Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“It’s an honor to be insulted by you,” I told Judd Apatow during an interview about his new comedy-drama, “This is 40,” about the midlife angst suffered by record label owner Pete (Paul Rudd) and his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann).
“Yes, exactly!” Apatow replied.
I’d interviewed the comedy mogul several times over the years, most recently about his flick “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, and about his book “I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some that Might Not be Funny at All.” He’d opened up to me about how his Jewish childhood with atheist parents instilled in him a “frightening, empty” view of the universe that “certainly did more damage than they were aware of at the time.” Whenever I’d asked him if he read the Journal, he’d responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yeah!”
So I was thrilled – and initially a tad mortified – to see that “This is 40” actually had a scene with a Journal reporter, which is played for laughs: A schlumpy journalist wearing a yarmulke turns up to interview Pete’s star client, Graham Parker, asking him, “Why is this album different from all other albums.” “It isn’t,” Parker retorts.
Yes, parody is a form of flattery, but is that what Judd really thought of the Journal? Can we possibly appear less hip? And is this what he thought of me? “Well, I insult myself all the time in my films, so why not you?” he quipped when I asked him that question.
Q: Where did the idea for the Journal scene come from?
A: What I wanted to write about is that Pete feels like maybe he’s slipping. He’s in the music business but he kind of likes the older bands, not the newer bands, and it’s a symbol that his taste is not keeping up with what’s happening in the world and it terrifies him. He has this business model he thinks will work, which is, he’ll take these older artists, and he will have very little overhead; they don’t need to sell that many records and that’s enough, but then he’s not even going to be able to sell that many. So when it came to, who’s interested in talking to Graham, we thought, the only people who want to talk to Graham is the Jewish Journal. And we have our friend David Wilde, who writes for Rolling Stone magazine, playing the reporter from the Journal. And then the joke in the movie is that the old people who still buy hard copies of records are older Jews because they don’t download; they don’t understand what that means. (Laughs.) Which is probably because of the fact that my dad probably wouldn’t know how do download; he doesn’t have an iTunes music library. I’m sure this makes no sense to the reality of the Jewish Journal, or who reads it or the ages or any of it; it’s just a general, we didn’t get Rolling stone to cover this.
Q: Does the character reflect any of your impressions of the Journal?
A: No, not at all. But when you think of like the cutting edge of the music scene, you don’t think of the Jewish Journal. I don’t mean to insult your readers, but they are not going to find out the next hot band in the Jewish Journal.
Q: You never know.
A: Well, you should change that. If you find them, then you will prove my joke incorrect. You and I have done a bunch of interviews over the years, for a long time, but the joke is literally coming from the fact that it just sounds funny. Comedy is so much like a rhythm idea. And to me, although there’s been many great Jewish rockers over the years, you don’t instantly think that our people are rocking that hard, although the truth is that they probably are (laughs).
Q: Someone on our staff was thinking of doing a videotaped response to your Journal scene.
A: Yes! That’s right. You could, and it would be a great video for every person who doesn’t realize that the guy from that punk band is Jewish, or that the guy in that great rock ‘n’ roll band of all time is Jewish. You could show all of them. We could even get Adam Sandler to record it.
“This is 40” is now in theaters.
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January 2, 2013 | 3:10 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2008, while doing research for what would become his first feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin climbed inside the pickup truck he had purchased for $500 and drove down each of the five roads leading to the bayou’s edge about 80 miles south of New Orleans. At the end of one of those roads he discovered the Isle de Jean Charles, a remote fishing village made up of a swampy enclave of about 20 shacks connected by planked walkways over brackish water. Mattresses patched sagging bridges, discarded refrigerators served as wading pools, and dead cypress trees loomed like skeletons.
“I got chills, because I had been trying to write about holdouts at the end of the world, and I sensed that this was truly the last stand,” Zeitlin said of his post-Hurricane Katrina mindset. “It was almost as if there was a different kind of air there; the atmosphere was so salty that everything rusted, and all the dead trees and shattered houses had this incredibly apocalyptic feel. [In another town], I asked someone why they didn’t try to replant the population somewhere else, and they said, ‘We were made by the marsh; we’re like this exotic plant that can’t grown anywhere else.’ ”
Zeitlin thought about the dying towns and their stalwart residents, and how they reminded him of the characters in a play by his childhood friend Lucy Alibar titled “Juicy and Delicious,” in which a child struggles to achieve a state of grace after he learns his previously robust father is dying.
“I realized I had two stories that were both circling around this one emotion: What do you do when the thing that made you starts to die in front of you? And how do you survive the loss of the things that created you — whether a community or a parent?”
The result is Zeitlin’s haunting, operatic independent film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fable about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), who is pondering her place in the universe as her father ails and her harsh but utopian hamlet is threatened by a raging storm. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the Camera d’Or at Cannes and has four Independent Spirit Award nominations and is now enjoying Oscar buzz alongside the likes of such major studio features as “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Along the way, it’s joined the ranks of a growing number of acclaimed films (think “Life of Pi” and “The Tree of Life”) that tackle spiritual concerns onscreen.
Zeitlin, 30, called in for an interview from the stairwell of the New York Public Library, where he retreats to work on projects whenever he visits his native New York. His home these days is a rundown house on the outskirts of a construction site in the upper ninth ward of New Orleans, where, he said, his used car recently died. “I’ve pretty much lived in varying forms of shanties or shacks since I moved down there [around 2006],” he said.
The heroine of “Beasts” is left homeless when a hurricane destroys her detritus-filled hovel; only on the precipice of destruction does she come into a kind of spiritual enlightenment, Zeitlin said. “An important moment is when she regards the funeral pyre that is cremating her father and watching the sparks fly out into the air,” said Zeitlin, who directed the film and co-authored the script with Alibar. “She realizes that just because she cannot see them anymore, they have not disappeared — in fact, that nothing disappears, but things live on in different ways. It’s her understanding that while both her father and her community are going to be gone from the earth, the wisdom passed down from them is internalized in her, and she is now the vessel that will carry that forward into the future. She starts to feel like the intangible parts of the universe are taking care of her, as opposed to trying to destroy her, and that moment of enlightenment is related to visions of what God is.”
The funeral scene was influenced by Jewish thought, Zeitlin said — specifically the midrash of two ships, one leaving the harbor as another heads for shore, which suggests that one should rejoice over the returning ship, just as one should celebrate the death of a righteous man. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of wisdom,” Zeitlin said.
Zeitlin’s parents, both folklorists, celebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables; they studied carnival barkers, traveling medicine shows and, during frequent trips to Coney Island, they jotted down histories of the residents of the local freak show. Zeitlin remembers hanging out with a contortionist called the Elastic Man, who could slither his way through a coat hanger, as well as Otis the Frog Boy, who rolled up and lit cigarettes with his mouth.
“The myth in my own family is that we had basically one relative who escaped the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart,” said Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother was raised Protestant in North Carolina. “My father very much studied Jewish culture and mythology, and he wrote several compilations of Jewish stories, folktales and jokes. He was always reinventing Jewish customs and making sure that the tradition was very much part of our lives. Every Shabbat we all had to bring a reading or some piece of wisdom we’d discovered during the week, along with a ritual where we would remember all the people we had lost.”
Not long after his backyard bar mitzvah, Zeitlin traveled with his family to New Orleans, which he found to be “an almost supernatural place where both death and joy are in the air.
“All Jews are obsessed with death, right,” he added, only half joking. “It’s recalling all the people before you who have died, and using their knowledge in your own life.”
Zeitlin moved to New Orleans after graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, initially to make a short film, “Glory at Sea,” and then to embark upon “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He began writing the film several years ago while recovering from a shattered pelvis after a drunk driver rammed his car as he was on his way to a film festival. When he could walk again, he returned to Isle de Jean Charles, hanging out with his laptop at the town’s marina and interviewing locals, who initially hazed him as an outsider.
Over seven weeks in 2010, his largely improvised production came together in 100-degree heat, amid swarming flies and mosquitoes, with sets cobbled together, in part, from abandoned scrap metal. After Zeitlin’s pickup truck exploded in a fiery maelstrom, his crew transformed the charred shell into the boat in which Hushpuppy and her father traverse the swamp in the film. Zeitlin persevered even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on the first day of production, jeopardizing the locals as well as the movie.
The shoot, which took place in 20 locations, proved to be an exercise in independent filmmaking at its most extreme — which is why the low-key Zeitlin particularly appreciates his movie’s Oscar buzz. “It’s certainly not why I make films,” he said, “but any time a film gets recognition that was made outside of the film industry, the more leverage it gives to other filmmakers who are trying to tell stories in ways that are unconventional. So it’s just trying to forge that space in the world.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Searchlight.
December 13, 2012 | 9:35 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the first image of Travis Fine’s heartrending new film, “Any Day Now,” set in the 1970s, Marco (Isaac Leyva), a 12-year-old with Down’s syndrome, roams the streets of a city, lost, bewildered and clutching a child’s doll. The film then flashes back to tell of how Marco was taken in by Rudy and Paul, a gay couple played by Alan Cummings (“The Good Wife”) and Garrett Dillahunt, after his junkie mother abandoned him; a custody battle erupts that cannot help but reflect on gay rights issues today. The film has already swept up audience awards at festivals from Seattle to Tribeca.
Fine, a 44-year-old actor (“Young Riders,” “Girl, Interrupted”) turned commercial airline pilot turned independent filmmaker, is straight, married with three children, and active at Temple Beth Ami, his Conservative synagogue in Santa Clarita. “I didn’t set out just to tell a story of gay rights and gay adoption, but also a human story about human rights, and my firm belief that nobody should stand in the way of anyone who has love to give to another human being,” he said of the film.
“Any Day Now” came about when Fine had funding in place for a new movie after returning to show business with 2011’s “The Space Between,” starring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”). The problem was finding a story, said the filmmaker, who had read and rejected about 50 screenplays when he came across a 1980 script by Arthur Bloom.
“My music supervisor, PJ Bloom, who is also an old friend of mine from Beverly Hills High, told me that his father, Arthur, had written this script about a man named Rudy, who had lived near his apartment in Brooklyn in the late 1970s,” Fine said. "Rudy was a flamboyantly gay man with a sassy mouth, the kind of guy that everyone in the neighborhood knew. And in Rudy’s apartment building there was this 12-year-old kid who barely spoke, barely could say his own name, who wore a diaper and crawled around. The kid had a mother who was a pretty horrific drug addict, and Rudy kind of took the boy in and looked after him, got him into school and really tried to be the kid’s parent. And George was so inspired by their connection that he wrote the original script.”
“It was the only script I read where I kept saying, ‘There’s some connection to me in this story, something that moves me,” Fine added. “But it didn’t reveal itself to me until my daughter’s 16th birthday, when I found myself on the floor of my closet in my bedroom, sobbing hysterically.” At the time, Fine was acutely feeling the distance that had developed between himself and his oldest daughter, his child by a previous marriage -- distance that was a byproduct of his divorce.
“Once I wiped my tears away, I grasped the real understanding and compassion I had for my lead character,” Fine said, meaning Rudy’s angst upon being separated from Marco. “And I understood that I wanted to tell a story about what it means to be a family. I didn’t want to make sweeping political statements, but rather wanted to explore a love story between three unlikely people.”
Here are further excerpts from our interview:
Q: You originally wrote the character of Marco as ill tempered. How was it that you decided to change the character into a gentler soul?
A: Isaac Leyva had auditioned for us on videotape and when I finally met with him, I asked him to do the scenes driven by conflict, which included foul language and throwing things and being belligerent. But he just wouldn’t do it; he emotionally and physically would not go there.
Then I had an interesting conversation with the man who runs the school where Isaac studies acting; he said Down’s Syndrome kids generally shy away from that kind of thing; they’re not going to throw things and scream and yell and cuss, because that generally makes them very uncomfortable. So I said to my wife, “Maybe Isaac’s not our kid.” And then she said something very smart: She brought up the young man who played Michael Oher from “The Blind Side;” how silent he was for so much of the first half of the movie and how that made viewers want to know more about what was going on inside of his head. She suggested that I do the same thing with the character of Marco; that I allow his silence to be something that prompts us to want to learn more about who he is. So I stayed up until about 4 a.m. that morning, in March of 2011, and rewrote the script, then went back and had Isaac read the new scenes. He was wonderful.
I asked him, “Do you want to star in my film?” and he nodded really vigorously, yes. Later on I heard him crying in the corner of the room; there were tears streaming down his face. I asked if he was OK; his acting teacher was holding him, and when he finally wiped the tears away he looked at me and said, “The dream of my life just came true.” It was a beautiful moment.
Q: In your film, Rudy is an aspiring singer who works as a drag queen to earn a living. Does he identify with Marco because as a gay man, he, too, feels marginalized by others -- a kind of social outcast?
A: Absolutely. There was a monologue that ultimately we took out of the film, in which Rudy explains to Paul what his life was like growing up with parents who didn’t accept him; there were kids who would beat him up and he had to run away from home at a young age. But we felt at a certain point that the monologue was a little bit too on the nose in trying to draw those connections to Marco. My hope is that people will get that Rudy is a guy who clearly had lived on the fringes of society and had to fight his way to get anything he’s had. So I think there is a deep connection and understanding on his part of this kid who no one wants.
Q: Why did you choose to set the film in the 1970s?
A: The first reason is that it’s based on a true story that really did happen in the 1970s. The second is that I’m a huge fan of ‘70s cinema, and I wanted to tackle that visually: Could we make the film using modern digital technology to create not only the wardrobe and sets but also the look and texture of a ‘70s film using certain color choices and palettes? Also, by setting the movie in the 1970s, it allows contemporary viewers to look back and see where we were [in terms of gay rights], and affords us an opportunity to ask ourselves if we’re really in a different place.
Q: How was it that you cast Alan Cumming as Rudy?
A: He’s not only a great actor but he has great performing and singing capabilities; he’s also been knighted by the Queen of England for his work on behalf of LGBT rights and equality through the arts. This is a guy who’s not only talked the talk of gay rights but he’s really walked the walk. He has the same agent as Melissa Leo, who had starred in my last film. She told her agent, in her own colorful, expletive filled way, that she blanking loved my blanking writing and of course he should read my blanking script and she passed it along to him right away. It was a matter of days before Cumming read the script and said he wanted to be a part of this.
Q: What Jewish values do you perceive in the film?
A: The sense of ethical mitzvot. When Rudy sees that child he has two choices; he can either help or not. And he does the right thing.
“Any Day Now” opens Dec. 14.
December 8, 2012 | 11:02 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
November 3, 2012 | 12:06 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Exploding heads, techno-genitals, mutant offspring, a humanoid fly. Such are some of the monstrous images in David Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films, a la “Videodrome,” “Scanners,” “The Brood” and, of course, 1986’s “The Fly, ” starring Jeff Goldblum. Now Cronenberg’s 32-year-old son, Brandon Cronenberg, has spawned his own distinctive contribution to the body horror genre: the viscerally gruesome dark satire “Antiviral” -- starring Caleb Landry Jones and Malcolm McDowell -- which won the best Canadian first feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will screen at the AFI Film Festival Nov. 4 and 7 before opening theatrically in April.
The movie revolves around Syd March (Landry Jones), who works at a clinic that sells injections of viruses cultivated from sick celebrities to obsessed fans. “It’s biological communion, for a price,” the younger Cronenberg said by phone from his home in Toronto.
Syd also sells some of the more select germs on the black market, smuggling them out of the lab in his own body, meaning that he is always nauseatingly ill. Plenty of disturbing images ensue, from viscous blood pouring out of sickened orifices to needles penetrating pale tissue to gray-colored steaks – also for fan consumption – cloned from the flesh of the stars.
When Syd becomes infected with what turns out to be a deadly virus courtesy of superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), he must unravel the microbiological mystery before he, too, becomes dead meat.
Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Brandon Cronenberg this past week:
Q: Your father is a well-known (Jewish) atheist/existentialist who has said that his grisly images are meant to remind people that life and death begins and ends with the body. Do you have a similar outlook about religion?
A: I identify as Jewish, and I feel totally Jewish, but not in a religious sense. I’m a total atheist, but I think that came to me on my own. My parents never pushed me; they were very careful not to tell me how the universe is or to expose me to atheistic propaganda. I guess I never did believe in God. I was never told that God exists and I never experienced anything that led me to believe that God exists.
I don’t believe in the soul, that the body is this inanimate thing that then becomes animated by a life force and then at a certain point stops being animated by a life force. I think the idea of the soul comes from the desire to see ourselves as somehow perfect and immortal despite the physical reality of our bodies.
Q: Is that why you use such visceral physical imagery in the film?
A: Part of it is that; and part of it is to show the divide between celebrities as ideas, as cultural icons, media constructs, and then to contrast that with the human beings behind those constructs. I think we’re very uncomfortable with our bodies; we don’t want to look at ourselves too closely and see the decay, the animal reality of the human body. So in the film, making the body so explicit was partly because of this theme.
Q: How did you get the idea for “Antiviral?”
A: It was 2004; I had just started film school, I had a baddish flu and was very sick in bed. And I was having a kind of fever dream where I was half awake and sort of obsessing over the physicality of my illness and how I had something in my body, my cells, that had come from someone else’s body. The penetration of the virus into your cells is totally erotic and intimate, if you see it that way. Afterwards, when I was more sane, I started thinking about who might see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might want to be infected with a virus from the object of their obsession as a way of feeling physically connected to them. And that developed into a metaphor for dissecting celebrity culture.
Q: You’ve been able to witness some of the unpleasant aspects of celebrity through the public spotlight on your own father. What kinds of things did you want to explore about celebrity culture in the film?
A: The commodification of celebrity is a huge theme. The cannibalism aspect, for me, becomes a metaphor for (literally) consuming celebrity. I think the film may take things to the extreme, but I think it’s only a slight exaggeration of what’s already out there – like people buying John Lennon’s teeth, which sold for quite a lot of money recently. Or people will buy scraps of someone’s underwear. Anything that is associated with a celebrity immediately has some market value because there’s this kind of physical fetishism.
And speaking of religion, I think this fetishism is very connected to the religious impulse. I was thinking about, say, sainthood, which is sort of like the creation of celebrities in a way; saints are people essentially elevated to the status of gods, and there’s also that element of deification when it comes to celebrity. And just as with sainthood, where old churches claim to have the finger bone of such and such saint, we fetishize celebrity “relics.” (Coughs.)
Q: Are you sick?
A: Yes, I have a cold.
Q: Can I have some?
A: (Laughs.) Yes, come to Toronto and you can catch my cold.
Q: Was there a limit on how far you would go with sickening imagery in the film?
A: I think that that imagery feeds the satire, because the film is meant as a commentary on a part of our culture that I find disgusting at times – so the film makes it viscerally disgusting as well. But I wasn’t just trying to be gross for the sake of being gross; I think it’s thematically relevant and also ties into the themes I mentioned about the body.
Q: Did you use fake needles or dummy arms to create the injection effects?
A: No, we used real needles – we had a medical professional on board – and yes, there were quite a lot of them.
Some people have fainted while watching the movie in the theater; the thing I didn’t realize is that [viewers] are very uncomfortable with needle imagery. I didn’t realize how extreme it got, so now it feels like a kind of cheap way of freaking people out.
Q: For a long time you told people you didn’t want to be a filmmaker. What changed your mind?
A: There were people who approached me with all these preconceptions based on who my father was or who they felt he was and to a certain extent that turned me off to film, because people assumed that I absolutely must be a huge cinephile and that I must want to follow in my father’s footsteps. It was very obnoxious, so it gave me great pleasure to say, no, I have no interest in film whatsoever. But then at a certain point that seemed like a bad reason not to do something that could be potentially interesting.
Q: How do you feel about being compared to your father as a filmmaker?
A: I don’t mind being compared to my father if it’s legitimate, but I do think some people overstate the comparisons. We do share the interest in issues of the body and technology; those are some of the things he explored particularly in his earlier films, although I think he’s really evolved as a filmmaker over the years.
Q: What do you like about the horror/science fiction genre?
A: It’s a good medium for caricature, and for dissecting our culture, because you can take things that we’ve become habituated to, or become too used to to see clearly, and exaggerate them to heighten the context.
“Antiviral” will screen at Mann’s Chinese 1 theater on Nov. 4 at 6:15 p.m., and at Mann’s Chinese 4 on Nov. 7 at 7:15 p.m. The festival will also screen Eran Riklis' new film, "Zaytoun," starring American actor Stephen Dorff and set in 1980s Beirut. For more information, visit AFI.com/AFIFEST.
October 28, 2012 | 1:41 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In Susan Polis Schutz’s documentary “Seeds of Resiliency,” which will screen at the Laemmle Theatres through Nov. 1, Mike Stevens, a father of young children in his early 40s, describes how he first responded to his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer in 2005: “I curled up in fetal position in bed and cried myself to sleep,” the La Jolla resident says. “I thought my life was over.”
Instead, after two rounds of chemotherapy that left him weak and emaciated, “I started living my life,” he says. Despite his severely decreased lung function, and no guarantees of survival, he adds, “I started doing things I never would have done if I were healthy.” He sold his business, built his dream house in the mountains, and became an advocate for lung cancer research. “It’s not about the bad stuff, it’s about the good stuff,” he says of his outlook day-to-day.
Stevens is among 12 people of disparate ages and backgrounds profiled in “Seeds of Resiliency,” which began when Polis Schutz – herself a survivor of a six-year battle with clinical depression – began wondering “what are the common characteristics of people who survive serious tragedies and trauma?” the filmmaker, who belongs to a Jewish renewal synagogue near her home in Boulder, CO, said in a recent telephone interview. “Everyone has challenges in their lives, and some people move through them while others curl up in a ball and give up. I really wanted to know how some people [thrive] and others just don’t.”
In “Seeds,” we meet a refugee from Uganda whose son was beaten and killed in prison, who founded a relief organization to help other refugees, as well as a spina bifida patient, now a professional wheelchair motor cross athlete, who tells others that “When life gives you limits, push them." We also meet Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who turned her grief and rage after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver into a national organization. “The point is to do something,” she advises others who have undergone family tragedies. “I don’t want people to think they have to start a movement, but they can still do little things that make an impact.”
“I found that the two most important things that helped people overcome tragedy were their attitudes of hope – that you don’t give up, you fight and persevere – and also every single one of the people I interviewed turned their traumas into a desire to help other people,” Polis Schutz said.
In the film, Holocaust survivor Fanny Lebovitz, who now lectures about her experience, recalls her nightmarish time in Auschwitz, where she slept on a filthy bunk teeming with bedbugs and cockroaches. “I used to dream about sleeping on white sheets again,” she says of one way she managed to keep her spirits up in the camp.
Edith Eger, another Auschwitz survivor, recounts how she used her imagination to get through a terrifying dance performance for the infamous Dr. Mengele: “I knew he was the one who [selected inmates] for the gas chambers, she says. “[So] I closed my eyes and pretended that the music was Tchaikovsky and I was dancing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Budapest opera house.”
Eger shared the piece of bread Mengele gave her with other girls in her bunk; later they made a chain with their arms to carry her after she fell during the freezing death march from Auschwitz. “The worst can bring out the best in us,” said Eger, who used the memory, in part, to give her strength when she lay near death, her back broken, upon liberation.
“Seeds of Resiliency” is Polis Schutz’s fifth documentary (others, such as “Anyone and Everyone,” about gay children coming out to their families, have aired on PBS stations). But she is perhaps best known as the co-founder of the groundbreaking electronic greeting card company, BlueMountain.com, which reportedly sold in a transaction valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars in 1999.
Polis Schutz, who is also a poet whose work graced many of the Blue Mountain cards, has had a fascinating life journey. Now 67, she was born into a Jewish working class household in a poor neighborhood in Peekskill, NY, where her mother often worked menial jobs to support the family and young Susan worked cashier and other jobs starting in her early teens. Eventually, she put herself through college at Rider University in Lawrence, NJ, and began her career teaching Head Start students at a school in Harlem.
She and her husband, Stephen, a physicist and artist, were deeply in debt with student loans when, on a lark, he suggested that he illustrate one of her poems on a silk screened poster around 1970. After copies of the work sold out at retail stores near their home in Boulder, the couple paid a $700 deposit on a truck with a camper and began traveling the country, selling their posters from Boston to San Francisco.
By 1980, their Blue Mountain Arts company had 200 sales representative and 100 employees; when Stephen chanced to send their oldest son, Jared (now a Democratic congressman from Colorado) an animated email birthday card in the 1990s, the idea for Blue Mountain.com was born.
Along the way, Susan Polis Schutz wrote some 10 books, many of them memoirs or collections of her poetry. “Depression and Back: A Poetic Journey through Depression and Recovery,” recounts how, some seven years ago, she woke up one morning “and felt like I had died,” she said in our interview. “I stayed in bed for the first three months, and while I kept getting better and better, I was a mess for a while.” Perhaps the depression stemmed from exhaustion, as well as a family propensity for the condition, but with therapy and medication Polis Schutz slowly recovered and began wondering how others with depression had coped.
The result was her 2010 documentary, “Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression;” Polis Schutz’s other documentaries include “Over 90 and Loving It,” about vibrant nonagenarians, and “Seeds of Resiliency,” for which she shot more than 100 hours of footage in several cities over three years.
“I was looking for people who were willing to talk about their pasts and why they thought they had been able to survive,” she explained.
One poignant subject is Rufus Hannah, who was homeless for 22 years until he got sober and became an activist for homeless rights in 2005. “My parents were alcoholics; my mother gave me beer in my bottle,” he says on camera, adding that he was an alcoholic from age 14.
In the film, he returns to the dumpster where he had lived for decades, and recalls how a man once offered him $5 to star in a film he says eventually became part of the infamous early “Bumfights” videos. At the time, Hannah says, he jumped at the chance to earn some money to buy alcohol: “They put me in a shopping cart and pushed me down a flight of stairs,” he recalls, as we see footage from “Bumfights” and Hannah’s bloodied face. “I became ‘Rufus the Stunt Bum,’...and then things got scarier," he adds. "They provoked us to fight each other.”
Hannah’s injuries left him with double vision, epilepsy and a speech impediment, but that didn’t stop him from hoping he could one day get off the streets. The change came when, after an alcoholic seizure, Hannah saw an image of his daughter sitting on the edge of his makeshift bed. “I made the decision that my kids were more important than drinking,” says Hannah, who spent 29 months getting sober and now has eschewed alcohol for nine years.
With the help of a businessman who became his mentor, Hannah is now the assistant manager of an apartment complex and has a home of his own.
An important part of his life continues to be encouraging others who are still on the streets: “I always said I wanted to find a way to give back,” he explains. “I have a wonderful life now.”
October 11, 2012 | 8:33 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The short film, “Jew,” has one of the bolder titles to cross my desk in recent years. It’s downright provocative, which was filmmaker Josh Berger’s intention, he told me at the premiere of the 38-minute movie for some 200 viewers at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood recently.
The drama revolves around a modern Orthodox boxer (played by Berger) who encounters anti-Semitism at the gym and in his neighborhood. The harassment gets so bad that his younger brother – who has just become bar mitzvah – questions whether it would be easier to be non-Jewish. Meanwhile, a racist youth – just out of jail and down on his luck – targets the brothers’ synagogue for a hate crime, with tragic results.
So why did Berger title the film, “Jew?” Dressed all in black at the premiere, he began by describing his trip to concentration camps and to Israel on the Birthright Israel March of the Living program some years ago. There, Berger was startled to learn that anti-Semitism is still alive and well in parts of Eastern Europe.
Back in Los Angeles, he had been overhearing anti-Semitic remarks by people who assumed he was not Jewish. (Actually Berger grew up in a Reform home in Santa Cruz before moving to L.A. to become an actor.) “Don’t be such a Jew” seemed to be a common slur to mean “don’t be cheap.”
“Used by the wrong person, ‘Jew’ becomes a derogatory word,” Berger explained. “But I wanted to make a movie that would inform people about what the word really means.”
And so he brought his idea to the film’s co-writers, Dean Anello and Michael Carney, who also directed the movie, which was shot over four days with a $50,000 budget. To write the drama, the team drew on hate crime incidents that had been reported across the country – including a game called “beat the Jew” allegedly invented by students at a high school outside Los Angeles, Berger said.
“I wasn’t interested in making another ‘American History X,’” Carney, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in the South, recalled at the Q&A after the screening.
“But when Josh talked about his research [including speaking to an official at the Simon Wiesenthal Center], I was shocked that these kinds of hate crimes are still occurring. This stuff is very real. For me it was a chance to sink my teeth into something that hadn’t even been on my radar before.”
After the screening, a number of viewers remarked that the film could well apply to all kinds of racism today. “You definitely hit the target,” an African-American man said at the Q&A. “The film is very timely to all the things that are still going on now. This story is not an old story, and unfortunately will never be.”
For more information about the film, visit www.jewfilm.net.
September 11, 2012 | 10:34 am
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, and Geffen was there to talk about the “American Masters” documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I asked him 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.
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who had gotten 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 had 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,” Lacy 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.”
Geffen did talk about the issue in some depth with Tom King, author 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 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 the breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital. She eventually recovered and became a successful businesswoman.
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.”