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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.
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December 28, 2012 | 12:37 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“There are a couple of Jewish jokes that I think are just great,” actor Paul Rudd said, eagerly, leaning forward on a couch at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he was recently promoting his new Judd Apatow film, “This is 40.” “This Jewish kid asks his dad, ‘Can I borrow $30?' And his dad says, 'Twenty dollars? What do you need $10 for?'” And Rudd – a startlingly boyish-looking 43 -- throws his head back and laughs like a kid.
On YouTube you can check out a video of Rudd, when he really was a kid, decked out in a yellow tuxedo shirt, joking around and playing DJ at a bat mitzvah years before his performance in 1995’s “Clueless” made him a breakout star. Since then, Rudd’s become one of Hollywood’s go-to comic actors, especially for Apatow, who’s previously cast him in films like “Knocked Up,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and “I Love You, Man,” starring Jason Segel.
In “This is 40” – Apatow’s comedy drama about mid-life angst, billed as a “sort of sequel" to “Knocked Up” -- Rudd plays Pete, a lovably childlike Jewish record label owner, father and husband to Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann. Pete’s career and marriage are on the rocks; among other indignities, he’s appalled when the only reporter who turns up to interview his star client is from the Jewish Journal. (Thanks, Judd!) Pete is also caught avoiding his family while playing Internet Scrabble in the loo, farting in bed and urging wife Debbie (Mann) to check out a growth on his derriere.
“It was embarrassing to do a lot of those scenes,” Rudd admitted during our interview. “Look, I’m sitting on the toilet playing Internet Scrabble; I’m getting a hemorrhoid looked at – none of these things are fun to film. But if you’re going to try and make something comedic, you’ve got to throw vanity to the wind. I would never do those kinds of scenes just for the shock value, or if it wasn’t conducive to the story and the character. It’s not gratuitous comedy. Judd had said, ‘Let’s make a movie about marriage and the things that we fight about – kind of a real, warts and all view of it.’ And sometimes you do need to ask your wife if there’s something on your [backside].”
Here are further excerpts from our interview, when Rudd described growing up from the age of 10 in a very non-Jewish neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas; how that helped turn him into a comedian, and why having your wife examine your tush can actually be kind of romantic.
Q: What was it like growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt?
A: I always felt a little bit like an outsider, not only because I was Jewish, but because my parents are European; they’re both from England. And we moved around a lot because my father worked for TWA; TWA’s hub was in Kansas City, which is how we ended up there. I didn’t go to a school where there were a bunch of Jewish kids, and I realized growing up that my way of not getting beaten up was to try and make people laugh -- and to deal with any kind of trauma was to make people laugh. That’s still at work; it’s still very much part of my psyche.
I did kind of realize at a young age that if I made Jewish jokes about myself, that a lot of kids in my school would laugh, like harder than other stuff. I never quite realized that maybe that was a little messed up.
Q: Your character of Pete is nominally Jewish. What’s your own Jewish identity today?
A: My whole family is Jewish; my wife, Julie, is Jewish – there isn’t anyone in my family who isn’t Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed Reform; we were pretty laid back, but it’s like, oh yeah, I went to synagogue. I know what it’s like to look for matzoh (laughs). I know the culture and I know the food. I know what a Haggadah is! I know these things, and I did a play many years ago [in 1997] called “The Last Night at Ballyhoo,” which was a new play at the time, about Eastern European Jews and the anti-Semitism they faced by German Jews in the South. Alfred Uhry, the playwright, became somewhat of a surrogate father to me in New York – I live in New York still and he does, too. And every seder at Alfred’s house he would say, “You know, if you are Jewish, it almost doesn’t even matter how religious you are. If you’re Jewish, it’s just in the marrow of your bones.” We have a lineage that is so many thousands of years old, that you just relate. It is a tribe; it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s my team,” and I feel that for sure.
Q: You and your wife participated in conversations and videotaped improv to help create some of the situations in “This is 40.” What, if anything, from the movie, comes from your real married life?
A: Actually, there were more specifics in “Knocked Up.” When Judd was writing that movie, my wife once said, “I’m so sick of looking at your back,” because I was just on the computer all day, checking my fantasy football scores.
Q: You’re whispering right now. Is your wife in the next room?
A: No, but I’m certain that she can probably hear me somewhere (laughs).
Q: There’s a scene in “This is 40” where your character and a friend are fantasizing about their wives’ deaths and becoming sexy widowers.
A: Not that I would ever fantasize about my wife’s death, but I think everyone has those moments where you play out the death of your spouse -- and I thought that could be funny but also incredibly raw and exposed and hopefully not offensive, though I’m sure it will come off that way to some people. It’s just [mining] the things you would never say, and then turning them into a conversation. You could create laughs about how attractive you would look to someone if you were in mourning (laughs). I know that sounds horrible.
Q: What about the hemorrhoid scene?
A: Sometimes in a real marriage, it’s about asking your wife to look at this and what does that look like? While it’s not traditionally romantic, I would say it’s arguably romantic in its intimacy. The idea that a couple can do that for each other is very romantic. I also think that in a strange way, being able to fart in front of each other – that’s a very sweet gesture! (Throws his head back, claps and laughs.)
Q: I heard you improvised farting in a scene in bed with Leslie Mann – and her character isn’t pleased.
A: We were doing that scene and I wasn’t going to fart, but I felt like I probably could at the moment. [Normally], you would never do that because anybody with any decency would never do that; you certainly wouldn’t ever do it when you’re shooting a scene in a movie. But again, it was that thing of well, that’s what marriage is. I also think farts are funny, just at a very basic level. I’m not trying to deconstruct that scene too much – farts are funny – but I do remember kind of deconstructing, if I do it, that’s what the movie is about, so why not, and just see what happens?
Q: You drew the line of having the hemorrhoid scene on the movie’s poster, however.
A: Yeah, I didn’t want it on the poster. But by the way, I wasn’t so excited when the poster we went with shows me sitting on the toilet, because you’re not seeing it in the grand scheme or the context of the movie. It’s not my proudest moment.
Q: How has starring in this film about a real-life marriage affected your own relationship with your wife?
A: It’s a little bit like couples therapy, except it’s happening in front of millions of people.
“This is 40” is now in theaters.
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 12, 2012 | 2:16 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Who is Bette Midler? There’s her onstage alter ego, The Divine Miss M, the brash and bawdy chanteuse with risqué sequin-clad décolletage she invented back in the 1970s at Manhattan’s Continental Baths gay spa. And the hilariously over-the-top characters she’s played in such films as “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “The First Wives Club.”
But in a telephone interview from her New York home, the 67-year-old Oscar-nominated actress and Grammy-winning performer came off as low-key, no-nonsense, almost aristocratic, eschewing the vaguely New Yawk accent of her comic characters for crisp thespian tones. Midler can certainly be amusing: Ask about the secret to the success of her 28-year marriage to former commodities broker Martin von Haselberg, and she quips: “Be away a lot.”
“ ‘Home Alone’ for grandparents” is how she describes her new movie, “Parental Guidance,” in which she and Billy Crystal play a couple unexpectedly asked to baby-sit their estranged grandchildren. (The film opens Dec. 25.)
But as she speaks, Midler seems settled into her role as a homebody: as a longtime wife and mother to her 26-year-old daughter, Sophie, as well as an avid reader, gardener, cook, philanthropist and Twitter enthusiast. Last Passover she tweeted: “The brisket’s in the oven and the Alka-Seltzer by the sink! Charge!”
She also seems genuinely pleased, even honored, to hear she is considered a Jewish icon of sorts. Midler once told Johnny Carson that she had a Venus flytrap: “I don’t have any flies, so I gave it bacon. It spit it out! A Jewish Venus Flytrap, I suppose.” In another gag, she claimed to be working on a sequel to the X-rated film “Emmanuelle,” which would feature lots of kissing of mezuzahs as well as a risqué encounter with a kreplach.
“I’m glad I’m called any kind of icon,” she said with a throaty laugh. “It’s very sweet, very nice for people to want to claim me. Much better than the other way around, like ‘Uch, she doesn’t belong to us.’ ” Midler once aspired to become a legend: “Ambition used to eat me up alive,” she recalled. “But with age, things change. Certain things come to the forefront, and others recede.” From 2008 to 2010, Midler headlined in “The Showgirl Must Go On” in Las Vegas — a city she dubbed onstage as “the only town that could teach Kraft something about cheese” — but she admits her film career has been one of the casualties of age. Back in the 1980s, Midler was reportedly one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, but the calls from producers have not been coming as much in recent years.
Then came the chance to star in “Parental Guidance,” a Fox studio film directed by Andy Fickman. “I loved the script,” she said. “It’s a kind of second-chance movie — the idea that there’s this man who’s so self-involved that his own daughter won’t even let him in the house near her children. He goes, against his will, kicking and screaming, to meet these dragons, who are really his grandchildren. And then he has to go through this journey where he comes out on the other side transformed into the good person his wife always suspected he could be.”
Just as Midler’s character of Diane, the generous grandmother, has overtones of the Jewish mother, Midler has often used her Judaism as part of her persona. But her tribal sense of humor – and identity – was honed in a distinctly non-Jewish milieu: a low-income part of Honolulu, where Midler grew up in the only white, or haole, family in the neighborhood. “I did feel very much alien, an outsider,” she said of her time there. “People knew what a white person was — they didn’t like them — but they had no idea of what a Jew was. In fact, when my father made us stay home for Yom Kippur, the school wouldn’t allow it because they thought it was some kind of fake, made-up holiday. I’m sure if people had known what a Jew was, things would have been worse,” she added.
Midler got by because her mostly Asian and Polynesian classmates assumed she was Portuguese. “Not to stereotype, but the Portuguese were very outspoken people who talked a lot and really loud, and I did the same thing,” she said.
Even though her home was mostly non-religious, she continued, “In the seventh grade, I was struck by Judaism. I took Hebrew lessons and tried to get through the five books of Moses. I think it was hormones,” she joked, before adding, “at some point you do have a kind of awakening, and wonder who and what you are.”
While outdoors the landscape was “paradise,” she said, “indoors, not so much.” Her father, a housepainter, was controlling and a screamer — “I was afraid of him until I turned 14, and then it was just silly,” she said, adding that she later cared for him as he was dying of heart issues in the mid-1980s, while she was pregnant with Sophie.
Midler’s mother, an avid movie-star fan who named Midler after Bette Davis, was a timid soul who tried to shelter her three daughters and developmentally disabled son from the world. “My mother’s family was incredibly superstitious,” Midler recalled. “They were old-country Jews who never laughed, because, they said, ‘You’re going to attract the evil eye.’ They’d been through two world wars, the Depression and the Nazi slaughter in Europe. So my mother was an extremely frightened person, almost to the point where it was crazy, and I picked that up as well. I think I’ve allowed myself to be isolated as a person of note, or whatever you want to call me, for a very long time, and I’ve realized that’s terrible; I’ve got to learn how to do things for myself. … I also tend to imagine other people’s reactions when they’re not really thinking that sort of thing at all; it’s called over-thinking.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — her own problematic childhood, Midler developed what she calls “tremendous perseverance.”
“I discovered that if I stood up for myself, there weren’t that many people who would try to stand me down.”
She got one of her first breaks rising from the chorus to play Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in 1970 — no matter that the casting director had initially deemed her, bizarrely, as too Jewish for the part.
When roles dried up, Midler burst into the popular culture at the Continental Baths in the basement of Manhattan’s Ansonia Hotel, where her torch songs lured the gay patrons — many of them wearing only towels — from more carnal activities and solidified what would become her gay fan base.
Then came her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” released in 1972; Midler’s Oscar-nominated turn as a self-destructive rock star in “The Rose” (1979) was followed by more than 30 other movies, including the sudsy “Beaches,” in which she played a self-centered singer opposite Barbara Hershey.
As for why Midler identified with the Janis Joplin-esque character she portrayed in “The Rose,” she said it was, in part, “Your parents telling you you’re never going to amount to a hill of beans, and don’t do this or that, and you’d better be a teacher so you have something to fall back on.”
She described her own parenting style as firm and loving, but not overprotective, and perhaps as a result, her daughter is “fearless,” she said. Sophie skydives, rides dirt bikes and even trekked through China for three months on her own. And even though Midler told Sophie as a child that she would never speak to her again if she went into show business (“I wanted to spare her the pain,” she said), her daughter is now studying drama at an Ivy League school. “But don’t say which one,” Midler asked, slipping into protective mode for a moment. “It would kill me.”
December 8, 2012 | 11:02 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
November 21, 2012 | 12:50 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Donald Margulies was in his New Haven study when a surprising call came from Gil Cates, the renowned artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse.
Cates — who died last November at 77 — had overseen four Margulies productions at the Geffen, had just directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s fanciful fairy tale “Shipwrecked!” and had in mind another family play for the author.
“He said, ‘Donald, how would you like to write me a Christmas show?’ And I was amused,” Margulies, 58, said, speaking at the Geffen just before a rehearsal of his new play, “Coney Island Christmas.”
“You don’t usually seek out a Jewish playwright to write you a Christmas show. So I said, ‘Gil, if I’m going to write you a Christmas show, you know it’s going to be a Jewish Christmas show, right?’ And he said, ‘Great!’ ”
Margulies’ response was hardly unexpected. Joe Papp, the late founder of New York’s Public Theater, dubbed Margulies “my Jewish playwright.” Throughout his more than 35 years as a dramatist, Margulies has often explored Jewish identity and family dynamics, from his early plays, like “The Loman Family Picnic” and “The Model Apartment,” through to later works, including his Pulitzer nominees “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories” as well as 2005’s “Brooklyn Boy.” In varied ways that have evolved over the years, he has, at times, drawn on his childhood in a tiny apartment in 1960s Brooklyn, where his father toiled as a wallpaper salesman and Holocaust survivors, with their mysterious and terrifying forearm tattoos, walked the neighborhood.
For Margulies, “Coney Island Christmas” represents a more ebullient return to Brooklyn, as well as a lighter take on what he calls the “ghetto mentality.”
Based on the short story “The Loudest Voice,” by Grace Paley, the comedy opens in the San Fernando Valley, as the elderly Shirley Abramowitz regales her great-granddaughter with a tale of how she came to play Jesus in her grammar-school Christmas pageant in 1930s Brooklyn. The action then shifts back in time, as the pageant is rehearsed and conflict ensues: Shirley’s mother sees the pageant and its implications as “a creeping pogrom” that will “make our children forget who they are”; Mr. Abramowitz (Arye Gross) argues for open-mindedness and contends that participation does not equal assimilation, while young Shirley longs only to perform.
Cates’ sudden death from heart failure last year, however, is what prompted Margulies, who was then preparing his play “Time Stands Still” for Broadway, to give himself a deadline of January 2012 to finish a first draft of the play, which he dedicated to his old friend. He remembers Cates as an “indomitable” figure and a “mensch” who identified strongly with the Jewish sensibilities in Margulies’ work. “His death just crushed me,” the playwright said, his voice hushed. “It seems quite hollow here at the Geffen without him.”
Cates envisioned “Coney Island Christmas” as becoming an annual holiday production at the Geffen. But if a yuletide pageant seems like something of a departure for Margulies, its themes fit snugly into his oeuvre. “I wasn’t invested in exploring Christmas, but rather in exploring the phenomenon of assimilation,” he said. He saw Paley’s story as “an opportunity to write about what it means to be an American, and to be of faith, any faith. The very comic notion of a Jewish girl asked to play Jesus is such a wonderful metaphor for lack of prejudice and a kind of ecumenical approach.”
Director Bart DeLorenzo said the play’s “central question” is, “Where is your allegiance?”
“Every character is trying to figure out where they stand — ‘Am I a Jew or a Christian or an American?’ — and a holiday like Christmas suddenly can make you feel you must choose some sort of side in this debate,” DeLorenzo said in a telephone interview.
Gross, who grew up in a Conservative home in Reseda, connects the characters to his late grandparents: “I can almost hear members of my family speaking the words as they are said in the play.”
Margulies said he based the characters and their worldview, in part, on his own beloved grandparents, as well as the immigrant and first-generation Jews of his childhood neighborhood, who saw America as a land of opportunity but harbored suspicions and distrust of non-Jews.
He was sitting in an upstairs office at the Geffen, where he wore a tweed jacket and round spectacles and exuded both the quietly confident manner of a successful artist and Yale professor.
Yet, at one point, the conversation turned again to his fraught childhood in Brooklyn, where his family “never had any money,” he said, and learning about the survivors in the neighborhood “was the beginning of my fear of Nazi persecution and a Germanophobia I still struggle with today.” As his alter ego, a newly successful novelist named Eric Weiss, says in “Brooklyn Boy,” he had to escape Brooklyn because he feared the chokehold the legacies of the Depression and the Holocaust had around his parents’ throats.
Margulies’ range of plays about Brooklyn, some written in the voice of a young man, others in the voice of artists in midlife, have helped him to exorcise some of those demons. “I’ve also been happily wed and well-analyzed,” he added, with a laugh. “But when I visit my friends in Park Slope, I still get a little creeped out. It’s just a primal feeling.”
It’s thus significant that Margulies set “Coney Island Christmas” in a more vibrant New York milieu decades before his time. “I had romanticized 1930s Brooklyn as being the golden years, of [immigrants] being new to America, when the country was still promising in a way it wasn’t when I was growing up in the 1960s,” he explained.
Not that the setting is without its share of urban grit. For visual inspiration, Margulies turned to the Depression-era paintings of Reginald Marsh, “where you can see the grime, the patina of urban dust,” he said.
And yet, overall, he said, “The play is very joyful. It’s life-affirming.”
For tickets and information about “Coney Island Christmas,” visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.
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.
September 27, 2012 | 11:14 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a recent Wednesday morning, Stuart Perlman wore paint-splattered clothes as he loaded up his 1999 Infiniti with art supplies and cans of low-salt Progresso soup before heading out on a painting excursion to Venice Beach. Over the past two years, Perlman has been spending two to three days a week on the boardwalk, creating dozens of close-up portraits of faces of homeless “regulars” there, a number of whom he’s gotten to know well in the process. On this day, he donned a black fedora hat — “half cowboy, half-Lubavitch,” he joked — to shield himself from the sun, and after a five-minute drive from his Santa Monica home, he was greeting transients who high-fived him and thanked him for his work.
Along a low, concrete wall lined with rusty bikes and makeshift shelters, Perlman stopped to talk to Vincent, homeless and an artist himself, who wore a hoodie over his dreadlocks and who enthusiastically accepted the acrylic paints and brushes Perlman had brought him.
A few yards down, Perlman hugged Gwendolyn, an African-American who thanked him for listening to her woes when he painted her recently. “I cried so much that day,” she told Perlman, 59, who in his professional life is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with doctorates from UCLA and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute.
As Perlman searched for someone new to paint — he always looks for someone whose emotional tone matches his own on that particular day — he pointed out a bench where his late friend, Janet, a former prostitute and rape survivor, used to spend her days. Janet was whip-smart, compassionate and acted as a kind of social worker to the other regulars on the beach, he recalled. “But she was already coughing when I painted her a year ago,” Perlman added, his eyes filling with tears. “She died this past month of hepatitis, homelessness and heartbreak.”
Perlman’s work, which he does primarily for himself and not to sell on the boardwalk’s famous artists’ way, has nevertheless made him something of a celebrity among the habitués of the beach. So much so that a half hour later, he had no trouble persuading Trevor, 36, to pose for him atop the sandy knoll where the transient had set up camp under a palm tree.
Perlman told Trevor he would pay him $20 for posing — Perlman’s standard compensation — plus $10 more should Trevor provide him with an original poem or piece of artwork. Before long, Perlman was scribbling notes as Trevor told of losing his father to suicide when he was 5, of growing up in foster homes and taking to the streets at just 18. Perlman uses only his subjects’ first names to protect their privacy.
Eventually, Perlman set up his easel, preparing to paint Trevor’s face in his signature bold, raw brush strokes for two hours, before closing up shop and finishing the portrait at home. “The entire process takes 15 to 25 hours,” Perlman said, and he also types up a bio of each of his subjects and has videotaped interviews with one third of them; he plans to turn the interviews into a documentary.
This weekend, several of Perlman’s paintings will be on display at a conference of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, and segments of his documentary will screen there on Sept. 29. Another 15 of his portraits also will be included in the exhibition “Faces of Homelessness,” presented by Home for Good as part of the Downtown L.A. Art Walk on Oct. 11.
“So many of these people are in so much pain; every person I have dealt with has survived significant traumas,” Perlman said. “My approach is to try to get them to open up about the horrendous things that have happened to them, and to validate their experience and their heroism.”
“My life is tikkun olam,” he said, adding that he will title an upcoming book on his project “Venice Beach Regulars: Painting the Unseen Faces Around Us.” “I want to paint what people don’t want to see, so they will learn what they need to see, so this world can be a better place.”
Given the approach of Sukkot, Perlman noted that the homeless remind him of the holiday’s “element of wandering in the wilderness and having to put up shelters by people who have been forsaken.” And just as Jews use palm fronds to thatch their sukkahs, he said, “people live at the beach under the palm trees, and actually sometimes use the leaves to make places to sleep. I feel they’re kindred spirits — part of my family and my people.”
In Perlman’s airy Santa Monica home, the more than 75 portraits he has painted since 2010 are stacked in corridors, in an office and throughout the living room, alongside photographs of his own family’s b’nai mitzvah and Jewish holiday celebrations. He said he’s made painting the Venice Beach homeless his passion project, and he uses his natural empathy to draw out his subjects’ life stories as he paints in an Expressionist style with vibrant hues. In the process, he’s heard tales of childhood sexual abuse, discrimination and struggles with alcoholism, as well as of college degrees earned and middle-class lives lost.
Many of his subjects — a number of whom have also become his friends — appear ravaged or stoic, and their visages are weathered by sun and neglect.
Stuart Perlman painting “Doc,” a former nurse, who acts as a kind of father figure to many of the grunge kids on the beach.
One painting depicts an elderly man known as “The Colonel,” a Jewish child survivor of concentration camps, whose teeth were knocked out while he served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and his legs blown up in Vietnam. Another spotlights Daniel, a former project manager for an architectural firm who spiraled into crack addition after losing his wife and children in a car crash 12 years ago. The portrait shows him appearing defeated, with a bedraggled beard, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Sunny — who is also homeless and living on the beach — lost his wife, Jill, to breast cancer in Minneapolis some years ago. Soon afterward, he lost their their home, due in part to the staggering medical bills. His portrait reveals a bulbous, despair-ridden face reddened by years of drinking.
“Jill fought the [cancer] battle for two years and lost it, and I’ve been a piece of s--- ever since,” Sunny, who grew up in orphanages in the South, says in Perlman’s documentary film footage. “I just gave up. I’ve been a drunk; I smoke pot. … I can’t get over her. She’s still the love of my life.”
The film also shows Janet lugging her bedding to a sidewalk where she will spend the night, placing cardboard on the concrete to protect herself from the water the local businesses had sprayed to keep transients away. “I’ll be off this planet soon,” she tells Perlman on camera. “I’m looking forward to death.”
Perlman grew up in a Conservative home on Long Island, N.Y., and said these days he celebrates the Jewish holy days with members of his wife’s Chasidic family. He also said he traces his choice of work to his commitment to helping others, a part of his Jewish heritage.
Perlman identifies with his subjects on a deeply personal level, as well. “My parents were loving and took good care of me, but I was also viciously beaten and pinched until I bled,” he said, and he has written of the violence in his 1999 book, “The Therapist’s Emotional Survival.”
“My father had been a professional boxer, and he would use those same fists on myself and my siblings. When he got really angry, he would kick me like a football up the stairs, or he’d take an 18-inch, razor-sharp lox knife and bang and shake it at me. I thought I might be gutted.”
Perlman traces his parents’ behavior to their own youthful traumas: His now-deceased father, a deli owner who was active in his synagogue and a confidante of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, appeared to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since serving as a bomber during World War II. Perlman’s mother, who is in her 80s, survived a severely deprived childhood during the Depression, when she had to care for a starving baby sister with no food in the house.
Perlman said he survived his own childhood, in part, “by becoming my mother’s therapist. I was a bit of the parental child,” he said. “It’s like I’ve been in training to become an analyst from the age of 5.”
Perlman now practices in West Los Angeles, where he specializes in counseling trauma victims, and he just won a Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing Award, which recognizes the top living downloaded authors in the field. He said he has himself been in therapy for the past 36 years: “In order to do what I really want to do in this world, I have to face emotions that I can’t face alone, which is why I stay in therapy,” he explained. “I realize there’s an element in my work in which I’m trying to save everyone, because I’m also trying to save myself and everyone else in my family.”
Perlman took up painting in earnest five years ago, when his father died, reminding him that life is short and convincing him to return to his youthful aspirations of becoming an artist. He initially took classes at Santa Monica College and the YWCA, but soon tired of painting the bored-looking female models who posed for the students. Then, in 2010, on a visit to Venice Beach, he found himself drawn to its many homeless regulars, whose faces seemed to tell a thousand stories. Nervously at first, he began asking people to pose for him — but was regarded with suspicion for months. “They thought I was an undercover narcotics officer,” said Perlman, who returned often seeking to convince them, achieving his goal by spending hours talking and getting to know people as well as by handing out food and cash.
The first “regular” to agree to work with him was William, a 60-ish African-American who always wore a wool cap and down jacket, even in the blazing summer heat. “He looked destroyed,” Perlman recalled, “but the longer I talked to him, the more articulate he became and the less disheveled he looked. I’ve since had that experience often. The attention and respect you give people is like watering a wilted flower — suddenly they appear to blossom in front of your eyes.”
Perlman would go on to create many more of the portraits, all 18 by 24 inches, sometimes while witnessing a drug deal, brawl or knife fight. At times he’s been threatened — once by a man he knew owned a gun. Undeterred, he’s continued to return to Venice on Wednesdays and weekends, each time spending three to seven hours talking to and painting his subjects, then taking the works home to finish, with the help of photographs, at his kitchen easel.
“Stuart is not just painting their faces, but their souls,” said Wendy Coleman Levin, a member of Home for Good’s business leaders’ task force on homelessness. “What comes through is the genuine humanity of these individuals. He’s not just painting what you see, but what they feel.”
“I feel incredibly blessed,” Perlman said of his own life. “It’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ We’re all just one step away from trauma and despair. The homeless are us, and we are them.”
For more information about Perlman and his work, visit stuartperlman.com.
More stories for Sukkot: