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Jewish Journal

The Meaning of Life for ‘$9.99’

by Meredith Price

June 10, 2009 | 3:13 pm

A still from “$9.99”

A still from “$9.99”

With more than 50 short films based on his short stories, Etgar Keret is no stranger to the world of cinema. But for the first time ever, the brilliant young Israeli writer, best known for his satirical flash fiction, has adapted his own work to a feature film.

In the upcoming stop-motion animation movie, “$9.99,” made in 2008 and set for release in theaters here on June 19, the lives of a group of characters who reside in the same building are united by their desire to explore the meaning of life in surprising ways.

“The difference between writing fiction and writing a screenplay is in the collaboration with other people,” Keret explained as we discussed the film in a neighborhood cafe near his home in central Tel Aviv. “It’s not only about my vision but about listening to others. If writing a story is like baking a cake, then writing a screenplay is the recipe that someone else is going to use to bake it. You have to leave space for the director to express an opinion. It’s about relinquishing control.”

In “$9.99,” puppets with voice-overs from famous actors like Geoffrey Rush and Anthony Lapaglia act out a series of interwoven narratives that are peppered with magic realism. The film takes viewers on a unique journey that uses tiny human-like dolls to pose serious questions. Like Keret’s fiction, specific moments in time pinpoint realizations about life, death, love, happiness and religion that all expound upon what it means to be human.

According to Norman Yeend, one of nine animators to work on the film, stop-motion animation’s bewitching quality lies in the fact that it brings toys to life. “It’s playing a guitar, it’s walking, it’s running, it’s doing whatever you’ve determined it should do. Depending on the talent of the animator, this little puppet will tug at your heartstrings or affect people however you want it to,” he explained. The labor-intensive method required 40 weeks to complete, at a rate of four or five seconds per day.

“Puppet animation is an extraordinarily complex art form,” said writer-director Tatia Rosenthal, who collaborated with Keret on the project. “It requires a technical understanding of animation and hands as steady as a surgeon’s, not to mention acting talents.”

For Rosenthal, a New York-based Israeli filmmaker who previously adapted two of Keret’s stories to short films in “Breaking the Pig” and “Crazy Glue, “$9.99” embodies an “expression of humanism in a morally ambiguous world.”

The unique fusion of the mundane and the sublime in life is reflected by the naturalistic setting of a nondescript city block in which extraordinary events unfold. A homeless man who commits suicide is reincarnated as an angel — or at least he believes he’s an angel. An infatuated young man who repossesses the belongings of others for a living goes to extremes for love.

A bewitching supermodel who likes her men extra smooth and has a furniture fetish ensnares another young man. An unemployed son seeks the meaning of life in a pamphlet that promises to explain “in easy-to-follow, simple terms the reason for being” for just $9.99.

A little boy understands that happiness has nothing to do with money and everything to do with freedom. An underachieving pot smoker befriends a group of hard-drinking, two-inch tall students after his fiancée leaves him. A single father struggles to keep his two sons gainfully employed and his conscience clean but ends up realizing that life is about acceptance, not work.

Loosely based on a short story that Keret wrote 17 years ago, “For Only $9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” the film has a strong connection to what he calls “abstract religion.” He defines it as an “agnostic Chasidic fairy tale” and explained that the short story is modeled on the Chasidic fairy tales he started reading 20 years ago after his older sister became ultra Orthodox and moved to the Mea Shearim community at the age of 22.

“My sister has never read any of my work for religious reasons,” Keret explained. “We stayed in touch, but our conversations are rooted in the past. My connection to her is through storytelling.

“These Chasidic texts leave you with more questions than answers,” he continued, “but if you take a specific God out of the equation, the film is about spirituality and something beyond our own material existence.”

Despite the morbid sentiments evoked by suicide, unemployment, loss and murder, Keret maintains that the goal of the film was to use magical qualities to portray an optimistic message. “The essence of this film is that it’s OK to believe that things will get better,” he said.

With unruly dark curls that bear only a hint of gray and large, penetrating brown eyes, Keret looks like a man with a great sense of irony and a penchant for mischief. “If the meaning of life could be bought for a little under $10, would there be anyone not too cynical to buy it?” he asked.

Undoubtedly, the greatest challenge was in adapting Keret’s satirical minimalism to the screen. “His stories stand in an oblique relation to reality, and even when they seem to be fully realistic, there’s something that opens a door to an unexpected look, a whimsical conclusion, a witty end that turns it all upside down,” said Israeli producer Amir Harel, whose company, Lama Films, completed the post production in Tel Aviv after producer Emile Sherman had completed the preproduction in Australia

Despite the time-intensive work required for stop-motion animation and the low budget, Keret is satisfied with the results. “I really like it. It’s different from the way I would have imagined it,” he declared with enthusiasm. “It surprised me, and that’s a good thing.

“Knowing Tatia well, you can really see that this is her movie,” he added. “It’s a great compliment to her as a filmmaker that she created something completely like her that remains homogenous.”

“$9.99” opens in theaters on June 19.

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