‘Burial’ Unearths Small-Town Secrets

Toward the end of Nicholas Racz’s quirky, quiet, noirish thriller, “The Burial Society,” Sheldon Kasner, the film’s protagonist but certainly not its hero, whines: “Why can’t anything ever be easy for me?” It’s a line Woody Allen might have used in “Take the Money and Run,” but while Sheldon has elements of Allen’s nebbish-turned-wannabe-thief, he is darker, more complex and far craftier. So is Racz’s film about death and rebirth, real and metaphoric.

A newcomer to town, 40-something Sheldon (Rob LaBelle), whose name, spectacles and receding hairline enhance his sepia-toned meekness and ordinariness, seeks to join the tiny Jewish community’s chevra kadisha, which prepares the dead for burial. To the elderly, wary, tight-knit chevra kadisha triumvirate — Hy (Allan Rich), Marvin (Jan Rubes) and Harry (Bill Meilen) — Sheldon explains that he has abandoned his career as loan officer to find meaning in his life. When the trio is still skeptical, Sheldon reveals that his employers tried to kill him because he was privy to the money-laundering taking place at the bank.

“Bad money came to be redeemed,” Sheldon says. “It traveled from darkness into light.”

With that, Sheldon is welcomed into the burial society and taught its rituals by men who play cards and grouse when they’re not performing a tahara (purification) or watching over a body until its interment, or delivering medication and homemade matzah ball soup to an ailing community member. Increasingly fond of their protégé, they view Sheldon’s arrival as a Divine act that will save the chevra kadisha and Jewish tradition that survived the Nazis but is now threatened — Marvin laments with bitter irony — by lack of funding.

But Sheldon, we soon learn, is Darrel Zimmer — “the world’s least likely criminal,” on the run from police who suspect his involvement in the homicide of his former employer, Stuart Lightman, and the disappearance of Stuart’s brother, Jake. Zimmer is also being hunted by Sam Goldberg, a Jewish mob boss from whom he has embezzled $2 million. Hence Zimmer’s rebirth as “Sheldon” in a small town, and his urgency to join its chevra kadisha so he can appropriate a body and stage his death.

Sheldon, it turns out, is not the only one who isn’t what he seems. With the exception of the Lightman brothers, one-dimensional stereotypical thugs, and mob king Sam Goldberg, who is no Don Corleone, Racz does a deft job in providing surprises and twists through the nuanced layering of his characters: Sheldon/Darrel; Sheldon’s brother, Morrie (David Paymer); the superintendent of the building where Sheldon has found lodging; and, most importantly, Hy, Harry and Marvin. Hy is the gruff one, the loose skin on his expressive face pulled down by gravity and, one suspects, dashed expectations; Harry is the “youngster” who defers to his two colleagues; Marvin, with his elegant European accent and regal carriage, is the philosopher and Sheldon’s mentor. The three are, as the title suggests, the film’s center. They function as a unit, bound by decades of friendship and their devotion to the chevra kadisha. But they are not saints either, and their actions are morally ambiguous.

Racz has imbued his film with the necessary ingredients of a thriller: the missing millions; the mounting tension as Zimmer’s hunters close in; Sheldon’s terror and desperation when his clever plan unravels. Adding intrigue are flashes to an unidentified face, eerily lit and masked by shadows, that becomes the leitmotif of the film. But what distinguishes and enriches “The Burial Society” is the mystery that takes place inside the chamber where the taharas (ritual cleansings) take place. Outside this room Hy, Harry and Marvin are old men passing time by playing gin rummy. Inside, they become keepers of a hallowed tradition. Donning kippot and reverence (and accompanied by a delicate, lullabylike score), they recite psalms as they sponge and dress each body with tenderness and respect that underscore the brutality of Sheldon’s subsequent sacrilege.

“This knot from the kabbalah is 2,000 years old,” Hy informs Sheldon as he secures a simple shroud. The pieces of earthenware placed on the deceased’s eyes will protect him from the bright light when he arrives in the next world. The twig placed in his hand, which will turn into a staff, symbolizes that he takes nothing material with him on his final journey.

It is a lesson Sheldon doesn’t take to heart, but one that ultimately proves true. In “The Burial Society,” bad money is not the only thing that came to be redeemed and traveled from darkness to light.

The Journal is co-hosting a special screening of “The Burial Society” on Wednesday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle’s Fairfax 3, 7907 Beverly Blvd. West Hollywood. To R.S.V.P., e-mail freemoviescreenings@yahoo.com. The film opens July 30 at both Laemmle’s Fairfax 3 and Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.

Rochelle Krich is the L.A. Times best-selling author of the award-nominated mystery series (“Blues in the Night,” “Dream House”) featuring Orthodox tabloid journalist Molly Blume. The opening chapter of “Grave Endings,” arriving this October from Ballantine, can be found at www.rochellekrich.com.

Innocence Lost

— Richard Rodriguez, in the afterword to “Fast Forward”

From top: book cover, Photojournalist Lauren Greenfield; photo from exhibit “Ashleigh, 13, with her friend and parents, Santa Monica.”Signs of the times: At an upscale bar mitzvah party in Santa Monica, 13-year-old boys in “fade” haircuts and baggy suits strike hip-hop poses on the dance floor. Little girls at a San Fernando Valley Jewish preschool report for circle time in midriff tops and lipstick. In Hollywood, a teen-ager acquires a tattoo, a designer backpack and a baby within a year of her arrival here from rural El Salvador. A “soccer mom” at a park in Van Nuys chats blithely about buying her 17-year-old daughter breast implants for her birthday. “This is the real world,” she says in response to my look of disbelief.

Is it? Such stuff is not unique to Los Angeles. But with Hollywood in our collective back yard, we are closest to the flame. The media-stoked hunger for things, the star worship and the drumbeat of MTV seem intensified in Los Angeles. Rappin’ rich kids deck themselves out as faux “gangstas” in sexy store-bought street clothes, and inner-city teens sport WASPY-looking Tommy Hilfiger duds. In the end, the twin grails are youth and celebrity. Too often, it seems the grown-ups don’t grow up. The kids seem jaded long before they hit 18.

In a remarkable new book, “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood” (Knopf, $35), photojournalist Lauren Greenfield examines the impact of contemporary culture on this city’s children. From Calabasas to Compton, her photographs capture a disparate series of moments: Skyler, 7, wanders aimlessly through the posh, daytime isolation of his parents’ Malibu home. Enrique, the cash-strapped son of a seamstress, pays a limo driver outside his prom date’s South Central bungalow. Phoebe, 3, suffers through the VIP opening of Barney’s department store in Beverly Hills in her tutu. A tagger hurriedly spray-paints his way to notoriety on a Compton bus. At the ritzy Peninsula Hotel, where she lives like a modern-day “Eloise,” 10-year-old Emily poses provocatively in the mirror of the Presidential Suite’s marble bathroom.

What unites these images is the sense that innocence is no longer a possibility. The color-drenched photos evoke the breathless speed referred to in the collection’s title. Greenfield’s young subjects, whether pushed by circumstance or desire, appear to be in a headlong rush toward adulthood, a destination rich with the dangerous promises of sex, money and autonomy. Los Angeles, these pictures tell us in countless ways, is no place for the poky, incremental discoveries of childhood.

Bracketed between essays by Carrie Fisher and Richard Rodriguez, the pictures are accompanied by excerpts from countless conversations the photographer had with her subjects. Greenfield hung out at prom dances and East L.A. crew parties. At one point, she crouched behind a car to dodge gunfire, and, later, she attended a funeral so rife with gang tension that she was compelled to wear a bullet-proof vest.

“This project became an obsession,” she said during a recent interview with The Journal. “I shot over 1,000 rolls of film…and turned down an assignment with National Geographic in order to finish the book.”

Her sensitivity and empathy for her subjects is rewarded by the frankness of the interviews. These kids’ voices abound with blunt wisdom, confusion, swagger and insecurity. They talk with straightforward candor about the world around them.

“You grow up really fast when you grow up in L.A.,” says Mijanou, a former homecoming queen whose image graces the book’s cover. “It’s not cool to be a kid.”

At his bar mitzvah party, Brandon stands next to his mother, who wears a sexy backless dress, her back to the camera. “My mom does embarrass me sometimes when we go somewhere together and she dresses in these outfits,” Brandon says in the accompanying text. “I guess they are in style, but like too in style, too ahead of people knowing they are in style, and they are really embarrassing.”

Greenfield includes several photos of bar mitzvah parties. The Fellini-esque circus atmosphere in these candid pictures documents an excess that would make Philip Roth blush. During one at the Whisky-A-Go-Go, bar mitzvah boy Adam stares goggle-eyed as a go-go dancer thrusts her chest in his face. His expression is a mixture of embarrassment, delight and mild panic. At another, a grotesque Madonna impersonator performs for a giggling boy and his friends. During a bat mitzvah party in the commissary of 20th Century Fox, a trio of young girls gossip breathlessly in the parking lot, their baby fat visible above strapless dresses.

Greenfield, who is Jewish and a native of Los Angeles, wondered aloud about the potential reaction of a general audience to the bar mitzvah pictures.

“I grew up in a community with a lot of Jews, and I’m familiar with these people,” she said. “But as this book goes out into the world, I hope people who live in other places will not view these as stereotypes.”

Her main objective is not to take easy potshots at kids, no matter which side of the tracks they live on.

“If readers sense a critical perspective in my pictures,” she writes in the preface, “it is a criticism of the culture and its values, not the children or parents who adapt to it.”

True enough. Our culture’s obsessions with weight, wealth and fame hound adults as much as they do children. Greenfield’s nonjudgmental approach to the people she encounters is part of the reason “Fast Forward” rises above sensationalism or voyeurism, offering, instead, an unvarnished and challenging look at the consequences of modern values.

But it’s also true that someone ultimately has to take responsibility for minding the store. For rich and poor, the absence of parents — both figuratively and literally –is a leitmotif in “Fast Forward.” A photo of tuxedo-clad “Ari,” 13, standing in his bedroom, under the Playboy girlie posters his mom bought him “because she knows I like that” begs the question: Where have all the grown-ups gone?

“Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood” is available at area bookstores and will be on view through May 27 at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (213) 937-5525.