Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Craig Zobel’s controversial new film “Compliance” revolves around a prank caller, impersonating a policeman, who manipulates employees at a fast food restaurant into sexually assaulting a co-worker—a plot based on dozens of jaw-dropping, real incidents that have occurred throughout the United States. But the film was initially inspired by an even more controversial look at human nature– the Milgram Experiment, a series of moral psychology tests conducted by Yale University’s Stanley Milgram beginning in 1961, as Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was standing trial in Jerusalem.
“Milgram was interested in how an entire culture could virtually turn its back on something as enormous as the Holocaust,” Zobel, 35, said from his apartment in Brooklyn this week. “His curiosity wasn’t about the leadership – Hitler and so forth – but the people in the middle and bottom ranks. He was exploring people’s obedience to authority even if they morally disagreed with what they were doing.”
Milgram, in short, was probing the human capacity for compliance: During the tests, a subject was asked to administer an increasing series of electrical shocks to another person, who was actually an actor, for incorrectly answering a list of test questions. Before long, “the person would start to scream, and beg to stop the test, and that’s when the questioner would turn to the test administrator and say, ‘We should stop this now,’” said Zobel, who will next direct the sci-fi saga “Z For Zachariah’” starring Tobey Maguire. “And the scientist would always reply [something like] ‘I take full responsibility; don’t worry about him, your only responsibility is to keep administering this test, that’s your duty.’ What Milgram found was that 62 to 70 percent of people of all races and ages would eventually administer what they thought was a lethal amount of electricity – but under great distress. It wasn’t sadism. Yet they wound up continuing despite their what their consciences told them.”
As Zobel continued reading about the experiments, he came across a shocking series of cases that seemed to apply Milgram’s findings to real-life: In roughly 70 incidents over 10 years, a prank caller phoned a restaurant, pretending to be a policeman, and stated that one of the shop’s female employees had committed a theft. Alternating between strict authoritarian language and praise, he persuaded the managers to strip search the young woman, in many cases to spank her, and to subject her to escalating sexual humiliations, all in the name of following orders and “doing the right thing.” One infamous case took place in 2004 at a McDonalds in Kentucky, which along with the other incidents spurred the plot and tensions of “Compliance.”
Zobel’s drama – opening on Aug. 24 in Los Angeles – is set in a chicken restaurant in rural America, where Sandra (Ann Dowd), the harried middle manager, receives a call that her teenaged employee, Becky (Dreama Walker of “Don’t Trust the B——in Apartment 23”), has stolen money from a customer’s purse. [SPOILER ALERT] He instructs Sandra and others to detain Becky, to strip search her and subject her to assaults that culminate in rape. Their compliance every step of the way, despite their grave reservations, inspired the title of the film.
Here are further excerpts from my Aug. 14 interview with Zobel, which took place before his film screened along with a panel discussion moderated by Psychology Today editor-at-large Hara Estroff Manaro.
Q: Why were you so drawn to the Milgram experiments and the prank call incidents in preparation for your film?
A: My fascination ultimately was in the way that people do bad things oftentimes has more to do with them rationalizing that they’re not doing anything bad; that it’s not “them.” I think the worst things that happen come out of this ability to rationalize.
Almost all of the real prank call cases turned into sexual assaults; my immediate reaction upon reading about them was very much one of “I would never do this; it’s hard for me to believe this was even possible.” Then to find out that it had happened 70 times over a 10 year period was eye-opening. It seemed like a good way to discuss something we don’t think about very much, which is “What is your relationship with authority? Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve gone along or done something that later or maybe even in the moment you didn’t fully agree with, but felt like you had to [comply] because a boss or an authority figure of some sort was telling you to do so?” I’ve definitely done that before in small ways, but it’s unsettling for people to think about themselves in that way. We’d all like to cast ourselves as heroes in that kind of situation, but as the Milgram experiments showed, two-thirds of us are not going to do that. So the film was a good way for me to explore that [dilemma] and to reflect on whether there’s a way we can learn how to be more cautious.
Q: The dilemma reminds me of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s writings on the banality of evil, involving the Holocaust.
A: I will say that that did not escape me. It definitely has been on my mind that this is the way atrocities such as the Holocaust can happen. There’s also a quote from Voltaire that says those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities, which I’ve been reflecting on recently. In the case of the film, the caller’s requests seem illogical and you’d think that people in their right mind would know that a police officer wouldn’t ask you to do those kinds of things. People who have challenged the movie have said, “Wouldn’t these people know that the police aren’t allowed to do this or that, don’t they watch ‘Law & Order?’” And I would say, “Yes, I’m sure they have. But they still didn’t challenge the authority.” I think we have a very complicated relationship with our authority figures; that dynamic is complex and in a way easy to manipulate. And if someone is manipulating us, things can go very wrong, which is what I was thinking about when making the movie.
Q: At a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, there were some audience members who loudly shouted that the film is exploitative and misogynistic.
A: That was a little dramatic, but the truth is that all the decisions I made about what to show in the film were made deliberately. The gender dynamic is another aspect of the story that is unfortunately true; when people abuse power it’s hard to avoid talking about gender. What tends to happen is that men use ‘power over,’ which is a term in feminist studies – and men can use authority in exploitative ways, even though in situations like this, we’re all at fault.
Q: You could have shot without nudity – why did you choose to go there?
A: I actually could have shot with a lot more nudity. I chose to put it in the film because I felt it added to the gravity of the story – it needed to land in a visceral way that something was happening that was not good or right. But the nudity in the film doesn’t read sexual or sexy to me; I felt there should be just enough that the extent of the [collaborators’] actions could be felt. One day when I’m bored I will count how much screen time is nudity in this film compared to other films or TV shows, where it’s questionable whether nudity is necessary for the story. The truth is I think people are uncomfortable with it in “Compliance” because I made it uncomfortable, which is good, ultimately. You shouldn’t be comfortable with it.
“Compliance” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 24.
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August 8, 2012 | 1:33 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
John Logan’s two-person play, “Red,” which spotlights the legendary Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, is set a decade before the notoriously prickly painter committed suicide in 1970. The drama, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Aug. 12, begins as Rothko (Alfred Molina) has accepted a hefty commission to create a series of murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s iconic Seagram Building. He intends his luminous, contemplative paintings to transform the space into a “temple,” while his initially timid new assistant, Ken (Jonathan Groff), grows bolder and insists that the work will merely serve as décor for pricey boozing and dining.
Rothko ultimately can’t stomach the project; he changes his mind upon visiting the elitist watering hole where, he says, he felt “underdressed … fat … too goddamn Jewish for this place.” He promptly cancels his commission, returns his paycheck and eventually donates nine of the murals — transcendent floating color fields in russet and darker hues — to the Tate Gallery in London. A year later, Rothko slashed open his arms with a razor in his New York studio and died at the age of 66. “His body was discovered the same day that the Seagram murals arrived at the Tate, which shocked everyone,” Molina, 59, said before a recent rehearsal at the Taper. “You can see a correlation between his evolving [palette] and his downward spiral,” Molina added. “As he says in the play, his great fear is that “ ‘one day the black will swallow the red.’ ”
The Tony Award-winning play presents a series of acerbic arguments between Rothko and his protégé, who spar about art versus commerce, Pop Art versus Abstract Expressionism while revealing their respective traumatic pasts. Rothko describes how as a Jewish child in Russia he saw “the Cossacks cutting people up and tossing them into pits,” and how at 10, his family moved “to Portland, [Ore., and] lived in the ghetto alongside all the other thinky, talky Jews. I was Marcus Rothkowitz then,” he adds. “My first dealer said he had too many Jewish painters on the books. So Marcus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko.”
The play includes several brief but telling anecdotes about Rothko’s heritage: “His Jewish background was elemental to everything about him,” said Logan, who also wrote the films “Gladiator” and “Sweeney Todd.”
It certainly contributed to Rothko’s sense of himself as an outsider, even an outcast, in both social and professional circles, Molina said. When Rothko was a child, his immigrant mother dressed him in quaint garb she saw in a satirical cartoon that she had misinterpreted as the height of fashion for an American boy. “So when he arrived in the United States he looked ludicrous, and consequently was mocked and laughed at by his peers,” Molina said. “This sense of being ‘other’ influenced him completely; he was a bit of a loner all his life, and that fed into the way he worked as an artist. He was part of a generation of painters but he was never part of them in any kind of emotional way.”
Rothko’s sense of ‘otherness’ intensified when he left Portland’s Jewish ghetto for Yale University in 1921, when institutionalized anti-Semitism flourished and “to be a Jew at an Ivy League school was to be an alien,” Logan said. “At one point Rothko wrote of feeling like Caliban,” Logan added, referencing the scorned character in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” “That gave him a sense of isolation, but also of empowerment and a commitment to his vision, because he in no way ever tried to blend in with anyone for any reason. He was the least assimilated human being in every regard — as an artist, a husband, a Jew.”
And yet his childhood experiences continued to haunt him. “It’s too glib to say that because he saw tragedy and oppression in his youth, therefore his paintings were filled with tragedy; and yet they are,” Logan said. “In the first scene in the play, when his assistant is trying to find the right word to describe the paintings, Rothko corrects him by saying they’re ‘tragic.’ It’s a word he goes back to repeatedly in the play; it’s like the word ‘blood’ in ‘Macbeth.’ He’s constantly emphasizing that a great painting must have ‘tragedy in every brushstroke.’ And this is man who 10 years after the events of the play committed suicide, so all this ‘colors’ — if you’ll forgive the expression — the painting that is Rothko, or at least the Rothko that I created.”
Logan was inspired to write “Red” after viewing the Seagram Murals at the Tate, where he was struck by “their somberness, their anguish,” he said. “I walked in, and you almost can’t breathe because there’s such a force in the room.”
For Molina, the draw was Logan’s script, which the play’s director, Michael Grandage, slipped to him over drinks several years ago in New York. “I went off to a little bar in Midtown and read it, and by page 10 or 11 I knew I had to do it,” the actor said, sporting the shaved head he wears to portray Rothko. “It wasn’t a ‘yesss’ moment, but rather a sinking feeling, because you see all your other [professional] options falling away. But Rothko is the role of a lifetime, a chance to play a man who lives in extremes, including extremes of intellectual rigor and impatience with anyone lacking that kind of rigor.”
One word that Ken uses to describe Rothko’s work is “rabbinical,” which references that rigor “and also the whole tradition of talmudic study where every nuance is analyzed for meaning and some kind of enlightenment,” Molina said.
The actor is the son of an Italian mother and a Spanish father who relocated to England: “I’ve always been attracted to stories involving immigration — people who have left one world to go to another,” he said. As a child, his own nickname was “Spaghetti,’ and even at drama school he found himself relegated to playing Eastern European thugs, but took advantage of his penchant for accents to build a diverse career. “I’ve done some good Jews,” he said, citing his portrayal of Tevye in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I’ve done some good Arabs. You might say I do good foreign.”
Rothko and his assistant prime an entire canvas onstage, splattering each other with blood-colored paint. “The paintings are like a third character in the play,” Molina said.
Reviews from “Red’s” Broadway production laud Molina’s volcanic portrayal of Rothko, but he wouldn’t have wanted to meet the real artist one-on-one.
“He would have crushed me,” Molina said. “But I play him with great joy, because for once in my life I can be the crusher, not the ‘crushee.’ I get a chance to roar, and it’s marvelous.”
For tickets and more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.
August 2, 2012 | 3:10 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of “The French Connection,” The Exorcist” and now “Killer Joe”—about a violently dysfunctional Texas family—was courtly and chivalrous at the Four Seasons hotel recently, moving a comfortable chair over for me and offering coffee before tucking into his English muffin and eggs.
But he began the conversation with a surprising revelation about his penchant for extreme plots and characters: “I could have been a very violent person,” the 76-year-old filmmaker said of his childhood. “I had no sense of right and wrong.” Despite the influence of Hebrew school and his loving parents, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he said, “my peer pressure was such that I was involved in armed robberies as a young teenager.”
Casual violence erupted throughout his neighborhood on the north side of Chicago; while his own home was peaceful, domestic beatings were de rigueur in the building in which the Friedkins lived in a one-room apartment. Police brutality also was common on the streets, and father-daughter sex was rampant in outlying areas where residents had relocated from the South, the director said.
At Hebrew school, Friedkin himself was bullied by an older boy who every day would “seek me out, push me around and in general, give me a hard time,” he said. “I remember having great anxiety over this and I never talked to my parents about it, because I felt ashamed. Then one day I remember waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘I don’t have to take this anymore.’ I had been watching wrestling on television, so when this boy approached me after school, took my books and tossed them, I immediately grabbed him, put him in a headlock, and banged his head against the pavement. I had the distinct desire to kill him. I remember this as though it was yesterday: I wanted to see him die, but I was pulled off of him. And so I understand that [murderous] instinct. Over the years, it has made me realize that there is good and evil in all of us.”
That’s part of the reason Friedkin was drawn to “Killer Joe,” an adaptation of the 1993 play by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay. “It offers some insight into the crooked timbre of humanity,” he said. “Tracy and I share the same world view, in which we perceive a lot of human behavior as absurd, paranoid, schizophrenic and shocking.”
“Killer Joe” spotlights a trailer trash clan portrayed by Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon (as the flawed dad and stepmother) and Emile Hirsch and Juno Temple (as their equally-compromised children). The action kicks off as they hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) – a Dallas cop who moonlights as a hitman – to kill the kids’ biological mother for the insurance money. As collateral, they offer up the virginal Dottie (Temple) to Joe as a “retainer;” a twisted love story ensues, as does pedophilia, blood, gore and an unspeakable sexual act with a fried chicken leg.
“I’m attracted to characters whose backs are against the wall, who perceive they have few alternatives except to act in absurd and often self-destructive ways,” Friedkin said. “I’m not drawn to calm little pieces of material, where nothing especially dramatic occurs. And I’m not drawn at all to romantic comedies or the things that have become staples of American television – I can’t even watch them, and I don’t believe them at all. Series like ‘Father Knows Best,’ for example, I think are really pornographic,’ with the false impression they give of the American family.”
Friedkin’s own childhood family was intensely Jewish; his parents kept kosher and observed all the holidays. These days, he said, “I don’t dispute the teachings of Moses, and I feel very close to God when I’m in Israel. I’m a Jew, and that’s it. In my heart I believe completely in The Ten Commandments, but I also believe we are all imperfect and at times we just can’t cut it.”
When Friedkin was 13, he said, he and two friends decided to rob Goldblatt’s department store in Chicago, just for kicks. “I had a zip gun, as did my compatriots; we didn’t need anything, but we thought it would just be fun to rob a department store,” he said. “But the house detective caught us. It was shortly after my bar mitzvah, and my mother was called down to the store. I loved my mother deeply and I saw that what I did made her cry – she was sobbing. I realized how I had let her down and I stopped my [criminal activities] cold; that was it.”
Friedkin found a more suitable outlet in the movies, and was so smitten by “Citizen Kane’ that he eventually pursued a career as a filmmaker.
While he is best known for “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist,” (1973), his movies have also included 1985’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and 2006’s “Bug,” based on Letts’ 1996 play, which won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Friedkin has also been well received as a director of operas, including a production of “Samson and Delilah” that was performed in Tel Aviv.
“Killer Joe” is, in its way, operatic: “It reminds me of Alban Berg’s opera, “Wozzeck,” which I directed, in that it’s a kind of very claustrophobic chamber piece, and that it ultimately ends up as a tragedy – and most of opera is tragedy,” Friedkin said.
The jet-black comedy virtually explodes into graphic images of sex and violence, [SPOILER ALERT] including that cringeworthy chicken leg scene, which actress Gina Gershon, as the film’s evil stepmother, enacts near the end of the movie.
McConaughey reportedly was so disgusted when he first read the script of the film – which has received an NC-17 rating—that he had the strong urge to take a shower; his friends convinced him to take the role, in part, by emphasizing the movie’s dark humor.
Gershon “understood the dark side of her character,” Friedkin said. “At first she didn’t want to go there, as there were times that were very difficult, not only for an actress but for a human being.”
How did Friedkin direct the most intense sequences? “I tried to create a relaxed atmosphere on the set, and give the actors the sense that they weren’t going to feel judged or humiliated, but rather a freedom to create,” he said.
He added that Letts based his play on a real murder that took place in Miami years ago. “The film is set in a contemporary world, and nothing shocks me in this world,” he said. “That’s why I was able to approach this film.”
“Killer Joe” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 3.
August 1, 2012 | 12:49 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Nobody in this world thinks they’re having enough sex,” said director David Frankel, whose film “Hope Springs” spotlights a beleaguered 60-something couple played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. “Watch any night on television, or any comedian in a nightclub, and every other joke is about people who aren’t getting enough. It’s true of people Meryl and Tommy’s age, and it’s true of teenagers — everybody thinks somebody else is doing it more.”
Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley & Me”) was expounding on what he perceives as the universal appeal of “Hope Springs,” especially in a youth-saturated culture. The comedy revolves around Kay and Arnold (Streep and Jones), empty nesters who sleep in separate bedrooms, who are struggling to rekindle their romantic and sexual spark. As the film opens, Kay is so dissatisfied with their roommate-like arrangement that she drags her taciturn hubby to an intensive marital therapy retreat led by Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell), who prompts the spouses to open up about their bedroom history. Awkward, fumbling “sexercises” ensue.
As in the midlife romance portrayed by Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Nancy Meyers’ “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Hope Springs” doesn’t shy away from bluntly risqué scenes between its mature actors. “But I wasn’t trying to make an explicit film,” the wry, affable Frankel, 53, said from his home in Miami. “The film is really about the idea that we all just want to be closer to our mates.”
It’s not the first time Frankel has explored the more challenging aspects of marriage: He drew on his personal experience to write and direct “Miami Rhapsody” (1995), which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as an advertising copywriter who turns neurotic when she discovers that every member of her family has had extramarital affairs. At the time, Frankel was also contemplating marriage, in what he has described as his “off again, off again” relationship with his wife-to-be, an advertising executive he eventually married in the late 1990s at the Sephardic synagogue in Venice, Italy; they now have twin 10-year-olds who attend Jewish day school in Miami.
“If you intellectualize the idea of marriage, it can be quite daunting, no matter how much in love you are,” he said. “As Sarah Jessica Parker’s character perceives, if marriage is so great, why does everyone cheat? Why are people looking elsewhere, and why are they so profoundly unhappy? What the character learns, and certainly what I grasped, is that marriage can work if you want it to.”
What “Miami Rhapsody” shares with “Hope Springs,” and perhaps all of Frankel’s films, is the notion of characters who are uncompromising in their search for excellence, whether it be in relationships or careers, he said.
Viewers tend to hate the perfectionist character Streep played in “The Devil Wears Prada,” an ice-queen fashion magazine editor who plunges her hapless assistant (played by Anne Hathaway) into employment hell. “But, for me, Meryl’s actually the heroine of the movie,” Frankel said. “I really wanted to celebrate the success of the powerful working woman; one of the things I hoped to portray was an unapologetic businesswoman who puts excellence above everything. Does she step on people? Does she order people around? Is she not-nice? Sure. But I think that this kind of drive comes with its own price. There are people in contemporary culture and throughout history who put their objectives above others, and the world would be a poorer place if they hadn’t.”
One of Frankel’s role models in terms of personal achievement — minus the prickly personality — is his own father, Max Frankel, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning executive editor and columnist for The New York Times. Political and media luminaries attended the monthly soirees at the Frankels’ home: David Frankel recalls meeting Ted Kennedy, Dan Rather and John Chancellor, and a favorite family photograph depicts the three Frankel children sitting on a pony at the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch in Texas.
In a phone interview from his New York home, Max Frankel recalled how David would head upstairs during family arguments, returning with a humorous, slightly mocking poem he had written that would immediately defuse the tension.
In college, David Frankel initially thought he might follow in his father’s professional footsteps, writing for the Harvard Crimson and penning a profile on the mercurial tennis star John McEnroe his senior year; he had once played tennis with McEnroe and thus was able to put a personal spin on the article. “But I probably wasn’t the best journalist,” said Frankel, who instead decided to try his luck in Hollywood by driving out to Los Angeles after college graduation.
A meeting with the legendary producer Robert Evans (“The Godfather”) provided Frankel, by then an aspiring screenwriter, with some invaluable advice. When he requested a job as a production assistant, Evans replied, “You wanna be a writer, kid? Go home and write,’ ” Frankel recalled. “And I did. In fact, I never went to work on a movie set until I was a producer and director.”
By 1996, Frankel had won an Academy Award for his short film “Dear Diary”; he went on to create a well-received, if short-lived, TV comedy, “Grapevine,” and to direct television series such as “Sex and the City” — including the episode in which the uber-WASP character of Charlotte visits a mikveh as part of her conversion to Judaism. He also won an Emmy Award for directing the “Band of Brothers” episode in which the characters liberate a concentration camp, an endeavor he regarded as “a great responsibility,” in part, because of his own family history.
Frankel laughed as he recalled how two television stations banned “Grapevine,” inspired by his younger brother’s libidinous years as a sportscaster, because of its randy dialogue.
“Hope Springs” may also raise eyebrows for its frank discussions about sex. “But we’re not trying to shock people,” Frankel said. “It’s really a story about the characters’ search for intimacy.”
“Hope Springs” hits theaters on Aug. 8.
August 1, 2012 | 12:43 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2010, Alison Klayman sat in a car in Chengdu, China, with her camera rolling as the internationally renowned conceptual artist and dissident Ai Weiwei scuffled with police, who were pushing and pulling at him and his entourage. The melee had erupted as Ai was attempting to file a lawsuit against the policeman who had beaten him so severely a year earlier that he had suffered a life-threatening cranial hemorrhage, requiring surgery to remove the blood from his brain.
“The moment when my camera fuzzed out is because one of the plainclothes officers came over to the car and grabbed my camera,” said Klayman, 27, whose award-winning documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 3. “My goal was to keep my footage and not have him look at it and turn me in.” So Klayman was prepared. As the officer approached, she deftly switched out her tape with a blank one, which the official promptly confiscated. She had become adept at this kind of bait and switch after authorities had previously confronted her in the process of making her film about China’s most famous artist-activist. Ai is probably best known for creating the Beijing Nation Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but his sculpture also has been in museums throughout the world, including a recent installation on the courtyard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“At the time, it was really scary,” Klayman recently recalled of the Chengdu confrontation from her home in New York, where she moved after following Ai for three years to make her debut film. “I didn’t know if everybody I was with was about to be detained. I was very nervous, not so much for my personal safety, but for everyone I was with who were Chinese citizens.”
“Never Sorry” introduces the charismatic Ai as he prepares for his 100 million sunflower seed installation at the Tate Modern in London while launching his campaign to discover the names of children killed in the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, their deaths a result of shoddy government construction. The heartbreaking images of children’s belongings in the rubble inspired Ai’s giant mural of 9,000 colorful backpacks on display outside his 2009 exhibition, “So Sorry,” in Munich.
The documentary also follows the Web-savvy artist as he continues to tweet mocking messages about his government, despite escalating police surveillance. Officials shut down his blog and raze his newly built Shanghai studio even as Time magazine votes him a runner-up for person of the year and ArtReview names him the world’s most influential artist in 2011. In April of that year, the film shows the activist disappearing into custody on dubious charges of tax evasion, where he suffers psychological torture during 81 days in jail — all while a global campaign explodes on his behalf.
Klayman was an underemployed freelance journalist when she began shooting a short film on Ai without pay in 2008, and she had no idea that the artist-architect-photographer would, over the course of filming, become China’s most renowned cause célèbre. Hers was, perhaps, a textbook case of being in the right place at the right time: “I did not go to China to find Ai Weiwei, nor did I even know who he was,” she said. In fact, back in 2006, Klayman had little interest in Asia, hardly spoke a word of Chinese and didn’t even own a camera when, on a lark, she accompanied a fellow Brown University graduate to visit the friend’s relatives in Shanghai.
Klayman had grown up a world away, in a Conservative Jewish home in suburban Philadelphia, where she attended the Akiba-Barrack Jewish Day School and became fluent in Hebrew. Her mother, a native Yiddish speaker, was born to Polish Holocaust survivors in Israel; while Klayman’s grandparents spoke little about their experiences in a series of camps, she said, “The subject loomed large in our family.” So did the Jewish concepts of “social justice, chesed and tikkun olam. … When you grow up with the Holocaust as part of your [legacy], you’re raised on the idea that you have to speak out, and that staying silent about injustice contributes to the injustice.”
It’s a worldview that, in part, would connect her with the outspoken Ai, whose own father was imprisoned and forced to perform hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. But Klayman’s journey to China, she said, “was the most random thing ever.”
She had hoped to see the world and jump-start her journalism career when her classmate invited her to Shanghai in 2006; five months later, Klayman moved to Beijing, where she sustained herself, in part, by serving as China’s correspondent for JTA and writing for this newspaper, among other publications. She found a home away from home within the Kehillat Beijing congregation, where she tutored five young women for their b’nai mitzvah and also co-founded the city’s Moishe House for Jewish programming with her American roommate, Stephanie Tung.
It was Tung, who was helping to curate an exhibition of Ai’s New York photographs, who brought Klayman in to make a 20-minute video about the artist four years ago. By that time, Klayman knew that Ai had designed the lauded “Bird’s Nest” stadium and then had denounced the Olympic Games as Communist Party propaganda. Even so, she said: “Early on, he was talking about the government in ways that haunted me. I was thinking, ‘How are you able to do the things that you do, and how are you not in jail?’ ”
When the artist allowed Klayman to continue filming him after his photography exhibition, she accompanied him to Munich, where excruciating headaches as a result of his Chengdu beating landed him in the hospital. “Never Sorry” shows Ai in his sickbed holding up the bag of blood that had been extracted from his skull.
Klayman surmises that she was able to follow the artist within China because she was not a prominent journalist from an outlet like CNN, which meant she was beneath the government’s radar.
When Ai was arrested in April 2011, the debut filmmaker realized she had unprecedented footage of China’s most famous missing person; for weeks she stayed up late into the night to Skype with Ai’s assistants, as his Beijing studio was raided and his possessions searched. Klayman phoned Ai the night he was released: “He was subdued, exhausted and clearly relieved to just be home,” she said. Her documentary ends as the artist-provocateur wanly tells reporters that he cannot speak to them as a condition of his bail, then firmly shuts his studio door.
“Now that we’re a little farther out, we know he’s not completely broken, but at that moment it felt like [he was], and it was crushing,” Klayman said, adding that Ai went on to violate his bail conditions by speaking out on Twitter and in op-ed pieces.
Even after those conditions were lifted on June 22, Ai is still not allowed to leave China and has been ordered to pay $2.4 million in tax fees. He also faces possible charges including bigamy and pornography. “He’s still living in total uncertainly,” Klayman said. Therefore, the timeliness of her work is all the more front-and-center. “It’s important to me that the documentary will help keep people aware.”
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens on Aug. 3 in Los Angeles.
July 26, 2012 | 8:14 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The last time I spoke to Israeli-born philanthropist Daphna Edwards Ziman, she said she’d begun her debut novel, a thriller titled “The Gray Zone,” (2011) in part, as therapy during the unraveling of her 20-year marriage to real estate mogul Richard Ziman several years ago. She also said she was planning to write another book, this one a comedy-drama titled “How to Divorce a Billionaire”— “a fictional novel based on a whole bunch of women that I am friends with who have divorced billionaires, and their stories are so similar it’s bizarre,” she told me last year.
Recently, Ziman appeared to comment on her divorce by writing and starring in a bluesy, comic music video, “Give Me the Money, Honey,” by the Lavender Thorns, in which she plays a scorned wife to a blinged-out aging Lothario romancing a babelicious Asian in a red satin teddy. Ziman, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, croons to him, “Give me the money, honey; do what you want. Cold hard cash on the line – as long as all that green is mine.”
The video ends as the guy, wearing a dressing gown, a giant gold dollar sign necklace and a disgruntled expression, hands over the cash to Ziman, who happily exits. “And that’s a walking cash register for you, honey,” she says.
July 23, 2012 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Geffen, the notoriously press shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour on July 22, where he was promoting the American Masters documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I queried how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists…I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all. Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the American Masters series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions – a number of which he also dismissed.
He refused to discuss whether he had lived with songstress Joni Mitchell; when someone asked about the trend of billionaires buying newspapers, he said only, “I hope they make a lot of money. What can I tell you? I have no feeling about what other people do.” Someone else asked if Geffen had any new ideas for the music industry: “I have no ideas. None whatsoever,” he replied. You had to wonder why Geffen agreed to fly in from his yacht on Sardinia to attend the conference at all; Lacy later told me that she had begged him to do so. “He’s shy and I think he was nervous,” she said of his tense demeanor during the Q&A. (To be fair, it seemed to me that a number of the journalists present had not watched the documentary.)
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who did get Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary – including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” she said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me, that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable. I tried really hard, because my own parents emigrated here from Germany, and a lot of our family didn’t make it.”
Geffen apparently discussed the issue more in depth with author Tom King of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother, Batya, worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have a nervous breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital.
“Batya’s hospitalization…proved to have an injurious effect upon David, who was forced to endure the sneers of the neighborhood kids, who knew that his mother had been sent away,” King writes. “The children also chided him about his out-of-work dad; when they asked what his father did for a living, David made up stories to save face.”
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people. I don’t think growing up being Jewish was particularly an unusual thing in his neighborhood, but I think being a young boy who was sneaking away to go to Broadway [shows]—that probably was harder for him.”
Geffen’s mother, who eventually recovered from her breakdown, proved to be a huge influence on her son, Lacy continued. The owner of a corset shop, she would frequently attempt to bargain with salespeople, even at Bloomingdale’s, of all places. “That’s how David learned about negotiating,” Lacy said. “He learned a lot from his mother, who basically had to keep the roof over their heads and the food on the table because his father didn’t really work…All David will ever say is he didn’t look up to his father because his mother had to work so hard and his father didn’t. As he says [in the documentary], ‘I had a lot of judgment about these things in those days.’ I’m sure he wishes he could rewrite some of that.”
“Inventing David Geffen” will air on PBS stations in November.
July 18, 2012 | 5:29 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The last time I interviewed Todd Solondz—one of independent cinema’s most acidic provocateurs—he joked that his agents were thrilled with his black comedy “Dark Horse” “because there’s no child molestation, masturbation or rape in it.”
“I was being a little bit flip,” Solondz said more recently, speaking by phone from the Czech Republic, where “Dark Horse” was screening in advance of its July 27 United States premiere. Even so, he admitted, he deliberately avoided the kind of “hot-button” topics that had sparked outrage in some quarters upon the release of his previous cringe-fests: Think sexually charged prepubescent bullying (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), pedophilia (“Happiness”), abusive interracial sex (“Storytelling”) and a smug Jewish family, obsessed with the Holocaust, whose members are gassed to death by a disgruntled housekeeper (also “Storytelling”).
“I was feeling burdened by all that I had addressed in my films,” Solondz, 52, said with a sigh in his trademark halting whine. “If I were to deal again with these sorts of subject matters, it might feel clichéd, or as if I were trying to shock for shock’s sake. But you don’t need those sorts of subjects to shock and surprise and provoke people.”
“Dark Horse” does provoke, albeit in a gentler way, by introducing viewers to Abe (Jordan Gelber), an abrasive, self-pitying shlub with a sequoia-sized entitlement complex. At 35, he still lives at home with his Jewish parents (played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in New Jersey, in a bedroom adorned with his meticulously maintained collection of action figures and comic books. The story unfolds, framed by a Jewish wedding and a funeral, as Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed beauty who also lives with her parents and who wonderingly remarks after their first kiss, “That wasn’t horrible.” Their often-humiliating courtship is Abe’s attempt to escape his underlying loneliness and despair—until a life-threatening accident violently rocks his worldview.
In some ways, Abe’s disappointments recall the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but Solondz had a different sort of protagonist in mind. “The film is a kind of alternative to the popular man-child genre exemplified by Judd Apatow’s movies and TV sitcoms; he is a tragic, real-life version of someone like George Costanza in ‘Seinfeld’—but he’s not de-Judified,” Solondz said. “Often, the perception of the man-child is someone cute and cuddly, but I didn’t want to sentimentalize it.”
“In a sense, I present Abe as a kind of test for the audience—to test their sympathies,” he added. “To what extent can we connect with those that we would rather dismiss or demonize? Abe is probably someone you don’t want to have lunch with, but in fact, here is someone who has a heart beating, and bleeding at that.”
During rehearsals, Solondz often reminded Gelber of Abe’s vulnerability: “Some people critique Todd for being really mean to his characters,” Gelber said. “But even when they might seem unbearable, you laugh because you can see the ridiculous in them, as well as the humanity.”
Abe’s obsession with collecting is his drug of choice, which “blurs into a kind of idolatry,” Solondz said. And Judaism certainly provides no tonic for the character, who wears a hip-hop “matzo baller” T-shirt and includes among his collectibles a Coca-Cola bottle inscribed with Hebrew letters. “The closest he gets to any religious expression is through this piece of capitalism, or consumerism,” said the filmmaker, who was raised in a kosher home but now describes himself as “a devout atheist.”
Solondz said he didn’t relate to the Jewish milieu in which he grew up in New Jersey, where, he said, “The Holocaust was a lively source of material at the dinner table.” If his films depict the Garden State as a kind of prison, he said, “I certainly felt from early childhood that I needed to escape. My parents’ social life circled around accountants, dentists or lawyers, but my fantasy was to live and work among people in the arts.”
Yet as much as he has critiqued Jewish suburban ennui, Solondz’s humor seems to come from a particularly tribal place, mixing tragedy with hilarity. He recalls attending a celebration of his films in Poland last fall, where, he said, “I couldn’t stop telling Holocaust jokes the whole time. They show you this wonderful, very chic kosher restaurant and, just outside, they say, ‘This is where the Jews were rounded up by the Nazis.’ ” “Oftentimes when terrible things happen, it’s the absurdity that makes one laugh.”
For all of his prickly observations, Solondz appears to have settled into the life of a contented family man. He married several years ago and is now the father of a 3- and a 1-year-old “who give me a great deal of pleasure,” he said. His wife lights Shabbat candles, a practice he respects even though he himself does not practice any religion. He won’t talk about his next film, save to say it is set in Texas, in case, “keinahora, we shouldn’t get the funding.”
But he dismisses the notion that “Dark Horse” reflects any midlife mellowing. “I’m not in therapy,” he said. “I’m not that self-analytical.”
“Dark Horse” opens at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on July 27. The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen the film on July 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, with Solondz in attendance. RSVP required by 5 p.m. July 23 as space is limited. Reply to RSVP@americancinematheque.com; the subject line must read “Dark Horse.” Please indicate your first and last name and whether there will be one or two persons in your party. If you do not receive an e-mail confirming your RSVP, you are not confirmed for the screening.