When a Yeshiva Bocher Loves a Hooker

Sitting at a French Cafe in Westwood, Eitan Gorlin comes across as the very antithesis of the Hollywood self-promoter. The writer-director of “The Holy Land” has indeed kept such a low profile that, during months of inquiries, his name drew an absolute blank among Israel film mavens in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.

But the debut feature by this unknown has already won remarkable recognition in America, including an Independent Spirit nomination for Gorlin as “Someone to Watch.”

For now, Gorlin is focusing on his film. “‘The Holy Land’ shows the underbelly of real life in Jerusalem after the tourists and Orthodox families go to sleep,” he said.

Yet the film packs a great deal more into its 96 minutes.

On the slender storyline of a young, sheltered yeshiva student who falls in love with an even younger Russian prostitute, “The Holy Land” ranges across the Israeli landscape of the late 1990s, with its ultra-Orthodox Haredim, ultra-religious Zionist settlers, Arab collaborators and terrorists and Russian and American immigrants.

The film’s protagonist is Mendy, who is studying at a yeshiva in B’nai B’rak and finds it increasingly hard to keep his thoughts off women and sex and on Torah reading. His rabbi advises him to “get it out of his system” by visiting a prostitute.

Mendy takes off for Jerusalem and, at a strip club, meets Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from the Ukraine. The inexperienced Mendy falls hard for the hooker, while vaguely hoping to “save” her, and, in turn, she introduces him to Mike’s Place.

The seedy pub in East Jerusalem is run by Mike, a big, blustery American ex-war photographer, whose joint is a combination of Rick’s Cafe in a postmodern “Casablanca” and the cantina in “Star Wars.”

Yet the pull of Mendy’s early and simpler religious life grows as his new secular experiences and relationships become more complex and disturbing. The resolution of this internal conflict in the movie’s last minutes adds the ultimate shocker to the iconoclastic film.

The struggle between the secular and religious poles in Israel, in the lives of individuals as in the general society, is an evolving theme for filmmakers and writers. Since “The Holy Land” represents such a singular, largely autobiographical, vision, Gorlin’s own background serves as a useful program guide.

At 34, Gorlin’s life has moved between the religious and worldly poles and has encompassed the bohemian restlessness and searching of the American expatriate writers of the 1920s.

He was born in Silver Springs, Md., studied at The Yeshiva of Greater Washington (D.C.) and, after graduating at 17, headed for Israel and enrolled at the national religious Yeshiva Sha’alvim.

After a stint as a congressional intern in Washington, the wandering spirit struck again. For the next two years he lived in Paris, London, Prague, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi, doing odd jobs as waiter, bartender, party promoter and street performer.

He interrupted his global tramping for a three-year stay in Israel, during which he served as a gunner in an Israeli army tank unit, and met the real-life Mike, who hired him as a bartender.

(Mike’s Place subsequently moved to Tel Aviv, where it was blown up by two British Arab terrorists in April of this year.)

Returning again to the United States, Gorlin wrote three scripts and a novella, titled “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary,” which became the basis of the movie.

At the end of 1999, he had raised enough private money (he won’t disclose how much) to return to Israel and, for one solid year, worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to cast and shoot “The Holy Land.” For the principal roles he cast two sabras: 23-year-old Oren Rehary as Mendy and 19-year-old Tchelet Semel as Sasha, with American actor Saul Stein portraying Mike.

Once the film was in the can, nobody wanted to screen it. “We were turned down by every Jewish film festival in the United States and by the Jerusalem Festival in Israel,” he said.

Finally, on a sudden impulse, he entered his picture in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.

“The Holy Land” was not only one of the 14 feature films accepted among 1,000 applicants, but it walked off with the top Grand Jury Prize. Success bred success. Gorlin won the 21st Century Filmmaker Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival, and later was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” award.

After these successes, an American film distributor, CAVU Pictures, finally showed up, signed Gorlin to a contract, and the picture is currently slated for some 15 cities.

Like Mendy, Gorlin keeps struggling with his religious identity.

“We seem to be the chosen people of an angry God. Maybe we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “Part of me wants to reject God, but I can’t do it.”

“The Holy Land” opens Aug. 1 at select Laemmle Theatres.For more information, visit www.laemmle.com/theatres .

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 www.sundance.org

A Rose by Any Other Name

What’s in a Jewish name?

Everything, suggests “The Royal Tenenbaums” writer-director Wes Anderson.

The Houston-bred filmmaker may be of Swedish-Lutheran stock, but his latest funny-melancholy flick began when he remembered his Jewish childhood friend, Brian Tenenbaum.

“Brian had three sisters, and I’m friends with all of them,” Anderson, wearing a foppish, tan corduroy suit, said during a recent Q & A at the Writers Guild. “They were closely-knit and always going off on outings — nothing like the siblings in the film — but I really liked the name.”

After the cognomen came an idea: “I wanted to do a story about a family of former geniuses,” says Anderson (“Rushmore,” “Bottle Rocket”), who wrote the script with actor Owen Wilson. That makes sense, considering the quirky director has a “thing” for miserable virtuosos:

He says his favorite “Peanuts” character is Linus, because the cartoon kid “is a kind of a genius” with an unfortunate blanket addiction.

In “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the estranged patriarch, played by Gene Hackman, declares he is “half-Hebrew,” making his children, the ex-prodigies, “three-quarters Mick-Catholic.” Anderson says the mix is appropriate for the siblings, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson, because “in real life, Ben and Gwyneth are half-Irish and half-Jewish. Plus, those are the [religions] I always wanted to be.”

Anderson, whose “Rushmore” protagonist is Max J. Fisher, added a couple other Jewish names to the mix. Stiller’s character, Chas, has two sons, Ari and Uzi, which is hilarious, considering that their relatives are called things like Margot and Etheline.

Anderson says he picked the names Ari and Uzi because at one point, “Chas was supposed to be an accountant for the Mossad.

“I just thought Ari was a good Israeli name,” he adds, with a chuckle. “Of course, Uzi is a bit much.”


Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things,” the tale of a Las Vegas bachelor party gone terribly wrong, is the season’s most twisted black comedy: What else can you say about a film in which a boychik cites Jewish law to justify unscrambling hacked-up corpse parts?

Edgy, intense Berg, 34, who plays the volatile Dr. Billy Kronk on CBS’ “Chicago Hope,” temporarily left his day job to shoot his debut film. It is, he insists, a morality tale inspired by his own trips to Vegas several years ago.

“I was constantly aware of these packs of white suburban males roaming around with a look of real trouble in their eyes,” the writer-director told The Journal. “It seemed that Vegas opened the cages within men where various beasts lurked. These guys were looking for trouble, and I wondered what would happen if they found it?”