Dustin Hoffman says it’s a great era for television, the worst ever for film

While television has never been better, according to veteran actor and two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, film has never been worse.

The star of the iconic Mike Nichols 1960s film “The Graduate,” who felt he was miscast because the main character, Benjamin Braddock, seemed to him appropriate for a WASP rather than a Jewish actor, observes that Hollywood is too obsessed with their bottom lines and budgets. He noted that “The Graduate” was a labor of love which screenwriters spent three years developing and took 100 days of shooting in a rather simple set.

The typical time for shooting a movie nowadays is only 20 days, which may be partly attributable to advances in digital technology, but may also be because of dwindling budgets per film to ensure that a larger number of movies get churned out.

Hoffman admits that in Los Angeles he felt encouraged to downplay his Jewishness, although he adds his non observant family did not emphasize being Jewish in the first place. He says the first time he became conscious that he was Jewish, about ten, he was tempted to go to a deli, buy bagels and decorate the Chanukkah bush with them.

“There was insidious anti-semitism in Los Angeles,” Hoffman told JC.com, and he looked forward to moving to New York at the age of 21. “New York was a town that had not had a face lift. It had not had a nose job.”

Hoffman’s first wife, Anne Byrne, was a ballerina of Irish Catholic extraction, and his second wife, Lisa Gottsegen, with whom he has been married for 23 years, has emphasized carrying on their Jewish tradition. Hoffman notes that the children have had bar and bat mitzvahs and they celebrate the holidays. He traces his love of herring and vodka to his Russian and Romanian heritage and adds, “I have a strong reaction to any antisemitism.”

He recalls being confronted in an upscale, pastry cafe outside of Hamburg, after visiting Bergen Belsen with a man screaming “Juden! Dostin Hovvman! Juden!” While the man was escorted out, Hoffman says he feels he should have gone up to the man and said, “Yeah? And? And? What of it?”

The dramatic ending of “Marathon Man” that had Dr. Szell, a Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier, falling to his death while trying to retrieve his diamonds, resulted from Dustin Hoffman’s refusal to shoot him point blank, as was written in the script.

He told JC.com, “I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi.”

Hoffman hasn’t abandoned film as a pursuit, and recently starred in a film “The Choir,” about a director of a boarding school choir. He feels his having a leading role may be attributable to the fact he is already a big name, and laments that as actors get older, they are usually relegated to supporting roles. He said his role in “The Choir” should really be a supporting one, since it is “really the story of the boy.”

After 50 years in show business, Hoffman is still going strong. He directed “The Quartet” in 2012, about a group of retired musicians. He experienced disappointment when the HBO TV Series “Luck” was cancelled after its second season.

Dustin Hoffman says if he had not been an actor, he would have been happy being a jazz pianist, but he didn’t feel he was skilled enough to play professionally.

His Aunt Pearl told him that he should not try to be an actor because he was “too ugly,” and his mother suggested that he follow her lead and also get a nose job, reassuring him with “you’ll feel better.”

Mike Nichols asked Hoffman to give a screen test for the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” after seeing Hoffman perform on Broadway, even though Hoffman confessed he imagined an actor like Robert Redford getting the role.

Bar mitzvah film school

Over the years I’ve attended several bar mitzvahs — most of them at the movies.

Not being Jewish, I’ve only attended one actual bar mitzvah — which took place during the Nixon era — and the only memories I have of it are eating Baked Alaska and trying to swipe whiskey sours from the bar. As a result, I still look to the movies to educate me on this coming-of-age ceremony.

One of the earliest films on the subject is a drama aptly titled “Bar Mitzvah,” produced in 1935. Although it was an American production, the entire film is in Yiddish with English subtitles. “Bar Mitzvah” stars Yiddish theater pioneer Boris Thomashefsky in his only feature film appearance. Thomashefsky, a Ukrainian immigrant, is credited with bringing Yiddish theater to America at the end of the 19th century, and with his wife, Bessie, founded the National Theater in what would become New York’s Yiddish Theater District.

The film, based on Thomashefsky’s play of the same name, tells the story of a woman thought to be lost at sea for 10 years who returns home on the eve of her son’s bar mitzvah to find her husband remarried, resulting in “shock, tears and laughter,” according to the National Center for Jewish Film. Largely uncirculated for years, “Bar Mitzvah” has been restored and is available on DVD.

Decades followed during which bar mitzvahs in movies were rare, if not altogether absent. And when they appeared again, they were often portrayed with satire, humor and an abundance of angst.

In 2006, British filmmaker Paul Weiland reveals his anxiety in “Sixty Six,” a “true-ish story” about his bar mitzvah. Set in 1966 London, Weiland’s film tells the tale of 13-year-old Bernie Reubens, a sickly nerd who feels he’s invisible to the world around him. When his rabbi describes Bernie’s upcoming bar mitzvah as “an epic two-day festival at which you are the absolute center of attention,” the boy becomes obsessed with making it the “ ‘Gone With the Wind’ … of bar mitzvahs.”

But Bernie’s elaborate plans are soon thwarted, first by his financially strapped parents — who have planned a much cozier event — and then by his fear that England will make it to the World Cup final, which falls on the same day as his bar mitzvah party (imagine trying to compete with the Super Bowl here in America). When the English team does make it to the championship, guests begin making excuses as to why they can’t attend his celebration.

Weiland decided to turn his childhood trauma into a movie after telling the story at his 50th birthday party, where his film industry guests encouraged him to do so. Helena Bonham Carter was so impressed by the anecdote, she asked Weiland if she could play his mother in the film, which she did.

The 2006 comedy “Keeping Up with the Steins” offers another angst-ridden tale of bar mitzvah planning, but this time, the parents are the ones with the grandiose aspirations. The film opens at Zachary Stein’s lavishly produced “Titanic”-themed party on a cruise ship featuring celebrities, a yarmulke-wearing killer whale, and the bar mitzvah boy making a spectacular entrance on the bow of a Titanic replica, proclaiming “Today, I am king of the Torah!” Determined not to be outdone by his professional rival, Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) vows to throw his son Benjamin “the biggest bar mitzvah in the history of bar mitzvahs!” Adam decides on a baseball-themed event at Dodger Stadium, with Neil Diamond singing the national anthem and Wolfgang Puck catering the bash with chicken paillard baseball mitts and sausage foie gras shaped like Louisville Sluggers.

But Benjamin wants no part of his parents’ elaborate plan. He’s more concerned with trying to understand the meaning of his Torah portion and overcoming his “haftarah phobia.” And while his parents are busy treating his bar mitzvah as a fierce competition, Benjamin prefers a more meaningful theme to celebrate his rite of passage — family. The boy nixes the overblown plan in favor of a downsized backyard event, serving mom’s matzah ball soup, grandma’s brisket and Neil Diamond performing “Hava Nagila.”

Benjamin’s “haftarah phobia” seems fairly common among 13-year-olds preparing for their big event. Another example can be seen in the 2000 comedy-drama “Keeping the Faith,” where a New Age rabbi (Ben Stiller) is helping an anxious boy prepare for his bar mitzvah. “I suck,” the boy declares about his singing, but the rabbi encourages him to embrace his “suckiness,” successfully boosting the boy’s confidence if not his vocal ability.

Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann’s 2006 documentary, “Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah,” gives us an intimate and humorous look at four 12-year-old boys and girls, each from different Jewish cultures, preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. The film reveals the behind-the-scenes anxiety and drama of these preparations, as well as an ambivalent view of Jewish traditions and their varied interpretations.

One of the most memorable bar mitzvahs in recent movies comes courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2009 film, “A Serious Man.” Although the action takes place in a 1967 Minnesota suburb, much like the one where the Coens grew up, the story is not necessarily autobiographical. In fact the brothers’ original idea, as revealed in the film’s DVD bonus documentary, “Becoming Serious,” was to make a short film about a bar mitzvah boy who visits an aged rabbi. The rabbi was based on one the Coens knew, whom they describe as an “aged kind of sage who said nothing, but had a lot of charisma.”

Instead, the Coens developed their idea into a feature, with the bar mitzvah supplying the film’s climax. In order to keep things as authentic as possible, the Coens cast a real cantor as well as actual members of the Minnesota congregation they used in the film.

The highlight of the film is when Danny, the bar mitzvah boy, disoriented from having just smoked marijuana in the temple bathroom, gingerly makes his way to the podium. Once he reaches his destination, the zonked-out boy is stunned by the gazing congregation and by the long pages of Hebrew text sprawled out in front of him. Danny finally manages to pull himself together and complete his task. Afterward, he has an audience with the synagogue’s wise old rabbi who offers Danny words of wisdom, quoting from the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love.”

The Coens were concerned about how synagogue members would react to the unorthodox scene as well as their satire of Minnesota Jews in general. But they needn’t have worried because, as they explain in the DVD doc, “Everybody connected to the synagogue knew about the getting high scene, and they all had a sense of humor about it.”

So, what have I learned about bar mitzvahs from these movies? They can be diversely extravagant, intimate, competitive, stressful, comical, solemn or psychedelic. But invariably, the parties are a raucous festivity where each newly crowned Jewish young adult can proudly proclaim, “Today, I am king of the Torah!”

He witnessed — and filmed — the horror of the Holocaust

In early April 1945, Arthur Mainzer, barely 22, was a United States Army Air Forces cameraman assigned to documenting the war in Europe; he’d been serving for three years, and, so far, World War II had not been a horrific experience for him. In fact, it had been exciting. He’d had adventures, suffered no injuries and fallen in love. Already, the Allies were sensing victory, the Nazi military was clearly in its death rattle, and Mainzer was looking for the war to be over so he could marry Germaine, the French woman he’d fallen for, and bring her back with him to the States.

Mainzer, who is Catholic, was born in Canada, and when he was very young, his family moved to Chicago, where he grew up in a neighborhood with people of various races and religions, including Jews. As a youth, he kept up with the war news, and in 1942, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. 

He’d been a film hobbyist in high school, so the Army sent him to technical school in Denver, where he learned the ins and outs of film cameras. He was then assigned to a unit in Culver City, working on military training films with an actor named Ronald Reagan.

By November 1943, Mainzer was assigned to be a combat cameraman in Europe. There, in a film unit headed by Capt. Ellis Carter, he accompanied many bombing missions; archival footage of his unit’s work shows bombs, sometimes as tracer-like streaks of light, hitting — or missing — their target.

In June 1944, soon after D-Day, Mainzer’s unit filmed bombing runs in Normandy and beyond. In the spring of 1945, three weeks before victory was declared in Europe, Mainzer was called upon to handle a special mission: He and his superior officer, Carter, were told to drive deep into Germany to a town called Weimar, where, they were told, a nearby labor camp had just been liberated. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had ordered the soldiers in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army — who had entered that camp the day before — not to touch anything until the area was thoroughly filmed, and that was the job assigned to Mainzer and Carter. 

“It took a long while for me to get over this. It’s something you never want to see. … You never want to see again.” — Holocaust cameraman Arthur Mainzer

So the two, traveling by jeep, made the six-hour trip across Germany. As they drove, they talked about technical matters: They discussed how to handle their recently acquired 16-millimeter color Kodachrome camera, and they talked about their lack of a tripod, which would force them to do hand-held shots using heavy rolls of 100-foot film, whose weight would make it difficult for them to brace themselves.

On April 15, 1945, the two cameramen arrived at Buchenwald. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw — and smelled and felt — when they stepped into the camp. Just inside, they were greeted by a large sign that read: “JEDEM DAS SEINE,” a German expression that literally means, “To each his own,” but really means: “Everyone gets what he deserves.”

In the film “Shooting War,” Mainzer is quoted on camera: “As a soldier in the American army, I had no knowledge of these [concentration] camps. I had not heard anything about it. It was horrible. There were bodies stacked up like cordwood.”


Mainzer, now 92, lives in Agoura Hills, north of Los Angeles, and his heart-wrenching concentration camp footage captured that April day and afterward went on to be used as damning evidence during the Nuremberg Trials. It has been archived by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Veterans History Project and has appeared in at least two documentaries: the recently aired “Night Will Fall” and “Shooting War” from 2000, both of which include on-camera interviews with Mainzer. A 20-minute YouTube clip of camp horrors that he filmed has been viewed more than 25,000 times.

Today, Mainzer is gentle, good-humored and still — as the Irish say — a fine figure of a man. He was friendly and forthcoming during a visit by a Journal reporter, but he suffers from the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes it hard for him to give coherent answers to questions. Fortunately, he also gave interviews years ago, some of which are in the public record, and those accounts, along with the interview done this past week by the Journal, provide a personal dimension to the shattering images he captured on film.

“There was an awful stench,” he told the Journal of that first shocking visit to Buchenwald. “I shot almost all the footage because Carter just couldn’t do it — it was too much for him. He was sick; he couldn’t stand the sight of it, so he loaded the camera, and I shot. I didn’t feel so good either, especially in the close-ups.”

 Scenes captured by young combat cameraman Mainzer immediately following the Allies’ liberation of Buchenwald

Mainzer’s footage shows huge numbers of dead bodies, skin-and-bone, piled haphazardly on a flatbed truck or lying on the ground. For each shot, he focused the camera on a single scene, as steady as he could for a long time, as much as 25 to 30 seconds for a single image. As the camera focuses on, or pans slowly across, bodies of people who have starved to death, 30 seconds can seem an eternity.

Then, often, the camera zooms in for a close-up. Even now, some 70 years since it was made, to watch the film is still unbearable.

Just as Mainzer was shooting, Eisenhower ordered the Third Army liberators to go into nearby Weimar and gather all the adult residents. In an interview carried out by the USC-Shoah Foundation, Leo Hymes, an American soldier from Idaho who helped liberate the camp, describes how he and his fellow GIs brought the local Germans into Buchenwald to witness what was there. “We marched everyone in that town through the camp, and we made sure they dug the graves,” Hymes said.

Mainzer filmed that event, too, in color. “German civilians from Weimar were paraded through a tour of the camp to show them the atrocities, to show them what the Germans had done,” Mainzer said in his interview in “Shooting War.” “Many of these locals wouldn’t even look at the … bodies. Some were crying or had their mouth and nose covered with a handkerchief. … In the film, you can see that they did this [only] because they were required to; they weren’t too interested in looking at the atrocity.”

“In my mind’s eye there’s an image burned,” Hymes said in the Shoah Foundation footage, “of this big, strapping woman in an SS uniform, with her sensible shoes, carrying this broken, naked skeleton of a body over her shoulders, with her mouth covered with her handkerchief as she takes this body to be dumped into the mass grave on top of thousands of other bodies.”

Benjamin Ferencz is a Jewish, Hungarian-born American lawyer sent by Patton to investigate Buchenwald after its liberation. He, too, was there when Mainzer was filming the camp. In Ferencz’s interview for “When Night Falls,” he says: “It was like peering into hell.” As an eyewitness to the horror, Ferencz would later serve as one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg.

There are images that, once seen, can never be unseen. Near the beginning of Mainzer’s YouTube footage, a dark-bearded man lies on the ground on his back, his head turned to one side. His eye sockets appear empty. His arms are placed over his chest in such a way that the fingers of his thin and delicate hands are laced, palms on his chest. A close-up of his forearm reveals a large “slave labor” tattoo: 126747. 

The camera pans across piles and piles of twisted, emaciated bodies. The effects of disease, torture and starvation are obvious.

In an interview for the Veterans History Project, Mainzer described the scene: There “were areas where bodies were stacked up; they didn’t have time to burn them or bury them because the Allies were approaching. The Germans were getting ready to cremate some, but they didn’t have the time; they could hear the warfront approaching, so the SS guys [who ran] the camps just took off.”

The footage also shows human beings barely hanging on to life, some dressed in the now-familiar uniforms with wide vertical stripes. One man holds his hands clasped in front of him, as if in prayer, but the gesture is clearly meant as a thank-you to the liberators. There’s also a young man, legs much too weak and withered to hold him up, leaning against a doorway. And there’s a 4-year-old child amid the silent color footage, trying to smile — but the only expression he can manage is tears.

Sondheim’s Freudian ‘Woods’

The movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway classic Into the Woods, which opened in theaters yesterday, is much more than several interwoven, fractured fairy tales. It’s a thicket of symbols and themes that draw directly on the ideas and Weltanschauung of Sigmund Freud.

The central symbol of the movie is, of course, the Woods. They represent Freud’s Id, the primal instinct filled with sexual and violent urges. In civilization, the Id is at odds with the conscience – what Freud called the Superego. But in a primeval setting, the Superego doesn’t exist, or as Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine, whose grandfather was Jewish) sings, “Right and wrong don’t matter in the Woods.”

The story opens, of course, “Once upon a time,” in a small village at the edge of the Woods, thus teetering on the boundary line between civilization and chaos. The main characters enter the forest in search of their wishes: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to attend the ball at the King’s festival; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford – get used to hearing her name) wants to bring food to her Granny; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) reluctantly prepares to part with his bovine friend to help feed his family; and the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) seek ingredients for a potion that will convince the Witch (Meryl Streep, dazzling as always) to lift a curse that has kept them childless.

These wishes are each character’s “woulds” (Woods) – their visions of fulfilling their lives.

Freud actually had a lot to say about wishes. His The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) proposed that when the Id’s desires are repressed by the Superego and the Ego (the self, essentially), people can go through the involuntary thought process of “wish fulfillment,” expressed through anything from daydreams to fantasies to psychotic hallucinations – in other words, fairy tales.

The most primal moments in the movie’s Woods are disturbing, to say the least. Johnny Depp’s Wolf represents pedophiliac desire. His only number is “Hello, Little Girl,” in which he sings of the “scrumptious carnality” of the child and her grandmother. He’s clearly not hoping to just eat them. I mean, he literally offers Little Red Riding Hood candy!

After their encounter, the young girl describes her confused feelings (“excited and scared”) in her song “I Know Things Now.” Her almost Biblical ambivalence about her new carnal Knowledge comes right out of Genesis: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit… not.”

The Woods are also the site of a brief adulterous encounter between the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince. As the prince departs with the royal equivalent of smoking a cigarette, the paramour he leaves behind regrets allowing the Woods to distract her from life’s responsibilities:

Back to life, back to sense, back to child, back to husband;

You can’t live in the Woods;

There are vows, there are ties, there are needs, there are standards;

There are shouldn’ts and shoulds.

No Freudian analysis of a work of art would be complete without reference to phallic symbols. Into the Woodshas two: Jack’s beanstalk (he describes a sexual awakening being brought close to a female Giant’s breast); and the tower inhabited by Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) as her own Prince (Billy Magnussen) woos her.

Perhaps for the first time in American history, our greatest living composer and our greatest living lyricist are the same person. Director Rob Marshall displays admirable talent in bringing coherence and beauty to a Sondheim show that exists on manifold levels, rich with symbolism and thematic complexity.

I know I’d be happy ever after if Into the Woods inspires many more movie musicals with fidelity to their source material that nonetheless explore the meanings of the stage versions even more intensely.

But is that likely to happen?

I wish.

David Benkof constructs the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which appears weekly in the Jewish Journal. He is a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller, where a version of this essay first appeared. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

A Jew steps into Christmas

I got offered a part in a Christmas movie over the summer. It’s called “Defending Santa” and stars Dean Cain, Jud Tylor and my movie wife, Jodie Sweetin, best known for playing Stephanie on “Full House.” 

I’m always happy to be on a set. Acting is one of those jobs where you can’t wait to get to work. And I knew as soon as I told my real wife what kind of movie I was doing, she would rag on me. My wife loves Christmas. She grew up in a house that converted itself into a tacky structure covered in lights and plastic Santas during the holiday season, while my house smelled of latkes — its only decoration a small menorah sitting in the kitchen window. Her mother was a Jew. Her father’s Catholic. And Christmas beat Chanukah in the war of the holidays. So, because she married me and I said no to a Christmas tree in our house, she’s held a very obvious grudge. 

The thing is, I like Christmas. I love watching the world transform for it — the lights, the displays, the carols and the movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is up there as one of my favorite movies of all time. Christmas was never celebrated in my childhood Jewish house. For the most part, it never mattered to me. I had Chanukah — which often overlapped with Christmas — and eating latkes and doughnuts and opening presents definitely helped fill the void. But we also had a television. And this television projected images of Christmas that made us secretly long for the holiday, looking in from the outside and wanting to gather around the tree and sing Christmas carols with my family. Well, not my family. My three siblings couldn’t get through lighting a candle before they were hurling insults — and sometimes fists — at each other. 

But when you’re Jewish — especially a secular Jew like me whose relationship to being a Jew is mainly cultural — then you need to occasionally draw a line in the sand. I’m not doing it to be antagonistic. I’m doing it because I’d rather my wife and kids not celebrate a Jewish holiday than celebrate a Christian one. Let them wrestle with God and tradition — but let it be our traditions. First figure out what makes sense to you as a Jew before you start appropriating other religions simply to fit in with the majority. It’s not just disrespectful to Jews; it’s disrespectful to Christians. Their holiday, which celebrates the birth of their Lord and Savior, has already been turned into a secular holiday more focused on shopping than on reverence. And the meaning doesn’t get enhanced every time a Jew props up a fir tree in his home and adorns it with lights and a tongue-in-cheek Star of David ornament. 

When I told my wife about the movie, she laughed with glee. It’s the Christmas present she’s always wanted — seeing her proud Jewish husband in a Christmas movie where I actually had to stand up and say the line, “I believe” in Santa, as he stood on trial for being an imposter. They even gave me an, “I Believe in Santa” button to put on my shirt, just in case the point wasn’t driven home strongly enough. But it became a running joke on set. Everyone knew I was a Jew. My name gives me away before I can. And I never failed to make a joke when appropriate. My character, Mark, provided a lot of the comic relief in the movie. He uses humor to deal with difficult situations. Kind of like me. Kind of like Jews. Maybe Mark’s actually a member of the tribe? 

Dean Cain and I became close. He’s a huge fan of Israel — and, almost as important, of my comedy writing. The director, the cast and the crew became friends. The movie got picked up by the Ion Network. (It airs again on Christmas Eve.) And I have no regrets about doing it. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a sweet family movie. And I’m glad I was a part of it. 

My kids lit their menorahs this year in our house. And for Christmas, they will celebrate with their Italian grandfather in his house. My daughter goes to a preschool in a church. One local synagogue — after the rabbi requested to meet with me in person because he likes my writing, and then after the staff e-mailed us repeatedly to welcome us into the family —  sent us a rejection letter after I asked about financial aid. I was hurt. I felt embarrassed. And I was angry. Angry that a Jewish school shunned us because of finances — and angry that we hadn’t applied anywhere else because we were under the impression we had already found a school for our daughter.

So, last minute, Delaney Wright, a cute, well-priced preschool in an Episcopalian church, accepted us to their school. They’re nondenominational, and the principal is a Muslim. Sure, the kids cut out paper Christmas trees during the holidays, but they also let my wife bring in latkes and teach the kids about the story of Chanukah. It’s kind of the society I always hoped for. Inclusive, without feeling like it needs to be so politically correct that everyone has to adapt. There’s room for all of us. Even for a Jew in a Christmas movie. 

Jewish, Israeli-themed films vie for foreign-language Oscar

Producers and directors in 76 countries will be biting their nails when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film this week.

Along with providing a view of cinematic skills in countries from Afghanistan to Venezuela, the entries also serve as a rough indicator of themes of interest to international filmmakers and, presumably, to the audiences in their countries.

By that measure, despite regular predictions to the contrary, films on Jewish themes, including the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, are not passé, as shown by challenging submissions from four countries.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian entries this year reflect the intensity of their continuing conflict, although preoccupation with this theme is not a given. Israel’s previous two choices, for instance, were “Footnote,” about academic rivalries, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” about life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

Israel’s current hopes rest with “Bethlehem,” which pits the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, such a plotline would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, as the film’s producer Talia Kleinhendler notes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed, all are vulnerable. There is no black-and-white in the film, only painful shades of gray — like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes the film sound namby-pamby, full of on-the-one-hand, but-on-the-other-hand agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Wakad, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores of dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the connection between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory, ultimately developing into a wary father-son relationship.

While the movie’s Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevi as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Wakad, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, acknowledged in an interview at a Hollywood hotel that his film debut as director and co-writer is a major hit in its home country, and it won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Adam Bakri in “Omar.”

Hany Abu-Assad, director of the Palestinian entry “Omar,” won critical praise for two previous films, “Paradise Now” and “Rana’s Wedding.” In those, the protagonists did not hide their antagonism toward Israelis, but still, the latter were portrayed as recognizable human beings, not Nazi-like monsters.

Actually, there have been instances when Israelis in Palestinian films were often more likeable than in such self-lacerating Tel Aviv productions as “Life According to Agfa” and “What a Wonderful Country.”

Abu-Assad forgoes such balance in “Omar,” in which the title character and the beautiful Nadia pine for one another on opposite sides of the Separation Wall, in Israeli terminology, or the Isolation Wall in the Palestinian dictionary.

In the process of jumping the wall and participating in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, Omar (Adam Bakri) is caught by Israeli undercover agents, who first torture him and then try to turn him into a collaborator. Distrusted by the Israelis and reviled as a traitor by his own people, Omar is driven to one last desperate act.

“The German Doctor”

Argentina’s Oscar hope, “The German Doctor,” is set in the post-World War II decades, when the South American nation became a haven for Nazi war criminals, sheltered by the Argentinian military government and the long-established German colonies.

The German doctor of the title is Dr. Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” whose cold-blooded medical experiments put him high on the Allied and Israeli list of fugitive war criminals.

Feeling safe in the southern Argentinian city of Bariloche, Mengele resumes his experiments to “improve” the species, initially on livestock. After a local family befriends him, he transfers his ministrations to spur the growth of their undersized daughter, and then resumes his earlier “research” on newborn twins.

Almost as unsettling are the open Nazi sympathies of the local German community, whose school starts the day’s classes with the lusty singing of the German national anthem, as well as an openly advertised annual fiesta celebrating the Fuhrer’s birthday.

When the news breaks that Mossad agents have captured Adolf Eichmann to bring him to trial in Jerusalem, the German underground spirits Mengele to Paraguay.

Alex Brendemühl as the poker-faced Mengele heads a generally capable, though not particularly brilliant cast, directed by Lucia Puenzo.

The most surprising of the cited four Oscar contenders is the Philippines’ “Transit,” which probes the precarious existence of some of the 40,000 Filipinos working in Israel, mainly as caretakers of the elderly.

Initially given relative freedom to work and raise their children in Israel, the Filipino migrants were hit hard by a 2010 residency law, triggered by the government’s determination to preserve the Jewish character and demography of Israel.

The primary target of the law was the growing number of Africans entering the country legally and illegally, but the Filipinos were the collateral victim of a measure under which non-Jewish children who had spent less than five years in Israel could be deported to their parents’ home country.

That meant that kids born in Israel, who spoke only Hebrew among themselves and felt themselves Israelis, suddenly faced the prospect of separation from their parents and exile to a strange land. Eventually, the Israeli Supreme Court invalidated some of the harshest aspects of the law.

“Transit,” directed and co-written by Filipina filmmaker Hannah Espia, is told from the individual perspectives of two families living together — single mother Janet and rebellious teenage daughter Yael, and the mother’s brother Moises, a caretaker and single father of 4-year-old Joshua.

The dilemma facing these four people, and to a greater extent some 10 million Filipinos working outside their home country, is handled with sensitivity and without Israel bashing.

Israelis, especially the elderly employers of the migrant workers, are generally shown as sympathetic to the plight of the Filipinos. Police and government officials enforcing the anti-immigrant laws do so without humiliating the migrants, but neither do they question the government orders.

Hollywood’s annual game of predicting likely Oscar nominees and winners is now in full swing, though doing so for foreign-language movies is particularly hazardous.

In past years, the selection committee’s choices have been loudly criticized as highly erratic, and labyrinthine regulations have led to the disqualification of highly regarded submissions, a fate that this year befell France’s much-discussed “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Current prognostications favor Iran’s “The Past,” by director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Oscar two years ago with “A Separation.”

Also winning early plaudits are Denmark’s “The Hunt” and Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster,” while there is some sentimental support for “Wadja,” the first-ever Saudi Arabian submission, with the added boost that it was directed by a woman, Haifaa al-Mansour.

Israel’s “Bethlehem” is frequently listed in the second tier of contenders and in a good position to make it into the top ranks, while the Philippines’ “Transit” has drawn favorable mentions.

By one of the quirks of the Academy calendar, a shortlist of nine foreign-language nominees will be announced on Dec. 20, after press time for this edition, and a winnowed-down list of five nominees on Jan. 16, 2014. The final winners will raise their trophies on Oscar Sunday, March 2, in Hollywood. 

‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities

Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.

“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

‘Walk’ changes a life

For Aaron Wolf, an anecdote sparked a personal memory that inspired a film. The same day he read reflections by Rabbi David Wolpe about the Sinai Temple rabbi’s father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, and about the kindness of a stranger, Wolf went to his keyboard and banged out the first draft of what would become “The Walk.”

“I tend to think very visually,” said Wolf, an actor and director as well as a writer. “I read Rabbi Wolpe’s paragraphs — maybe three brief, very cool paragraphs — and I said, ‘This has to be a film.’ ” 

And now it is. Clocking in at 20 minutes and starring Peter Riegert (“Crossing Delancey,” TV’s “Dads”) and newcomer Sawyer Barth, the short, fictionalized story received its Los Angeles premiere before a hugely appreciative audience at the Skirball Cultural Center. (At that same event, the filmmaker showed a teaser of his next project, “Restoring Tomorrow,” a full-length documentary about the renovation of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.)

From the Skirball, “The Walk” moves on to festivals around the country and in Canada.

“The Walk” hits close to home, the 32-year-old filmmaker said. Wolf drew on conversations he’d had with his own grandfather, Rabbi Alfred Wolf, when the two would walk in the hills of Los Feliz. Aaron was a boy of 8 when these walks/talks started.

“He loved taking hikes and being at one with nature,” Wolf recalls of his grandfather, who passed away in 2004 at 88. “We would talk about life, but I never felt like he was pounding me with information. I was his equal, and we were having conversations.”

Wolf channels these talks in crafting his tale of Danny (played by Barth), who, following the death of his rabbi father, returns alone to the synagogue where his father officiated. Danny is befriended by a goodhearted congregant named Alfred, who takes him into services and then returns the following day so that the two can walk to shul together. Danny’s apartment, Alfred says, is on his way.

“I don’t like to be alone,” Alfred tells the boy, knowing full well that companionship is what his new young companion desperately needs. Over the course of a year, Alfred and Danny share walks, food, stories and wisdom. The story has a heart-warming twist that will not be revealed here.

Wolpe, who is recognized as a producer of the film as well as its inspiration, says he was touched by the “bare bones” appeal of the film.

“It’s such a beautiful, moving and human story,” Wolpe said. “And it has a relationship that I thought felt genuine, and that was just a wonderful thing to see.”

Wolpe’s own story — recounted in his book “Why Faith Matters” — tells of how his own father, Gerald Wolpe, lost his father when he was 11. En route to the synagogue to say Kaddish, young Gerald encountered an older man, the temple’s shammas, named Mr. Einstein, who subsequently made a practice of walking with the boy to shul for the 11 months of his mourning. As in the film, Einstein told the boy his house was on his way. Years later, Gerald Wolpe introduced his first-born son to Mr. Einstein.

“The lesson of it is an old man sees a young man in need, and mentors him, and then, later, the young man goes to see him and presents him with his own child,” said David Wolpe, whose father died in 2009. “I think my father would have been thrilled to see that his story inspired this film.”

Following the Skirball screening, Wolf and Riegert shared stories of the film’s genesis. It was shot over just four days in and around Brooklyn. As if the challenges of shooting a low-budget independent film weren’t substantial enough, the crew worked around the tail end of a blizzard that dumped 10 inches of snow on the city. 

Riegert, who was sent the script by his agent, said he and Wolf discussed the project over dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York, and the actor admired Wolf’s courage as much as his writing abilities. 

“It’s not everyday that I get to play an old Jew,” deadpanned Riegert, who is doing exactly that on the Fox series “Dads.” “I was really flattered to be asked, and Aaron has got a very tasty look at life. It’s fun to meet new talent, obviously, so I’m hoping he’ll be running Paramount Pictures in three years.” 

When Wolpe recounts the story, he emphasizes the ripple effect of an act of kindness. 

“Because Mr. Einstein did [what he did], my father told the story. Because he told the story, I told the story,” Wolpe said. 

“Because I told the story, the film was made and other people will see the story. It’s a beautiful thing how such a selfless act can have endless ripples in people’s lives.”

A tale of love and loss and the Holocaust, in Yiddish

When Naomi Jaye, who has been making short films in her native Canada for the past 10 years, told friends she was embarking on her first feature film, they cheered.

When she added that the project would be the first Canadian movie in Yiddish, which neither she nor her lead actors knew, the friends questioned her sanity.

Five years later, the result of her perseverance is “The Pin,” a story of love and loss during the Holocaust, of faithfulness to a promise and the question of whether a sense of humanity can survive in a world transformed into a slaughterhouse.

The movie’s first scene shows Jacob, somewhere between adolescence and manhood, emerging from a hole in a forest, glancing around warily, and then running as if escaping an unseen enemy.

In the second scene, set in a morgue, an elderly Shomer, who guards the body and soul of the dead until burial, reads psalms from a prayer book while occasionally glancing at a body resting on a gurney, covered by a white sheet.

In a long flashback, the Shomer recalls his youth. The year is 1941, Nazi armies have overrun his hometown somewhere in Eastern Europe and have killed his entire family.

He finds shelter in a barn that seems empty, but soon encounters a young Jewish girl, Leah, whose family has met the same fate and who has also gone into hiding.

After initial suspicion and confrontation, the two orphans move toward each other, emotionally and physically, fall in love, and eventually conduct their own impromptu wedding ceremony.

When Leah hears of an empty train that travels “across the border,” she and Jacob plan their escape and a happy life together. But fate and a quarrel interfere, and the young lovers are separated, neither knowing what happened to the other.

What about “the pin” of the title?

Jaye says the inspiration for the story and title came from her grandmother, who throughout her long life had an obsessive fear of being buried alive.

As she aged, she made her son, Jaye’s father, promise that when she died, he would prick her hand with a pin, to make absolutely certain that she was actually dead before placing her body in a coffin.

This story, Jaye said, “always fascinated me, because it required an act of true love that was also an act of violence.”

Decades later, when Jacob, now the aged Shomer, lifts the sheet and looks at the body beneath, he realizes that lying before him is his youthful love, Leah. He remembers her fear of being buried alive, his promise to her, and he starts looking for a pin.

It would be an unpardonable spoiler to reveal the end of the story, but, to Jaye, the tale, and the movie, represents the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

In an interview, she explained this assertion by noting that the chief protagonists, “caught in a terrible situation, are able to find beauty and love.”

Some viewers may find it difficult to accept this hopeful evaluation, or appreciate the extremely slow pace of the movie, marked by long, wordless pauses in semi-dark settings.

Jaye has a cogent explanation for using this technique. “The lives of people in hiding, as for soldiers in war, are marked by long periods of waiting,” between occasional bursts of extreme action, and, the director said, this was the mood she was trying to convey.

Her main problem in casting the movie was the lack of any young actors in Canada who knew Yiddish.

She solved the problem, quite effectively, by putting Grisha Pasternak, who plays Jacob, and Milda Gecaite, as Leah, through a six-month Yiddish course, and the results are quite satisfying.

Both actors arrived in Canada as children, Pasternak from Ukraine and Gecaite from Lithuania. Neither is Jewish, and both show considerable talent.

Veteran character actor David Fox, as the Shomer, has few lines but lets his expressive face do most of the talking.

“The Pin” will have a local benefit premiere on Oct. 24, 7 p.m. at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. Jaye and the cast will be on hand for a Q-and-A and to share refreshments with the audience. Tickets, at $25 each for this evening, can be ordered at https://thepinfilm.eventbrite.com/?ref=elink. Unsold seats will be available at the box office.

Starting Oct. 25, “The Pin” will continue at the Royal Theatre at regular prices, and at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood. On Nov. 1, the film will start screening at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Town Center in Encino and South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana.

Finding ‘Jewtopia’

I sat somewhere between anxious and bored in my seat, picking at the polyester threads as they unraveled from the sleeve of my robe. One after one, my classmates were called to the bimah, and in the same sing-song cadence of their bar or bat mitzvah speeches, they started their presentations which all began (at the direction of our teacher) “I am a Jew because … ”.

Our class was comprised of a much smaller group than had made the b’nai mitzvah circuit 3 years before. Now what remained was a group whose parents either guilted them or bribed them to continue their studies through Confirmation (most of them) and those who actually enjoyed learning more about Jewish heritage, prayer and texts (me). But I played along and rolled my eyes during the boring parts.

The Rabbi called the name of one of my classmates once, twice – but no one appeared. “Bueller, Bueller,” the class clown said just loud enough to send a wave of laughter through the room. Suddenly, our giggling was interrupted by what sounded like elephants clomping up wooden stairs.

“I can’t believe he showed up!” Someone exclaimed as our classmate, shirt untucked, hair umkempt and kippah holding on by a half of a pin for dear life, clamored up on stage to give his speech.

He pulled out a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket..

Read the rest of the story on hollywoodjournal.com.

In producing Jewtopia, Courtney Mizel mixes her passion for the arts with business acumen garnered over decades of experience in the entrepreneurial, consulting, sales, marketing and entertainment industries. She is also the Founding Director of the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, and a voiceover artist. Courtney is most proud of her endeavors in the philanthropic world and of her two amazing daughters, Zoe and Isabella.

The ambition of Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman, once named Natalie Hershlag, is no stranger to ambition. She played her first critically lauded role at the tender age of 13, and just ascended from there (OK, true, her role in the Star War Trilogy was abysmal, but the whole endeavor was as well) culminating in an Academy Award for her work in “Black Swan.”

Now, she’s chosen to engage in her most ambitious attempt to date: adapting Amos Oz’s prize-winning, internationally beloved memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (ATOLAD). Adaptations of literary work’s generally present more challenges than directing a regular movie, but Oz’s book presents its own set of  daunting challenges.

In ATOLAD, Oz paints a highly impressionistic and vivid world that spans from pre-Independence Palestine to contemporary times. Oz, with his characteristic blend of lyrical romanticism and keen psychological insight tells the story of the Jewish nation in diaspora and Israel, through the prism of the heartbreaking personal story of his extended family. The scope of the book feels like one of a history book, with the personal detail of an expansive family tree. Moreover, the book shifts back and forth through time, circling around Oz’s mother suicide. Portman, if she chooses to create a more linear narrative, will have to piece together the jumbled puzzle of the book, which consists more of tenuously connected anecdotes than a clear narrative.

Portman has never directed a feature-length film, though she has directed a short film, and was elected to serve as the youngest jury member at the Cannes Film Festival. She faces an steep uphill battle to pull this movie off. Yet, despite the challenges this newbie director faces, she can bring a personal insider touch to this compelling story of Israel’s birth. Or maybe she can take some pointer’s from her director, Terrence Malick, whose evocative, non-linear movies, would work well with Oz’s style, but for now I remain skeptical, though excited.

Jewish roots of the ‘Man of Steel’

Seventy-five years after bursting into the world of comic books, something still feels Jewish about Superman.

That’s not just because he was created by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who debuted comic books’ first costumed superhero in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics No. 1.

From his Kryptonian name to biblical similarities, Superman and his story — which will be mined again for box office gold in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” opening June 14 — offered plenty to discuss during a June 2 panel discussion at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time”

The event featured Richard Donner, director of the beloved 1978 original film starring Christopher Reeves; actor Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen of TV’s “Adventures of Superman” (1952-1958); and Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Comics. Larry Tye, author of the 2012 book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” moderated.

“Our program was just what I’d hoped,” Tye told the Journal a week later. “Having three of Superman’s most eloquent and passionate defenders, from three different generations, explain why they love him, and why the world does.”

The discussion came just as Warner Bros., parent company of DC Comics, the publisher of Superman comics, prepared to unspool yet another incarnation of that familiar tale about the Man of Steel. It’s the story of a humanoid alien — survivor of the dying planet Krypton — who arrives on Earth, where he gains superpowers from the sun, assumes the secret identity of journalist Clark Kent and engages in a love triangle with fellow reporter Lois Lane and, well, himself.

[Related: Six reasons Superman is Jesus in “Man of Steel”]

At one point during the Skirball event, Tye — fresh off a lecture tour that included Temple Beth El in San Pedro and Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills — asked the audience what religion Superman is. He answered that all faiths read their own interpretation of him.  

In his later conversation with the Journal, the Boston-based Tye discussed the Judaism encoded in the Superman mythos.

“The evidence of Superman’s ethnic origin starts with Kal-El, his Kryptonian name,” Tye said. “ ‘El’ means God. ‘Kal’ is similar to the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together, they suggest that the alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but a very special one; like Moses.”

Tye also sees parallels between the Torah and Siegel and Shuster’s groundbreaking creation, originally drawn on a breadboard the latter’s mother rolled her challah dough on for Shabbat. For example, he compares the superhero’s rocketship escape as an infant from Krypton to the story of baby Moses floating down the Nile in a basket in Exodus.

Larry Tye. Photo by Elisabeth Frusztajer

Even Superman’s “American” ideals are very Jewish.

“The three legs of the Superman myth — truth, justice and the American way — are straight out of the Mishnah,” Tye said. “ ‘The world,’ it reads, ‘endures on three things: justice, truth and peace.’ ”

“Man of Steel,” the cinematic version of the superhero’s story that flies into multiplexes this weekend, is already tracking to deliver a $100 million opening weekend, with Snyder’s interpretation of Krypton’s last son appearing to embrace the Siegel and Shuster era’s sci-fi roots.

But back in the ’70s, Donner said he initially balked at the script that arrived at his home with a Superman costume.

“I was brought up with Superman, and this was a parody of a parody of a parody,” he told the Skirball audience.

One scene, he said, involved Superman seeking the bald villain Lex Luthor, but the person he finds turns around revealing himself to be Telly Savalas, offering him a lollipop and quipping his trademark, “Who loves ya, baby?” 

Donner said his reaction was: “God! What are they doing? They’re destroying Superman!”

He insisted on rewriting the script, but his writing partner, Tom Mankiewicz, hung up on him the first time Donner told him the “perfect project.” After much convincing, Mankiewicz came to Donner’s house to discuss the project.

“In those days, I had a little bit of weed in the ash tray,” Donner recalled. “It was Sunday after all. I lit up and put on the costume.” 

He greeted Mankiewicz while wearing the outfit.

“I had to pull him out of his car, he wouldn’t get out!” Donner said, laughing.

After Mankiewicz agreed to the project, they knew what they had to do.

“This was sacrilegious,” Donner said. “You don’t mess with Superman.”

“Verisimilitude” became Donner’s buzz word: “It had to have a sense of reality,” he said regarding the secret to pulling off the movie’s mix of comic book action and humanity. “You could laugh with it but not at it.”

Johns said that the movie changed his life.

“I don’t think there would be any superhero movies [without ‘Superman’],” he said. “Everyone cites it as the birth of the modern superhero movie. It’s actually still the best.”

Tye said he is optimistic about the chances of this year’s reboot to outperform 2007’s lackluster “Superman Returns,” “even if [the star, Henry] Cavill, is a Brit playing an all-American hero, and even if Superman has, heaven forbid, stopped wearing his underpants on top of his tights.”

As for Superman’s late creators, they were famously cut out of the billions their creation raked in for Warner Bros. via comics, movies and merchandise, and spent their lives fighting in the courts, trying to right the lopsided work-for-hire contract they had signed. Last October, a federal district judge ruled that Shuster’s heirs had signed away their rights to Superman in 1992. Three months later, a U.S. appellate panel said Siegel’s heirs must adhere to the agreement they made with Warner Bros. in 2001, which made them give up claims to the character.

Tye believes he knows why Superman, as his book’s title suggests, continues to entertain and inspire.

“He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man,” Tye explained. “For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers, he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes? The good guy never loses. That’s reassuring.

Film suggests Toulouse killer was disturbed, not hateful

Four weeks before he murdered seven people in Toulouse, a cheerful Mohammed Merah was filmed laughing and showing off his skiing skills to friends at a popular Alpine resort.

The footage, televised on March 6, formed the opening sequence in a controversial documentary about the 23-year-old, French-born jihadist who murdered three soldiers and four Jews last year in a rampage that shocked the country.

Aired by public broadcaster France 3 ahead of the anniversary of the killings, the 105-minute film, titled “The Merah Affair — The Itinerary of a Killer,” was billed as the definitive investigative work on Merah. More than 2 million viewers tuned in.

But the film also has exposed a rift between those who view Merah's actions as the product of deep anti-Semitic currents among jihadists and others who believe Merah was driven largely by emotional problems stemming from a difficult childhood and possible psychiatric illness.

“Very early on after the killings, we saw an objectionable tendency to view Mohammed Merah as a victim,” Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF, France's main Jewish umbrella group, told JTA. “Regrettably, the film amplifies this view.”

Merah was a petty criminal from Toulouse who was jailed for theft in 2007. While in jail, the film reports, he was teased and seen as a buffoon. He tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell, according to a prison psychologist.

Merah seemingly took comfort in Islam, growing his beard long and immersing himself in religious texts. Following his release in 2009, he traveled to several Middle Eastern countries, including Pakistan, where he received weapons training at a terrorist encampment.

On March 11, 2012, Merah approached an off-duty French Moroccan paratrooper on a Toulouse street and shot him in the head. Four days later he killed two uniformed soldiers and injured a third at a shopping center in Montauban, about 45 minutes to the north.

Then, on the morning of March 19, Merah arrived at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and opened fire, killing Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old daughter of the Jewish school's principal, along with Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two young sons, Arieh and Gavriel. According to a police officer interviewed in the film, Merah knelt beside one of the children and shot the victim in the head.

In the film, Merah is portrayed as a troubled and aggressive youth, the youngest of five siblings raised by a single mother. At 9 he was placed at a state-run institution for at-risk youths after a social worker determined he wasn't attending school regularly and lacked the necessary support at home. Five year later, a teacher wrote, “He is offensive to girls. Every day we intervene on a fresh aggression, theft, conflict or attack committed by Mohammed, who will not accept the authority.”

Merah's mother, Zoulikha Aziri, who in the film spoke to the French media for the first time, could provide no explanation for her son’s actions, but said he once told her, “There’s a man in my head and he keeps talking to me.”

“Our objective was to understand Mohammed Merah, to study the context in which he grew up,” Jean-Charles Doria, the film's director, said in an interview with the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “We found a banal setting: a broken family, absent father, powerless mother, late religious discovery and a disturbed character.”

It is precisely this focus on Merah's psychological profile that critics charge grossly misrepresents not only the nature of Merah's crimes but the essence of jihadist hatred.

The filmmakers declined to include the testimony of Merah's brother, Abdelghani, who last year said Mohammed was “raised to be an anti-Semite because anti-Semitism was part of the atmosphere at home.” Nor did they note the 90 anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the 10 days following the shootings — part of a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2012.

The thought that a French Muslim “could go skiing and then murder soldiers and children is too frightening for France 3,” Veronique Chemla, a Jewish media analyst and investigative journalist, told JTA. “So instead of examining how Merah was ideologically transformed, the film speculates on Merah’s sanity.”

Pierre Besnainou, a former president of the European Jewish Congress and president of the FSJU social and cultural arm of the French Jewish community, said “the film demonstrates a total misconception of the true nature of jihadist indoctrination.” And the CRIF's Prasquier said the Jewish community must fight the tendency to portray Merah in a sympathetic light.

“The shootings were first and foremost part of radical Islam and its dangers,” Prasquier said.

The film's producers did not respond to JTA's request for comment. But in his Le Nouvel Observateur interview, Doria denied that the film portrayed Merah as schizophrenic, merely as “inept at social relations and mostly isolated.” He added that Merah had sought legitimacy from Islamic preachers for actions he already had planned.

“We see clearly in Merah a collection of naive religious sentiments, not real faith or ideology,” Doria said.

The film also devotes many minutes to reviewing the failures of French authorities, who had flagged Merah as a person of interest back in 2010, the year he traveled to the Middle East. It also revealed that after Merah had been identified as a suspect in the murders, he managed to shake off a police detail and slip undetected in and out of his apartment mere hours before a French SWAT team surrounded it and killed him.

While critics praised the film for exposing these failures, Besnainou said they are a red herring.

“The way to beat the Merahs of the world isn’t just more security, it’s education and social mobilization against their ideology,” he said. “This film makes this harder to achieve.”

‘Hava Nagila’ film chronicles song’s journey from shtetl to cliche

You're at a wedding or bar mitzvah, mingling at the bar or catching up with a distant relative, when you hear it — the opening notes of a familiar tune that as if by some invisible force carries you and other guests to the dance floor for the rousing dance circle ritual.

Does “Hava Naglia” work this kind of magic because it was handed down at Sinai and thus encoded in the Jewish DNA? Or is it a tale from the European shtetl, albeit one with a timeless message and an irrepressible melody?

It is these questions that Roberta Grossman addresses in her new film, “Hava Naglia (The Movie),” which will screen at the upcoming New York Jewish Film Festival before hitting theaters nationwide in March. The film, three years in the making, explores the phenomenon behind the iconic folk song and seeks to explain why the melody has been so beloved over the years.

“When I first started doing research for the film, people thought I was crazy and I was worried I wouldn’t find anything substantial enough,” Grossman told JTA. “But what I really found was that this song is a porthole into 200 years of Judaism’s culture and spirituality.”

Grossman’s inspiration for the film came from memories of dancing to the song at family affairs. A product of what she calls a “religiously assimilated but culturally affiliated” background, Grossman said twirling with family members while “Hava Nagila” blared in the background was a tribal moment with spiritual resonance. Part of a generation raised on the 1971 film adaption of “Fiddler on the Roof,” she knew the song cold but understood little about its origins.

Turns out, it doesn't go back nearly as far as Sinai. The song originated as a Chasidic niggun, or wordless melody, credited to the Ruzhiner rebbe, Israel Friedman, who lived in the Ukrainian town of Sadagora in the 18th century.

A Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, Sadagora often was subjected to pogroms, and Chasidic leaders encouraged music as a way to combat the tragedies of everyday life. When a wave of European immigrants moved to Israel in the early 1900s, they took their niggun with them, where it later became representative of Zionist culture.

In 1915, the prominent musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn adapted the song with Hebrew lyrics. Three years later he unveiled his new variation at a Jerusalem concert. “Hava Nagila,” literally “let us rejoice,” went on to hit its peak popularity in the 1950s and '60s, and became a favorite pop tune for American Jews.

“It’s unclear if Idelsohn really knew the extent of how far his song would go, but after that concert celebrating the British victory in Palestine, the streets of Jerusalem erupted and the song took off,” said Mark Kilgman, a professor of Jewish musicology at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who is featured in the film.

“Israel was a vacuum at that point, with immigrants from all over who had very little in common. They were dealing with their identity, and the need for music, and this song unified them,” he said.

Decades later, the same is true. The song is widely covered — Bob Dylan, Ben Folds and Regina Spektor have performed it. Last summer it was the soundtrack for U.S. Olympian Ally Raisman's gold medal-winning performance in the floor exercise at the London Games. And though The Wall Street Journal noted recently that some see it as cliche and avoid having it played it at their affairs — Grossman refers to these folks as “Hava haters” — it may be the most popular Jewish song on the planet.

In the film, which includes a hora dancing tutorial, Grossman journeys to Sadagora as well as other obscure places where the song hit. The film notes how popular “Hava Nagila” became with non-Jewish music lovers, and features interviews with musicians such as Lena Horne, the Cuban-American salsa performer Celia Cruz and the pop singer Connie Francis.

Grossman skillfully portrays “Hava Nagila” as a symbol of American Jewish identity and postulates that future generations will continue to see the song as iconic — with or without the eye rolls. Through the film, she seeks to give the song some depth beyond the overplayed ditty at bar mitzvahs. Viewers must decide if the song can still be redeemed.

“I believe that Hava has actually accrued a great deal of meaning and depth on its long journey from Ukraine to YouTube,” Grossman said. “Hava's journey is our journey. By understanding where Hava has come from, we understand where we have come from and more.”

Holocaust, Jewish themes remain prominent among foreign Oscar offerings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filmmaker explores dark family saga in ‘The Flat’

“The Flat,” a documentary directed by Israeli writer and filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, uses a vacant Tel Aviv apartment as a jumping-off point for a journey through history, and a unique look at the way different generations view the Holocaust.

The film, which opens on Friday in New York followed by Los Angeles on Oct. 24 and a subsequent national roll out, grew from a highly personal saga that Goldfinger never set out to document.

The result is a documentary about family secrets and the unlikely friendship between a high-ranking Nazi SS propaganda officer and his stylish wife, and a cultured German Jewish family who fled from Germany to Palestine before World War Two broke out.

“After my grandmother, Gerda, died at 98, I felt the urge to document her flat, because it was like a little Berlin in Tel Aviv, and I knew it would all vanish very quickly,” Goldfinger, best known for his 2000 documentary “The Komediant,” told Reuters in an interview.

“So I just set out to make a little short film as me and my mother and siblings went through all her belongings. It was just going to be a document of what someone leaves behind.”

But as the family slowly sifted through decades of memorabilia, photographs and letters, Goldfinger discovered a Nazi newspaper that proved to be the key that unlocked a dark family secret.

“There was this story in it, 'A Nazi in Palestine,' written by a Baron von Mildenstein, who turned out to be (Adolf) Eichmann's boss and who worked for (Joseph) Goebbels, and who had toured Palestine with my grandparents in the thirties,” he recalled.

“They were good friends, even after the war, and I was a bit shocked,” he said.

Goldfinger said he was even more shocked when his own mother, Hannah, who he said “didn't really want to be part of this film anyway,” expressed little curiosity about her own parents' strange and curious past.

“It seems to be a generational thing,” Goldfinger mused.

“While I wanted to find out the truth about our family, her generation – and it's the same in Germany – had never asked any questions of their parents, about what had really happened. But maybe, psychologically, they didn't want to find out.”

In his quest for discovery, Goldfinger traveled to Germany where he met Edda von Mildenstein, the baron's daughter, who, like Hannah, was happy not to confront the past.

The filmmaker discovered that Gerda's own mother – Goldfinger's great-grandmother – was transported to a concentration camp, where she was murdered.

“That was the most shocking thing of all,” he said.

“I knew our family was originally from Germany, but I never thought there was any connection to the Holocaust – that my own great-grandmother had perished in it. And no one ever asked about it, or talked about it.”

Although the expulsion and eradication of German Jews provides the film's underpinnings, Goldfinger said he feels that his documentary's “universal themes and emotions” touch all of us.

“After all,” he asked, “what do you really know about your family's past? And what do you want to know?”

Reporting By Iain Blair; editing by Chris Michaud and Carol Bishopric

Ahmadinejad calls ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film an Israeli plot

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday produced another anti-Israel conspiracy theory by saying the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which has been linked to protests throughout the Arab world, was a plot by the Jewish state to “divide [Muslims] and spark sectarian conflict,” AFP reported.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks come despite Californian Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s admitted involvement with the film and the refutation of initial reports of Jewish involvement. “Israeli Jew” Sam Bacile, initially identified in reports as the producer of the film mocking the prophet Mohammed, turned out to be a pseudonym.

Speaking at a parade for the anniversary of the beginning of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Ahmadinejad blasted the U.S. for only selectively censoring the film and said Iran should use the “same spirit and belief in itself” from that war to combat sanctions and other pressure from the international community in response to its nuclear program.

Seth Rogen waltzes to a dramatic beat in new movie [Q & A]

He’s better known for big studio comedies like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”, but Seth Rogen strays from his beaten path when he stars in the low-budget comedy-drama “Take This Waltz.”

Directed by Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley, and opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, the movie sees Rogen starring opposite Michelle Williams, who is better known for dramatic roles in films like “Blue Valentine”.

Rogen plays a cookbook author with an alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman) who doesn’t seem to notice that his wife (Williams) has fallen for the handsome artist (Luke Kirby) that lives across the street.

Rogen, 30, talked with Reuters about working with Williams, and his upcoming directorial debut in “The End of the World”.

Reuters: “Take This Waltz” is about a woman’s marriage failing because she’s in love with someone else. Not exactly a subject matter you’re associated with. How did this project come about?

Seth Rogen: “I’m not one of those actors where filmmakers that I admire ask me to be in their movies. I meet them at parties and they’re nice to me, but they never ask me to work with them. Sarah Polley is one of the first filmmakers that I’ve really liked that asked me.”

R: There is no trace here of the man-child roles you often play in your other movies. It’s probably your most serious role to date, wouldn’t you say?

S.R.: “It’s probably closer to what I am in real life. I think I’m one of those people that when fans meet, they’re often very disappointed because I’m kind of quiet and shy. I think they expect me to have one of those hats with two beer cans strapped to my head and strippers on either side of me. So it was nice to do something where I didn’t have to be really funny all the time.”

R: How did you enjoy working with Michelle Williams?

S.R.: “She was very impressive. A lot of our scenes were emotionally demanding. The emotional turmoil that actors put themselves through at the drop of a hat is not the type of stuff I normally do.”

R: We seem to know more about Michelle Williams’ character than yours. What’s the back story you gave him?

S.R.: “I think a lot of people aggressively stay stagnant, almost like a gauntlet that’s thrown down. For Lou, the test of the relationship is ‘Can we not change.’ He thinks if it’s strong enough to not change, that means it’s strong enough to last. But that’s not realistic or how real relationships are.”

R: You’re currently making your feature directorial debut with writing partner Evan Goldberg on the comedy “The End of the World” that you also star in. How do you like directing?

S.R.: “It was a little daunting because the movie itself is technically complicated. The story is something we’ve been working on for years and years. There have been several moments where I feel like, ‘I can’t believe we pulled this off!’ But those wonderful moments have been shattered by the stress of ‘We’re not going to finish what we need to shoot in time!’”

R: In that film, everybody plays a heightened version of themselves. You’ve got a lot of your friends in there like James Franco, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel. But also people like Rihanna and Emma Watson who seem unlikely to hang with your crowd in real life.

S.R.: “It’s James Franco’s party in the movie. And the truth is, sometimes you go to a party and you can’t believe who’s there…I’ve had random famous people show up at my parties where I’m like, ‘What the heck is this person doing here?’ That’s what we wanted to tap in to.”

R: How did you nab Rihanna?

S.R.: “I read in an interview once that she was a fan of some of our movies. When we were working on this film, we thought, ‘She seems not to hate us. She could be a good person to ask.’ We got her on the phone, explained it to her and she agreed to do it. She was really funny, she improvised and did everything we asked her to do. And she seemed to have a good time.”

R: You act, write, direct, produce and are considered to be on Hollywood’s A-list. Ever feel like you’re on top of the world?

S.R.: “As a Jewish person, you generally hate yourself, but there’s moments where I feel that way.”

Reporting by Zorianna Kit, editing by Jill Serjeant and Carol Bishopric

After Mel Gibson-Joe Eszterhas spat, Hollywood Jews standing by Gibson on ‘Judah Maccabee’

Jews run Hollywood, the old cliche goes.

So an outsider might find it strange that one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, Warner Bros., agreed to make a movie about one of the Jewish world’s greatest heroes with a star known for going on anti-Semitic tirades.

And when the plans to film “Judah Maccabee” fell apart this month, igniting a feud between producer Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas that involved more accusations of anti-Semitism, Hollywood again went for Mel.

A number of industry figures interviewed by JTA, including lawyers, studio execs and publicists—all of them Jewish and a number of whom come from families who survived the Holocaust or fled the Nazis—defended Gibson over the Hungarian-born Eszterhas. Almost to a man, however, they declined to be quoted by name—as is typical in Hollywood.

Veteran producer Mike Medavoy, whose parents fled to Shanghai in the 1920s to escape the Russian pogroms, has known Gibson and Eszterhas for decades. Both have “issues,” he said, but he has a softer spot for Gibson.

“I really believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” Medavoy said. “I want to give Mel the benefit of the doubt. I think Mel’s problem is he’s a little immature and can’t handle his anger.”

Alan Nierob, Gibson’s longtime publicist and the son of Holocaust survivors, has always stood by his client.

The loyalty to Gibson of some in Hollywood comes despite the controversy over his controversial portrayal of Jews in the 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” his rant against Jews following a drunk driving arrest in 2006, and his violent threats and accusations against an ex-girlfriend that were leaked online in 2010. Also that year, Jewish actress Winona Ryder said that Gibson had called her an “oven dodger” at a party in the mid-1990s.

The latest flap erupted when Eszterhas, who once was one of Hollywood’s flashiest screenwriters but hasn’t had a hit since 1997, accused Gibson of only pretending to be developing a movie about Judah Maccabee to help Gibson’s own image in the Jewish community. Eszterhas accused Gibson of setting him up—hiring him to write the script and then rejecting it not because it wasn’t good, but because Gibson actually “hates Jews” and never wanted to make the movie in the first place.

In his detailed nine-page letter that was leaked to TheWrap.com, Eszterhas said that while working with Gibson, the star “continually called Jews ‘Hebes,’ and even ‘oven dodgers’ and ‘Jewboys.’

“You said most gatekeepers of American companies were ‘Hebes’ who ‘controlled’ their bosses,” Eszterhas wrote to Gibson.

He also described Gibson as erupting in almost psychotic rages in which he railed about his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, intimating he wanted her dead.

Gibson wrote a letter back to Eszterhas saying that his claims were “utter fabrications” and threatened to sue Eszterhas for releasing the audiotapes. Gibson’s defenders suggested that Eszterhas’ attacks were exaggerations or lies meant to deflect from Gibson’s claim that Eszterhas’ script wasn’t any good and that’s why it was rejected by Warner Bros.

Through Nierob, Gibson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Eszterhas told JTA that he “stands behind the letter I wrote to Mel.”

Not everyone in Hollywood’s Jewish establishment has stood by Gibson. After Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade in 2006, Sony Pictures co-chairwoman Amy Pascal spoke out against him and powerful agent Ari Emanuel called for a Gibson boycott.

When they were the only big names to speak out, former AOL Time Warner Vice Chairman Mel Adelson took out a large ad in the Los Angeles Times protesting the silence of many top Jewish Hollywood executives.

But by 2011, when Warner Bros. agreed to do “Judah Maccabee” with Gibson, it seemed all was forgiven.

Despite their support of Gibson, however, many in Hollywood also said they didn’t know why Warner Bros. had decided in the first place to let Gibson make a film about Judah Maccabee, the great Jewish warrior who fought and prevailed against a Hellenistic ruler who wanted to force the Jews to renounce their faith.

Sharon Waxman, a veteran correspondent for the Washington Post and The New York Times who now runs TheWrap.com, said she confronted a senior Warner Bros. executive when she first heard about the planned film.

“I said to him, what were you thinking?” said Waxman, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and whose site is where Eszterhas’ letter and an audiotape of Gibson’s most recent rants were leaked. “He said something about the studio believing in forgiveness. But it’s still a mystery to me.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said last September that letting Gibson direct “Judah Maccabee” would be “like casting Bernie Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange.”

Now, he says simply, “everyone should have known.”

“This is the story of an unrepentant anti-Semite who’s a world-renowned actor,” Hier told JTA. “How did he get Warner Bros. to agree to do this film? I think he reached out to rabbis and used them to soften up the studio. There are some who felt his 2006 apology was sincere. I never thought it was sincere.”

For now, Warner Bros. spokesman Paul McGuire said the studio is “analyzing” what to do with the “Judah Maccabee” project. But studio sources say privately that the film has been shelved.

A source in Gibson’s camp told JTA that Gibson is determined to move forward with “Judah Maccabee” on his own, financing and developing it the way he did with “Passion of the Christ,” which became an unexpected hit. Gibson has said that he’s been working on the “Maccabee” project for more than eight years and that it predates the 2006 DUI scandal.

Jay Sanderson, who spent 25 years as a TV and documentary producer in Hollywood before becoming president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, said he didn’t believe that Gibson has been developing the film for a long time.

“I would make a large wager that he’s not going to make this movie,” Sanderson said. “Of course, the people close to Mel are going to say that he’s going ahead and will make it just to show his supposed sincerity.”

Sanderson said Gibson’s anti-Semitism is “legendary” and “no one could have been more inappropriate” to make a film about Judah Maccabee.

“But I also understand in some ways why it happened,” he said. “It’s a great story and this is the man who made ‘Braveheart.’ Mel’s always had a great relationship with Warner Bros. And don’t forget Hollywood is a place where people want to avoid making the wrong enemies. Mel is more of a wrong enemy.”

There is no star arguably less likely than Gibson to direct a film about Judah the Maccabee. Gibson belongs to a conservative sect called traditionalist Catholic that is not recognized by the Vatican in part because it adheres to Catholicism as it was practiced before the reforms instituted by Vatican II in the early 1960s. During Good Friday services in the old liturgy, traditionalists still read a prayer in which they pray that Jews will “recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men.”

In 2003, Gibson said there is “no salvation for anyone outside the Church,” including his then-wife, Robyn, a devout Episcopalian, in that category.

Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is also a traditionalist but is associated with an even more extreme group within the sect, Sedevacantism. He is also a Holocaust denier. Gibson has never renounced his father’s views or specifically said whether or not he is a Sedevacantist, but he has said that the Holocaust did happen and that it was “an atrocity.”

In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report based on a three-year investigation into so-called “radical traditionalist Catholics” that focused on Hutton Gibson, whom they called an “important player” in this “shadowy world.”

“These Catholic extremists, including the Gibsons,” wrote investigator Heidi Beirich, “may well represent the largest population of anti-Semites in the U.S.”

“Hutton Gibson does the circuit and he’s featured at a lot of events,” Beirich told JTA. “He’s beloved by anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and extreme anti-government activists.”

Mel Gibson built his own traditionalist church in the Malibu hills that is so private and secretive that no one knows what goes on inside it, Beirich said.

“But we do know his views are anti-Semitic, even if they don’t line up with his father’s,” Beirich said of Mel Gibson. “The alcohol defense is ridiculous. You don’t bash Jews just because you get drunk.

“This idea of forgiveness and giving second chances to him is bad one. When you start OK’ing anti-Semitism and racism, you end up in a very bad place.”

An indelible film, ‘Shoah’ also reflects an extraordinary artist

Surely the most unpromising premise for a film ever conceived is this: Nine and one half hours of people speaking in languages you do not understand about mass murder.  Yet “Shoah” offers an experience unlike any other film, and its creator has written a memoir introducing us to the extraordinary man responsible for its existence. 

The Hammer Museum recently sponsored a showing of “Shoah” over two nights. One does not watch this film; one subjects oneself to it. Its director, Claude Lanzmann, has done something remarkable: He has used film as a medium to provoke rather than stifle imagination. Usually screen images are so concrete that they rob the viewer of his internal portraits.  Unlike radio or reading, the screen is a visual tyrant, insisting on what you must see.  You can read the Torah 1,000 times without forming a mental image of Moses; yet one viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and Charlton Heston will always nag at the edge of your awareness.  In “Shoah” there is no archival footage. One never sees the emaciated bodies, the haggard faces staring through barbed wire, the storm troopers arrayed in arrogance, strutting through the streets of Berlin. We just hear people talk.

As Claudia Bestor, director of public programs for the Hammer, pointed out when introducing the museum’s presentation, “Shoah” portrays three categories of people: the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders. Part of the film’s genius is that in several interviews we do not know which is which until the speaker reveals it him- or herself. Talking to some Polish workers, as they remember how the Jews were taken away, we wonder how to feel.  Are they “good” Poles or “bad” Poles? In the course of the film, we meet both. They could not resist the Nazi onslaught, and some of them express what seem to be appropriate sentiments for anyone whose neighbors and presumed friends have been corralled into trains bound for what most understood would be a horrible fate. Yet then the camera captures a surreptitious smile and we see, in all its demonic clarity, the grinning face of hate. That brief, fleeting smile shows everything that made the Shoah possible. 

There is no voice-over and no editorializing. The camera and the interviewees speak for themselves. Some scenes are clearly carefully arranged: The opening sequence begins at the Chelmno camp, on the Narew River. There we see Simon Srebnik, one of only two survivors of Chelmno, riding in a boat. We learn from the opening credits that he now lives in Israel but returned to Chelmno, where, as a boy, he survived in part because he sang to the Nazi officers.  Now, on the river, Simon is, as an older man, singing again the songs that saved his life as a boy. The villagers remember the sweet-voiced child. The scene is unutterably idyllic and peaceful. Each note reminds us of his childhood, this boy who witnessed his father’s murder in Lodz and whose mother was gassed in the specially rigged vans at Chelmno. We think of all the sweet-songed children whose voices were silenced. And we imagine what the villagers did or did not do the first time they heard that German lieder.

Again and again we are shown the landscape as it now exists (as of 1985, when the film was first shown). What does hell look like when the paving company arrives and the gardeners have at it?  Can we still conjure the image of writhing, burning bodies, twisted and humiliated spirits, as we see the full grass bend to the breezes?  Somehow the beauty and implacability of nature form a frame for the full weight of human suffering.  Here are skies that did not darken.  Here the trees that bore mute witness.  Here the crystalline sky, with victims recalling that “some days were even more beautiful than this.” There is no theological speculation in the movie. Nobody speaks about an absent God or loss of faith.  Sensitized as a child to the phrase “Gott in himmel” — God in heaven — I noticed that the only mentions of himmel were when we are told that the road to the gas chamber was called himmelweg, “the road to heaven,” or when we hear that the smoke from the ovens went up to the himmel.  That is all the theology needed.

Claude Lanzmann

The man who made this assaultive, extraordinary film just released the English translation of his book “The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir” (first published in France in 2009.)  A filmmaker, adventurer, philosopher, writer, editor, prolific lover, Claude Lanzmann was, from the beginning, not destined for a pedestrian life. His father, unbeknownst to him, was in the Resistance.  Lanzmann found out about his father’s activities when he himself joined the Resistance. He began to fight against Nazi influences in France and was beaten, chased and repeatedly injured.  Barely a page of the book goes by without a sharply etched and telling description of an extraordinary adventure, a celebrity or a beautiful woman — sometimes all three in one.

Lanzmann was born to mismatched parents who never met before their arranged marriage.  After years of threats — involving weaponry, shouting and shoving — they divorced. Lanzmann’s sister, an actress, committed suicide in her 30s. His fiery drive was not forged in ease and joy.

But he is clearly a gifted man. On each page we witness his charisma, intelligence and a certain fearlessness. Indeed, the one time he does give way to fear — abandoning his mother in a shoe store in the face of anti-Semitic sentiment — haunts him for his entire life. But whether on the ski slope or in romantic pursuit, Lanzmann, in his memoir, evinces almost no self-doubt. A figure in French society, he was a longtime friend of Sartre (though he broke with him over Israel) and a longtime lover of Simone de Beauvoir.  His gift for friendship and strategic alliances is evident in the broad coalition of people necessary to drive forward his extraordinary cinematic project.

He is a man whose vanity drips off the page.  But it is curiously inoffensive because it is an impersonal vanity. He is seized by a woman or a mission and simply has to conquer, possess, achieve — and seems never to doubt that he shall. It is all done with such verve and preternatural determination that the reader is carried along with him. 

On top of everything else, “The Pantagonian Hare” is both riveting and revelatory.  The revelation is the peak toward which his entire life has moved. Its very title recalls a quasi-mystical experience he had in Patagonia when he spotted a white hare. His affinity for rabbits leads him to remember the hares at Birkenau, and how they slipped under the fence that imprisoned people.  And the epigraph to the book is a parable by the Argentinian poet Silvina Ocampo. In it Jacinto, the hare, is being chased by dogs.  “‘Where are we headed?’ cried the hare in a voice that quavered like a lightning flash. ‘To the end of your life’ howled the dogs in dog voices.”

So it is no surprise when the book opens as follows: “The guillotine — more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death — has been the abiding obsession of my life.” We know as we read that “Shoah” is Lanzmann’s great life work. He describes its origins and creation here as he does everything in the book — in scenes, without a linear narrative, enabling the reader to feel much of the struggle and disappointment and ultimate achievement that mark his life. He mastered an enormous amount of material, technical and historical, to make this film, and it is all traceable to the alchemical combination of a strong Jewish identity, a mystical sense of purpose and an obsession with death.

His pursuit of Abraham Bomba — the man who miraculously survived, who served as a barber in Treblinka and cut women’s hair while they stood in the gas chamber — alone testifies to his commitment. Having heard about Bomba, he tracks him down through continents and years, meeting, losing, finding him again. The sound of that voice is needed, Lanzmann knows, to carry the film forward. 

What does he need to convey? In capsule, what the great Russian-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman wrote in his essay, “The Hell of Treblinka”: “The conveyer belt of Treblinka deprived human beings of everything to which they have been entitled, since the beginning of time, by the holy law of life — of their freedom, home and motherland, of their belongings, personal letters and photographs, of their families and loved ones, of their clothes, of their names and finally of life itself.” All this must be understood without any genuine pictures of the horror. For, as Lanzmann explains, “[N]ot a single photograph exists of Belzec extermination camp where 800,000 Jews were asphyxiated, nor any of Sobibor (250,000 deaths), nor of Chelmno (400,000 victims of the gas vans). Of Treblinka (600,000) there is one image, of a distant bulldozer.” He burns the absent image in our mind’s eye.

Certain moments freeze hatred and horror in unforgettable ways. Frau Michelson, the wife of the Nazi schoolteacher in Chelmno, who witnessed the gas vans coming and going each day, could no longer remember how many Jews had been gassed, whether it was 4,000, 40,000 or 400,000. When Lanzmann tells her 400,000, what is her response? “I knew it had a four in it.” And then there is the loathsome Franz Suchomel, the Treblinka guard who agreed to be audiotaped (and was secretly videotaped) for money. As he says, interspersed between sympathetic comments that one never believes, “There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well.”

We are privileged to see people’s eyes, the haunted eyes and the hunter’s eyes. And in the eyes of some, like the Polish scholar and resistance fighter Jan Karski, whose interview is one of the greatest sequences ever filmed, the eyes of humanity.

Scenes of unbearable pathos in the recounting remind us that dignity was in some ways the most precious possession and the one people struggled to keep until the end. In his diary, Adam Czerniakow, the president of the Jewish council in the Warsaw Ghetto, tells of a petitioner coming to him for money, not for food — though like everyone in the ghetto, he was desperately hungry — but for rent, because, “I don’t want to die in the street.”

The 11 years that he took to create “Shoah” were the climb to the peak toward which his gifts were pointed. He was ruthless and ingenious in its creation. Lying easily to funders, to governments, to anyone who was reluctant or stood in his way, this is the same man, we remember, who, as a college student, confessed, “I only stole philosophy books.” And, when he was brought up on charges, was defended by the philosopher whose books he stole. Ruthlessness, nobility and resource all jostle within him.  Yet, he says truly, “I betrayed no one.”  “Shoah” was made the way it had to be made.  The film premiered with François Mitterand, then president of France, in the audience. One cannot help but agree with journalist Jean Daniel, who said to Lanzmann after the premiere, “That justifies a life.”

Never shouting, never overstating, almost stately in its progression, the incomprehensibility is driven deeper and deeper in each sequence of the film.  Simply showing us the placid lake of Birkenau and reminding the viewer that it is called “the Lake of Ashes,” or showing the trains, always the trains, plowing their way through the Polish winter, we know. We remember, even though they are not our own memories. 

And we understand, to the extent possible, the unforgettable words of Itzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, the deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters: “Claude, you asked for my impression. If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

“Shoah: the Unseen Interviews,” a collection of outtakes from the film, will have its Los Angeles premiere during the L.A. film Festival next month, along with a Q&A with Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and Raye Farr, director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. American Jewish University, May 7, 7 p.m. For tickets, please visit www.lajfilmfest.org or call (800) 838-3006.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Who is that masked Jewish man? It’s Hero Man!

David Filmore is a mild-mannered filmmaker. A Shabbat-observant Jew from Australia who moved to West Hollywood 10 years ago, he spends his days focused on his production company, Plutonian Films.

Few might suspect that the 36-year-old with shoulder-length curly hair has something in common with comic book characters like Batman and Spider-Man. But at night, the self-professed sci-fi nerd patrols Los Angeles as his caped alter ego — Hero Man.

“It’s a kind of redemption thing,” said Filmore, who adopted the persona after he was robbed.

Filmore is part of a worldwide movement of real-life superheroes who take to the streets, either solo or in teams, to fight crime and do good deeds. There are at least 300 costumed crusaders in the United States, according to those who participate in this comic book-inspired movement.

While Filmore might be Los Angeles’ first Jewish superhero, other Jews have taken up the real-life superhero mantle. Chaim Lazaros, production manager at Jewish Educational Media, draws on Jewish values when he defends the vulnerable in New York City under the moniker Life, wearing a Green Hornet-like costume with tzitzit. Together with Ben Goldman (aka Cameraman), Lazaros co-founded the group Superheroes Anonymous.

Hero Man patrols Los Angeles’ streets a few times each week in his fully equipped “attack vehicle,” a black Nissan SUV outfitted with a glowing red ray gun on its roof. In November, Filmore launched a Web site, savemeheroman.com, to field requests for help from the bullied and the victimized.

Filmore said he gets about five to 10 inquiries each week, a few of which are illegal or outlandish.

“One woman wanted me to literally destroy her ex-husband’s apartment,” he said, adding that he is inspired by the desire to seek justice, not vigilantism.

Filmore says he won’t involve himself in divorces, vendettas, paybacks or blood feuds, and directs those who need immediate assistance to call 911.

The idea for Hero Man was planted in Filmore’s mind following transformative events in 2007. Shortly after his apartment was burglarized, Filmore was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, ulcerative colitis, which left him hospitalized. Feeling powerless in the hospital and dissatisfied with the police’s response to the crime prepared him for his work as a superhero, he said.

“When I was lying in hospital and faced with death, I decided I was going to live life to the fullest and pursue everything I ever wanted to,” Filmore said.

Inspired by a philosophy rooted in Torah and a love of comic books, Filmore donned his costume – a black cape, a Star of David pendant and a “Star Wars” lightsaber. He offers his help to anyone who needs it.

“My wanting to be a superhero is motivated by wanting to help people and engage in tikkun olam,” he said.

And help, he does. As a testimonial, an East Hollywood resident wrote: “Late one night I was walking home after my shift and I was being hassled by these scary guys waiting at a bus stop. Hero Man was driving by and offered me a ride home, which I immediately accepted. I’m so glad he was there — who knows what those guys might have done if he hadn’t been there.”

Trained in Krav Maga and tae kwon do, Hero Man functions like a quasi-Batman, patrolling the streets and alleys. He says most of his late-night alley crawls are uneventful, but there have been times when the situation became serious.

“I got stabbed in the leg once, and it created a hole 3 inches wide and was so deep you could see my femur,” he said, describing a run-in with a rooftop burglar.

Like Batman, Hero Man also does reconnaissance work. He recently photographed a woman’s ex-boyfriend violating the terms of a restraining order by parking outside of her home.

“I’ll e-mail her [the photo] and she can forward this to the cops, and this guy will probably go to jail,” he said.

While on patrol, Filmore’s encounters with passers-by create more smiles than broken bones. Tourists, locals and vagrants alike are amused by the ray gun on Hero Man’s car as it lights up on Sunset Boulevard.

Filmore, who was nominated for a Jewish Community Heroes Award last year, chronicled the transformation of his sickly, bed-ridden self to the daring and zany adventurer Hero Man in his 2010 documentary, “Hero Man,” which is making the rounds at film festivals.

“Hero Man” was filmed over three years and shows Filmore performing everything from parkour maneuvers to taking on karate masters and professional wrestlers in controlled combat settings.

“As a filmmaker, I see it as my job to sprinkle a little bit of fairy dust into people’s lives, and being a superhero is an extension of that,” Filmore said. “If I can help someone with a problem and also brighten their day with wonder, then I’ve made the world a better place to live.”

The making of a Hollywood Maccabee wannabee

Who would have projected that Chanukah could be billed as the festival of lights, camera, action?

Mel Gibson, for one, who in the fall announced that he was working with Warner Bros. on producing a movie about Judah Maccabee.

Not seeing this as a boffo idea was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who was quoted on CNN as saying that “Judah Maccabee is one of the greatest heroes in Jewish history. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite. He has made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. I don’t know what Warner Bros. was thinking.”

A few months later, the Hollywood Reporter made it known that others in Hollywood had taken note of Hier’s criticism when it announced that producer Bruce Nash was planning on making a competing Maccabee movie or TV miniseries, and had even hired a screenwriter.

With two Judah movies in production, I began to wonder: Was there room for a third? A low, low-budget cable version that would exploit the publicity of the other two?

I knew just the guy to do it—me. After all, I had worked for two weeks as a special effects assistant on “China Syndrome” eons ago, and live in sight of the Hollywood sign.

Inspired by the Hasmoneans, I would strike quickly and stealthily against the pop cultural foes, freeing the box office. But without a bankable star—in fact without anything even remotely related to a bank—I needed a miracle: an alternative way of drawing some attention to my prospective production.

What about springboarding my production off a best-selling game? After all, several major films, such as “Street Fighter” and the Laura Croft series, were adapted from games and had grossed $100 million or more.

That was the ticket.

I speed-dialed a board game manufacturer I knew in Long Beach, Calif.—Flaster Siskin, owner of FlasterVenture—to see if he wanted in. I had checked out his Maccabees board game online and saw that he had commissioned a dramatic cinematic illustration: a Greek Seleucid battle elephant being attacked by Maccabee insurgents. I instantly imagined the movie poster.

With the Maccabees very much in the news, and with an inventory of Maccabees games, I thought Siskin would be ready to deal. Not so fast.

Before entering the gaming business, Siskin had tried his hand at screenwriting. He warned, “Working in Hollywood is difficult. A lot of scripts get optioned but never get made.”

“The guy who’s spearing the elephant, is that Judah?” I asked, trying to draw him in.

“No, that’s his brother, Eleazar,” Siskin answered.

“Would we need to change script, then, keeping Judah as the film’s only action hero character?” I asked, thinking about the costs of two stars plus an elephant.

“It doesn’t need a major rewrite. You want to keep Eleazar in the picture,” he answered.

Siskin began to warm to his plot outline.

“The first act would show how a change in Seleucid leadership brought about oppression of the Jews,” he said.

The Eleazar and elephant scene would be the end of the second act. “It was the turning point of the war,” Siskin noted, adding that “Unfortunately, Eleazar, who is under the elephant, dies too.”

Ouch. For a holiday film, everyone wants a happy ending.

“But then, Judah and his warriors take back the country,” Siskin said, rallying for the film’s third act.

“And the climax?” I asked.

“The two miracles,” he answered. “The military victory and the oil burning for eight days.”

Now we moved to casting.

“Who plays Judah?” I asked.

“I would rather see a comedic tough guy like Adam Sandler than Mel Gibson,” he answered.

“We could even have Sandler sing ‘Eight Crazy Nights,’ ” I suggested, feeling the showbiz buzz. “And could we update the title. What about something more box office, like ‘Judah Mac?’ ”

“Very hip,” Siskin responded.

Now that my concept was a go, I needed to audience test it with the Jewish establishment. Since Holocaust museum folks like Hier seemed to be the go-to guys for Jewish reaction these days, I turned to Mark Rothman, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who also was a film school graduate.

For starters, Rothman wanted me to know of his “deep suspicion of Gibson’s telling the Judah story with any Jewish sensitivity,” he said. Then, thinking of how to draw the largest draw for my production, Rothman told me to be mindful of the film’s potential Christian audience.

“This clearly has to be a crossover,” he said.

To cut costs, Rothman thought I should restrict the battle scenes to guerrilla-type actions. “Something like sabotaging chariots,” he suggested.

Suddenly worried that this was sounding too much like a war movie, I asked Rothman if I needed a love interest. Ever the film school grad, he quickly outlined how I could write in a female warrior who gains acceptance by fighting off several enemy attackers.

Then I hit him with my projected title.

“Judah Mac” excited him with tie-in possibilities. “Maybe Apple will come out with a new laptop, or McDonald’s a new burger,” he said, laughing at his cleverness.

However, when I told him about the planned dramatic moment when Eleazer impales the elephant, Rothman blanched.

“You’re only going to get in trouble from PETA and the ASPCA,” he warned.

There went my second act.

“Making ‘Judah Mac’ is going to be much harder than I thought,” I said, frustrated by the new complication.

“Welcome to Hollywood,” said Rothman.

(Edmon J. Rodman, who lives just a couple of miles from Hollywood, writes a JTA column on Jewish life. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

A woman’s world?

It’s hard to tell, what with the requisite girdles, supervised weigh-ins and protocol panty hose (“not too dark; this isn’t a cabaret”), that the 1960s world depicted in “Pan Am” is supposed to be about the era’s most worldly women.

ABC-TV’s new hour-long drama, which premieres Sept. 25, is set at a lush airport popping in Pan Am’s signature blue. Stewardesses walk in a perfectly synchronized horizontal line (like at a cabaret), each leg in kick-line step as they ascend their version of a stage — the tarmac. The women talk like this: “I get to see the world,” one stewardess, Maggie (Christina Ricci), tells her boyfriend. “When was the last time you left the village?” And the men, awed by the Pan Am breed of beauty and brains, say things like: “Get your fanny to midtown, Sweetheart!”

It’s not exactly the milieu remembered by Nancy Ganis, one of the show’s creators and executive producers, who was a Pan Am stewardess more than 30 years ago. Ganis took to the skies for the first time in 1969 as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in search of the world. Back then, she said, becoming a stewardess was an indication of ambition and intelligence, and many of the women hired were well educated and from privileged backgrounds. On the show, a woman gets props for being “trilingual.” 

“Pan Am hired people to be like the girl next door,” Ganis said by phone from the show’s New York set. “We were supposed to have very high moral standards. We were considered ambassadors of good will, sort of a quasi-diplomatic corps. You came to the job with certain innate skills — how to be gracious, good manners, poise.”

But, even with Ganis at the show’s helm, truth can get lost in translation.

The current cultural fixation on retro fantasies of the ’60s (think “Mad Men”) portrays women as beautiful and submissive. Last May, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted an anonymous entertainment executive suggesting that amid great economic uncertainty, men find comfort in Hollywood chimeras of female subjugation: “[I]t’s not a coincidence that these retro shows are appearing at the same time men are confused about who to be. A lot of women are making more money and getting more college degrees. The traditional … dominant and submissive roles are reversed in many cases. Everything was clearer in the ’60s.”

Ganis thinks the clear-cut gender roles of yore permitted more social graces. “When those lines got blurred in the so-called sexual revolution, I don’t think it liberated women; I think it gave men license to disrespect. There’s been a denigration of how women have been presented in the media; they’ve become more objectified than they were then.”

“Pan Am,” at least on its shiny surface, portrays women eager for opportunity. Working for the world’s most prominent airline was the way — often their only way — to see the world. “It was the best education I could have had,” Ganis said. Having grown up in Detroit “rather comfortably,” as she put it, Ganis had planned on teaching in an inner-city school, but realized she lacked a certain cultural proficiency. 

“How could I teach kids whose life experience is so removed from mine?” she said she wondered at the time. Being a flight attendant was illuminating. “When I ventured out into the larger world, it helped me begin to understand diversity and to appreciate differences,” she said.

Nancy and Sid Ganis. Photo by Phil McCarten/Reuters

The dawn of the airline industry, as depicted on the show, plays out as a nostalgic fantasy. Travel is glamorous and exciting — a world filled with dignitaries, movie stars and wealthy businessmen. Travelers dress up for air travel. Notably absent are today’s cumbersome security measures and ubiquitous TSA uniforms; then, the only acceptable pat-down for a stewardess was a little smack on the behind by a female superior, just to ensure proper girding by the girdles.

Other aspects of air travel are unrecognizable, too. Flights were sparse, and international travel often involved multiple-day layovers, allowing crews to kick back and explore cities. Ganis remembers decamping to the village of a prominent Maasai warrior in Kenya, hiking the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, partying in Karachi, and boarding a houseboat to Srinagar in Kashmir.

In the show’s opening moments, a fictional Life magazine cover declares this “The Jet Age,” heralding opportunity as much as uncertainty. A real 1968 Life cover featuring Pan Am stewardesses, titled “Aboard the First Flights,” reported on the first direct flights between New York and Moscow, signaling an incipient economic partnership between Russia and the West. In those days, Pan Am travel was so groundbreaking that cities eager for tourism rushed to build runways and hotels. “New Caledonia brought in yachts to put up the crew when women started flying, because they couldn’t put us in Army barracks,” Ganis said. At that time, about half of Pan Am’s flights were special charters, serving an elite clientele that included the White House Press Corps and members of the State Department. The airline ran diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, helped evacuate American troops from Vietnam and, according to Ganis, secretly airlifted special parties out of Israel when the Six-Day War broke out. “I had a couple of friends who were on those flights,” she said.

The women in charge of the passengers had to be cool in a crisis. “One of the primary reasons you’re on the airplane is to save lives in case of an emergency,” Ganis said. “You had to be prepared for any situation and know how to get out of a burning aircraft in under 90 seconds, with all your passengers.”

The stewardesses’ success hinged on the confidence and trust of those in the traveling class. “We were treated as equals,” Ganis said. “Passengers invited us on their journeys. You never thought of yourself as being subservient.”

Ganis’ husband, Sid, a well-known film producer and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2005 to 2009, is also a producer on “Pan Am,” mostly in an advisory role. During a three-way conference call with the pair, he said he’d much rather sit back and relish his wife’s success — after all, she lived the life depicted in the show.

“My wife is in the lead, she’s in the spotlight,” Sid said, en route by train to meet Nancy in New York. “In our lives, throughout 25 years of marriage, she is my equal. At this point in my career, this brand-new thing is happening, and it’s about Nancy. And it’s very, very gratifying for me.”

To which Nancy cooed: “I’m much more comfortable with you in the spotlight.” And then they hung up.

‘The Adujustment Bureau’: Finally, an Action Thriller for Religious Thinkers

Films that offer profound philosophical lessons are a rarity. I remember watching The Matrix several years ago, noting that the movie was really a sci-fi version of Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave,” which posits that most people are living in a false reality of shadows. More recently, Inception explored the similar epistemological concept of solipsism, that we’re really all just dreaming and physical reality is only a construct of the mind. Such films, which tickle one’s philosophical funny-bone, are slim pickings among a feast of mind-numbing cinematic banalities.

Even rarer are those films which tackle theological dilemmas, like the age-old apparent contradiction of free will vs. determinism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world. What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? Did I truly decide of my own free will to marry my wife, or did God orchestrate a complex set of circumstances which forced my hand and caused me to fall in love with this wonderful woman in order to fulfill His unknowable Divine plan?

This is precisely the theme of the new film, The Adjustment Bureau (Grace Films Media, now playing), and so when I received an invitation for a clergy-only screening of the film, I felt it was a worthwhile way to spend an evening with my son. One of the reasons I found it so exhilarating to watch was because this is the kind of film that can make a very important contribution to our society. Instead of movies that provide very little value to the world of ideas, The Adjustment Bureau provokes us to address this thorny theological issue with a new set of glasses. At the very least, it gets us thinking that maybe there is a God out there who has a larger plan for all of us.

Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and featuring a fast-paced script and lots of action, The Adjustment Bureau was smartly made for a general audience. The producers and directors clearly understood that in order for a movie to be successful, it can’t just appeal to rabbis and philosophers. There are plenty of chase scenes for the guys and a love story for the ladies. But the basic premise of the story is hardcore theology. It proposes that the leading man (Damon) has to be prevented from meeting his love interest (Blunt) so that these two highly motivated and gifted individuals can reach their respective professional goals (he, a senator, she, a dancer) independently of one another. An angel is put in charge of preventing the meeting, since if they fall in love, all of their passion will be funneled into their relationship instead of their careers, and as a result neither will realize his or her potential. When the angel botches the job and the two end up falling for each other, an entire corps of angels, comprising this “Adjustment Bureau,” has to clean up the mess to separate the couple. Of course, this is where the chase scenes come in, since Damon and Blunt have to flee the angels (depicted as dapper men in hats) who are trying to destroy their relationship.

In a very clever obfuscation of organized religion (which seems to be public enemy #1 in Hollywood) God is never mentioned by name. Instead, the angels work for “the Chairman,” who oversees the adjustment process.

The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”

The great Jewish medievalists, together with their Christian and Islamic counterparts, undertook the issue of free will with vigor. Yeshiva students are familiar with the dispute between 12th-century Maimonides and his often fiery opponent, Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud. Maimonides felt that the contradiction between free will and Divine foreknowledge was so difficult that the human mind could not fathom it properly, and thus one simply had to have faith that while for man there appears to be a contradiction, for God there is none. Ibn Daud felt that there was a coherent reconciliation, but his explanation is vague and continues to be debated to this day. More recently, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer, the great Ishbitzer Rebbe, taught in the 19th century that indeed, free will is but an illusion; even when we think we’re doing something that is contra God’s will, it is we who are mistaken.

I won’t reveal how the film ends, but suffice it to say that the final message of the film lends itself to a number of different interpretations. One leaves the film never really knowing what the beliefs of the writer and director, George Nolfi, are about free will. This is one more victory for the film; it seeks not to preach religion but rather to provoke thought and conversation about life’s big issues.

This is a great movie for a synagogue group; see it and have a discussion over coffee afterwards. Your rabbi will be able to discuss with you the Jewish position on the free will vs. determinism issue, and your knowledge of Judaism will be all the better for it.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times. We have every luxury imaginable to modern man, but because of all the dizzying distractions of modern life we lack the ability to properly take stock of who we are and what our purpose is. As stand-up comedian Louis CK puts it, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” Back in the Middle Ages, religious philosophers like Boethius, Al-Ghazali, and Maimonides were able to grab a thinker’s attention because they weren’t competing with loud music, fast cars, high-speed Internet and text messaging. In our world, where deep, meditative thought about the meaning of life is so hard to achieve, a movie like The Adjustment Bureau is a welcome break from the distractions. It will leave you exercising brain muscles you’d forgotten you had.

In addition to his rabbinic duties at Yavneh in Hancock Park, Rabbi Korobkin is a graduate student at UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, where he studies medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy.

Jewish writer, producer of ‘King’s Speech’ take awards

“The King’s Speech” won seven of Britain’s top film awards, including for its Jewish writer and for its Jewish producer.

David Seidler, whose paternal grandparents died in the Holocaust, picked up what is known as a gong for the best original screenplay while Emile Sherman, a Sydney-based producer who collaborated with Iain Canning in London, jointly won the award for best film at the British Academy of Film & Television Arts awards in London on Sunday night.

Sherman, whose parents are well-known philanthropists in the Australian Jewish community, said he had no problem with the film’s history despite some criticism that it ignored King George VI’s role in preventing Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

“Smear campaigns are part and parcel of this world,” Sherman told the Australian Jewish News. “I’m Jewish, the writer (David Seidler) is Jewish … and I feel really comfortable with what I know about King George VI. We’re telling a story; the film isn’t an analysis of his political leanings.”

Among other winners at the BAFTAs were Jerusalem-born actress Natalie Portman, who won a best actress award for her role in “Black Swan,” and Aaron Sorkin, who won the award for best adapted screenplay for “The Social Network.”

“The King’s Speech” garnered 12 Academy Awards nominations; the winners will be revealed Feb. 27 in Los Angeles.

For Justin Bieber, ‘Scooter’ and the Shema play a major presence


Significant Jewish Presence in Globes’ Winners Circle

Jewish talent won some and lost some at the Golden Globe Award ceremonies, Jan. 16 in Beverly Hills, auguring a mixed outlook for the upcoming Oscar nominations.

The best news is that Israeli-born Natalie Portman waltzed off as best actress in the drama category for her impressive turn as a tortured ballerina in “The Black Swan.”

“The Social Network,” the gripping, if somewhat skewed, story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, won for best drama, but its star, Jesse Eisenberg, lost out to best actor winner Colin Firth, who portrayed England’s stuttering George VI in “The King’s Speech.”

“Social Network” won additional honors for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for best screenplay. Sorkin beat out, among others, Britain’s David Seidler, who provided the inspiration and script for “The King’s Speech.”

Seidler’s paternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

In the comedy or musical category, Paul Giamatti, who is not Jewish, emerged as best actor for his spot-on portrayal of the very Jewish producer Barney Panofsky in “Barney’s Version.”

The movie is based on the novel of the same title by Canadian Jewish author Mordecai Richler.

Denmark’s “In a Better World” won the prize for best foreign-language film. Israel’s Oscar entry, “The Human Resources Manager,” did not place among the five Globe finalists.

For the first time since the end of World War II, no movie or documentary dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi era was submitted for either Golden Globe or Academy Award consideration.

Lovitz, lies and Torah

“I hate lying,” Jon Lovitz, the comedian, actor and comedy club owner, said without a touch of humor in his voice. “I just can’t stand it. I don’t see the advantage of it. It makes me physically ill.”

It’s the reason, he said, that he has become something of a specialist in portraying characters who are truth-challenged, or, in his words, “sleazy.” He was Tommy Flanagan, president of Pathological Liars Anonymous, on “Saturday Night Live”; the guy on “Seinfeld” who fibs about having cancer, then dies in a car crash; a loudmouth baseball scout who steals scenes from Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”; the voice of an obnoxious movie reviewer in the animated series “The Critic”; and the father, in the film “Rat Race,” who tells his family they are on a minivan “vacation” when he is actually trying to win $2 million in a cross-country dash.

In the recently released “Casino Jack,” which tells the story of the disgraced former superlobbyist and Orthodox Jew Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, a shady business associate whose bumbling deals help bring the lobbyist down.

Sitting in his publicist’s office in Larchmont Village, Lovitz, 53, is occasionally funny — such as when he calls his “Casino Jack” co-star Barry Pepper “Dr. Pepper” or laments that people don’t know Jesus was Jewish, because “can you think of a less Jewish name than Jesus Christ?” But, in person, Lovitz most often exudes vulnerability, a kind of naiveté and a quiet anger about the state of ethics in show business.

“When I was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ a lawyer friend told me my liar character was really popular in Hollywood,” he said. “I soon found out that’s because everyone in Hollywood lies, constantly. And everyone knows everyone else is lying. I’ve seen best friends screw each other over. And [agents] tell you that you have to lie to get what you want. I literally lost track of what’s right and wrong, it was so bad. So I got a book about Jewish morals and laws written by a rabbi.”

The book was Joseph Telushkin’s “The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living,” which provided practical advice. Hiding Jews from the Nazis? Trying not to unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings? Two examples of when lying can be OK, Lovitz said.

“It’s ironic,” he admitted of portraying so many liars, “but as a comic actor, I’m good at making fun of them.”

So good, in fact, that he makes an impression even when his character has only one or two scenes in a production. “Jon Lovitz steals practically every scene that he’s in in the movie,” Spacey said of “Casino Jack.”

“He is a genius at those moments in between, the looks and the sighs and the body language,” Pepper said. “That’s where his classical training [at University of California, Irvine] comes in, and I think that’s what few people appreciate about him.”

Lovitz’s characters also blend a desperate quality with a bombastic flamboyance — a quality he said he inherited from his Jewish grandfather (actually his stepmother’s father), Lou Melman, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska and made loans to Al Capone’s gang in the 1930s. Melman would take the young Lovitz to Canter’s and to the Santa Anita race track.

“My grandfather was larger than life,” Lovitz said. “And he was incredibly accepting of me — he was just crazy about me, and I was crazy about him. I based my character in ‘A League of Their Own’ on him.  He wasn’t mean, but he was funny. In the first scene in the movie, I’m attending a baseball game, someone stands up in front of me and I say, ‘What — are you crazy?” 

The young Lovitz attended Valley Beth Shalom when his family lived in Encino and Temple Judea after they moved to Tarzana; his best friend was David Kudrow, Lisa Kudrow’s older brother, whom he met in fifth grade. When the boys were at Portola Junior High, they saw Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” which solidified Lovitz’s ambition to become a comedian. They especially liked the scene in which Allen’s character, paranoid about anti-Semitism, assumes someone has said “Jew” instead of the words “did you.”

“We were just dying,” Lovitz said. “We thought, ‘This is like our own humor. … It was very Jewish, especially the sarcasm. It was like this friend of my father’s who would always look at me and go, ‘Oh, the actor.”

When Lovitz attended the Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake) in Studio City, starting in ninth grade, he was teased for being Jewish at a time when, he said, the school had few Jewish students. “One guy would say, ‘Look at your nose,’ ” Lovitz recalled. “The abuse was verbal and physical. The school in those days was all boys, and they were just merciless. It got so bad the headmaster called our class together, and he was just livid. He said, ‘I won’t stand for this bullying.’ ”

Like his school years, Lovitz’s career has also had an up-and-down trajectory. He studied drama at UC Irvine and then worked odd jobs, including a stint as a hospital orderly, for years until his work with the improvisational comedy group The Groundlings led to his casting on “Saturday Night Live” in 1985. His response to that job offer — which brought almost overnight success — was, “Are you kidding? They might have equally said I was going to live on Pluto.”

Subsequently, Lovitz starred in Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks,” as Billy Crystal’s younger brother in “City Slickers II” and in a number of recognizably Jewish roles — including Randy Pear of “Rat Race,” who, in one hilarious scene, thinks he is taking his daughter to a Barbie doll museum — and ends up in the middle of a neo-Nazi rally at the Klaus Barbie Museum.  His response is to steal Hitler’s car, one of the museum’s displays.

Several years ago, Lovitz said, he began doing stand-up comedy again because his film roles were becoming scarcer; he opened his Jon Lovitz Comedy Club on Universal CityWalk last year, where he often performs, riffing on subjects such as racism, religion and sex. Single and never married, he said his dream role would be to play the title character in a remake of the 1955 Ernest Borgnine film “Marty,” about two lonely-hearts who have resigned themselves to never finding love until they meet each other.

Lovitz relished playing Adam Kidan in “Casino Jack,” a kind of lapsed, depraved Jew who, between outrageously underhanded business deals, becomes almost a truth-sayer in the film. In several scenes, Kidan points out how hypocritical the fictional Abramoff is for claiming piety while engaging in unethical deals.

For the scene in which the two men have an enormous argument as the FBI closes in, Lovitz said, “I improvised the line where I call [Abramoff] a ‘fake Jew.’ ”

“Abramoff in the movie is hiding behind his religion and saying that he was trying to be such a good Jew, but he wasn’t. That’s not what the religion is.” l

Documentary goes behind the music video with Chutzpah

Tor Hyams was startled to discover that his Jewish rap group, Chutzpah, had become the subject of an arty short documentary — Juliet Landau’s “Take Flight” — which will be the centerpiece of The Hollywood Hill’s inaugural BigBrainBoy Mobile Media Summit that takes place on Sept. 12 and 13.

“But at the same time I also wasn’t so surprised, because there’s something very strange about our group: We call it ‘The Legend of Chutzpah,'” he said. “Wacky things have always happened to us that we never planned — and that we didn’t particularly try for because Chutzpah is a pet project, not the main part of our lives.”

Hyams, a veteran TV composer and record producer, was working with artists such as Lisa Loeb and Perry Farrell when he began writing Jewish rap on a lark back in 2005. Within months, Chutzpah had released “Eponymous,” its debut CD; a DVD “hip-hop-u-mentary,” featuring celebrity cameos by Gary Oldman and Sharon Osbourne, which screened at the HBO and Aspen comedy festivals; a music video, “Chanukah’s Da Bomb” which played on MTV, and write-ups in myriad publications (The New York Times calls it “a cross between Eminem and Woody Allen”). Now a second album, “Hip Hop Fantasy,” is slated for release Nov. 11, along with a new music video, for the song, “Red Rover,” directed by Oldman. And that video is the subject of “Take Flight,” which is already earning buzz in media circles.

Hyams, who is originally from Larchmont, N.Y., said he was “working on five projects at once” several years ago when a friend asked him to help write a Yiddish rap song.

‘Take Flight’ trailer

“I absolutely loved it,” he recalled. “It was like I was possessed, and I started creating hip-hop beats and writing lyrics.”

Hyams enlisted the help of his cousin, David Scharff, and together they “busted out five tracks” in just two weeks in the producer’s Los Feliz studio. The songs included “Old School Jew” (“I was going really ‘old school,'” he says of the rap term. “We’re talking an abridged history of the Hebrew bible.”) and “In the Shtetl,” a riff on “In the Ghetto” by Oakland rapper Too Short.

“My big idea for the CD was, ‘Let’s give this to our families for Chanukah,'” Hyams said. “I never thought we’d get a record deal, because I figured ‘This is stupid and Jewish and no one cares except us.'”

Later, during a tense business meeting, Hyams joked that if the deal at hand didn’t work out, the executives could sign his Jewish rap group. “Everybody laughed,” Hyams recalled, “but when I got home, there was an e-mail saying that if I was serious, I should contact this new label, the Jewish Music Group [JMG], which was looking for talent.” Shout Factory’s JMG signed the group on a handshake.

When the company ordered a music video, Hyams played lead rapper “Master Tav,” Scharff was the Jewish rastafarian philosopher and an actor friend, Jerran Friedman, portrayed the deranged MC Meshugenah, who often appeared in a straightjacket.

2006 music video ‘Ask the rabbi’ — note straightjacket

Many reviewers subsequently lauded Chutzpah, which billed itself as “the first Jewish hip-hop supergroup” (never mind Matisyahu or 2 Live Jews). But some described it as a novelty act — a label that chagrined Hyams. He said he intends his music to be serious and that he is inspired by rap greats such as LL Cool J and Snoop Dogg.

Chutzpah’s second CD, he added, is a “concept album” in which each song describes the saga of how the bandmates have unexpectedly lived out their hip-hop fantasies. Oldman — who has been Hyams’ friend since their children attended the same preschool — raps on one of the songs and asked to direct Chutzpah’s new music video. “Gary thinks being Jewish is cool for some reason,” Hyams said. “He’d always say, ‘You know, Tor, I could be Jewish; I could change my name to Larry Goldman” (which is how he is credited on the new music video).

The video is shot entirely on Nokia cell- phones and features the song, “Red Rover,” a “battle rap” challenging Chutzpah’s critics (including Matisyahu, who reportedly told Hyams that Chutzpah disgraces Judaism.) It depicts the group members wearing Speedos and Jewish bling while playing the children’s game red rover with bikini-clad babes. Hyams dons a clown nose to dis Matisyahu, and MC Meshugenah attempts to snorkel in a wading pool emblazoned with a Star of David.

While Oldman was shooting Hyams et al, Landau (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) was filming a “making of” documentary about the video — which turned into a lyrical film about Oldman’s creative process. “I could see Gary coming up with ideas and carrying them out with great precision,” Landau said. “I wanted viewers to feel like they were inside his head.”

For Hyams, watching the film brought one more surprise.

“I thought the movie would be kind of dumb, because we’re kind of dumb,” he said. “But it was so moving, I actually got a little choked up.”

Juliet Landau and “Red Rover” director of photography Deverill Weekes will conduct a Q & A after “Take Flight” screenings, on Sept. 13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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