about a woman in crisis after her best friend gets engaged — at a Sundance workshop. The impetus, she says, was turning 30 and freaking out when her best friend announced she was getting married. "I was going through all these dates from hell, and she’d found Mr. Right…. They were just off the deep end in love, and you know, nauseating, and I wondered if I’d ever find anyone," she recalls. "I was also jealous, because I felt I was losing her, so I was really immature and acted out and complained and made things that weren’t about me. It was just so much about me losing her instead of being thrilled for her."

Holofcener, whose debut starred the then-unknown actresses Keener and Anne Heche, was married with children by the time she began writing "Lovely & Amazing" in the late 1990s (she’s since separated from her husband). She says the movie is an ode to her own mother who, like the fictional Jane, adopted a black child after separating from her spouse some years ago.

It’s also an ode to a mother’s love, however imperfect: "When I was going through awful relationships and getting my heart broken, my mother would always say to me, ‘You’re lovely and amazing and it’s all his fault,’" Holofcener says. "Which was great, but it also drove me nuts, because I wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t always his fault."

Yet as the director finishes her Caesar, dipping the last of the lettuce into the dressing, she predicts she’ll probably do the same with her 4-year-old twin sons. "I’m going to constantly tell them they’re fabulous," she says with a smile. "And lovely and amazing."

The movie opens today in Los Angeles.