Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Michael Shannon was shy and soft-spoken during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel, keeping his intense blue eyes studiously focused on the floor. It was hard to juxtapose this retiring fellow with the disturbed souls and tough guys he has played on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and in films like “Take Shelter” and 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination.
Shannon will portray Superman’s nemesis, the villainous General Zod, in Zack Snyder’s highly-anticipated “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14. And in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman,” opening May 3, he’s the stone-cold mob hitman Richard Kuklinski – based on the real-life notorious contract killer who had a soft spot for his family. (Kuklinski's preferred murder technique: pretending to cough or sneeze on victims while actually spraying them with cyanide.)
Vromen, who grew up in Tel Aviv and did his IDF service in a dangerous rescue unit of the air force, said Shannon oozes menace on-camera. “Michael portrays the dark side of human nature so convincingly,” the filmmaker said in a separate interview at the Four Seasons. “He’s perfection in the dark and he’s also very funny. But I had never seen him actually portray warmth, so I just kept reminding him of his daughter, and he went into that space very easily.
Here’s what Shannon had to say about Vromen and “The Iceman:”
Q: When Ariel first approached you about the film several years ago, you said, “Good luck making the movie with me in the lead.” At the time, you thought you weren’t a big enough name to play the main character.
A: It’s very tricky to get even the smallest amount of money for films nowadays, so I didn’t know if he’d be able to secure the funds he needed to make the picture with me in the lead. I suggested maybe I could play a supporting role.
Q: What drew you to the project?
A: I think that Ariel and I had a very similar attachment to the material, which was the double life that Kuklinski led; the contrast of the rage he expressed by what he did for a living but also this tenderness that he managed to have that inspired him to have a wife and a family and a home. I think we were both fascinated by how that contradiction could exist in a person.
Q: Do you think your character is evil?
A: I think he did horrid things, but I see my job as being to try to understand what would lead someone to do the things that he did, so that’s what I attempted to do. I think his abusive childhood played a huge part in it, and I think he had a very low opinion of himself, ultimately. In interviews, he would say of his murders, “I didn’t know how to do anything else. I wasn’t good at school, I didn’t have a lot of prospects. Basically the one thing that I had was this rage, and I found a way to turn it into a job.”
Q: One scene that stands out is the one where James Franco plays a victim who is praying to God to save his life, while Kuklinski taunts him that God apparently isn’t listening.
A: That scene was very significant for me because I think it was a very significant event in Kuklinski’s life. It’s a story he tells in an interview he did for HBO, where the interviewer asked him if he regretted any of his killings. He described the time that he told this guy to pray to God, and he afterwards always felt that that was not cool, that he actually doubted himself in retrospect for killing the guy. Which was rare for him; he didn’t do that very often. So I knew it was a very important scene in that regard.
Q: In the scene, Kuklinski seems very sure of himself.
A: I think for people like Kuklinski, a lot of the conflict is very internal; it’s inside of them, and not for public consumption.
Q: How would you describe working with Ariel Vromen?
A: Ariel is very tenacious; he doesn’t give up, and he’s a great leader. This was a very difficult shoot; we didn’t have a lot of time or money, but he never buckled. He’s able to make great decisions on his feet and to inspire the crew and keep things moving. The fact that he was able to make the movie in the amount of time we had and with such limited resources is really a testament to how strong his will was to complete the film.
Q: What would you like audiences to come away with?
A: I think the film is valuable, if not necessarily a primer on Kuklinskis’ life, at least as a parable about the notion of having a double life – and how that ultimately isn’t a very good idea.
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April 18, 2013 | 12:34 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the most searing sequence in Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s “Our Class” — a controversial play about Polish-Jewish relations now at the Atwater Village Theatre through at least May 5 — actors playing Polish nationalists lift chairs symbolizing their Jewish neighbors and mime the bludgeoning of bodies in a rural barn during the Holocaust. A Jewish character named Dora, carrying her infant son, then steps atop the chairs as she recounts how she and the rest of the town’s Jews were subsequently forced into the barn as the doors were locked, the structure set ablaze and all the victims burned alive.
The sequence is underplayed, but horrific.
“The most severe and extreme moments of the play had to be written and indeed performed with as light a touch as possible, because you can’t match the hideous events that are happening,” said Ryan Craig, the British dramatist who adapted the Polish-language play into English for its world premiere at the National Theatre in London in 2009.
The first Polish drama to be given the country’s prestigious Nike Literary Award, “Our Class” was inspired by a real pogrom that took place in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 1941 — as well as similar massacres in neighboring villages — when the Catholic half of the town murdered the entire population of 1,600 Jewish residents.
The play was largely inspired by Jan T. Gross’ controversial 2002 book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” which asserts that the atrocities were committed not by the German occupiers as previously believed, but by the Polish villagers with little or no encouragement from the Nazis. The book prompted an official apology by then-Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski as well as angry retorts that the book — and later the play — exaggerates the degree of Polish complicity and suggests that all Poles are anti-Semitic, requiring a collective mea culpa.
Craig begs to differ: “The play is based on thorough historical research, so if you think there’s demonization going on, you need to speak to the historians rather than the playwright,” he said in an interview from London. “But the playwright is not attempting to demonize the Poles, and I certainly worked very hard not to demonize anyone. I wanted to make sure that all the characters were fully rounded, and while some of them are victims, all of them are flawed in one way or another.”
“Our Class” revolves around 10 diverse members of a kindergarten class who appear first as innocents and playmates. Through successive Soviet and Nazi occupations, however, they are prompted to become victims or perpetrators — and sometimes both — in events that span from 1925 to the present.
For example, Zygmunt, a fierce Polish nationalist, commits some of the worst atrocities in the play, but during the Soviet regime is viciously tortured by Menachem, a Jewish survivor-turned-Russian secret service officer. The Catholic Zocha refuses to assist victims of the pogrom, except for Menachem, whom she hides in her hayloft because she is in love with him; Wladek, an alcoholic peasant, spews anti-Semitic slurs even as he shelters Rachelka, who is pressured to convert to Catholicism in order to marry him and who resents their union; and Menachem, the victim-turned-perpetrator, abandons his wife and baby to their fate in the barn while romancing Zocha in her hayloft.
“Our Class’s” director locally, Matthew McCray, who is also the artistic director of Son of Semele, the ensemble performing the Los Angeles production, said he doesn’t perceive “Our Class” as a traditional Holocaust play.
“This is where we get into touchy subjects, because as a non-Jew and non-Pole, I have to tread carefully,” he said. “But in some ways the play is about humanity as a whole; it’s about how people interrelate from different communities.”
Craig, 41, approached the material with his own painful Jewish history. Although one of his grandparents is Irish-Catholic, his paternal great-grandfather came to Britain to escape pogroms near Bialystok, while his mother’s family consists of Sephardic Jews who fled Nazi-occupied Holland for London.
As a boy, Craig recalls, non-Jewish children threw bacon and spouted slurs at him as he walked to Hebrew school in North London. And he was furious with Britain’s own history of pogroms, in particular a massacre in medieval times when the Jews of York were burned alive in a local building.
“For a long time, I was very angry,” he said of British-Jewish history, adding that he even refused to visit a girlfriend in York because of what had happened there.
But Craig worked out those demons by writing plays that explored anti-Semitism, such as “The Glass Room,” which spotlights a Holocaust denier: “By getting inside the minds of [anti-Semites], I was able to learn how these attitudes develop,” he said.
Even though he was initially reluctant to take on another Jewish-themed play when the National approached him about “Our Class,” he soon was drawn to the moral complexity of the material. “I’m not excusing anything that happened in Jedwabne, but I think there’s a sort of cultural victimhood that the Poles went through that led them to become persecutors,” he said.
Craig worked closely with Słobodzianek as he adapted the play several years ago: “He’s the largest human being I’ve ever met; physically, he’s a planet,” Craig recalled. “He looks like [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, and when I first met him he was quite grumpy — he doesn’t speak much English — and he initially was quite dismissive of me and was anxious because the play had never been produced anywhere in the world at that time. It was too controversial still in Poland, where Tadeusz was regarded as a traitor. But he didn’t care about that in the least; he intended the play as a lesson to his own people, as a means of reflecting back to them the darker parts of the Polish experience.”
When McCray took on the West Coast premiere of “Our Class,” he meticulously researched the historical events surrounding the play but also attended a three-hour meeting with the Polish consul general and cultural attaché in Los Angeles.
“They were cautious that I had an agenda to stir the pot, to make people angry by depicting a one-sided opinion of what had happened,” he said. “I think their message was that this happened and it was horrible, but it’s also important to discuss the historical context surrounding it and how we can improve Polish-Jewish relations from here.”
For tickets and information, visit www.sonofsemele.org.
April 18, 2013 | 11:05 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David S. Goyer, the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14, was sipping English breakfast tea while nursing a cold recent at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The 47-year-old writer was balding, slight in stature and bore a striking resemblance to the actor Stanley Tucci, as The New York Times has noted. But his case of the sniffles didn’t prevent him from speaking, in erudite fashion, about his upcoming Superman flick, which began when he hit a case of writer’s block while working on “The Dark Knight Rises” several years ago.
“I was procrastinating,” said Goyer, who promptly “wasted time” by perusing some Superman comics in his home office – where, by the way, hangs some original art from the “Golem” comic books of the 1970s (Goyer likens the Golem to “the Jewish hulk”). On a lark, Goyer began jotting down some ideas for a new Superman film, which he dished to Nolan the next time they got together. The director was so impressed that he picked up the telephone and called Warner Brothers’ Jeff Robinov, who in turn was so enamored with Goyer’s take on the DC Comics character that he approved the project the very next day.
Superman has been a cultural icon since his Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first published his story in Action Comics #1 in 1938, just as the Jews of Europe could have used a superhero of their own. Since then the guy in the cape has been ensconced in the popular culture with myriad tellings and retellings of his story -- from the Christopher Reeves films of the 1970s and ‘80s to Bryan Singer's 2006 “Superman Returns.”
So what’s Goyer’s new spin on the Man of Steel? His emotional vulnerability, the writer said. Here are some further excerpts from our interview, where Goyer discussed his childhood obsession with comics, his work on the blockbuster “Dark Knight” trilogy and of course, “The Man of Steel.”
Q: When did you first get into comic books?
A: We used to take the Amtrak train from our home in Ann Arbor [Michigan] to visit my grandmother in Chicago, and when I was 5 or 6 my mother would buy us comic books in the train station and I’d read them on the way. The first one that really captivated me was “The Incredible Hulk #161.” I related to Bruce Banner who was small and picked on but then he could turn into the hulk!
Q: Were you aware that many of the superhero creators were Jewish?
A: Oh, yeah – I mean Stan Lee was Jewish and Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Bob Kane and Siegel and Shuster, they were all Jewish, and between the six of them they created easily the top 10 comic book characters out there. As Jews, they were disenfranchised, put upon and oppressed, so the superheroes were a kind of wish fulfillment; also comics were a kind of gutter medium so it was a way to get work in perhaps a medium that was less established and even frowned upon, and wasn’t paid much attention to, but at the same time it offered them a lot of creative latitude.
Q: When you tackled Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, what did you aspire to do that was new and different from previous films?
A: The first thing was that we tried to write about the gadgetry as if it were real; we were rigorous about the storytelling and we would never introduce something and not at least explain how a gadget could exist in the real world -- how the Batmobile or Batman’s cape could work, for example. So everything had to be based on technology that either existed or was on the drawing board, to give it verisimilitude. The other thing is that we didn’t want Batman to appear in the suit for at least 45 minutes into the film, because we wanted to get people so invested in Bruce Wayne that they didn’t care whether or not he was in the suit. So one of the first things I said to Chris is that I was adamant that there be a massive action sequence, almost Indiana Jones-style, involving Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film, and that is where he escapes from the League of Shadows.
Q: Your take was also more nihilistic than the Tim Burton “Batman” films of the late 1980s.
A: That was our personal take. One of the things that’s interesting for the audience to decide is whether or not Batman actually makes Gotham better – whether it’s a better place after he leaves or not.
Q: You’ve described the relationship between Batman and The Joker in “The Dark Night” as “The Killing Joke.”
A: “The Killing Joke” is a seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and it was one of our reference points. But also it was the fact that the Joker isn’t in a strange way evil; he’s the Trickster [in mythology of various cultures]; he’s based on Loki, or the Coyote. He exists to shine a mirror back on society, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do horrible things, but the Joker does sometimes do things that are not beneficial to himself, and I’m not even sure that he would kill Batman if he actually got the opportunity.
Q: One of the things that is so creepy about your Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, is that he keeps changing his back-story.
A: That was intentional. I think a lazy convention of modern superhero films is that you start with the origin story of a character and we thought that we would go the opposite direction. We didn’t want people to identify with him; we didn’t want to humanize him, so we thought if he just keeps telling different stories, then you never know who the real guy is, and it just makes him that much more enigmatic.
Q: You’ve said that writing about Superman for “The Man of Steel” was trickier than creating The Dark Knight.
A: He is trickier. The problem is that he’s not human and he has very few physical vulnerabilities, so he’s inherently harder to relate to. So we worked hard to make him relatable, because if audiences can identify with Clark Kent as a person, even though he’s an alien, they’ll be emotionally invested in him. Hopefully they’ll invest in his sense of isolation, because he’s different, even though he’s seemingly invulnerable.
[According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Man of Steel’s” Superman is “more soulful and troubled;” a “hunted, fearful Superman – one who didn’t even identify himself with that grandiose moniker but just wanted to blend in on his new home planet.” Until the Kryptonian tyrant General Zod comes on the scene…]
Q: “The Man of Steel” is less idealistic, you’ve said, than the previous Richard Donner Superman films.
A: There’s nothing wrong with idealism, and our film is a hopeful film, but we live in a different world now. I think if you attempted to recreate the [Donner] films now they would seem anachronistic; the world has moved on, it’s 37 years later, and it’s a much more complicated place.
Q: Are you talking about the current war on terror?
A: Yes, and what was interesting for us in this exercise was, can we tell a story about Superman that will get you to care about him in today’s world?
Q: “The Man of Steel” is also very much a story about a man with two fathers.
A: He’s got his earth father and his Kryptonian father, who are both responsible for instructing his moral compass, and for me the key to the movie was that Superman is half from earth and half from Krypton, and he really needs to decide who he is and which father’s advice to heed, which was my emotional way into the character.
Q: Do you think that superhero stories are still lumped into a genre that doesn’t get much respect?
A: It definitely doesn’t. I do think it’s getting progressively better; in film terms it’s a relatively new genre, and I think eventually you will see a superhero film win best picture [at the Oscars]. But it just goes back to people feeling like you can’t take comic books seriously, that they’re just for kids. There was also a bias against Western movies when they started, and against musicals as well.
But what the superhero genre allows you to do is, they’re sort of like our modern Greek myths; they’re aspirational, like the "Just So" stories. And speaking for my own kids, it’s the easiest way to, in a very primitive way, start to instill morals. At my house we talk about, “Well, Superman wouldn’t do that; he wouldn’t push his little brother.” And it’s very instructional and certainly one of the ways that I got some of my earliest moral teachings. I remember talking about Spiderman and his [perspective] that with great power comes great responsibility, and that made a big impression on me.
April 10, 2013 | 2:38 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The drama opens in a smoky saloon somewhere in a remote corner of Israel. A young stranger, Avram (Dudu Tassa), enters the bar, where he is regarded suspiciously by the tough-looking musicians slinging back shots of arak, a Middle Eastern liquor. Avram has arrived with a message for a certain Josef Tawila (Uri Gavriel), a legendary tar (Persian lute) player who has abandoned music and lived like a recluse since a devastating car accident that killed two of his comrades 20 years earlier.
Turns out Avram’s father, Tawila’s best friend, is terminally ill and wants his former band mate to keep an old promise: to perform a musical piece they wrote together, “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” in the cave where they composed it decades ago.
The brooding Tawila eventually agrees to the endeavor, which launches him on a journey to gather the best classical musicians he can find for the concert. The odyssey of this reluctant hero is reminiscent of the protagonists of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic “The Seven Samurai,” which in turn inspired the John Sturges Western “The Magnificent Seven,” according to the film’s director, Benny Toraty, who spoke through a translator in an interview by phone from his home in Tel Aviv.
Toraty’s “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” — the opening-night film of the 27th annual Israel Film Festival (IFF) — is as much homage to American and spaghetti Westerns as to Persian classical music, a testament to Israel’s burgeoning, sometimes quirky and often-provocative film industry.
The film won four 2012 Ophir (Israeli Oscar) awards and will be the centerpiece of the IFF’s opening-night gala, to be held at the Writers Guild Theater on April 18.
The largest film festival of its kind in the United States, the IFF will showcase more than 30 of the nation’s best new films, including features, documentaries, animation and shorts, all to be screened at Laemmle Theatres in Beverly Hills and Encino. Highlights include “Zaytoun,” the highly anticipated new film by esteemed director Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree”), and Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void,” winner of the 2012 Ophir for best feature as well as the best actress award for its star, Hadas Yaron, at the last Venice Film Festival (see story, p. 25).
Since its founding 27 years ago by festival executive director Meir Fenigstein, the IFF has grown into a mega-event that has, over the years, screened 800 films for more than 900,000 patrons in several U.S. cities; just how far the festival has come is evidenced by its opening-night lifetime achievement honoree, former Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing, who in her decades in the industry has overseen such award-winning movies as “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic.” Also feted will be actors Martin Landau (see story, p. 28) and Gavriel, the latter perhaps best known outside Israel for playing the blind doctor who befriends Bruce Wayne in prison in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Toraty, 57, is emerging as an Israeli director to watch. In an hour-long interview, he said he made “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” in large part to honor his parents, Iranian Jews forced to leave all their belongings behind when they fled their country for Israel in the massive aliyah of the early 1950s. What they brought with them was their love for Persian classical music — melodies played on the kamancheh (Persian fiddle) and oud that frequently wafted through their home in a slum near Tel Aviv. “It was like the Harlem of Israel,” Toraty recalled of his childhood neighborhood.
But as a youth he didn’t warm to his parents’ music: “It was exactly the opposite,” he said. “I was born and raised in Israel, and like many of my classmates, I was almost ashamed to listen to or be involved with the music of my [elders].”
Instead, he found his passion at his neighborhood cinema, where he fell in love, in particular, with Westerns by filmmakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone. After studying in the film department at Tel Aviv University, Toraty made his debut feature, “Desperado Square” (2001), to honor his old neighborhood theater, in the vein of Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.”
Much like “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” “Desperado Square” is a saga about fathers and sons and old promises kept: The story spotlights a young man and his brother who struggle to reopen the cinema their father had closed down a quarter century earlier in their impoverished neighborhood.
“The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” is Toraty’s ode to the power of music and, specifically, to his parents’ music, which he rediscovered and fell in love with in recent years while listening to Persian classical singers such as Hassan Sattar. “This music is not so well known in Israel,” he said. “It’s not from North Africa or Iraq, but more from the silk road from Persia crossing into Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and India. I also wanted to explore the lives of musicians who are playing the other Sephardic music that people don’t know and have never heard.”
Actor-musician Dudu Tassa plays Avram, who, we learn, has rejected his father’s Persian classical music, but over the course of the film grows to love the genre; for the film’s score, Toraty said he turned to composer Mark Eliyahu, whose father was an esteemed tar player and musicologist from Dagestan, and who spent two years in Azerbaijan mastering the kamancheh.
Since Toraty also drew inspiration for the film from Western movies and their outlaw protagonists, he conceived the central role for Gavriel, whom he describes as “the No. 1 actor [portraying] gangsters in Israeli cinema.”
“It was very natural for me to take on this character,” Gaviel, who was nominated for an Ophir for his performance, said in an interview from his home near B’nai Brak. And not only because he has been playing outlaws since his breakout performance in the seminal 1982 Mizrahi crime caper “Big Shots.”
“My parents are from Baghdad, and I grew up with their music,” Gavriel said. “My father was a singer who wrote songs and was a specialist in the music of the Egyptian musician Mohammed Abdel Wahab, whom I still listen to this day.”
For Gavriel, playing Tawila was also a means to escape the typecasting that he has encountered throughout his career; he’s still playing gangsters, most recently on the popular Israeli series “HaBorer,” where his character is nicknamed “The Nazi.”
“I was drawn to the longing within this character,” Gavriel said of Tawila. “He had hung up his instrument since the accident, but now the music is calling him, and the [yearning] wells up inside of him.”
For tickets and more information, call (877) 966-5566 or visit IsraelFilmFestival.com.
April 10, 2013 | 2:19 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In “Numbered,” the new documentary by Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, a journalist and Holocaust survivor named Ruth Bondy describes how in the early days of the Jewish state, sabras condescendingly stared at the serialized number the Nazis had tattooed on her forearm at Auschwitz.
“The popular opinion at that time was … that only the cruel survived, those willing to tread over bodies. So I decided to remove [the number],” she says.
When a doctor sliced off her tattoo at a Haifa hospital, Bondy recalls, “He mumbled something about the number as a mark of honor. But to me it was no mark of honor.”
Daniel Chanoch, meanwhile, insists that he doesn’t see his tattoo as a shameful scar, but rather as a “medal” of his survival of Auschwitz, Dachau and Mauthausen. He loves the summertime, when he can wear short sleeves and everyone can see the tattoo.
“I’m a celebrity,” he says.
Chanoch and Bondy are among more than a dozen elderly Israelis who tell their stories in “Numbered,” which premiered in July at the Jerusalem Film Festival and explores the experiences of survivors who were tattooed in
Auschwitz and Birkenau, the only camps to employ the practice.
The film opens as each survivor holds up his or her arm and recites the number, often in German, the language the SS officers used in the camps. Some, like Leo Luster, only reluctantly display their tattoo: “It was like I was no longer human,” he says of receiving the number. Another survivor attempts to erase the pain of her number and the loss of her family by compulsively shopping for clothes; still others recount the searing physical pain of the tattooing process.
The documentary also reveals a startling trend that has developed over the past few years: the phenomenon of survivors’ children and grandchildren tattooing themselves with a loved one’s number to honor their legacy and to remind younger generations about the Holocaust.
In the film, we meet Hanna Rabinovitz, a middle-aged woman who says she made the decision to tattoo herself as her beloved father lay dying in the hospital not long ago — even though she suspects he would have disapproved. She says she visited a tattoo parlor as soon as his -shivah had ended: “I just wanted his number etched on me,” she explains.
Then there is Abramo Nacson — a former dockworker whose job in Auschwitz was to pull gold teeth from corpses — who was appalled to learn that his grandson, Ayal Gelles, a computer programmer in his 20s, tattooed himself several years ago. For three years, Nacson refused to look at Gelles’ tattoo, but he finally did so during the documentary shoot, when he embraced his grandson and asked, “Did you do it so that people will never forget the Holocaust?” “It’s so that I won’t forget,” Gelles replied.
The idea for “Numbered” began when Doron, a physician in her early 30s, encountered an 83-year-old survivor complaining of chest pain at an emergency room in Safed several years ago.
Doron’s own grandmother had been interned in Auschwitz but did not have a tattoo; nor did she speak of her experiences in the camp. Doron herself had been turned off by the horrific images of the Holocaust she had been shown at school from the age of 5.
“The focus was on commemorating the sense of being victimized because we were Jewish,” she said during a phone call from a friend’s house near her home in Tel Aviv. “And for a long time I wanted nothing to do with these stories.”
The change came, in earnest, on that morning in the emergency room in Safed, when Doron’s elderly patient displayed her tattoo and asked, “Do you know what this is?” The woman went on to talk about her experiences for an hour.
“I listened with empathy,” Doron recalled, “but I was also shocked because I had never been that close to a tattoo in my life. I knew the symbol, but as a physician I had to take her pulse and draw blood from that arm. I was mesmerized, because it was like the ashes from Auschwitz were still engraved not only in her flesh but also in her soul. And I wondered, what was her relationship to the number and what do people make of it? Did she eat ice cream with that arm? Had anyone ever kissed the number? And when she looked at it, did she feel that it was the mark of Cain or it was like a superhero insignia?”
Doron promptly contacted her friend, Sinai, an award-winning photojournalist who works in Israel and the West Bank for Getty Images, to ask if he would like to track down and take pictures of some of the tattooed survivors still alive in Israel.
“At first we thought we might do a book,” Sinai, 34, said in a phone interview from his Tel Aviv home. But Sinai had just received a new Canon EOS 5D camera that was able to shoot both still photographs and moving pictures, so he suggested that he and Doron film the survivors as well.
Both Doron and Sinai, who was born in Tehran and has no survivors in his family, said they were “shocked” to discover that a couple of dozen descendants of survivors in Israel had inscribed themselves with a relative’s number; after screenings, Doron said, “The mainstream reaction was that people were horrified and said this trivializes the memory of the Holocaust.” The New York Times ran a front-page story on the tattooing phenomenon last year, spotlighting “Numbered” as part of the piece.
In an e-mail, the esteemed Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, weighed in on tattooing as a form of commemoration. “This would not be my first, second or third choice,” he said. “It is a brazen form of remembrance and a deep and indelible form of identification.”
Doron disagrees with the criticism she has received from some viewers about the tattooing trend.
“The way we truly diminish Holocaust remembrance is by not providing elderly survivors with enough funding to live well,” she said. “Another way is when we only discuss how Jews have been victimized. But the private gesture of tattooing a number on your arm to keep the story alive is touching in a very personal way.”
“Numbered” will screen at the Israel Film Festival on April 27, 5 p.m., at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. On April 28, noon, it will screen at an event for Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, as a fundraising event for survivors in need.
April 3, 2013 | 8:44 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“I grew up very conscious of the fact that I was Jewish,” said David S. Goyer, the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the author of the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel” as well as the creator of the new historical fantasy “Da Vinci’s Demons,” premiering on STARZ on April 12. “There weren’t many Jews in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., and I heard slurs like, ‘You killed Christ.’ ”
And so, he said, one of his favorite superheroes was the Incredible Hulk, whose alter ego, Bruce Banner, was like the young Goyer, “small and picked on,” but then could burst out of his clothes as he transforms into a ferocious green giant. “And while there weren’t many monsters or ghosts in the Jewish religion, I latched on to the few that existed, like the dybbuk and the golem, who for me was like the Jewish Hulk,” Goyer said during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
He was drawn to fictionalize Leonardo da Vinci, because the great painter, inventor and futurist was also, in his own way, an oppressed outsider: “He was a bastard, born out of wedlock, which meant he wasn’t allowed to inherit wealth or land, and thus as a young man was excluded from many areas of society,” Goyer said.
The show is a fantasy set during the time when the artist was in his mid- to late 20s, before he painted his iconic “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” and became a seminal figure in the Italian Renaissance.
Like the real da Vinci, the character on the series — produced in collaboration with BBC Worldwide — is a genius with almost superhuman powers: He scribbles prototypes for the machine gun, the tank and diving suit in his prolific journals; he is tall, handsome, a swashbuckling swordsman (and ambidextrous to boot); and is said to be able to bend iron bars with his bare hands.
Da Vinci is also a vegetarian, a freethinker ensconced in secret societies and a wheeler-dealer who shamelessly promotes his military designs to the ruling Medici clan while romancing several Florentine beauties. “Some people said that da Vinci was homosexual, some that he was bisexual, and others that he fathered a number of illegitimate children,” Goyer said, adding that the term “Renaissance man” was coined for the polymath.
Goyer enjoys the character, in part, because the historical da Vinci was an unabashed rogue: “I like antiheroes, like Bruce Wayne of ‘Batman,’ and da Vinci was a bit of a jerk,” Goyer said. “He had a big mouth; he was very outspoken, and he was critical of anyone and everyone. He famously said that Botticelli’s backgrounds and perspectives were inadequate. He mouthed off about the pope, and he constantly got in trouble and was thrown in jail a number of times. He overcharged his clients, and was famous for not finishing his projects. He could be a flake, a dilettante who didn’t give a s--t. He drank a lot, and he may have smoked opium.”
Goyer’s da Vinci is also presented as a member of a reviled minority group: “A couple of years ago, researchers were doing fingerprint analysis on some of his paintings, and there are apparently whorls in his fingerprints that are found in 95 percent of people of Arabic or Turkish descent, and are rarely found in Caucasians,” he said. “That led to a theory that his mother may have been a Turkish slave, and so we go with that on the show.”
Executive producer David S. Goyer. Photo courtesy of Starz
On the series, da Vinci’s ragtag gang includes fellow rapscallions who are Jewish as well as Abyssinian and Turkish: “We deal with minorities, both ethnic and religious, quite a bit,” Goyer said. “There’s even an episode where da Vinci and company hope to break into the secret archives of the Vatican, and they hide out in the Jewish quarter because they know no one will look for them there — and because the Jews are no friends of the Vatican.”
Goyer, 47, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who divorced when he was 8. He attended Hebrew school and was thrilled to discover that most of the top comic book authors of all time were Jewish (think Bob Kane of “Batman” and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of “Superman”). “It was a kind of wish fulfillment for a hero to come and save the world from evil, especially for those who were creating characters in the 1940s before the Nazis were defeated,” he said.
While still studying at USC at the age of 22, Goyer sold his first action movie script, which became the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller “Death Warrant.” In 1998, he wrote his breakout film, “Blade,” based on the Marvel comic book about a legendary vampire hunter, which became one of Hollywood’s most successful superhero franchises.
Goyer has reimagined da Vinci as a 15th century superhero of sorts, but he was initially reluctant to take on the project when the BBC approached him several years ago. “I didn’t want to do some dry historical drama,” he said.
He changed his mind when BBC executives assured him that they wanted “a “superhero-y, ‘Batman Begins’ kind of approach,” Goyer recalled, adding that a highlight of his research, which included reading translations of the artist’s 6,000 existing journal pages, was perusing some of da Vinci’s drawings at the British Museum.
“When you look at his journal pages, they’re filled with sketches and notes and even shopping lists; he spilled wine and food on them, and there are grease stains,” Goyer said. “You can literally smell him. And for me, that made history come alive.”
“Da Vinci’s Demons” premieres April 12 at 10 p.m. on STARZ.
March 28, 2013 | 5:17 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It was the first day of spring, and Jeffrey Tambor was sitting in his car in the snow near his New York home, conducting an interview while his 6-year-old daughter — one of his four children, ages 3 to 8, including twin toddlers — was taking her piano lesson. “Daddy is tired, but I’m a lucky guy,” he said in his signature baritone. Life is good for the 68-year-old actor, not only in terms of his family but also in the realm of his career: In May, Tambor will reprise his role as George Bluth Sr., the Machiavellian patriarch of a dysfunctional Jewish clan when “Arrested Development” makes its much-anticipated return with 14 new episodes on Netflix.
And, on HBO through April 27, he’s appearing in the TV biopic “Phil Spector,” playing the flamboyant lead defense attorney in the legendary music producer’s murder trial, a project written and directed by Tambor’s hero, David Mamet, and starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren.
The film opens in 2003, when a past-her-prime B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson is discovered dead in Spector’s gothic Alhambra mansion. Spector (Pacino) insists she put one of his many guns in her mouth and pulled the trigger, but the police suspect murder. Enter attorney Bruce Cutler (Tambor) — who is as known for his dapper two-tone shirts as he is for having defended Mafioso John Gotti. Cutler insists that Clarkson, a depressed celebrity wannabe, committed suicide, but he’s stumped as to how to shape Spector’s defense, fearing the jury may convict the eccentric, wig-coiffed producer because he had previously threatened women with guns — and simply for being, in their eyes, “a freak.”
And so Cutler brings in another star attorney to help — Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who initially thinks Spector committed the murder but after a time comes to believe that he is innocent. Even so, their best efforts result in a mistrial, and after a second trial, in 2009, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, where he now resides.
Mamet has described his movie as a “mythological” version of the events, and the film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film is “a work of fiction … not based on a true story” — which is startling given that the script uses real names as well as some dialogue from real court transcripts.
A media backlash has ensued, critiquing what one reporter called a “mealy mouthed” approach to the truth and the wisdom of fictionalizing a notorious court case — especially since the film insinuates that Spector was convicted despite Mamet’s suggestion there was a generous amount of reasonable doubt.
Tambor strongly disagrees with the media criticism: “There’s the disclaimer,” he said, “and I think David has been acutely truthful about what he is trying to do. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. But then again, I’m an actor, not a politician, and I’m so proud of the movie and the questions it raises. I’m not saying whether Spector is guilty or not guilty, but I’m wildly against prejudice of any kind, and I believe that Spector experienced prejudice [in his trials] for being, essentially, a weirdo.”
Tambor didn’t always feel that way. Back at the time of the trial, he said, “I assumed Spector was guilty because I saw all his freakishness.” But participating in the movie, he added, has opened his eyes to the possibility that jurors were so turned off by Spector that they may have ignored any reasonable doubt raised in the courtroom. “I know the prejudice that was in me at the time of the trial, and if was in me, it was in other people,” he said.
Tambor traces his feelings about prejudice to an incident when he was a boy in San Francisco; he was driving in a car with his mother when another driver shouted out that she was a “kike.” “I didn’t know what that meant, and she told me and I was horrified,” he recalled.
Then there was his trip to Auschwitz some years ago, when Tambor was so overwhelmed, he said, “every nerve was just deadened and I felt numb. Much later when I was actually therapizing over this, I really hit a grief point. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he added.
Tambor grew up with Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Kiev and a Hungarian-Jewish father who, according to family legend, was a boxer who once sparred with Joe Louis, “which is why he could only breathe out of one nostril,” the actor said.
As a boy, however, Tambor was ambivalent about his Judaism: “I was bar mitzvahed at gun point,” he joked. “My cantor was great except he chewed cottage cheese sandwiches for his snack while he was teaching me my Torah portion, and every time he made a ‘chuch’ or a ‘chech’ sound, curds would go flying and I would walk out looking like one of those speckled ceilings in a new house.”
Even so, he said, “I’ve always been Jewish, and I always feel my roots.”
He’s played a number of Jewish characters in a career that has spanned half a century — ever since Tambor was first drawn to the stage while watching theater rehearsals in the drama department of San Francisco State University when he was a boy.
One of his iconic characters is Hank Kingsley, Garry Shandling’s buffoonish sidekick on HBO’s acclaimed “The Larry Sanders Show,” from the 1990s. But Tambor is even better known for another character, who becomes observant for dubious reasons: George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development,” who finds religion for a time after he is sent to prison for security fraud during the show’s previous three seasons on the Fox network from 2003 to 2006 — he even crafted a yarmulke from his shoe. “Every day George has a different scheme,” Tambor explained. “I wouldn’t call him spiritual unless he has to be; I would call him a Darwinist.”
Bruce Cutler, the real defense attorney Tambor plays in “Phil Spector,” also happens to be Jewish. (“If I played the pope, he would be Jewish, Tambor quips — and in fact an Internet piece comparing him as a doppelganger for the new Pope Francis recently went viral.)
But per Mamet’s instructions, Tambor did not research Cutler, sticking to whatever nuances he found in the script to create his character. “David told me, in a text message, that if he had wanted the real Bruce Cutler, he would have hired Bruce Cutler,” Tambor said.
For encore episodes of “Phil Spector,” which premiered on March 24, check HBO listings.
March 20, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Two minutes into a telephone interview, actor Jeremy Piven riffed on his Jewish background: “I grew up Reconstructionist, so my father used to joke that we prayed to ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he said, then paused as if for a rim shot. “I’m waiting for the laugh to die down,” he quipped. “That’s how hams work.”
Throughout the eight seasons of HBO’s hit series “Entourage,” Piven played one of the most outrageous hams ever to appear on TV, stealing practically every scene he was in. His character of Ari Gold, the manic, merciless pit bull of an uber-agent to a young Hollywood A-list movie star and his posse of libidinous pals from Queens, N.Y., made him an iconic image of Hollywood excess.
The mercurial Ari also hammed up his Judaism, throwing a lavish bat mitzvah for his daughter; sneaking a cell phone into synagogue on Yom Kippur (to his wife’s chagrin) in order to close a lucrative deal; and proclaiming in another scene, “It’s all gonna be fine … the Jew has arrived.”
No wonder Ari’s aura has been hard to shake for the 47-year-old Piven, who is still approached by fans who affectionately attempt to grip him in an Ari-style headlock and spout Ari-isms such as, “Hug it out, bitch!”
Even when Piven met Britain’s Prince Harry at a recent polo match, Harry, an avid “Entourage” fan, kept calling him “Ari.” “It was cute,” Piven recalled, sounding not too convinced.
The actor said he is grateful for the chance to return to TV in a very different, albeit equally larger-than-life role, this time in the “Masterpiece Classic” eight-episode period drama “Mr. Selfridge,” about the wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur who pioneered the modern department store, premiering in the United States on PBS SoCal on March 31. Looking dapper in a top hat and tails, Piven portrays Harry Gordon Selfridge, the exuberant, Chicago-born retail magnate and womanizer who in 1909 had the chutzpah to open a palatial (some said crass) shop in the oh-so-proper milieu of Edwardian England.
“Harry’s goal was to make shopping as thrilling as sex, and he was all about glamour and razzmatazz,” said Piven, adding that the idea of going shopping as a leisure activity previously did not exist. “One of his heroes was P.T. Barnum, and he thought of himself as a bit of a performer and his theater as his shop.”
Selfridge invented the idea of ornate window dressings and browsing, which at the time was considered uncouth, as well as the saying, “The customer is always right.”
“It was his idea to move makeup, formerly considered only for showgirls and prostitutes, to the very front of the store,” Piven said. “And he even convinced Louis Bleriot, the French hero who was the first person to successfully fly over the English Channel, to display his airplane in the shop.”
On display, along with the lavish merchandise, are all of Harry’s flaws, which Piven compared to those of his “Entourage” character. “Both Ari and Harry ruled with an iron fist, but Harry’s bite ultimately was much worse than his bark, whereas Ari’s bark was much worse than his bite,” Piven said. “Ari was a monogamous guy who was seemingly a pig, while Harry was a man who could be so inspiring in business, but also had this other life where he was a risk addict and loved his gambling and his women.”
Although Selfridge was said to be very much in love with his wife, Rosalie, he famously bedded the burlesque actress Ellen Love, as well as the dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, among myriad other mistresses. But his fortunes eventually waned, and after the death of Rosalie in the 1918 influenza pandemic, he spiraled downward into financial and personal ruin, ultimately dying virtually a pauper in 1947, at the age of 83.
“Harry’s is a true story, and yet it feels Shakespearean,” Piven said.
And there’s another bonus to playing the part: “Being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling your Jewish mother that you’re going to become a doctor,” Piven said. “ ‘Entourage’ was a male wish fulfillment show, so, did my own mother have fun watching the boys trying to get laid because their best friend is famous? I don’t think so. Does she enjoy a turn-of-the-century period piece about an American entrepreneur with all of his beauty, warts and eccentricities? She saw the pilot and was intrigued, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Piven’s parents, both actors who studied with Uta Hagen, introduced him to the stage, courtesy of their Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., where students included John Cusack and Aidan Quinn. In between performing Chekhov and Shakespeare, the young Piven also aspired to become a star football player on his high school team — to no avail. “If you fail in your own eyes early on, it stokes the fires of ambition and led to a lot of my tenacious ways with acting,” he said.
That persistence came in handy as Piven toiled for years to make it in Hollywood, playing secondary characters in dozens of films, including “Old School” and “Black Hawk Down.” His big break came in 2004, when “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin cast him as the character based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s real agent, Ari Emanuel. “Ari Gold was a proud Jew, but it was difficult for him to play by the rules, which led to some of our best comedy,” said Piven, who won three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe for his work on the series.
Even so, “Playing Ari was physically exhausting, and it took a lot out of me,” said Piven, who relied on his training in commedia dell’arte to portray the volatile character.
“Mr. Selfridge” creator Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House”) said it was Piven’s performance in “Entourage” that led him to cast the actor: “All of us are terrific fans of ‘Entourage,’ and we thought Jeremy showed the kind of energy and outrageousness we needed for our character.” Davies said.
These days, Piven said he’s thrilled that an “Entourage” movie is in the works, but he also seems glad to take a break from Ari.
“The U.K. has really embraced ‘Mr. Selfridge,’ and in Britain I don’t see Ari attached to my name so much anymore. I’ve been typecast now as Harry Selfridge, which is really fun.”