Saturday, February 19
Before “all that jazz” there was “Ragtime,” Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ description of America in the early 1900s, as well as the title of their 1998 musical. The Tony Award-winning epic follows three families – one African American, one WASP, one Jewish – living in New York at the turn of the last century, and deals with the class and race issues of the time. It plays at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through March 6.
8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sat. and Sun.). No matinee Sat., Feb. 19. The Feb. 27, 7 p.m. performance will be interpreted for the hearing impaired. $20-$47. 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.
Sunday, February 20
Israeli Greek singer Shlomi Saranga has recorded more than 20 albums, performs regularly in Greece and Israel and is now in the midst of his first U.S. tour. Catch his Southern California debut tonight.
8:30 p.m. $50-$75. The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. (818) 879-5016.
Monday, February 21
Steven Jay Fogel came late to painting. The businessman and author only took it up at age 48, but his intensely personal works have been given a showcase at the USC Hillel Jewish Center Gallery. His exhibition, “Relationships: My Friends and Their Stories,” is influenced by World War II and the Holocaust, as well as personal tragedies and experiences. It is on view through March 10.
9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.). Free. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135, ext. 14.
Tuesday, February 22
“Samson and Delilah” comes to Orange County Performing Arts Center for four nights only, beginning tonight. The biblical tale of a woman’s betrayal and her lover’s subsequent downfall may be dated, but the French opera’s music by Camille Saint-Saëns endures.
7:30 p.m. (Feb. 22, 24 and 26), 2 p.m. (Feb. 27). $35-$185. Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Wednesday, February 23
No such thing as a free lunch? Perhaps. But today you can find free movies, thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This evening they are screening “I Used to Be a Filmmaker,” and “Capturing the Friedmans.”
7:30 p.m. James Bridges Theater, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.
Thursday, February 24
The world gets a little smaller today, as African musician Habib Koité performs with his band Bamada at the Skirball. Koité’s music has been described as Pan-Malian, a convergence of the varied indigenous musical styles of his country. “I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali,” he said. They play tonight only.
8 p.m. $15-$20. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.
Friday, February 25
Head back to UCLA tonight for more flicks. They’re not free this time. The Otto Preminger series begins with this evening’s double feature, which screens his first hit in Hollywood, “Laura,” followed by, “Fallen Angel.”
7:30 p.m. $5-$8. James Bridges Theater, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.
Dancing the Chai Life
Religious Tensions Spark ‘Campfire’
Sitting in a booth at Milky Way restaurant, Joseph Cedar, a lean young man in jeans and baseball cap, hardly looks the part of an Orthodox Jew, who is also one of Israel’s most perceptive filmmakers.
He is in town for a couple of days to talk about his latest movie, “Campfire,” which will be screened Nov. 8 and Nov. 11 at the AFI Film Fest (see sidebar).
The film itself is another surprise. It focuses on the lives, struggles and hang-ups of Israel’s religious Zionists, the backbone of the settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza — not the first subject that comes to mind when thinking of a popular hit coming out of Israel’s strongly secular-leftist movie culture.
Yet “Campfire” (Medurat Hashevet in Hebrew) was nominated for the Israeli Oscar equivalent in all 13 categories, an unprecedented feat, and won five, including best picture, director and screenplay.
It is Israel’s official entry for the (U.S.) Academy Awards foreign film competition and has won a number of awards at the Chicago, Berlin, Korean and Indian film festivals.
At the center of the film is the Gerlik family of Jerusalem in 1981: mother Rachel, an attractive 42-year old widow; and her two daughters, rebellious 18-year-old Esti and innocent but awakening 15-year-old Tami.
A year after her husband’s death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network in her life and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.
Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when Motke, the head of the screening committee, doubts that as a single woman, she will be acceptable unless she remarries.
Toward that end, Motke’s wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a pompous cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other is Yossi, a friendly 50-year-old bus driver, who can’t seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.
As the two suitors pursue their quest, Motke, of the settlers’ group, wavers as he reinterviews Rachel and other applicants. He is looking for people who measure up ideologically and religiously, and don’t want to join merely for the cheap housing. He wants no one who doesn’t exactly fit his world or is too poor to match the living standard of the core group.
Meanwhile, Tami, the younger daughter, hangs out with her friends at B’nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement.
There is much close friendship and patriotic singing, but when Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B’Omer bonfire, she is publicly slandered and becomes a near outcast.
After all the conflicts, the film ends on a rather abrupt happy ending, but that’s not what has made “Campfire” such an exceptionally popular and critical success in Israel.
Rather, Cedar, who also wrote the script, explores a real, complex and divisive subject, yet his characters are not mere ideological mouthpieces, but three-dimensional, fallible and struggling human beings.
The film’s greatest strength lies in the subtle and unblinking depiction of human relationships, whether between middle-aged men and women, mother and daughters or adolescent boys and girls.
“Campfire” comes alive through an ensemble cast of some of Israel’s finest stage and screen actors. The veteran Moshe Ivgy gives the performance of his life as Yossi, the bus driver, a somewhat shy, awkward but never comical bachelor, matched at every point by the sometimes anguished, sometimes luminous Michaela Eshet as the widow Rachel.
Hani Furstenberg, a 25-year-old actress, is utterly convincing as the 15-year-old Tami, going through the purgatory of the teen years.
Assi Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s son and a confirmed secular leftist, endows Motke, the unsympathetic leader of the religious settlers, with real humanity.
Cedar’s only previous film — three years ago — was “Time of Favor,” which also took an unsparing look at the religious right and represented Israel at the Academy Awards.
Cedar is one of three young American-born directors who have made a major contribution in raising the level of Israeli movies in recent years.
The trio includes Eitan Gorlin, a yeshiva graduate, whose critically acclaimed “The Holy Land” centered on the odd relationship between a yeshiva student and a Russian prostitute.
Eytan Fox, of “Yossi & Jagger” fame, again explores sexual identity, embedded in a Mossad vs. Nazi war criminal thriller, in the gripping film “Walk on Water,” to open in the United States in January.
Cedar was born in New York into a highly intellectual Orthodox family, who made aliyah when he was 6. The family moved into the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, inhabited mainly by religious Zionists, and many of his friends later established settlements.
Cedar, a former paratrooper, lived one year in a West Bank settlement while writing “Time of Favor.”
After he graduated from New York University film school and returned to Israel to make his first movie, his friends of the religious right were elated.
“They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are,” Cedar recalled.
After “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” many of his former friends from the settlements and B’nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but Cedar denies that his movies are anti-anything.
“All the characters in ‘Campfire’ are religious, some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad.’ But the critics just look at the ‘bad’ characters,” he said.
Cedar’s main interest, he maintained, lies in the social dynamics among religious Zionists, but he faults them for their “elitist” attitudes and an ideological purity which excludes all others, as well as their indifference to Sephardic Jews, the poor, and, of course, the Palestinians.
Still an observant Jew, Cedar now lives in Tel Aviv with his journalist wife and their 3-year-old daughter, within “a community of people who don’t want to belong to a community.”
“Campfire” will screen Nov. 8 at 9:45 p.m. and Nov. 11 at noon at the ArcLight Theatre, 6360 Sunset Blvd., with Cedar and Furstenberg in attendance. For tickets and other information, call (866) 234-3378 or visit www.afi.com/onscreen/afifest/2004. Additional details on the movie and Cedar can be found at www.campfiremovie.com.
Holocaust, Israel at AFI Fest
Among the 136 films from 42 countries to be screened at the AFI Fest, four additional pictures besides “Campfire” may be of special interest.
“Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” documents how the movie and TV studios have depicted the Hitler era from “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” to “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist”.
“Witness” also touches on anti-Semitism in America and revives the debate on whether the positive of conveying the murder of the 6 million to mass audiences outweighs the negative of trivializing the Holocaust. An interesting historical review and analysis, which tries to cover too much too fast. Screens Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
“Calling Hedy Lamarr,” an Austrian documentary, takes a look at the glamorous and tragic life of the Jewish-born actress. The “most beautiful woman in the world” also invented a torpedo guidance system during World War II. Screenings Nov. 6 at 3:30 p.m. and Nov. 10 at 9:45 p.m.
“Ninth November Night,” a short film on Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein’s mission to remind his countrymen of the horrors of Kristallnacht. Screens Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. and Nov. 14 at 1 p.m.
Israeli native Ariel Vromen directed “Rx,” in which he tracks the interactions among three friends during a weekend in Mexico. Screens Nov. 12 at 7:15 p.m.
For tickets, locations and other information, call (866) 234-3378 or visit www.afi.com/onscreen/afifest/2004. — TT
Jewish America’s Trials and Triumphs
Caouette’s Journey to Hell and Back
When gay Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Caouette was a preteen in Houston, he frequented sock hops at the Baptist church near his home. Invariably, church elders warned he was destined for hellfire: “And I would tell them that I was possessed by the devil,” Caouette, 31, said.
His tart reply wasn’t far from the truth, according to his new documentary memoir, “Tarnation,” named for an archaic term for “damnation.” The experimental self-portrait describes Caouette’s hellish childhood, during which he endured physical abuse, a mentally ill mother and brutal foster homes. The raw, hallucinatory film is compiled from 20 years of home movies, answering machine messages and snippets of underground films — all edited on a borrowed Apple computer for a total production cost of $218.32. Lauded as “a category-defying work of blistering originality,” by the Guardian and “astonishing” by The New York Times, it won best documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
If the movie exposes Caouette’s childhood demons, it’s also steeped in a zeitgeist obsessed with public exorcisms performed on reality television programs and cringe-fests such as “The Jerry Springer Show.”
Caouette has been turning his life into a kind of reality TV from age 11, when he first pointed a camera at himself and his relatives. He recorded family arguments and performed impassioned monologues influenced by underground filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Paul Morrissey. In one such sequence, he portrays a battered housewife, “essentially channeling my mother, who was being beaten by her second husband,” he said.
For the budding cinephile, the camera became a “protective force field, a means of controlling and validating the family chaos,” the boyish director said from his Queens, N.Y., apartment. “It was a grand way of saying, ‘Pinch me, but is this for real?'”
The reality was that Caouette was living with his overwhelmed grandparents as his mother, Renee, was repeatedly hospitalized for acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. A former child model, she had suffered mental illness since undergoing electroshock therapy following a childhood accident. During a manic period, she whisked 4-year-old Jonathan off to Chicago, where she was kidnapped and raped.
“I remember cowering under a bed while she was being strangled,” the filmmaker said.
Back in Houston, Renee went on a rampage, breaking windows throughout the neighborhood with Jonathan in tow. The boy was promptly placed in a series of foster homes where he was sometimes tied up and beaten. When his grandparents assumed custody two years later, they attempted to curb his wild behavior by enrolling him in a highly structured Jewish day school.
“But I didn’t have the attention span to sit through the long day or to retain a new language, Hebrew,” he said. “I was a mess of a child already at 6.”
It didn’t help that Caouette felt like an alien while visiting his classmates’ pristine Jewish homes.
“Our house had gum all over the floor, like a New York subway, and rat droppings all over the beds,” he said.
His wealthy Jewish relatives eventually stopped inviting him to holiday celebrations.
The discord turned Caouette into an angry preteen who staged suicide attempts and hit his grandparents. After smoking PCP-laced joints at 12, he was hospitalized eight times for a depersonalization disorder that made him feel like he was disconnected from his body and living “in a constant state of unreality.”
Former Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar, who became Caouette’s big brother in 1984, remembers walking through his home and noting “broken mirrors and holes where Jon had punched through the wall.”
“I felt he might be capable of making a bad decision that could kill him,” Millar said. “But I also saw that he was innately talented and that he had a rigorous film aesthetic. I felt that if he managed to get through what was sure to be a troubling adolescence, he would do something creatively spectacular.”
Caouette proved Millar right two years ago, when he decided to turn his 160 hours of home video into a film. He had nursed Renee back to health after a lithium overdose and hoped to create a cathartic piece about their relationship.
An early version of the movie convinced filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant to sign on as executive producers and secured a slot at New York’s 2003 MIX Film Festival. But as Caouette sat next to Renee at the screening, he worried he had made a terrible mistake.
“I wondered if I had exploited her, exploited all of us,” he said.
As patrons embraced him after the screening, Caouette began to change his mind. He now views the movie as a healing trip to Tarnation and back: “It’s the story of people going through hell and coming out OK, sort of,” he said. “It’s still not entirely OK, but it’s better than it’s ever been.”
“Tarnation” opens today in Los Angeles.
My Seder With Brando
Roasting Woody Allen — Gently
One could call “Who Killed Woody Allen?” a “benign revenge comedy.” Co-authors Tom Dunn, Dan Callahan and Brendan Connor wrote the whodunit after Allen allegedly withdrew the rights to his play, “Death,” from their theater company in 2001. The playwrights say they had already rented a theater, hired 15 actors and were a week into rehearsal when they received the news. “So we decided to move from Woody Allen’s ‘Death’ to Woody Allen’s death,” Dunn said.
The black comedy is set at Allen’s funeral, with his celebrity friends as suspects. But it’s more of an homage than a roast. (Number of Soon-Yi gags: one.)
“We’re huge Woody fans, and we respect him too much to take potshots,” Connor said.
“We’re comedy writers in large part because of his influence,” Dunn said.
In fact, the 32-year-old authors have been in love with Allen’s films since they attended Holy Trinity High while growing up in Levittown, N.Y. The childhood friends viewed Allen movies together such as “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”
Of why these Irish Catholics admire the Jewish auteur, Connor said, “It’s hysterical the way he captures uniquely New York neuroses.”
Dunn, for his part, said, “We really connected to Woody’s thoughtful absurdist humor. We drew on that when we started doing improvisational comedy together in high school.”
The friends moved from improv to sketch comedy to founding their Empty Stage Theatre Company around 2000. The goal was to produce lesser-known works by well-known authors; after staging an obscure David Mamet piece, the Allen fans set their sights on “Death.” According to Dunn, Allen granted the rights to one production but declined when the opening dates changed. “We were totally shocked,” Dunn said.
Eventually the “Death” rights issue inspired a play about Allen’s last rites; but the piece doesn’t dis Allen. In fact, the authors invited the filmmaker to opening night, assuming he’d get a kick out of the tribute. Instead, they received a letter from Allen’s attorney, Irwin Tenenbaum: “Mr. Allen appreciates your invitation but is unable to attend,” states the letter, which The Journal viewed on a Web site. “Since I have not read the play and am unfamiliar with its contents, I trust that you have adhered to and stayed within the parameters of applicable law with regard to the use of my client’s name and character. I reserve all of my client’s rights with regard to this project, should events prove otherwise.”
Actually, the play makes relatively few references to Allen. Rather, it focuses on the shenanigans of the funeral’s self-absorbed celebrity guests, who include a stammering Diane Keaton (Jillann Dugan), a kvetchy Alan Alda (Ed Moran) and a creepy Christopher Walken (Peter Loureiro). The stars pay their last respects rather disrespectfully, treating the service like a photo-op, a chance to glean publicity and promote their films.
The funeral itself is structured like an awards ceremony, with Oscar host Billy Crystal (Christopher Wisner) as emcee. “Sitting shiva, cover the ‘mirra,’ it’s going to be a Jewish funeral tonight,” Crystal sings in an Oscar-style medley. The stars continue their shameless mugging even as a detective arrives to interrogate them (we’re told Allen’s ex, Mia Farrow, has been cleared because she was in Angola at the time of the murder, “auditioning children to adopt.”)
“The play is a satirical take on celebrity culture,” Dunn said. “Of course, we’re spoofing what we want the most — celebrity — and the irony isn’t lost on us.”
“Who Killed Woody Allen?” is apparently moving the authors closer to that goal. The play ran for eight months off-Broadway, earned rave reviews and will have its Los Angeles debut Sept. 22, directed by Dunn, with most of the original cast in tow.
The co-authors, meanwhile, are pitching TV and film projects, including the movie rights to “Who Killed Woody Allen?” “We even asked Woody if he was interested in directing,” Dunn said. “But we haven’t received a response.”
“Who Killed Woody Allen?” runs Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at the Improv Olympic West Theater, 6636 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood. For tickets, $18, and information, call (323) 960-4412 or visit www.plays411.com/wkwa.
For more information about the play, visit www.whokilledwoodyallen.com .
When Bill Platt pitched his action-oriented “Darklight” TV movie two years ago, he hoped to create a new genre: “Chai-Fi.”
The 32-year-old filmmaker intended the project — inspired by the Jewish “demoness” Lilith — to merge his heritage with his sci-fi obsession.
“I wondered if I could make Jewish legend fun for audiences who liked ‘The Matrix,’ he said. “And I wanted to see if I could create my own Jewish superhero.”
He wasn’t imagining a comedic MOT superhero like Jonathan Kesselman’s “The Hebrew Hammer” or Alan Oirich’s Menorah Man. Platt rather set his sights on Lilith, the talmudic demon queen turned feminist icon. The film — typical Sci-Fi Channel fare — is more for “Battlestar Galactica” fans than Lilith aficionados. Yet Platt did meticulous homework at the University of Judaism’s library.
Traditional sources describe Lilith as Adam’s surly first wife who considered herself his equal; declining to be dominated, she ultimately fled the Garden of Eden and morphed into a murderous incubus.
“Darklight” reimagines Adam’s ex as an immortal who suffers amnesia, who eventually uses her powers to thwart a plague. It’s the kind of debut feature one might expect of the enthusiastic Platt, who’s always been a bit chai-fi.
Growing up in Reston, Va., he immersed himself in his Conservative Hebrew school as well as comics and the “Star Wars” movies. At NYU’s graduate film program, he honored his Jewish grandparents — who had supported his superhero fixation — with a short starring Yiddish theater star Mina Bern.
His futuristic police thriller, “Bleach,” won the 1998 Student Academy Award and jump-started his career as a producer of the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Exposure Studios”; when he suggested “Darklight” to that network in 2002, he brought genre elements to the Jewish-inspired character.
Like any self-respecting superhero, Lilith has an arch-nemesis, a mad scientist, and a superhuman task: saving mankind.
“It’s amped-up tikkun olam,” Platt said. “She’s repairing the world, except she’s doing it on a grand scale, one curse at a time.”
“Darklight” airs Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. For moreinformation, visit www.scifi.com/darklight .
7 Days In Arts
Free tunes at the Skirball this afternoon, as part of their continuing “Café Z” series. This time it’s the Latin jazz stylings of Angelo Metz’s Brazilian Ensemble, performing for you al fresco, as you imbibe frothy coffee drinks in the shade.
Noon-2 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.
Eastern Europe meets western this evening, with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s performance of “Two Streams in the Desert,” a merging of klezmer and Ladino music. The orchestra, along with Russian clarinetist Leo Chelyapov, flautist David Shostac and the “Jewish Pavarotti” Alberto Mizrahi entertain with both Ashkenazi and Sephardi sounds.
7:30 p.m. $12-$36. Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673.
This week, UCLA welcomes the Mercedes Benz Cup 2004 men’s
tennis tournament. See Andre Agassi and other top players show off their
athletic prowess, or just come for the guys in tennis shorts.
7 Days In Arts
DVD Set Showcases Legendary Producer
Over a period of 42 years, legendary producer Arthur Cohn has made only 12 films, of which half have been recognized with Academy Awards, giving the Swiss producer the highest batting average in the annals of the motion picture industry. This record has been recognized by the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a star for Cohn, the only foreign producer so honored.
Now, in an unprecedented collaboration, five major Hollywood film companies have joined to release a DVD set of 10 films by Cohn.
Among the six Oscar-winners in the nine-disk boxed set being released this month are the classic "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "Dangerous Moves" and the documentaries "One Day in September" and "American Dream."
As impressive as Cohn’s filmography is the decision by Sony, Paramount, Buena Vista, Universal and Miramax — normally intense competitors — to pool their copyrighted films into one DVD set.
"It’s as if Ford, BMW and Toyota decided to build one car together," observed one film critic.
Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said that in his 23 years in the business, he had never heard of such a multistudio collaboration before.
"Normally, there would be endless discussions on how to put the deal together, how to split the profits, how to appropriate the credits and so forth," Barker said. "In this case, all this was less important than our shared love for Arthur’s movies and our admiration for the man."
"He is one of a dying breed of great film producers, who is meticulously involved in every phase of a movie and who will spend years to get the results he wants," Barker added. "Nowadays, they list 15 co-producers on a blockbuster, and you have no idea which producer did what."
Cohn is also a man of extraordinary persistence. "I finished ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ in 1971, and it was turned down by 36 distributors in Europe and America," he recalled. "It was only after the academy awarded it the Oscar for best foreign language film that it became an international hit."
Another indicator of the influence of Cohn’s movies is "One Day in September," a documentary on the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It was only after the film came out that the German government finally agreed to compensate the families of the victims, Cohn said.
As a footnote, Cohn’s grandfather was the chief rabbi of Basel. Because of his friendship with Theodor Herzl, the first Zionist Congress was held in the Swiss city in 1897.
Cohn is currently working on two projects. One is "The Yellow Handkerchief," which he described as "an old-fashioned love story, without violence, sex or special effects." The other project is "The Ruined Map," based on the novel by the late Japanese writer, Kobo Abe ("The Woman in the Dunes").
Included in the DVD set, "Arthur Cohn Presents" are the following feature films and documentaries: "American Dream," "Behind the Sun," "Black and White in Color," "The Sky Above, the Mud Below," "A Brief Vacation," "Central Station," "Dangerous Moves," "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "One Day in September" and "Two Bits."
Bonus features include the short Holocaust documentary, "Children of the Night," and segments from Vittorio De Sica’s "Woman Times Seven," which Cohn also produced.
"Arthur Cohn Presents" is available in video stores and is distributed by Home Vision Entertainment at a list price of $199.95.
A Prayer Book of Many Colors
Meyers Writes Her Own Happy Ending
A decade ago, filmmaker Nancy Meyers became intrigued by a Hollywood friend who exclusively dated younger women.
"They were always between 25 and 30," said Meyers, 54, who directed the Mel Gibson hit, "What Women Want." "Over the years, he went from his 40s to his 60s, but the women never got any older."
As she advanced through her 40s, Meyers felt increasingly "invisible" around her friend; she wondered, "If I were stranded on a desert island with such a man, would I still be invisible?"
Her musing led to a movie premise about a cradle-robber who falls for his girlfriend’s mom.
Because Meyers’ screenplays always reflect her life, she wasn’t ready to tackle the topic until she divorced around 2000 and found herself 50ish and single.
"Suddenly my premise became a completely different kind of story," she said. "I wanted to write about the realities of a couple falling in love late in life."
Her new romantic comedy, "Something’s Gotta Give," tells of Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), a roguishly charming record company executive whose girlfriends are under 30. When he attempts to consummate his latest relationship at her mother’s beach house, he collapses from a heart attack and is left in the care of the mom, Erica Barry (Diane Keaton), a no-nonsense Jewish playwright. As the two are forced into each other’s company, sparks unexpectedly fly.
Last week the National Board of Review named Keaton 2003’s Best Actress for her performance.
Time magazine called the comedy a "December-December romance"; it’s one of an unprecedented new crop of films, including "House of Sand and Fog," that frankly depicts older couples having sex.
Yet some viewers see "Give" as Meyers’ romantic fantasy, complete with a cute young doctor suitor for Erica played by Keanu Reeves. While the director admits the Reeves relationship is a stretch ("I’ve not dated a 36-year-old doctor, unfortunately," she said), she doesn’t think the Harry-Erica pairing is far fetched.
"People say, ‘You’re movie is so optimistic,’" said Meyers, who admits she’s had one age-appropriate relationship since her divorce. "Are these people suggesting that if single men had the option, they’d never go with anyone their own age? I don’t think that’s true. There are a lot of men married to women their age who aren’t waiting for their spouses to die or to get a divorce so they can have that trophy wife. And I think that a lot of men, when they do meet someone close to their age, feel they have found something perhaps more solid than when they’re dating a woman 25 years younger. I mean, it must be a relief not to have to act 35 in bed when you’re 60."
The down-to-earth Meyers has always had a penchant for turning fantasy into reality. The daughter of a Philadelphia voting machine manufacturer, she dreamed up her first movie — literally — while under anesthesia at the dentist at 14. "It was a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy," she said. "When I awakened, I told the dentist the entire plot."
Yet Meyers initially didn’t set her sights on Hollywood, due to the more conventional path outlined for women of her generation. "At my Reform temple, girls weren’t even bat mitzvahed," she said. "I was always jealous of the boys, because for girls it just wasn’t done." While attending American University, she said she "went with the program and got engaged to a Jewish boy my junior year. But instead of getting married, I canceled weeks before the wedding and moved to California in 1972."
Early on, she sold cheesecakes, based on her Aunt Estelle’s recipe, while struggling to support herself as a screenwriter. She met her future husband, TV writer Charles Shyer, while on a date with his best friend, Harvey Miller.
"Charles was this cute guy wearing a B’nai B’rith T-shirt," she said.
In 1979, Meyers, Shyer and Miller collaborated on "Private Benjamin," based on her idea about a naive Jewish woman (Goldie Hawn) who joins the Army after her husband dies on their wedding night. The story reflected Meyers’ experience of canceling her wedding and reinventing herself in Hollywood, but observers saw the character in a less flattering light.
"People like to call Judy Benjamin a Jewish princess, but I take great offense at that expression," she said. "It’s a racist, sexist caricature: the girl who gets a nose job, who shops and wants to be taken care of. But Judy is actually a woman of her time, with the problems of her time. Because of social conventions, she was following a road that wasn’t right for her, and the Army allows her to grow up and to figure out her life."
Meyers shared a 1981 Oscar nomination for "Private Benjamin"; over the years, she became known for films she co-wrote with Shyer, including 1984’s "Irreconcilable Differences" and 1991’s "Father of the Bride," which he directed.
Along the way the couple had two daughters, but didn’t marry until 1995. "I wanted us to be filmmaking partners without having that husband-and-wife-team cliché hanging over us, because in Hollywood, people always assume the wife isn’t responsible for the work," she said.
In 1998, Meyers made her directorial debut with "The Parent Trap," a remake of the Disney classic about twins who get their divorced parents back together. Behind the scenes, the opposite was happening for Meyers and Shyer, the film’s co-author.
"The relationship had changed to the point where neither one of us thought we could get it back where it was," she said.
They separated that year.
"What Women Want" (2000) her first project without Shyer, reflected those circumstances. The female lead, played by Helen Hunt, is a recently divorced advertising executive who reveals she had collaborated with her husband and is nervous about going it alone.
Despite Meyers’ trepidations, the movie became a box office smash and made her one of the most sought-after female directors in Hollywood; it’s perhaps one reason Nicholson, who had never worked with a woman director, agreed to read "Something’s Gotta Give" around 2001.
"I hadn’t worked for two years, I didn’t want to work, but this was the kind of script I had never seen," said Nicholson, who is himself perceived as an aging playboy. "One of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I am not a romantic, but I’ve always been deeply sentimental. And one of the most refreshing things about this picture was getting to do the kinds of things on film that I do in real life."
Meyers, for her part, shares attributes with the fictional Erica: The character is also a successful writer who calls her daughter "Bubbie" and peppers her speech with Yiddishisms.
While it’s surprising to hear Keaton, the WASP from "Annie Hall," refer to Diane Sawyer "going into caves in Afghanistan with a shmatte on her head," the actress was comfortable with the role.
"This film is Nancy’s celebration of older women, and I’m thrilled she picked me as her representative," Keaton said.
So will viewers enjoy seeing such a celebration on screen? Meyers thinks so.
"Baby Boomers want characters who reflect their lives," she said. "We’re not dead yet. Just a bit over 50."
"Something’s Gotta Give" opens today in Los Angeles.
Symphonies in Paint
When a Yeshiva Bocher Loves a Hooker
Sitting at a French Cafe in Westwood, Eitan Gorlin comes across as the very antithesis of the Hollywood self-promoter. The writer-director of “The Holy Land” has indeed kept such a low profile that, during months of inquiries, his name drew an absolute blank among Israel film mavens in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.
But the debut feature by this unknown has already won remarkable recognition in America, including an Independent Spirit nomination for Gorlin as “Someone to Watch.”
For now, Gorlin is focusing on his film. “‘The Holy Land’ shows the underbelly of real life in Jerusalem after the tourists and Orthodox families go to sleep,” he said.
Yet the film packs a great deal more into its 96 minutes.
On the slender storyline of a young, sheltered yeshiva student who falls in love with an even younger Russian prostitute, “The Holy Land” ranges across the Israeli landscape of the late 1990s, with its ultra-Orthodox Haredim, ultra-religious Zionist settlers, Arab collaborators and terrorists and Russian and American immigrants.
The film’s protagonist is Mendy, who is studying at a yeshiva in B’nai B’rak and finds it increasingly hard to keep his thoughts off women and sex and on Torah reading. His rabbi advises him to “get it out of his system” by visiting a prostitute.
Mendy takes off for Jerusalem and, at a strip club, meets Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from the Ukraine. The inexperienced Mendy falls hard for the hooker, while vaguely hoping to “save” her, and, in turn, she introduces him to Mike’s Place.
The seedy pub in East Jerusalem is run by Mike, a big, blustery American ex-war photographer, whose joint is a combination of Rick’s Cafe in a postmodern “Casablanca” and the cantina in “Star Wars.”
Yet the pull of Mendy’s early and simpler religious life grows as his new secular experiences and relationships become more complex and disturbing. The resolution of this internal conflict in the movie’s last minutes adds the ultimate shocker to the iconoclastic film.
The struggle between the secular and religious poles in Israel, in the lives of individuals as in the general society, is an evolving theme for filmmakers and writers. Since “The Holy Land” represents such a singular, largely autobiographical, vision, Gorlin’s own background serves as a useful program guide.
At 34, Gorlin’s life has moved between the religious and worldly poles and has encompassed the bohemian restlessness and searching of the American expatriate writers of the 1920s.
He was born in Silver Springs, Md., studied at The Yeshiva of Greater Washington (D.C.) and, after graduating at 17, headed for Israel and enrolled at the national religious Yeshiva Sha’alvim.
After a stint as a congressional intern in Washington, the wandering spirit struck again. For the next two years he lived in Paris, London, Prague, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi, doing odd jobs as waiter, bartender, party promoter and street performer.
He interrupted his global tramping for a three-year stay in Israel, during which he served as a gunner in an Israeli army tank unit, and met the real-life Mike, who hired him as a bartender.
(Mike’s Place subsequently moved to Tel Aviv, where it was blown up by two British Arab terrorists in April of this year.)
Returning again to the United States, Gorlin wrote three scripts and a novella, titled “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary,” which became the basis of the movie.
At the end of 1999, he had raised enough private money (he won’t disclose how much) to return to Israel and, for one solid year, worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to cast and shoot “The Holy Land.” For the principal roles he cast two sabras: 23-year-old Oren Rehary as Mendy and 19-year-old Tchelet Semel as Sasha, with American actor Saul Stein portraying Mike.
Once the film was in the can, nobody wanted to screen it. “We were turned down by every Jewish film festival in the United States and by the Jerusalem Festival in Israel,” he said.
Finally, on a sudden impulse, he entered his picture in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.
“The Holy Land” was not only one of the 14 feature films accepted among 1,000 applicants, but it walked off with the top Grand Jury Prize. Success bred success. Gorlin won the 21st Century Filmmaker Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival, and later was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” award.
After these successes, an American film distributor, CAVU Pictures, finally showed up, signed Gorlin to a contract, and the picture is currently slated for some 15 cities.
Like Mendy, Gorlin keeps struggling with his religious identity.
“We seem to be the chosen people of an angry God. Maybe we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “Part of me wants to reject God, but I can’t do it.”
“The Holy Land” opens Aug. 1 at select Laemmle Theatres.For more information, visit www.laemmle.com/theatres .
Peace No Joke To Comics
Stone’s ‘Persona’ Wears Out Welcome
In the violence-ridden month of March 2002, which saw the Passover massacre at a Netanya hotel and the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, filmmaker Oliver Stone traveled to Israel and the West Bank to shoot a documentary on the escalating conflict.
The result is "Persona Non Grata," airing on HBO on June 5, which is neither as pro-Palestinian as Stone’s critics had feared, nor as balanced as his admirers might have wished.
On the positive side, the director of "JFK," "Nixon" and "Wall Street" is careful to give equal time to both sides and he features some of Arafat’s more blood-curdling past speeches to his Arab followers, which are rarely reported in the general media.
The imbalance is in the kind of footage and spokesmen selected to represent the opposite sides. There are extensive scenes of killed and wounded Palestinians, houses demolished, hassles at roadblocks and the constant rumbling of Israeli tanks.
Granted, there are also bloody scenes in the aftermath of the Passover massacre, in which a terrorist killed 29 Israelis celebrating a seder. But the burden of the Israeli case is carried by a series of earnest but undramatic talking heads, mainly Shimon Peres, alternating with Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and historian Meir Pail, who is highly critical of Israeli policy.
They are all quite eloquent, especially Peres and Netanyahu, but since each has his own take on the present and future situation, they tend to cancel each other out and likely to confuse the casual viewer.
A somewhat comical refrain is Stone’s increasingly futile and frustrating attempts to finalize an appointment with Arafat.
The most effective Palestinian spokesman turns out to be Abu Kassir, a pseudonym for the masked leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who says he’s just fighting the occupation and simply wants a return to the pre-June 1967 boundaries.
There is a short interview with a spokesman for the political wing of Hamas, who maintains that he knows nothing about the terrorist operations of his organization, but otherwise, the crucial fundamentalist Muslim viewpoint, calling for the destruction of Israel, is omitted.
Stone, working with French and Spanish producers, makes it harder to follow the already complex thread of the story by constantly intercutting between different scenes and spokesmen.
The 75-minute "Persona Non Grata" premieres on HBO on June 5 at 7 p.m., and will be shown again June 8 at 11:15 a.m., June 13 at 6:30 a.m., and June 17 at 2 p.m. Playdates for HBO2 are June 10 at 10:15 p.m., June 21 at 8:15 a.m., and June 30 at 5 p.m.
Sharon’s Dilemma: Which Peace Move?
From Blaxploitation to ‘Booth’
On Nov. 15, 2002, filmmaker Larry Cohen should have been atthe multiplex, gauging opening day reaction to the film he wrote, “PhoneBooth,” about a man who must outwit a sniper while trapped in the eponymoustelephonic cabin. But the Washington Sniper changed all that.
No, Cohen was not the target of a hit. But his movie was,last October, when 20th Century Fox postponed the release because of thesnipers (who were ultimately apprehended after killing 10 people and criticallywounding three).
“Phone Booth,” directed by Joel Schumacher and starringcurrent “it boy” Colin Farrell, opens in theaters April 4.Â
On this sunny day, Cohen, 64, was bathing in the sunshinethat filled his elegant, 1920s-era home; he was ready to discuss an eclecticcareer, which includes significant contributions to “blaxploitation”(1971-1974) — the urban crime flicks featuring African American actorsdisenfranchised from mainstream Hollywood. This short-lived, but influential,wave was popular and controversial because of violent, racially charged andpolitically incorrect depictions of police, politicians, pimps and drug lords.Blaxploitation recently made a kitschy comeback in rap, the 2000 “Shaft”remake, and last summer’s “Goldmember: Austin Powers III” and “Undercover Brother.”
Long before Quentin Tarantino revived blaxploitation in the1990s, Cohen was the only white — and Jewish — writer-director creating thesource material. During blaxploitation’s starburst, Cohen made the 1973 hit”Black Caesar,” starring Fred Williamson — a seminal work championed in PublicEnemy’s 1989 rap anthem “Burn, Hollywood, Burn!”
Perhaps Cohen’s “in” to this insular trend came from hisfamily’s roots in Harlem, where “Black Caesar” took place. Cohen’s mother livedon 125th Street. His father, of German Jewish descent, was a landlord, andCohen’s grandfather ran a furnishings store.
Cohen grew up in Washington Heights, where he was barmitzvahed despite a secular upbringing and attended George Washington HighSchool, from which legendary independent film director Sam Fuller was expelled.
Cohen’s current home, which he shares with wife Cynthia, waspurchased from Fuller and originally owned by William Randolph Hearst.
Cohen has Sammy Davis Jr. to thank for his footnote intoblack film history. Davis hired Cohen to create a vehicle for the Rat Packer.
Cohen was offered $10,000 to write a gangster picture in the”Little Caesar” vein. Then Davis experienced IRS problems. Cohen was stuck withhis treatment.
But American International head Samuel Arkoff approachedCohen after “Super Fly” and “Shaft” hit big.
“I had that treatment in my car,” Cohen said. “We made thedeal in 20 minutes.”
Cohen hired James Brown to score his second film. “Hereinvented himself as a result of ‘Black Caesar’ into the Godfather of Soul,”Â he said.
“Black Caesar’s” success caught Cohen by surprise. “Therewere lines around the block in New York … in February!” he said.Â
Cohen has garnered praise from his blaxploitation peersbecause he never glamorized criminals.
He added, in a scene where honking taxi cabs leap onto thesidewalk, “those are real pedestrians running out of the way. We said, ‘Let’sjust do it.’ New Yorkers are good at getting out of the way of traffic.”
Cohen pushed the guerrilla filmmaking to absurd heights inthe sequel, “Hell Up in Harlem,” where an improvised fight scene had actorsbrawling throughout LAX, up the baggage carousel ramp, and out onto the tarmacamid taxiing 747s. Incredibly, airport security never intervened.
“Today we’d be shot or arrested or both,” Cohen said.
As fodder for potboilers, Cohen is not through withtelecommunication. David Ellis is directing his latest script,Â “Cellular.”
Among the DVDs on Cohen’s shelf sits “Reservoir Dogs.”Compared to “Black Caesar,” some might consider Tarantino’s moviespseudo-blaxploitation. But not Cohen, who admires his work.
“Quentin told me he went to Baldwin Hills to see ‘OriginalGangstas’ on opening day,” Cohen said. “I asked him, ‘Why’d you go all the wayout there to see it?’ He said, ‘I wanted to see it with the audience it wasintended for.'”
“Phone Booth” opens in theaters April 4. Â
Zionism, by George
Stalin’s Jewish State
When Yale Strom was growing up in a traditional,socialist-Zionist home in Detroit, he was riveted by his father’s tales of aJewish state founded 20 years before Israel in a Siberian swamp.
Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewishgeography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, “L’Chayim, ComradeStalin!” about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.
Papa Joe’s motivations weren’t altruistic; he hoped topopulate the Chinese front and to funnel Zionist dollars into the U.S.S.R. Butat least 40,000 Jews made the gruelling, 5,200-mile journey to build a Yiddishmecca in waist-deep mud and snow. They were successful, in part, untilStalin’s purges closed most Yiddish institutions and sent residents off toGulags from 1948 to 1953.
Musician-filmmaker Strom — whose documentaries aboutvanishing Jewish culture have carved a niche in the Yiddish revival movement –retraced the journey when he boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made theweek-long trek to Birobidzhan in 2000. He alighted in the world’s only railroadstation with Yiddish-language signs, although finding Yiddishkayt provedelusive in a region where less than 6,000 Jews remain. Eventually, he visitedthe local synagogue, the Yiddish newspaper and the capitol’s main thoroughfare,still called Sholom Aleichem Boulevard.
He interviewed local Jews and recorded conversations withhis suavely anti-Semitic interpreter, Slava, who turned out to be the grandsonof the high-ranking official who originated the idea of a JAR.
So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, thedocumentary asks. Strom and his wife, “L’Chaim” writer-producer ElizabethSchwartz, think it’s both: “It’s historically significant as a Jewish statefounded on Yiddish secularism,” Schwartz said. “But it’s also a bit like thefake TV suburb in the film, ‘Pleasantville,’ where everything seems perfect,but realities start to bleed through.”
Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination withwhat he calls “the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E.” “These werepioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world,” he said.
The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will alsoperform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen’s CircleMarch 9. For information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom’s “The Book of Klezmer:The History, the Music, the Folklore” (A Cappella Books, $28) is now in stores.
The Match Game
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."