July 10, 2003
Director Cooks Up Anarchy in Debut
"I'm a 'Marx Brothers anarchist,'" filmmaker Jordan Susman said. "It's the sense of having a flower squirt water into the eyes of authority."
The tone pervades his debut feature, "The Anarchist Cookbook," which revolves around a "latter-day Marx brother," Susman said. Puck Gold (Devon Gummersall) is a college dropout who joins a radical Dallas commune whose members commit pranks to fight perceived societal ills. They may not know what they want, but they are certain of what they are against: multinationals, the Nike-fication of the world, a Starbucks on every corner and an SUV in every garage.
Sit-ins, protests and a lot of sex and drugging ensue, until Puck finds himself torn between his new Republican lover and a violent nihilist housemate.
Susman, 36, described his darkly comic political satire as "an indictment of extremism in all forms." The Dallas native said he began thinking about the phenomenon while living in Israel from 1989 to 1993, where "extremists drove policy every day."
He said he decided to set his film in Dallas "because it's ground zero for American anarchy. It's halfway between Waco, scene of Branch Davidian survivalist craziness, and Oklahoma City, symbol of another kind of American anarchy gone awry."
In the end, however, Timothy McVeigh reminds him of Osama bin Laden. "Radical ideologies, taken to an extreme, result in the same kinds of violent acts," he said.
While "Cookbook's" message is serious, Susman couldn't resist roguish antics while on location in Dallas in 2001. "Because we were in Texas, I knew it would be hard to ask favors for a film called 'The Anarchist Cookbook,'" he said. "So I'd tell people we were making a movie called 'The Puppy Dog.' I'd say, 'It's about a little dog who loses his way and then finds it.' Which is not altogether untrue."
Susman, who grew up in a socially conscious Jewish home, has always been something of a prankster. One early indication: His search for the original "The Anarchist Cookbook," the cult blueprint for mayhem, when he was 16.
"I'd kind of hear about it and no one really had it and I'd wonder, 'Is it legal?' Susman said. "Then this kid got it and it was like finding your dad's Playboys.'"
The attraction for the teenage Susman: "It was about blowing s -- up!"
Before long, he was co-hosting a leftist radio show; while at UC Berkeley, he read Jerry Rubin's "Do It" and fell in love with the yippie's Groucho-like political stunts.
"I loved how Rubin showed up to House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings dressed as George Washington," Susman said. "It was the Jewish value of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, but with a sense of humor."
Susman went on to read yippie Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book"; per Hoffman's instructions, he made phone company payments out for a penny more than the stated amount "because in those days it screwed up their computers."
While he did his share of demonstrating against U.S. policy in El Salvador in the 1980s, Susman ultimately searched for more hands-on volunteer opportunities. After majoring in religion "to study the big questions," he moved to Israel and taught English to Bedouins and Ethiopian Jews.
After returning to the United States to attend USC film school, he edited music videos and brainstormed his first feature with pranksters in mind.
"An agent said to me, 'Don't write about who you are, write about who you wish you were,'" Susman recalled. "It was 2000, anti-globalization riots were happening, and I thought,, I wish I were on the front lines and I wish I were Jerry Rubin, because he did the right thing and he did it with panache and a sense of fun."
The fictional Puck learns that lesson in "Cookbook," but not all radicals have been pleased with the film. "I've gotten letters from people I'll call 'the ayatollahs of anarchy,'" said Susman, who is on the board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. "They're angry I haven't made a film about 'real' anarchists like Noam Chomsky."
Susman's response: "How dare you act as if there's one type of anarchy! Anarchists should be upholding all forms of pluralism, instead of trying to regiment what anarchy is."
But is the seemingly harmless, tax-paying Susman really an anarchist? "Are you really Jewish if you don't observe Shabbat?" he said.
Was he implying that a Marx brothers anarchist is a "Reform" anarchist?
"Reconstructionist," he said.
"The Anarchist Cookbook" opens July 18 in Los Angeles.