Coen brothers on #OscarsSoWhite: We write what we know – Jews and Minnesotans

Asked about diversity in Hollywood last week, the Coen brothers defended to the Washington Post their history of making movies about Jews and Minnesotans.

The Oscars So White controversy, #OscarsSoWhite, may reflect a real problem, the film writing-directing-producing duo agreed: Money drives commercial movies, people who invest money want more of what has worked in the past and it’s daunting for minorities to break into that cycle.

But the brothers balked at the notion that film creators bear personal responsibility for promoting diversity, arguing you write what you know.

“Take any particular actor or writer or filmmaker, and you go, ‘Your movies should be more this or more that or more the other thing,'” Joel Coen said. “The only sane response is that you can only write what you can write. You can’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write something that follows the dictates of what the culture thinks should be happening, in terms of cultural diversity in storytelling.’ To be honest with you, that’s completely lunatic.”

Ethan Coen added: “We actually write movies in which the characters are Jews or Minnesotans.”

True enough. They’ve done Jews (“Barton Fink”), wannabe Jews (“The Big Lebowski”), Minnesotans (“Fargo”) and Minnesotan Jews (“A Serious Man”).

Even sticking to what they know has gotten them into trouble.

“You say, ‘Look at the work.’ And then they go, ‘Well, this character is Jewish and is a bad guy.’ Somehow in their minds, that’s implying that in our minds the Jewish characters stand in for all Jews,” Joel Coen said. “Like I say, you can only write what you can write. If the question is whether or not there should be more people involved in the process, with more diverse backgrounds, so that what they write reflects a greater amount of diversity — that the business itself should be more open to people of different backgrounds, so that those stories come in — that’s a legitimate thing to talk about. The other thing is crazy.”

“Hail, Caesar!” focuses on another community the Coen brothers have come to know — the Hollywood film industry. The film focuses on the making of a film, also called “Hail, Caesar!” starring Kirk Douglas-like actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Unsurprisingly, there are some Jews on set.

In an exquisite Jew-out-of-water scene, studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) convenes a group of clergy to review the “Hail, Caesar!” script and make sure it doesn’t offend any religious sensibilities. There’s a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Greek Orthodox priest — and a rabbi.

The rabbi struggles at length to politely explain that however Jesus is portrayed in the film, Jews won’t be offended because to Jews, the Christian messiah is simply the “Nazarene.” The acutely funny five minutes encapsulate what it is to be a Jew in the Diaspora.

Sundance Festival recognizes 2 Israeli filmmakers

Israeli filmmakers Erez Kav-El and Talya Lavie received awards at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Kav-El won the world cinema dramatic screenwriting award for his film “Restoration,” about a man coming to terms with his estranged son as his antique furniture-restoration shop suffers financial problems.

Lavie received an Inaugural Sundance Institute Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award, which supports emerging independent filmmakers from around the world, for her film “Zero Motivation.” The film looks at three women working in an administrative office at a remote Israeli army base and their power struggles.

The festival for independent films ended Jan. 30.

The Circuit

Choirs Rock the House

Temple Emanuel was rockin’ recently when it hosted the Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church Choir that performed with Emanuel’s choir at a Shabbat Shira Service. The entire congregation and guests were on their feet singing and clapping in joyous rapture.

Behind the Camera

The Peninsula Beverly Hills was filled with aspiring future filmmakers at the Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA) 13th annual Student Filmmakers Pre-Oscar Scholarship Luncheon. Actors, cinematographers, writers, and directors came together for the annual luncheon, to show support for the next Spielbergs and Hillers.

Seven students selected for their outstanding achievements, creative vision and technical talent received financial awards toward their tuition, certificates of merit and grants from film providers like FUJIFILMS and Eastman Kodak.

MMPA President Jarvee Hutcherson, said it was “an honor to pay recognition and award scholarships to a particularly fine group of up-and-coming filmmakers this year.”

The scholarship recipients include Vineet Dewan, Dwjuan F. Fox, Margaret C. Kerrison, Nathan D.T. Kitada, Anthony Sclafani Jr., Phyllis Toben and Ashley York.

Readers and Leaders

Third-graders from Maimonides Academy, Los Angeles, recently donated 48 Jester books and 24 Jester dolls to the Pediatric Hematology Oncology Unit of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The philanthropic youngsters read more than 19,000 pages for a penny a page during the one month Jester & Pharley’s Reading to Give campaign and collected additional funds, as well.

“I’m delighted by the incredible efforts of Maimonides Academy students to help ill children at Cedars-Sinai Hospital,” said Barbara Saltzman, executive director of The Jester & Pharley Phund. “Many people talk about how important it is to help others, but Maimonides students and their families have demonstrated what it really means to actually do something to help others, something that will make a difference for many years to come.”

A Big Step

Beit T’Shuvah held its annual “Steps to Recovery” gala dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel recently.

Young and In Charge

A new generation of Jewish leaders is taking the reins of philanthropy and making a difference through its efforts. Young WIZO, an organization dedicated to helping battered women and children in Israel, has brought together young Jewish professionals and business leaders across the L.A. area.

Bernard Hoffman, Lisa Gild, Joyce Azria-Nasir, Sabrina Wizman and many others have found that focusing their energy on Jewish community leadership brings profound meaning and unequivocal fulfillment to their day-to-day lives.

Through participation in organizations like The Jewish Federation, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Young WIZO, they are realizing their goals of helping to build a vibrant, thriving Jewish state.

If you are between the ages of 21-40 and would like to know more about upcoming events, contact Sabrina at or call (310) 278-8287.

Animal Crackers

Philanthropist Suzanne Gottlieb, and her company, Greenview Inc., gave the Greater Los Angeles Zoo $2 million for expansion and renovation of zoo. Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Zoo officially christened the zoo’s veterinary facility the Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center, in honor of Gottlieb and her late husband, attorney Robert J. Gottlieb. With Gottlieb, is GLAZA trustee and animal activist Betty White.

Friends in Israel

Women’s Alliance for Israel (WAIPAC) welcomed Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Consul-General of Israel Ehud Danoch at a reception hosted by Michal and Danny Alpert and Barbara and Jeff Scapa. WAIPAC is a bipartisan pro-Israel political action committee that supports candidates for and members of Congress who believe that Israel, an important ally and friend, deserves American friendship and support.


In Defense of Jewish Husbands

In early 1943, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decided to "avenge" the German defeat at Stalingrad by finally making Berlin completely "Judenrein."

On Feb. 27, the Gestapo and SS rounded up the last 5,000 Jewish men, and some women, still living legally in the German capital. They had been spared deportation so far because they were married to "Aryans" or had a non-Jewish parent.

Before sending them on to Auschwitz, some of the Jews were held at the former Jewish Community Welfare Office on Rosenstrasse.

The next morning, a few dozen Aryan wives of the imprisoned Jews stood in the cold outside the Rosenstrasse building, demanding the release of their husbands.

One day later, 100 more women and a few men, including one in a German army uniform, joined the protestors.

By the sixth day, close to 1,000 took part in the vigil, and when an SS contingent trained machine guns on the protestors, they screamed back "Murderers" and would not be moved.

"It wasn’t easy, even for Nazis, to shoot these women," director-writer Margarethe von Trotta commented. "After all, these were Aryan women who were displaying the supreme Germanic virtue — to be loyal to their husbands."

On the seventh day of the stand-off, Goebbels gave in. He ordered the Jews to be released to their families, including 25 men who had already been sent to Auschwitz.

Thus began and ended the only known successful internal public protest against Nazi rule, a fairly obscure historical incident now resurrected in the German film "Rosenstrasse."

Von Trotta, one of Europe’s preeminent filmmakers with a special gift for portraying strong women, has previously chronicled the story of 20th century Germany in such films as "Rosa Luxemburg" and "The Pledge." It took her some 10 years to complete the cycle by documenting her country’s "darkest period" in "Rosenstrasse."

While staying true to the basic facts, she has dramatized the story by telling it largely through the eyes of a young American Jewish woman, Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader).

Hannah’s mother, as a young child, was an eyewitness to the Rosenstrasse drama but had never talked about her past, so the daughter sets out to present-day Berlin to track down the family history.

There, Hannah encounters an old woman, Lena Fischer (Katja Riemann), who recounts the 1943 events in black-and-white flashbacks.

Lena had horrified her aristocratic German family by marrying a Jewish violinist and becomes one of the first protestors at Rosenstrasse when her husband is arrested.

The film is quite slow-paced, but it catches the grim, oppressive atmosphere of wartime Berlin, just undergoing its first massive British air raid.

Von Trotta also exposes the luxurious wartime lifestyle of the Nazi elite when Lena, as the beautiful blonde baroness, attends a party in a desperate attempt to charm Goebbels into releasing her husband.

Martin Wuttke, who impressed Los Angeles theatergoers a few years back in Bertolt Brecht’s "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" at UCLA, plays Goebbels.

During a brief visit to Los Angeles, von Trotta speculated on what gave a few hundred German housewives the moral backbone to defy the Nazi rulers in the midst of war.

"This was not a political demonstration," she said. "These women did not intend to act as a political group, but each woman wanted to protect her husband. They did not see themselves as heroines. They were afraid, they were in despair and they acted with the courage of despair."

Questioned on the continued focus of German and American filmmakers on the Nazi and Holocaust eras, von Trotta responded, "Hitler said that his Reich would last 1,000 years. We have to remember his crimes for the next 1,000 years."

As the "von" in her name indicates, the director is descended from an aristocratic German family, although since her mother was not married when Margarethe was born, she took her mother’s name.

"Actually, my mother’s ancestors were knight Crusaders, who after killing Jews and Muslims, returned from the Holy Land and settled in Eastern Europe to ‘Christianize’ the Baltic states and Russia," she said.

Von Trotta got her start as one of the most popular actresses of the New German Cinema, working closely with her former husband, director Volker Schlondorff.

When I mentioned to von Trotta that I had lived near Rosenstrasse as a youngster, she turned the interview around.

"There are lots of questions I want to ask you," she said. "How did you live during the Nazi period? Do you hate the Germans?"

But the next interviewer was already knocking on the door, and we agreed to continue our conversation by e-mail between Los Angeles and Paris, where the director lives.

"Rosenstrasse" opens Aug. 20 at three Laemmle theaters, Royal in West Los Angeles, Town Center 5 in Encino, and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

‘Flicks’ for Generation Y

Kenny Schnurr and Micah Smith are concerned about Jewish education. “One of the problems is that students are not interested [in what’s being taught],” Schnurr said. “The students are used to this very engaging visual language [of the media], and the teachers don’t have anything to compete with that.”

So Smith and Schnurr, both filmmakers in their 20s, teamed up to create J-Flicks, a series of educational “trigger” films that repackage esoteric Jewish concepts in a slick neo-MTV style garb for a media savvy audience.

The first of the J-Flicks, which was shown Wednesday night at the Museum of Tolerance is “The World To Come” — an eight-minute short that examines the beliefs and misconceptions associated with its titular locale in the light of traditional Jewish sources like the Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) and the Barternura (a medieval biblical commentator). It’s not a plodding documentary, but rather a combination of educational film and narrative film that deftly uses animation, special effects and humor to explain the connection between this world and the world to come and to explicate an otherwise abstruse notion that is an inherent part of the Jewish tradition.

Smith and Schnurr hope to make 10 such films at a budget of $100,000 each about different matters of Jewish philosophy, and then sell them, along with an educators’ package, to day schools, youth groups and Jewish orgnaizations on college campuses. J-Flicks aim to reach Jews across the spectrum of Jewish religious experience, and to use the films to trigger discussion about the concepts.

“This film focuses on the world to come but touches on different issues, like perception, the oral tradition, history,” said Smith, who graduated from New York University Film School and has made other trigger films about Jewish identity that are used by Hillels. “The teacher can take it in a million different directions.”

“Jews have mastered the tools of Hollywood, but they haven’t been using them for anything Jewish” Schnurr said. “But the power that film has is something that can be used for a lot of good.”

For more information visit .

‘Raising’ the Bar on Teen Comedies

Peter Sollett’s ebullient romantic comedy, "Raising Victor Vargas," about Hispanic teens in the East Village, began as a short film about, well, himself.

While tackling his NYU thesis film five years ago, Sollett imagined a semiautobiographical piece about a "10- to 13-year-old Jewish boy, whose life was like my own at that age." Like "Vargas," it was to be a "first-kiss story" that started at a neighborhood pool on a summer afternoon. And it was to be set in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood reminiscent of his old block in Bensonhurst.

But when Sollett and his Barcelona-born producer, Eva Vives, tried to cast Brooklyn kids through agencies in 1998, he said they "saw actors who were just mimicking what they saw on TV." To find more natural performers, they hit the streets, plastering their lower Manhattan neighborhood with fliers inviting teens to audition.

"We weren’t thinking about the demographics, so we didn’t realize that most of the kids who would turn up would be Hispanic," the precise, articulate director said from his East Village apartment. "We started seeing actors, most of them nonprofessionals, who really blew us away, so we decided to make the film about them."

One of the most impressive teens to audition was Victor Rasuk, who inspired the filmmakers with an improvisation about confronting a bully who was tormenting his brother.

"I expected him to become threatening and aggressive, but instead he began talking about how much his brother meant to him and how hurt he’d be if anything were to happen to him," Sollett said. "But the subtext was that if anything were to happen, Victor’s behavior would become that of someone with little left to lose. He was complex and unpredictable, and our interest in him was immediate."

Sollett promptly cast Rasuk as Vargas; Rasuk’s brother, Silvestre, as Vargas’ onscreen brother, and the casting director’s 74-year-old aunt, Altagracia Guzman, as their cantankerous grandmother. When the short film, titled "Five Feet High and Rising," won top awards at Sundance and Cannes in 2000, he and Vives expanded the story into "Raising Victor Vargas," which used the same cast and was developed, in part, at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Sollett’s shooting style would be as unusual as his casting methods. "The actors never saw the script," he said. Rather, he used the screenplay as a jumping-off point during a month of rehearsals, throwing out lines or situations to encourage his inexperienced performers to improvise. "I continually asked them, how would you react in a particular situation?" he says. "This put them in a vulnerable position in a way. If an actor looks surprised [in the movie], it’s because he was surprised when we were shooting. They’re not pulling faces on cue."

The script also began incorporating stories from the actors’ real lives: Like Rasuk, the fictional Vargas experiences sibling rivalry and clashes with his grandmother — his legal guardian and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. The female leads, including Jude Marte as Vargas’ love interest and Melonie Diaz as her best friend, introduced "their own ways of dealing with an environment in which boys can be very sexually aggressive," Sollett said.

The result is the hyperrealistic "Victor Vargas," in which a self-proclaimed stud learns a thing or two about girls when he puts the moves on his wary neighbor, Judy (Marte). According to People, the low-budget comedy is a "rare film about teens that gets them right."

Sollett, for his part, grew up in a Reform Jewish home, where his father, a newspaper photographer, encouraged his interest in moving pictures. As an adolescent, he encountered the movies of Woody Allen, which he said helped him to discover "the culture of Manhattan and the world of art films.

"In Allen’s movies, characters debate about Bergman and Fellini, and if you’re 12, and don’t know who they are, you can pick up on those references and look into them," he said.

By age 16, he had his own Super-8 camera, although he wasn’t as cocky or handsome as the fictional Vargas.

"I wanted to be cool and to fit in, but I didn’t," he said of his high school years. After graduation, he was rejected twice from NYU’s film school before succeeding on the third try.

These days, however, Sollett has reason to be as confident as his "Vargas" protagonist. Among other kudos, "Vargas" was lauded by "About Schmidt" director Alexander Payne as the best American movie he saw last year. Its stellar reception at Cannes and Sundance may place Sollett among filmmakers, such as Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), whose career kicked off on the festival circuit.

The Jewish director, who has become close friends with his actors, sees parallels between their Latino American background and his own. "There’s always a generation gap with relatives from the old country and a falling away of religious observance," he said. "So it’s not such a distant experience."

"Raising Victor Vargas" opens April 18 in Los Angeles.

About Two Boys

On a cloudy afternoon in Hollywood, Paul and Chris Weitz arerecounting how their late father, legendary fashion designer John Weitz,dressed down a man who dissed their raunchy comedy, “American Pie.”

The elder Weitz had laughed hysterically throughout ascreening of the 1999 film, best known for a scene involving a libidinousteenager and a pastry.

“The next day, an elderly gentleman approached dad in adiner,” says Paul, 37, sprawled in a fuzzy beanbag chair in the brothers’rambling offices.

“He said the movie was vulgar,” adds Chris, 33, who, likehis brother, is dressed in rumpled jeans. “And our father, who was always quickto accept a challenge, even in his 70s, said, ‘Haven’t you ever masturbated inyour life?'”

A photograph of the impeccably groomed pere Weitz dominatesa corner of the casually messy office; father figures loom large, as well, inthe brothers’ comic films. In “Pie,” a well-meaning but dorky dad (Eugene Levy)mortifies his son with overly candid talks about sex. In “About a Boy,” basedon Nick Hornby’s novel, Hugh Grant plays a selfish London bachelor who becomessurrogate father to a bullied, misfit kid.

John Weitz wasn’t required to defend “Boy” from bullies, asthe witty, heartfelt film earned the brothers rave reviews and a 2003 AcademyAward nomination for best adapted screenplay. He never learned about the Oscarnod, however, as he died in October after a long battle with cancer.

“It was sad because one of my first thoughts was that hewould have been so tickled,” Paul says.

“It felt so surreal,” Chris says, quietly. “He was such apowerful figure that he managed to get inside your head to the extent that youfelt like it was possible that if one person on earth could not die, he wasgoing to be the guy.”

John Weitz, the son of wealthy, assimilated Berlin Jews,fled Hitler to Shanghai and then to New York in the late 1930s, his sons say.By age 19, he was an OSS spy posing as a Nazi officer in that agency’s mostdangerous mission: aiding the German resistance’s plot to kill Hitler. Afterthe war, he helped liberate Dachau, “which forever destroyed a kind ofinnocence for our dad,” Paul says. He subsequently reinvented himself as apioneering designer who starred in his own ads, raced cars professionally, and,in his later years, wrote best-selling novels and non-fiction books aboutHitler’s Germany.

The brothers are the product of his third marriage, toglamorous actress Susan Kohner — daughter of famous Jewish agent Paul Kohnerand Mexican Catholic actress Lupita Tovar. While the Weitz’s Park Avenuehousehold was nonreligious, it was not entirely assimilated: “Our fatheridentified as Jewish almost out of spite toward [anti-Semites],” Chris says.

“He was always scornful of people who changed their names,”Paul says. “The only people he thought should change their names were thefamily members of ex-Nazis.”

The brothers inherited his subversive streak, sometimes tohis chagrin. Dad wanted them to wear twin Navy blazers with insignias; theypreferred shlumpy jeans. When John Weitz hired a German nanny to watch theboys, then 7 and 11, during a vacation, “We tortured her,” Paul says. “We keptasking her what she thought of Hitler until she finally said, ‘He made thecountry work.’ We were like little OSS guys undermining her authority andquestioning her politics until she got so aggravated that she left.”

When Kohner’s famous clients came calling (Ingmar Bergmaneven took them to the circus), the brothers remained cheerfully oblivious.Chris’ recollection of Billy Wilder, now one of the Weitzs’ cinematic heroes:”He didn’t know us from Adam, but he was nice to us because of ourgrandparents.”

By the 1990s, Paul and Chris Weitz, graduates of Wesleyanand Cambridge University, respectively, were determined to launch their ownfilmmaking careers. Their father initially had his own idea of how they shouldproceed: “He kept suggesting that we ring up Merchant Ivory Productions,” Chrissays with a laugh. Instead, the boisterous, bookish brothers snagged scriptdoctoring assignments and persuaded DreamWorks to let them write the 1998animated film, “Antz.”

For their directorial debut, they latched onto Adam Herz’s”American Pie,” which placed them among a growing list of filmmaking brothers(Coens, Farrellys, Wachowskis) whose perspective is not only shared butgenetic. They don’t think it’s surprising that the scions of all that JohnWeitz breeding grew up to make a ribald teen classic: “There is a kind of oldBerlin, knockabout bawdy sense of humor in ‘American Pie,’ which was our dad’s senseof humor, actually,” Chris says.

Nevertheless — in part to counter the raunchy image — theysought to make a more sophisticated, Billy Wilder-ish comedy after “AmericanPie.” They knew they’d found it upon reading “About a Boy”: Hornby’sprotagonist “reminded us of Jack Lemmon’s character in ‘The Apartment,'” Chrissays. “The story is unerringly optimistic, but there’s enough cynicism and acidin it not to make you gag.”

When Hornby and Grant balked at hiring the “pie guys,” thebrothers won them over during a series of social calls (they bonded with Grantwhile getting falling-down drunk in London). They begged Universal for twoyears before landing the project.

Grant, for one, was impressed: “As it turns out, Chris andPaul are probably the most highbrow directors I’ve ever worked with,” he toldNewsweek. “Bizarrely so. They sit around on the set reading Freud andDostoyevsky.”

Since receiving the Oscar nomination, and other “Boy” kudos,the brothers no longer have to beg to direct projects of their choice. They’vetoyed with the idea of filming their father’s story, although they haverejected that idea, for the time being, because “you don’t want tosensationalize it or mess it up,” according to Paul. Instead, they’re workingon another comedy, “The Making of a Chef,” about the escapades of culinaryschool students. Their father would have liked it, they think.

Even though the cooking saga will not feature a pie.

The Academy Awards air March 23 on ABC.

Caped Crusaders

The $114 million opening weekend for the release of "Spider-Man" on May 3 was not only a box office record breaker but a resounding triumph for two wily Israeli entrepreneurs.

In his new book, "Comic Wars," journalist Dan Raviv details the dramatic battle of Revlon CEO Ronald Perelman, financier Carl Icahn and the two Israelis, Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad, who toppled both Perelman and Icahn from the throne of Marvel — home to such legendary characters as the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Captain America and, of course, Spider-Man — rescued the company and brought it roaring into the 21st century as a major media force.

Perlmutter and Arad had owned a company, Toy Biz, which manufactured memorabilia based on Marvel’s characters. When Perelman bought Marvel comics in 1989, Perlmutter was convinced that Perelman’s business savvy would bring Marvel to new heights. Instead Perelman brought Marvel to its knees with a crushing $600 million of debt, while, according to Raviv, Perelman pocketed nearly $280 million by selling junk bonds off of Marvel’s previously profitable enterprise.

The largest buyer of those junk bonds was Carl Icahn, who was later awarded temporary stewardship of the company by a bankruptcy court. When Icahn’s leadership failed, Perlmutter and Arad kicked into high gear and transformed Marvel Entertainment into Marvel Enterprises — a company that now has four films in production with such stars as Halle Berry, Jennifer Connelly and Ben Affleck.

The son of Israeli immigrants, Raviv has been a reporter with CBS since 1976, stationed in Miami, New York, Tel Aviv and London and is currently posted in Washington, D.C. The author of three previous book on Israeli politics, including "Every Spy a Prince," about the Israeli intelligence community, he sat down with The Jewish Journal to discuss "Comic Wars" and the fall and resurrection of Marvel.

The Jewish Journal: Previously you’ve written about Israeli politics, why did you want to write about comic books?

Dan Raviv: I was resistant at first, because I never thought of myself as a business reporter, but I kept running into people who had worked on the case, and I was just very taken with the story. The decisive factor was when I heard that two Israelis had won the battle [to head Marvel comics]. Because all of my books have involved Israelis, Israelis in America who’ve taken over a comic book company was just too good a story to pass up.

Journal: What was Marvel’s business situation before they were bought by Perelman in 1989?

Raviv: They were getting along as a small company, but it was only a small profit business. It’s unclear, however, if without a big money person behind them, that Marvel would have survived. They might have been too small for our modern media age. The Perelman people have since said it was always a bad business and their mistake was not realizing it sooner. Comic books are very small and are largely dependent on the whims of collectors.

Journal: How did Perelman drive Marvel into the ground? Is it a classic story of noncreative people running a creative enterprise?

Raviv: That and over expansion and too much borrowing. The ways that he chose to expand Marvel weren’t the most sensible. He bought baseball and trading card companies to increase the company’s attractiveness on Wall Street but kept on rejecting movie proposals. For example, Stan Lee [Spider-Man’s creator] brought him a property he wanted to develop for film and was told, "You don’t understand. Perelman doesn’t want to make movies."

With movies you have a long lead time, and the chances of hitting it big are uncertain, but if you care about the characters, it makes sense to develop them in new media formats. Skip ahead a decade, and the idea of putting the characters in the movies seems brilliant.

Journal: How was Marvel rescued?

Raviv: Perelman failed, and Marvel had to file for bankruptcy. Then Icahn — who was the largest buyer of Perelman’s junk bonds — tried to head the company for less than six months. A court-appointed trustee then had to decide around 1997-1998 whether the company should live or die.

That’s when Perlmutter and Arad kicked into high gear. They had tried to work with Perelman and then Icahn, but when it was clear that the trustee’s decision meant life or death for Marvel [and thereby for their own company which was dependent on licensing Marvel’s characters], they wooed the banks to go with them, which is what you have to do in bankruptcy proceedings. When the banks are satisfied, generally the judge will be satisfied.

On erev Rosh Hashana, Ike and Avi spoke to an assembled meeting of the bankers to plead for Marvel’s survival. Avi said, "Don’t sell this company to Icahn on the cheap! Spider-Man is worth a billion dollars." It turned out he was right! The banks came around, and by early 1998, Toy Biz took over Marvel Entertainment and renamed it Marvel Enterprises.

Journal: Why were Arad and Perlmutter able to rescue Marvel?

Raviv: They have that Israeli persistence and stubbornness. Arad wants to protect the characters, and Perlmutter wants to protect the money. Avi loves the Marvel characters and considers them his "children." Ike doesn’t read the comics or go to movies, but has a keen attention to details. Ike Perlmutter pays attention to every business detail, and he totally trusts Arad with the creative details.

Journal: What is the future for Marvel?

Raviv: "Spider-Man" is proof of their victory, but only the beginning of Marvel’s new life in Hollywood. The company was around since 1939 and these two guys took it to a new level. It’s only now graduating into a new level of media exposure. "Spider-Man" is only the beginning.

Silence in Any Language

The Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of five international filmmakers, will air on successive evenings on Cinemax, from April 15-19, at 7 p.m.

Collectively titled "Broken Silence," the series, produced by James Moll (who won an Oscar for the documentary, "The Last Days"), consists of one-hour documentaries from Hungary, Argentina, Russia, Czech Republic and Poland, each in its native language with English subtitles.

The series is one more spinoff from the prodigious work of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in videotaping the testimonies of more than 50,000 survivors in 57 countries and 32 languages.

While the massive testimonies are still being catalogued, the Shoah Foundation has already culled its archives to produce three prize-winning documentaries and two educational CDs.

Cinemax made tapes of three of the five films available for previews, of which the most impressive is the Hungarian entry, "Eyes of the Holocaust," by director Janos Szasz.

Szasz, the son of two Holocaust survivors, focuses on the experiences of child survivors and dedicates the film "to the 1.5 million children who perished, and for those who survived and had children of their own."

As in the other films, the actual survivor testimonies form the backbone of the documentary, but Szasz interweaves some devices that might have been jarring in a filmmaker of less artistic sensitivity.

One such device is to have a young girl read out the dictionary definition of each topic, such as "anti-Semitism," "ghetto" and "deportation," which is then graphically illustrated by archival footage.

In keeping with the emphasis on children, Szasz occasionally relives the stark footage by introducing their drawings, as well as puppets and toy trains, on their way to Auschwitz.

Throughout, there are the haunting eyes of children, tearful and bewildered as they are separated from their parents, huge in the gaunt faces of death camp survivors.

The one-time child survivors, now old, remember well: the gleeful laughter of their gentile neighbors as the Jews march to the deportation trains; concentration camp life in which "there was no space for solidarity, everyone had to trample on the others," and the sad conclusion, "God was not there in Auschwitz."

Los Angeles-based Andy Vajna ("Rambo" and "Total Recall") served as the documentary’s executive producer.

Russia’s "Children From the Abyss" also concentrates on the younger victims of the Holocaust, with director Pavel Chukhraj largely letting the horrifying facts and reminiscences speak for themselves. Leafing through old family photo albums, Chukhraj creates a picture of pre-war Jewish life in the Soviet Union, which seems a touch too idyllic.

Curious, in the light of Stalin’s subsequent paranoid anti-Semitism, is the faith of some death camp inmates that "If Stalin knew what was happening here, he would save us."

Another delusion by some as the deportation trains rolled onward was that "We are being sent to Palestine — it’s warm there."

Most gut-wrenching are the recollections of the child survivors of Babi Yar, where 150,000 Kiev Jews were slaughtered, and the sadistic brutality of the Ukraine police, which exceeded even their German masters.

The Czech Republic’s "Hell on Earth" was directed by Vojtech Jasny, who fought the Nazis as a partisan after his father was murdered in Auschwitz.

He focuses on the sad history within his country’s borders: Hitler’s rapturous reception by the Sudeten Germans in 1939, then the occupation of Prague and, after the war’s beginning, establishment of the "model" concentration camp at Theresienstadt.

In Czechoslovakia, as in Austria, the anti-Semitic laws that took years to evolve in Germany, were imposed full-blown and immediately on Czech Jews.

As throughout conquered Europe, most Czech Jews ended up in Auschwitz, and the graphic details of the survivors’ recollections bear out their insistence that "It is impossible to share our experiences, they can’t be captured."

Bevy of Jewish-Directed Films

Bevy of Jewish-Directed Films

They’re hot, they’re Jewish, and they all have new movies out this weekend. At your local cineplex, you’ll find four films directed by Jewish filmmakers: There’s “Requiem for a Dream,” the latest from stylish filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, a bleak, controversial drama about a Jewish family descending into drug addiction. Picture Ellen Burstyn as a Coney Island widow spiraling into a diet-pill funk.

Israeli-born Rod Lurie, previously the meanest film critic in L.A., is the director of “The Contender,” which answers the question, could a female politician survive a Lewinsky-like scandal?

Mimi Leder, whose dream project is a film about her parents’ post-Holocaust romance, has “Pay It Forward,” her tribute to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam .

And the brilliant, 30-something director James Gray is back with “The Yards,” his Godfather-like treatise on New York greed and graft, starring James Caan, Mark Wahlberg and Ellen Burstyn.Bottom line: Go see a movie this weekend. – Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Good Intentions
How do Jews actually practice their religion, in contrast to what rabbis tell us we ought to do?

In researching his book “Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today,” Columbia University Professor Ari Goldman came across some real pearls, he recently told a UCLA audience. For example, on Shabbat observance:

“I don’t floss my teeth on Shabbat.”

“I don’t eat shellfish on Shabbat.”

“I drive, but not on freeways.”

Some other quirky observations:

“I keep kosher, but only within 50 miles of my home.”

“I keep three sets of dishes – for meat, dairy and Chinese food.”

Said Goldman, “I love these responses; they say so much about American Jews, who try to find their own comfort level in their practice of Judaism.” – By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Half-Witted Hate

The Islamic Center of Southern California was targeted by vandals twice during the last week, though in one instance the perpetrator apparently mistook a mosque for a synagogue.

In the first act of vandalism, the front of the combined mosque and community center on Vermont Avenue was defaced on Oct. 26 with a swastika and the words, “Jew, Go Home.”On Sunday evening, a large rock shattered the front glass door of the center while worshipers were praying inside.

In response, the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission called a news conference Monday, with the participation of Muslim and Jewish members.

Joe R. Hicks, the commission’s executive director, said in a subsequent interview, “It is especially heinous when a house of worship is singled out. We must react any time it happens, even, as in the case of the graffiti, the bigot may be stupid or ignorant or mentally deranged.”

Police had no leads on possible suspects, Hicks said.

Salam Al-Marayati, vice president of the commission and a leading Arab Muslim spokesman, said that whenever tensions rise in the Middle East, “We [Muslims] always get the backlash; we are scapegoated.” He added that he was disappointed that the local media had largely ignored the attacks on the mosque.Howard Welinsky, past chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, attended the news conference representing The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“It is important that the Jewish community react when any place of worship is targeted,” he said.As for the graffiti painter, Welinsky said, “He must be the dumbest bigot in town.” – Tom Tugend, Contributing Editorn