December 14, 2018

Little-known stories live large on screen

Several tales largely unknown to mainstream audiences are brought to the fore in many of this fall’s cinematic offerings.

Among these is “Kill Your Darlings,” a coming-of-age film about the celebrated beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg during his time as a student at Columbia University in 1944. The movie blends the theme of youthful counter-culture activity with issues surrounding sexual identity and a sensational murder that is rarely discussed today.

Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a shy Jewish boy from New Jersey helping to care for his mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When he arrives at Columbia, he meets the beautiful, magnetic and rebellious young Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who jumps on a table during a tour of the library for new arrivals and recites a lurid passage from Henry Miller. Ginsberg is mesmerized by the sophisticated, androgynous rebel and becomes part of Carr’s fast-living circle that includes William Burroughs (Ben Foster), another beat poet slated for celebrity, and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older man who is obsessed with Carr. Into the mix comes Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), a former football player and merchant marine who would also become a noted beat generation writer.

The group engages in a series of outrageous pranks, and, as Ginsberg and Carr draw closer,  Kammerer feels excluded and becomes intensely jealous. Events reach a crescendo when Kammerer confronts Carr hysterically and Carr stabs him to death. Ultimately, Carr claims that the murder was an honor killing, because he was defending himself from Kammerer, who was a homosexual. In 1944, that was an acceptable defense, and Carr receives a light sentence.

Director John Krokidas, who makes his feature film debut with this effort, said he has admired Ginsberg’s daring since he was a teenager.

“Like many an adolescent who grew up in a pretty regular family in the suburbs, reading the beats for the first time was extremely attractive, because they presented an alternate way of living your life, a more authentic life, a life full of spirit and rebellion and living for your art. What potential artist doesn’t romanticize that dream at the age of 16 or 17? Plus, at that time in my life, I was closeted, so imagine reading the works of Allen Ginsberg, where he’s so up front and honest about his sexuality.”

Ginsberg’s character is heavily influenced by the fact that he was Jewish, Krokidas added. “When he got to school for the first time — not just because of his sexuality, but because of his Jewish heritage — he was seen as ‘the other,’ was seen as different.

“I remember reading interviews with him, and when people asked, ‘Are you a Jewish poet?’ he said, ‘I am a Jewish poet. I’m Jewish. I am a poet. I’m also a gay poet, but, yes, I’m a Jewish poet. I wrote a poem called ‘Kaddish.’ You might have heard of it.’ ’’

Krokidas said his own mother is Jewish, but he is also of Greek-Orthodox and Italian-Catholic heritage. However, he grew up mainly in the Jewish community, and he considers his Jewish roots part of his artistic identity. In fact, several members of his cast and crew are Jewish.

“This was a very Jewish production,” Krokidas said. “That wasn’t a conscious decision, but you find out it’s in the people that you belong with, and in an artistic endeavor like a low-budget independent film, a lot of the instinctual decisions you make on who to work with are based on an idea of shared vision, academically, of course, but also a common emotional and personality shorthand and understanding.” 

“Kill Your Darlings” opens Oct. 16.

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus.” Photo courtesy of Clear Lake Productions

Another gem is the documentary “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” which chronicles the rarely publicized life of Jerome Felder, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who contracted polio as a child and remained dependent on crutches and a wheelchair but became one of the most admired and successful songwriters in the music business.

Felder’s daughter, Sharyn, spearheaded the project and serves as one of its producers. “I always knew, from the time I was a little girl, that my father’s dramatic life story was unparalleled,” she said. “His story just had to be told, and I was obsessed to make a documentary about him. I began working on this film about eight years ago.”

Felder’s story is filled with pain, joy, struggles, triumphs, heroism and a great deal of heart. He loved the blues, and, although disabled, managed, as a youth, to worm his way into singing blues songs in nightclubs. He changed his name to Doc Pomus so his mother wouldn’t see his real name on the marquees.

He came into his own as a songwriter with the advent of rock ’n’ roll, amassing an abundance of hits, including such standards of the era as “Save the Last Dance for Me” (even though he could never dance), “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and numerous others.

Felder married the woman of his dreams, had two children, divorced and then found another love. As he grew older, he became a mentor to aspiring songwriters and helped further several careers. He died of lung cancer in 1991 at the age of 65.

The movie about his life is replete with music, archival material and sections from Felder’s journals read by singer Lou Reed. There are also interviews with Felder and many of his colleagues, including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, B.B. King, Dion, Dr. John and Joan Osborne, among other notables.

Asked why her father’s story is not more widely known, Sharyn Felder replied, “The songwriter in general is often largely unknown. You know the songs, but not the songwriter’s name. In addition, my father may not be well known because he didn’t travel and shmooze extensively, thus not making himself known all over, largely due to his disability.”

Ruminating on her father’s success against such great odds, she commented, “My father believed that you have to persevere. In his own words, ‘Some days the world owns you, but other days you will own the world, so you just have to push and shove, and there is a place for you.’ He was a very determined man. His entire family was that way. He would say to me when I was hemming and hawing about something, ‘Just do it!’ ”

She added, “My father had struggles his entire life that I was well aware of. But he was incredibly productive, a very loving father, a brilliant mind and hysterically funny. His struggles seemed minor in many ways.”

As for what she hopes audiences will take away from the documentary, “I want people to be inspired by and enlightened by my dad, the man, and, also, to become educated about his music and its impact on the music world.”

“A.K.A. Doc Pomus” opens Oct. 11.

Dorothy and Herb Vogal from “Herb & Dorothy 50X50.” Photo courtesy of Fine Line Media

From music, we segue to art with “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” the sequel to Megumi Sasaki’s 2008 documentary “Herb & Dorothy,” about retired postal worker Herb Vogel and his librarian wife, Dorothy. The couple began collecting contemporary art by young, as-yet-unknown painters soon after their wedding in the early 1960s. The paintings they bought had to be affordable and fit into their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.  

Over the years, they assembled a collection of some 2,000 works by artists who would go on to international fame, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Robert Barry.  

In 1992, they gave their collection, worth millions, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Vogels continued to buy art even after the gift, and the collection came to include about 5,000 paintings, more than the National Gallery could handle, so the Vogels decided to take 2,500 paintings and give 50 to one museum in each of the 50 states.

“50X50” is something of a travelogue as it follows the Vogels to 11 of the museums and shows them consulting on the hanging of the art, being entertained at the various institutions and appearing on panels and at openings.

The movie goes through the summer of 2012, when Herb died and Dorothy announced the closing of the collection. She is shown sifting through Herb’s effects and taking paintings off the walls of her apartment.

“Herb & Dorothy 50X50” opens Sept. 13.

Howard Lutnick at the missing-persons wall in “Out of the Clear Blue Sky.” Photo courtesy of Asphalt Films

As Sept. 11 approaches, we segue to the documentary “Out of the Clear Blue Sky,” which depicts the devastation of the bond trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald and the families of its employees who died during the terrorist attack. Cantor, which was a hugely prosperous firm and occupied the top five floors of the World Trade Center, was not widely known to the public before the events of that day. The firm suffered the greatest number of casualties of any one company, as 658 members of its staff were obliterated by the terrorists.  

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner was in the neighborhood and an eyewitness to the catastrophe. Tragically, her brother, Doug, was among the Cantor victims. The filmmaker recalled it as such a chaotic, confusing and highly emotional time that she was compelled to document what was going on around her. 

 “I was a documentary filmmaker before that,” she said, “and I never made anything about my life personally. Before this, I liked to go out into other worlds and other subcultures and learn about them, but, as I said at one time, all of a sudden I became the subject rather than the outsider.”  

Gardner, who happens to be Jewish, described her film as encompassing the twin worlds of both the grieving families and the business. She explained that the CEO of Cantor, Howard Lutnick, who is also Jewish, figures prominently in the documentary because he was part of both worlds: He ran the company, and his younger brother was killed in the attack.  

Lutnick was taking his son to the boy’s first day of kindergarten and was among the few staff members who happened to be out of the offices. People may remember the CEO, reputed to have been a cutthroat businessman, being interviewed numerous times and sobbing uncontrollably over the deaths of his brother and so many close associates. 

At first there was great sympathy for him as he tried to salvage the company and help the bereaved families. But very soon, when he hadn’t paid the salaries of those who were lost, the families and the media turned against him, and he became an outcast.

“People in the first week,” Gardner said, “would ask me, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing this?’ and, ‘Why isn’t Cantor doing that?’ And I was thinking, ‘There’s a tremendous disconnect here. There is no Cantor. There’s a couple of people sitting in a living room frantically trying to figure out who’s alive.’ I remember thinking, ‘There’s no office. There are no people. I don’t know where you guys have been.’ ”

Lutnick regained favor when he subsequently announced that the firm would give the families medical coverage for 10 years and donate 25 percent of its profits to them for five years. A Cantor Relief Fund, run by Lutnick’s sister Edie, was also organized to gather donations, coordinate volunteer efforts, hold events for the families and their children, and provide other forms of assistance.  

Gardner said she found the support groups that were formed particularly helpful.

“The most help everyone received was from ‘fellow travelers,’ as it were,” she said. “I definitely needed to be around people who were going through what I was going through, because it was a uniquely horrible experience. The community that was formed was absolutely helpful. There was a memorial for the first five years. Then they said, ‘Let’s do that for the first 10 years.’ And now I don’t know if we’re ever going to stop doing it, because, honestly, you need a place to go. And the best place to go is where you know you’ll be understood.

 “Nothing’s ever OK again, and nothing’s the same,” she concluded. “I don’t accept what happened here at all, but you live. I don’t think we’ve moved on. We’ve made it part of us; it’s always there, but we chose to live.”

“Out of the Clear Blue Sky” will be screened one night only, on Sept. 11, in theaters around the country.

Dr. Warren Hern listening to a patient in “After Tiller.” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

Veering off in a completely new direction, we come to the subject of late-term abortion with the film “After Tiller.” Dr. George Tiller, who practiced at his clinic in Wichita, Kan., was one of only a few doctors in this country who performed abortions after the third trimester, defined as beginning at 28 weeks of a pregnancy. Having survived a couple of attempts on his life, Tiller was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist, leaving only the four doctors featured in this documentary to carry on his work.

The four include Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colo., who talks of being lonely after his first marriage ended due to threats on his life because of his work, until he met and married his second wife, who once performed abortions in Cuba; Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had to leave his practice in Nebraska when the state outlawed abortions after 20 weeks, with limited exceptions, and relocate to Maryland, where he was again confronted by anti-abortion activists; Dr. Susan Robinson, who trained under Tiller; and Dr. Shelley Sella, a former midwife, who alternates with Dr. Robinson at their practice in Albuquerque, N.M.

According to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for reproductive rights, third-trimester abortions account for less than 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States. The film illuminates many of the reasons women, some of them actually anti-abortion, seek to terminate a late-term pregnancy, including fetal abnormalities, rape or incest and, sometimes, failure to realize or accept they are pregnant.

The film also makes clear the doctors, far from cavalier about their work, struggle with the complex issues and decisions they must make.  

At one point, Dr. Sella, who is Jewish and a lesbian, says she realizes that third-trimester abortions involve the delivery of a stillborn baby, and that she can’t think of the babies merely as fetuses.

In another section, Dr. Robinson, after contemplating one woman’s reasons for wanting an abortion at 28 weeks, decides not to perform the procedure.

“After Tiller” opens Oct. 4.

From left: Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Al Gohani in “Wadjda.” Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

We travel now to Saudi Arabia, where movie houses are banned and women are not supposed to mix with men at work. Nevertheless, Haifaa Al-Mansour defied tradition to become the first female filmmaker from that country. Her movie “Wadjda,” centers on a 10-year-old girl living outside Riyadh, the Saudi capital, who also defies her culture’s rules by attempting to raise money to buy a bicycle in a society that considers bike riding a threat to a girl’s purity. 

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), wants to win a race with her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and enters a school contest for Quran recitation in which the winner will get money. As she masters verses from the Quran, she begins to impress her teachers with her seeming piety. The competition is difficult, but the girl perseveres.   

Director Al-Mansour is quoted in the press notes as saying, “I hope I have made a film that is close to the lives of Saudi women and inspires and strengthens them to challenge the very complicated social and political encumbrances they are surrounded by. Although it is hard to deconstruct the deeply rooted traditions that deny women a dignified existence, especially since they are mixed with narrow interpretations of religion, it is a purpose that is worth striving for.”

“Wadjda” opens Sept. 13.

A still from “Salinger.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

J.D. Salinger, the elusive author of the iconic novel about adolescence, “Catcher in the Rye,” is the subject of a new biopic. Advance promotion promises that the film, “Salinger,” will include interviews with many of the writer’s friends and associates who have never before spoken publicly about him. Salinger was the product of a Jewish father and a mother of Scotch, German and Irish heritage.

Following the enormous success of “Catcher in the Rye,” the author became reclusive, moving from Manhattan to Cornish, N.H., where he died in 2010 at age 91. In the film, he is reportedly called “a modern-day Howard Hughes.”  To this day, he remains a figure about whom there is a great deal of myth and speculation.

In a New York Times interview published June 13 of this year, filmmaker Shane Salerno said, “Salinger is a massive figure in our culture and yet remains an extraordinary enigma. The critical and popular game over the last half-century has been to read the man through his work because the man would not speak, but the untold story of his life is more dramatic than anything he ever wrote. And that’s the story I wanted to tell: his life. Not the myth that has burned so brightly for nearly 50 years. I had three questions when I began this project nine years ago: 1. Why did J.D. Salinger stop publishing? 2. Why did he disappear? 3. And what has he been writing for 45 years?”

“Salinger” opens Sept. 6. 

“Jewtopia,” from left: Jon Lovitz, Rachel Fox, Rita Wilson, Joel David Moore, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Camryn Manheim and Tom Arnold. Photo courtesy Jewtopia

Finally, we end with the comedy “Jewtopia,” adapted from the long-running off-Broadway play. Childhood friends Chris O’Connell (Ivan Sergei), who is not Jewish, and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore), who is reunite as adults. Chris is determined to marry a Jewish girl, because he wants someone else to make all his decisions. He persuades Adam to train him to pass as a Jew so he can marry Alison Marks (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Meanwhile, Adam is engaged to the gynecologist Hannah Daniels (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) but is uncomfortable in the relationship.

The film is a satire on the clash of cultures and abounds with over-the-top stereotypes; the non-athletic, intellectual, asthmatic Jewish boy; the materialistic, controlling Jewish woman; the guilt-inducing, smothering Jewish mother; the militaristic, blue-collar gentile addicted to hunting, etc. 

Rita Wilson, Tom Arnold, Jon Lovitz, Wendie Malick and Rachel G. Fox round out the all-star cast.

“Jewtopia” open Sept. 20.