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Jewish Journal

The Arts

Her debut film explores the underworld of drugs and the NewYork art machine

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 11, 1998 | 8:00 pm

[Film]   

Director Lisa Cholodenko, above, lured actresses Patricia Clarkson and Ally Sheedy, top to her movie, originally a project at Columbia's graduate film school.

Cholodenko's 'High Art'

Her debut film explores the underworld of drugs and the New York art machine

By Naomi Pfefferman,

Entertainment Editor

Lisa Cholodenko's edgy debut film, "High Art," won a screenwriting award at Sundance and made the Directors Fortnight at Cannes. The movie explores the underworld of heroin chic and the commercial machine of "high art" in New York. It's riveting, seductive and sexually explicit.

And it's a long way from Encino, where Cholodenko, 34, was born and raised.

In the film, we meet Syd (Radha Mitchell), 24, fresh-faced and ambitious, who's landed what should be her dream job at a pretentious photography magazine -- except that she's still fetching coffee for her demanding bosses. Her home life is dull but stable with her longtime boyfriend, James (Gabriel Mann). Then Syd meets an intriguing neighbor, Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a once-hip photographer who's dropped out of the art scene. Lucy, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, lives with her drugged-out German girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson). But Syd lures her away from Greta and back into the art machine, with disastrous results.

The parable about art and fame mirrors Cholodenko's life journey -- sort of. Six years ago, she ditched a "passionless" career, editing films in Hollywood, to try to make her own movies in New York. A project at Columbia's graduate film school, mentored by Milos Forman, turned into a feature debut. Sheedy signed on because she related to the story about the price of success. After screenings at Sundance and Cannes, Cholodenko suddenly found herself en vogue.

But the writer-director, who still lives in a tiny apartment in Chelsea ("It has a great view of my neighbor's apartment"), seemed awed by all the buzz last week. She looked around her splendiferous Wyndham Bel Age Hotel suite, provided by her distributor, October Films; she shook her head at the crisply uniformed room-service waiters who were meticulously preparing enormous, frothy cups of cappuccino. "This is so weird," she said, exhaling a cigarette and gazing past the vast balcony to the sun-kissed Hollywood hills. "It's so ironic because I can still hardly pay my rent."

Cholodenko, who attended Birmingham High in Van Nuys, admits that she didn't fit into the suburban "Valley aesthetic" as a teen-ager. But, she quickly adds, "I hope I'm not being too disparaging of the Valley." After all, her folks still live there, and they were wonderfully supportive when she came out as a lesbian in high school.

Cholodenko went off to San Francisco State and then moved to Israel, where she lived in a religious feminist community and wrote government press releases that justified Israel's human rights policies during the intifada. "It was incredibly depressing," says Cholodenko, who moved back to Los Angeles, got her big break editing "Boyz N the Hood," but ultimately found Hollywood equally depressing. She served as assistant editor on films such as "Used People" and "To Die For." But when she read about the "new queer cinema" in New York, in 1992, she packed her bags and moved east.

From left, Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in a scene from "High Art."

The premise for "High Art" grew out of Cholodenko's early years in Manhattan, when she felt like a wide-eyed greenhorn during a weird art moment. Up-and-coming photographers and artists were presiding at salons where heroin was hip. The Calvin Klein "Just Be" ads glamorized models who were reminiscent of junkies. The personal, edgy photography pioneered by artists such as Nan Goldin was being appropriated to sell cologne in slick magazines. Cholodenko recalls a Larry Clark photo of a pregnant woman shooting up, hanging, of all places, at the Museum of Modern Art.

The character of Lucy, she says, is mostly inspired by the late photographer Diane Arbus, who hailed from a wealthy Jewish family, earned early success as a commercial photographer but dropped out to photograph fringe, sometimes grotesque subjects. Lucy, who is also based on the children of Holocaust survivors Cholodenko met while living in Israel, buckles under the pressure to achieve, to make up for the losses of the Shoah.

The film has a caveat about the heroin culture, Cholodenko adds. "Since I was going to show the glamour of the drug world, I also thought it was important to show the dark, ironic end of the party," she says.

[Television]

Filmmaker David Zeiger followed son Danny with his camera for a year. Right, Danny with friend Anisha Stackhouse.

Growing Up Is Hard to Do

'POV' airs a father's affecting documentary about teen-age life

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

"This is the story of the year I spent with the Decatur High marching band."

So explains filmmaker/ narrator David Zeiger at the opening of his wry, wise and touching film, "The Band." The latest documentary to air on PBS's acclaimed "POV" series (Sunday, June 21, on KCET at midnight), "The Band" is fresh, candid and bracingly free of manipulation or false sentiment. Zeiger has succeeded in making something that is at once both a highly personal exploration and a nuanced, broad-canvas portrait of what it's like to grow up today in an average American place.

His inspiration and entry point into Decatur's teen-age subculture was his son, Danny, a handsome, lanky 16-year-old who was a junior and band member at the time his father began filming. "I went to a football game at Decatur High...I looked over and was shocked to see Danny dancing, something I'd never seen him do before. Suddenly, it hit me immediately that I wanted to make a film about him," Zeiger has said about his decision to make the documentary.

If the subject matter sounds predictable, or even precious, it isn't. Zeiger is a keen-eyed and thoughtful filmmaker, as well as a fortysomething man with his own bittersweet feelings about the passage of time. He bypasses MTV stereotypes to allow these kids to unfold as complex people who are living through a seminal time of their lives.

Zeiger and Danny's mother divorced when Danny was a small child. Danny's brother, Michael, was 9 when he suffered a massive stroke at day camp, fell into a coma, and died -- the indirect result of an accident he had suffered a year before and from which his parents had thought he had recovered. Just 7 at the time, Danny turned inward to protect himself emotionally. Zeiger became a weekend and holiday father, yearning to know his surviving son better.

Zeiger shares his own family's particular back story in voice-over. Michael's absence haunts this film, but it bursts with exuberant life and humor, too: Friday-night football games, noisy with innocent glamour; an emotional loss in the playoffs; giggly preparations for prom; and, finally, senior graduation. Zeiger captures the world in which these kids live. The adults are peripheral, but occasionally vivid. The team announcer is a continuing source of humor ("Happy Birthday to Coach Jones, and congratulations on your senior citizen's discount!").

While watching this bittersweet film, one can't help but think of one's own adolescence. "It's a time when we all feel that what we are discovering is the first time it's being discovered," Zeiger told The Journal in a recent interview. "You know, you read Camus, and you're the first person to have ever read it. It's a great feeling, something that as an adult gets worn away."

In his bemused, thoughtful narration, Zeiger reconsiders his own high school years through the filter of his son's. (A native of Los Angeles, he graduated from Fairfax High School in 1967.) As football season heats up, he contrasts it with the zeitgeist that prevailed at his own alma mater: "My high school was mainly Jewish, so we didn't have a football team...but we had a great debate team." At prom time, Zeiger seems amused at the difference between his son's tuxedo-clad classmates and the hippie-esque circles he traveled in as a teen-ager in the '60s: "We were too hip to go to the prom," he said, "so we got stoned and went to the beach to watch the sunrise...but we forgot that the sun rises in the east, and so we sat there until 9 a.m. before we realized it was coming up behind us -- and we were the smart kids."

But, ultimately, at the heart of this film are Danny and his friends. Zeiger is there at their beer parties, their band practices, their kitchen tables, capturing the disarming way they morph back and forth between goofy kids and savvy, clear-eyed adults. These kids are aware of their parents' foibles and are well-traveled in the postmodern landscape of divorce, racism, and a prescription-drug culture. Erin, a determined high achiever, tells him how she waits up at night for her alcoholic mother to come home. A slight blonde named Mary Ellen speaks frankly about her struggle with anorexia, even as Danny struggles with the fact that he has fallen in love with her. There are lesser confidences, too. At one point, Zeiger enters one girl's fantastically messy bedroom -- a true teen-aged heart of darkness. "You actually live in here?" the filmmaker asks her. "Yep," she says, picking her way over blurry heaps on the floor, then stooping to pick up a pair of pants. "Oh look, here's my band uniform."

From the whimsical set-up of following the ups and downs of a high school marching band, Zeiger has built something multilayered, important and deeply touching: a meditation on parenthood, adolescence, love, loss and the passage of time. What's more, at a time when American teen-agers are portrayed in everything from rock music videos to conservative editorials as dead-eyed, nihilistic children of darkness, "The Band" deftly reminds us of the complexity, courage and joy of growing up. Don't miss it.

[Theater]

Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo in "Backstreet," now playing at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Discovering a Jewish Past

By Naomi Pfefferman,

Entertainment Editor

Five years ago, Evelyn Rudie made a startling discovery in a dusty old box in her family home on Hollywood Boulevard. Inside, she found a yellowed piece of paper with Hebrew writing on it, something about her family.

The actor-writer-director, who had been raised Lutheran, immediately confronted her mother and received shocking news. She learned that her grandfathers were Jewish, and that her refugee parents had hidden their roots because they were terrified that the Holocaust could re-occur.

For Rudie, co-artistic director of the Santa Monica Playhouse, the discovery made a strange kind of sense. Inexplicably, she had always been drawn to Jewish theater, and she was even in the process of founding a Playhouse Jewish Heritage Program.

Actually, the theater has mounted at least 17 Jewish-themed productions since Rudie and her husband, Chris DeCarlo, took over a quarter century ago. "Author! Author," the first in what will be a musical quintology about the life of Sholom Aleichem, ran for four-and-a-half years and has had several reprises. Two more Aleichem musicals, "The Clown Prince" and "The Great Fair -- Sholom Aleichem on Tour," ran for at least three years each. The theater has presented four Jerry Mayer comedies about Jewish family life. And the latest Jewish Heritage offering, "Backstreet," a musical about a turn-of-the-century Jewish brothel, has been extended through June 28.

During the past two decades, Rudie, waif-like with long, wavy dark hair, has become a Sholom Aleichem aficionado. She has searched for scraps of information about the author in dusty, old diaries, Yiddish recordings and turn-of-the-century newspapers on microfilm. While sipping vanilla-almond tea from a delicate porcelain cup at the Playhouse, she noted that the author always wrote standing up. She described how he composed stories out loud and changed his multi-colored vests five times a day.

Though Rudie has read everything Aleichem has ever written, most of her connection to his work is unconscious. "It always felt terribly natural and right, even before I learned about my Jewish roots," says the lyricist-composer, who is working on the fourth musical of the Aleichem quintology.

Of course, Rudie quickly admits that the Jewish programming is more than a personal obsession: It has been crucial to the theater's financial health. Seventy percent of the patrons are Jewish, and more than half of the Playhouse's $500,000 annual budget comes from ticket sales. "Jewish-themed plays are a significant part of our production schedule," Rudie explains, "because, as my father always said, 'This is show business. If you want to do esoteric material, fine, but balance that with something to pay the bills.'"

Show business is in Rudie's blood. Her grandfather was a famed Berlin theater owner-writer-director who gave Marlene Dietrich one of her first roles. Her father edited an anti-Nazi newspaper before fleeing to Amsterdam, where he wrote underground, anti-Nazi cabarets.

Rudie, now 49, earned her Big Break at the age of 3 1/2. A director noted her resemblance to Leslie Caron and cast her as the actress' childhood self in the 1955 classic film, "Daddy Long Legs," starring Fred Astaire. Rudie went on to work with Red Skelton and Lauren Bacall, who taught her that "an actor is not just the tool of the director." By the age of 7, Rudie had won an Emmy Award nomination and had earned a gold star on the Hollywood walk of fame. By the time she was in high school, she had made more than 70 TV appearances.

In 1967, the actress attended her first workshop at the Santa Monica Playhouse, where founder Ted Roter, a Yiddish theater veteran, introduced her to the works of Sholom Aleichem, Sholom Asch and Israel Zangwill. In 1969, he asked the former child star to start a children's theater program; DeCarlo, who was smitten with Rudie during a workshop class, signed on to help. When Roter went off to make films four years later, the newlyweds "inherited" the theater.

Since then, Rudie and DeCarlo have created more than 350 productions, most of them classics by authors such as Moliere or Ionesco or "unique" contemporary plays not often seen in California. They have founded workshops for people of all ages, a Young Professionals' Company, an international touring arm, a family musical matinee series and a mobile project that brings theater to schools and hospitals. Often, Rudie and DeCarlo improvise over breakfast and spend up to 20 hours a day at the theater.

The Playhouse's latest Jewish musical, "Backstreet," is based on a Sholom Asch play and on the tales Rudie's mother used to tell about Jewish brothels in the old world and the new. It's been the most controversial of the Playhouse's Jewish productions; during intermission, viewers often heatedly debate about whether there were, in fact, Jewish brothels.

Rudie is now inviting L.A. Jews to submit personal stories to the Playhouse for a proposed "Evening of Jewish Tales." Recently, she found her father's anti-Nazi songs in an old, locked trunk; she will utilize them in an upcoming cabaret show. The Jewish Heritage Program will also bring Jewish plays and workshops to public and private schools. "I want to expose Jews and non-Jews to Jewish heritage, at the same time that I am exploring it for myself," Rudie explains.

For tickets and information, call (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.

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