Solomon’s Choice

The first images of Ed Solomon’s thought-provoking film,”Levity,” came to the writer-director while tutoring in a maximum-securityyouth prison in Calabasas two decades ago. “One inmate kept a photograph of theboy he had shot, and he kept touching it, fingering it,” he said, speakingquietly and intensely in a Santa Monica cafe on a recent afternoon. “He wasstruggling to understand that it was a human life he had taken, but he was only17 and serving the first year of a life sentence. And that haunted me. I beganwondering, ‘What would he be like as an adult? Where would he go if he were letout of prison and what would he do with the photograph?'”

One of the first images in “Levity” — the opening night filmof the 2003 Sundance Film Festival this week — is a yellowed newspaperphotograph of a convenience store clerk on the graffitied wall of a prisoncell. The cell belongs to Manual Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), who is doing lifesince murdering the clerk but is suddenly released on parole. Subsequently, hewanders through his old neighborhood, hungry for atonement, tenuouslybefriending his victim’s sister (Holly Hunter) and an enigmatic preacher(Morgan Freeman).

“Read a book once on redemption, was written in the [12th]century” he says in voice-over while riding the subway, looking out of placewith his battered suitcase and long, gray hair. “Man said there was five stepstoward making amends.”

Solomon said the “man” is actually the Jewish sageMaimonides; he says he learned about the “steps” when he and his wife-to-be,Cynthia, took a Judaism class with Rabbi Naomi Levy at Temple Mishkon Tefiloseven years ago.

“That was crucial for the film,” said Solomon, 42, aself-described “lapsed atheist.” “Manual doesn’t believe in [some] of thesteps, and he says he doesn’t believe in God, yet he’s so desperate forredemption he acts in a way that contradicts his beliefs. As the preacher saysto him, ‘Why be afraid of a God you don’t believe in?’ I wanted the boundarieswithin the film to be at least as unclear as they seemed to me in my reallife.”

Solomon has been grappling with spiritual questions sincegrowing up in a Reform Jewish home in Saratoga in the Bay Area, where he felt,”tradition was a big part of Jewish communal life but without the conviction offaith.” Meanwhile, his Christian friends attended fervent high schoolfellowship meetings where, they said, they prayed for him. “I started to feel,’I’m so different from these people,'” said Solomon, who requested a meetingwith his family rabbi.

Over drinks at a San Jose coffee shop, the 16-year-oldrevealed that he was struggling with his faith. “But the rabbi just looked atme and said, ‘Me, too,'” Solomon recalled. “Today, I might take comfort inthat, but at the time, it just underscored my sense of feeling disconnected andout of place.”

Comedy was one of the ways Solomon learned to connect withpeople, first by bonding with his father over Mel Brooks films and later bycreating funny sketches for high school shows. By his senior year at UCLA, hewas writing jokes for comics such as Garry Shandling; by age 21, he was a staffwriter on TV’s “Laverne and Shirley” and the youngest person ever admitted tothe Writers Guild of America. After co-authoring 1989s “Bill & Ted’sExcellent Adventure” with Chris Matheson, he went on to earn screenwritingcredits for films such “Leaving Normal” (1992), “Men in Black” (1997) and”Charlie’s Angels” (2000).

But when he tried to sell “Levity,” his most personalproject and directorial debut, he says he “literally got hundreds ofrejections.” In a business where artists are often pigeonholed, people wonderedwhy Solomon wasn’t peddling a comedy. “A producer friend went so far as to tellme that ‘Levity’ was career suicide,” he said.

The turning point came when he got the script to Thornton(“Monster’s Ball”), who remembered how Solomon had fought for him to star in”Leaving Normal” when he was an as-yet unknown actor. Thornton committed thenext day.

“I related to the idea of being someone who doesn’t reallyknow how to fit into society, because I feel that way, particularly in the filmbusiness,” the actor said in “Levity’s” production notes. “I tend to play a lotof characters who have more going on inside than they appear to, and I alsoseem to play loners and outsiders. What I liked about Manual Jordan is thathe’s obsessed with getting forgiveness, yet he doesn’t know if it’s possible tofind redemption.”

While Solomon says he was “terrified” on the set, it helpedthat Thornton shared his vision of Manual as a lost soul “wandering like aghost through the city.” The theme was enhanced by subtle, drifting cameraworkand by “people constantly laughing and engaging with each other just out offrame,” he said.

The character shares something with the teen Solomon tutoredin prison years ago — and with the director himself. “I wanted this movie tolive in that uneasy space between the secular and the spiritual,” he said.

Levity will be screening at the Sundance Film Festivalon Jan 17, 18 and 25. For more information, visit

Honoring Marlene

Marlene Adler Marks’ first column for this paper appeared in March 1987. It was titled “The Unwanted Visitor.” It was about a rabbi who showed up to comfort Marlene as she waited in the hospital for her husband, Burton, to come out of surgery. “It hadn’t been comforting to me,” Marlene wrote, shortly before Burton died. “I couldn’t handle it. There is a time when even a rabbi can do no good at all.”

After that column came 700 more — the great majority of them thought-provoking, poignant, hard-edged, insightful. Though she left her position as managing editor of this paper several years ago, she has continued to write a column, almost every week for 15 years.

That is a hard, hard thing to do. Marlene made her task more difficult by refusing to settle for mere musings. What she wrote was the result of hours spent interviewing, attending events, researching, phone calling. She treated the Los Angeles Jewish community as the big, serious enterprise it is. She brought out its diverse, often conflicting voices, she dissected our relationship to the larger society, she examined our spiritual lives and ethical values as they are tested in real life. “Jews are the link between those who feel comfortable only with the haves and those who speak only to the have-nots” she wrote in a column just after the 1992 riots. “This is where Jewish power lies, though for who knows how long?”

Marlene reported from the intersection of Jewish power and Jewish insecurity, of Jewish pride and Jewish doubt. She beat the drum for the kind of liberalism that many in the community have come to reject. Even in liberalism’s post-Dukakis Kick-Me phase, she defended it, “in the old-fashioned meaning of tolerant about the extension of rights and freedoms within American society. Jewish liberalism results from our experience in exile,” she wrote, “our tradition of empathy for the stranger, our knowledge that all freedoms are knit together, the precious garment we all wear.”

But a close reading of her columns proves that she has been anything but knee-jerk. She criticized the Reform movement for pandering to the least-committed among its members; she took after feminists who were too eager to undo all tradition, she praised modern Orthodoxy for nurturing, “close-knit community, beliefs worth fighting for, an ambitious standard of integrity.”

The ongoing struggle of Jewish Republicans to create a more tolerant party always drew her support, or sympathy. Marlene made enemies and friends — a good columnist inevitably makes both. But what stunned me when she announced in these pages that she had cancer, was how much goodwill and concern poured in for her from friends and enemies. She has fought the cancer — yet another unwanted visitor — more bravely and openly than anyone could be expected to. Her columns detailing that struggle comprise some of the most powerful writing I have ever read.

Marlene is being honored by Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades this Sunday night, April 28, at 6 p.m. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to honor her: 10 years after riots tore apart the city she loves, and 10 years after that city has struggled to understand itself and go forward.

Marlene, more than most of us, knows what it means to understand oneself, and move forward. She has been a gift to this paper, and this community.

For information and reservations for the benefit honoring Marlene Alder Marks, call Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-2328.