February 22, 2020

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.