He admits to a sentiment that is rather unfashionable for a New York independent filmmaker: He loves the suburbs. In fact, he would happily trade his fourth floor Greenwich Village walk-up for three bedrooms behind a manicured lawn and a white picket fence. No wonder his striking, black-and-white feature film debut, "Judy Berlin," which earned the 1999 director's award at the Sundance Film Festival, depicts the 'burbs as landscape art.
It's the tale of one strange day in the life of a mythical Long Island Jewish town, when lonely, withdrawn housewives, teachers and shopkeepers emerge, like sleepwalkers, during the eerie hours of a solar eclipse. In the gloom, the central character, David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a depressed, failed filmmaker, is reborn after encountering his eternally-optimistic high school classmate, Judy Berlin ("The Soprano's" Edie Falco).
The rumpled director, who began his career as an assistant costume designer for Woody Allen, doesn't share Allen's distaste for the 'burbs.
"I don't mind all the satire about the suburbs," confides Mendelsohn, 35, who has large, expressive brown eyes, several days' worth of beard growth and a sinus problem. "But it's old, very old, and nobody is going to be surprised to learn about the seething underside of the otherwise-placid suburban exterior. We all know that 'The Sopranos' live in the suburbs, and so does the pederast from Todd Solondz's film, 'Happiness,' and I wasn't interested in showing viewers what they have already seen a zillion times before."
What did interest Mendelsohn was accurately depicting "the little Jewish town where I grew up," he says. In the very Jewish suburb of Old Bethpage on Long Island, Mendelsohn attended a public school that "for all intents and purposes was a yeshiva." His family frequented a quirky little synagogue, an offshoot of the Reform movement, where congregants read from the Union prayer book and recited affirmations in a quaint wooden shul with creaky floors.
Life in Old Bethpage was "like something out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, wistful and humorous and provincial," Mendelsohn says. A moment from his Jewish childhood informs the magical atmosphere of "Judy Berlin." "It was Yom Kippur, and I was standing outside temple in my dress pants, kicking a rock," he recalls. "At one point I looked into the temple and saw all these people swaying back and forth in prayer. Then I looked down a hill and saw a bunch of kids kicking a soccer ball, and I remember thinking, this is a very strange mixture, a very strange place. There is something eccentric and mystical and, for the lack of a better word, 'neat-o' about being Jewish and living in the suburbs."
The Mendelsohns were the most eccentric family on their block. The five children were not allowed to watch TV or listen to rock 'n' roll music during the week; instead, they helped their parents construct a harpsicord in the living room or built models of the Parthenon in the basement.
Mendelsohn, the next to the youngest, was creative but withdrawn; like the character of David in "Judy Berlin," he hid out in his parents' home, cringing from the world. "There wasn't anything I wasn't afraid of," he admits; young Eric ran away from the mailman, recoiled at the thought of talking to strangers and believed a friend's mother was trying to poison him with real mashed potatoes (his family ate instant). While he drew well, he was otherwise a poor student who repeatedly failed math (a teacher once told him he needed a brain scan), perhaps because of a learning disability.
It didn't help that his overachieving Jewish classmates were obsessed with getting into Ivy League schools. "All the streets in our neighborhood had names like Harvard and Yale," he recalls, wryly. "I remember when a girl admitted that she was not applying to college. This Hiroshima-like silence suddenly spread through the lunchroom, because that just was not done."