Our township

Writer-director Eric Mendelsohn talks about Thornton Wilder, Edie Falco, Madeline Kahn and the low-budget triumph of "Judy Berlin."

Published February 17, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Before you succumb to Academy Awards fever and catch up to "American Beauty," check to see if "Judy Berlin" has come to town. Shot in eerie black and white, "Judy Berlin" is just as visually striking as that surefire piece of Oscar-bait, and (overall) vastly better acted, with Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie and the late Madeline Kahn giving performances of such gusto and nuance they dwarf Annette Bening's Oscar-nominated caricature of middle-class panic. Most important, "Judy Berlin" spins a generous and poetic vision of suburban life. Unlike "American Beauty," it keeps revealing new facets of its characters rather than boxing them into stereotypes of parents in mid-life crises or children desperate to break into bigger worlds. In its out-of-left-field coda, "American Beauty" pays lip service to transcendent moments. "Judy Berlin" is filled with them.

In the movie's midsection, set during a solar eclipse, the characters revolve around each other in unpredictable orbits. In its own gentle, modest way, this sequence is as memorable as the suburban night scenes in "E.T." Writer-director Eric Mendelsohn gives us the dark side of the best side of Spielberg -- the uncanny evocation of the split-level emotions of American suburbia. In "Judy Berlin," neighbors are both easy and uneasy with each other, as if they've never adequately figured out how intimate they should be in a space that's neither city nor country. They devote inordinate energy to maintaining their homes, but they know that the sign of health and initiative is "getting out of the house." Routines that appear eternal, whether in schoolrooms, diners or playgrounds, can be sources of comfort or traps.

Throughout, Mendelsohn depicts the inertia of a well-kept suburb in Long Island as humorous, voluptuous and harrowing. He shows how that inertia prods the would-be actress of the title (played by Falco) and casts an odd nostalgic spell over her one-time classmate, the depressed, failed filmmaker David Gold (Aaron Harnick). Judy, 32, who's been performing as a historical re-enactor at the Colonial-era History Village, and David, 30, (she was left back and he skipped a grade), run into each other right before she sets off for California. David has just returned from there with ambitions stymied, retreating to his old bedroom and never leaving the family house.

Over the course of a fall afternoon, Judy and David exchange daydreams -- an apt thing to do during the solar eclipse. At the same time, Judy's estranged schoolteacher mom (Barbara Barrie) and David's buttoned-up principal dad (Bob Dishy) skirt around their own long-simmering attraction, while David's whimsically exuberant, psychologically fragile mother (Madeline Kahn) takes to the streets as a self-described "space explorer." For movie audiences who know Kahn only from her inspired clowning for Mel Brooks (especially in "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein"), her Alice Gold will come as a revelation. Kahn combines theatricality and insight -- her performance has an extravagant subtlety.

A year ago, when Falco's star was just beginning to rise with the
first season of "The Sopranos," Mendelsohn won the best director award at Sundance for "Judy Berlin" -- which then went begging for distribution. But it will be the keynote event for the "Shooting Gallery Film Series" when it screens for series subscribers in 17 cities on Feb. 21, before settling in on Feb. 25 for two-week runs. Five other films will follow this pattern.

Like "Judy Berlin," each entry has been a film festival favorite, and each has the potential to be held over if it rouses popular support. Shooting Gallery, which calls itself "the only independent film studio in the nation," has rounded up enough corporate sponsorship for promotion and advertising to make these films visible even in a glutted marketplace. (The national information number is (877) 905-3456; there is also a Web site.)

When I spoke to Mendelsohn, who is 35, in San Francisco, he was delighted that his work would finally be seen coast to coast. Coincidentally (or maybe not), the SG Film Club headquarters is in Farmingdale on Long Island, N.Y.

Until I was 7, I lived in Roosevelt, Long Island; later, when I was in college, my family moved to Rockville Centre, Long Island. So your movie hit very close to home for me.

Rockville Centre, at least how I remember it when I was younger, is the kind of town I was talking about in "Judy Berlin." It had a weirdly old-timey kind of feel to it. Didn't it have a raised train path? I loved that -- it made it look like something out of a children's book about what a town should be. That was the feeling the "Judy Berlin" town was modeled on. Towns like that don't exist anymore. You can't go to a place that doesn't have a TCBY or Ben and Jerry's.

Where did you grow up?

Old Bethpage, where the restoration village is.

Was the movie shot in the actual Babylon, Long Island?

No, parts of it were Old Bethpage, parts of it were Farmingdale. We just used the Babylon name.

Babylon is a town I thought had a funny name when I was growing up. I made the mistake -- which my parents still find very funny -- of coming home from Hebrew school after learning about the walls of Jericho falling down, and saying, "I can't believe that: two towns away all this Biblical stuff is going on."

Of course -- Long Island has a Jericho and a Babylon.

I had invested as much mythology in the places where I grew up as if I had been born in Athens. There's gotta be stuff here that I don't know about, and if I dig deep enough in the earth, I'll come upon Doric columns and shards of vases. It was a disappointment to realize as a high school student that none of that was true.

So how did you get from Old Bethpage to, uh, Babylon?

My parents still live in Old Bethpage. I went to SUNY Purchase to study oil painting. I met Edie Falco there, and I met Rocco Caruso, who produced "Judy Berlin." I scammed my way into auditing all the classes in the film department, and somehow graduated from the visual arts department with a 15-minute film as my senior project, which Edie was in. I started working for Woody Allen and other directors in the costume department.

During the time I worked with Woody Allen on a lot of films, I made a film, "Through an Open Window," which Anne Meara stars in. That got a lot of attention, which was the most damaging thing that could have happened. I went to Cannes with it, it was on Bravo every five minutes -- it really paid back the $250 they paid for it. And I went on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. As I said, it was the worst thing that could have happened, because I suddenly felt very pressured to be a filmmaker, whereas up until then I had been enjoying myself.

It hadn't been a dream of yours to be a filmmaker?

It was unexpressed even to myself. Meaning, I'm not the kind of person who can put my fist down on the table and say, "I'm a filmmaker. I'm an auteur. Move over, Chabrol!" I can't. In the back of my head was: If I could do the kind of thing I love, maybe I could emulate Jacques Demy, Hitchcock and Truffaut, and, of course, Jean Renoir. I didn't know how I was going to do it, though, and I didn't even allow myself to think of how I would do it. It was too big a step for me.

Renoir's quote about 'everyone has their reasons' applies to "Judy Berlin." (The quote comes from Octave, the character Renoir himself plays in his masterpiece "The Rules of the Game": "In this world there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.")

And someone told me that the full quote is "The tragedy of life is that everyone has their reasons." It's just so unbearable, that comment. It sums up everything.

A lot of your movie seems to be about David Gold confronting his nostalgia about his hometown.

This film, I hope, is not nostalgic, but is about people coming to terms with their lives at the moment, the lives they thought they were going to have, the lives they wish they had. That feels like nostalgia, but it's the active form of that.

The funny thing is, I wanted to treat this place, which has been so maligned, the suburbs, in the way that I understood it. You look back on your personal history, and you think, "Well, my grandparents immigrated here, and they were the such-and-such family, and they married into this lousy family, but then they became this family, and I was born." That to me has as much importance to me, and as much weight, as going through the dynasties of ancient Egypt. Your own personal family history is complete with back-stabbing and injustices and romantic love and failed hopes and dreams -- to me that's no different than following the rise of Tutankhamen and the story of civilization.

What was the creative start of "Judy Berlin"?

Here's what I tried to do. Without censoring myself, without looking at what was in theaters right now, I tried to amass a group of things, that for no other reason but instinct, seemed to go together. And I didn't want to explain it to myself, and I didn't want to explain it to anybody else. I just thought if I get it on gut level, maybe somebody else will. The chance you take as a writer is that no one else will. But that's OK; I'd rather chance it and fail than do something understandable from the start, without any attempt at personal integrity.

And so, for a year, I collected things that went together. A small suburban town that was homely and homey and filled with these worlds-within-worlds: the elementary school on the second day of school, the housewives who stay at home, the return of teachers to a familiar classroom, the frightening aspect of going to school, the feeling of autumn -- with melancholy and hope -- and this bizarre, unexplained, fairly science-fiction event of an eclipse.

You don't refer to the suburban-Jewish nature of the story all that explicitly. I was knocked off-kilter when David told Judy he couldn't understand why she hung out with a tough crowd because Jewish girls aren't tough. Yet there's something in the intense mingling of humor and sadness that reminded me of stories by Bernard Malamud.

The story is a fable. I'm a big fan of the kind of simple elegance of Isaac Bashevis Singer; when he talks about a little farm shtetl the emotional truth is there and it rings true. But I wanted it to be specific. I would hate it if someone would leave the film and say, "Well now I know about suburban Jews." Nobody comes out of "The Wizard of Oz" and says, "Kansas life has been explained to me now." I hope nobody ends up reading the poems of Robert Frost and says, "God, those hicks!"

Speaking of poetry, there seem to be rhyme schemes in the action and the dialogue. David's age, 30, gets mistaken twice, once by his dad, once by Judy; he and Sue Berlin both voice bitter truths, then apologize. Was this kind of mirroring part of your molding of the film?

I'd be lying if I said so. Somebody had to point out to me that the film begins with a montage, the finale of which is the lights going out. "Isn't that interesting," he said, "that's what your whole film is about -- the lights going out." Now, that makes it sound as if a real person made this film! That makes it sound like something out of a film book! But I certainly couldn't have told you that was there.

When I was a little boy, and used to study painting all the time, I read something about a painting by Delacroix -- I think it was "Horse Frightened by a Storm." It said that above his head was a cloud, which if you looked carefully formed a yin-yang symbol. And obviously with Delacroix and his association to Orientalism, this was pretty heavy symbolism. And I remember saying to my brother, "Should I start putting symbolism in my work?" Because I was a kid who drew all the time. And he said don't worry about it. I never did from that point, so I'm always surprised when people find stuff.

I've taken my cue in later life from Edie Falco, who works from a visceral, gut instinct kind of way. There was nothing intellectual about the way we discussed it.

Could you give an example?

We were talking about why it was inappropriate for Judy to say a line. Edie couldn't say why on intellectual terms. She just started talking emotionally. She said, "I don't think Judy is ashamed of anything. She's showing a little bit of retraction in that sentence, as if she realized what she said and she's ashamed. I just don't see Judy being ashamed."

And her character functions that way in the film: Her sureness
in her dream to be an actress is what David doesn't have.

One argument that always goes on in my head is, should we think this through or just go on instinct? I've always been pleased when I just go on instinct.

Part of the reason this year has been so difficult was taking the film around and listening to what money people and distribution people and agent people say. It threatens instinct. But now I remember what it was that I liked about writing: Oh yeah, you get to have everyone sit there for a while and pound home your point of view and convince them of something you believe wholeheartedly. Which is what I wanted to do with "Judy Berlin." The pounding had to come from a tiny toy hammer because of the nature of what I was talking about -- but still, I pound home the delicacy, and when people leave the theater I hope they understand my feelings about what it takes to get through the day.

Everything in the movie is mixed, and everyone in it sends mixed signals, starting with Alice Gold urging David to take a walk around the block, but also suggesting he come back in time to watch a movie with her.

Maybe I am showing my hand here -- but I have never in my life had a clean Hollywood moment. Not like Norma Rae standing up for herself or Gary Cooper expressing unbridled passion. I just haven't. Everything that I've experienced in my life has been tainted with indecision; there's been a sloppy process to each revelation. And everyone I know is like that. I am always surprised at how untidy life is.

I think the greatest, most troubling revelation I had as a kid came during this one week in grade school -- no, middle school. I had three tests that week in different subjects. I thought, "I can't pass all of them: I know this is too much to ask of God. But I will study as if it were a possibility for all of them."

On Friday of that week, I got back the three tests and I had passed them all with flying colors. I left the school that day with this tremendous welling of pride in my chest. I was so happy and so pleased. I remember thinking of myself in a long shot, as if I were just marching over the crest of a hill, like Don Quixote triumphant. Then something horrible occurred to me, which was: it's Friday, and I have to go to school again on Monday. And I just nearly fainted.

It's like when I first discovered antidepressants. I remember thinking to myself, "Holy shit -- this isn't over." Life, it occurred to me in that moment, was going to be more like laundry than I ever had imagined. You're just never done with your laundry -- you do it, and then next week you just have to do it again. It's work and it's tiring and it's a constant effort. There is no freeze-frame, no fade-out, no credit sequence.

A lot of that revelation from middle school infuses "Judy Berlin": the idea that you have to keep moving on. It's upsetting, sometimes, that your victories are not Hollywood victories. But if they are small, they are also more concrete than Hollywood victories -- and ultimately a whole lot more digestible, because as far as I'm concerned no one yet has had Hollywood victories.

Because you have a young filmmaker hero, it's tempting to see you at the center of this movie. Would you like to take this opportunity to kill the biographical fallacy once and for all?

In all of the characters, there are aspects of myself that I am afraid of, or in love with. The idea of being the older senile schoolteacher is something that terrifies me about life, so I put it in the movie. I'm afraid of meaning going away, of meaning getting siphoned out of life.

I am Barbara Barrie's character half the time -- on the verge of asking for all sorts of things to have my emotional needs met, and too afraid to go to anyone for them. "Judy and David" is an argument that happens every day in my head. One person says, "Let's put pen to paper and start a new script; it's gonna be good, it's gonna be worthwhile." And the other person says, "You know what? Let's sit and watch 'Oprah' because there's no point in even attempting to write it, it's so unbelievably difficult. Let me just fade away and melt into a pool of my own Prozac."

And as for David Gold, in many ways I'm not like him at all. I'm a loud-mouth, I really am. I'm a big loud-mouth Semite, and I'm probably funnier than he is.

You won't get it now, because of the caffeine, but I am also a lot shyer than anyone in this movie, and a lot more fixed in my ways -- I'm not a goer-outer, and I'm not at the latest night spot dancing with Michael Musto. I'm a homebody and I'm afraid and I'm always, in some respect to my social life, ruled by my own insecurities and neuroses -- and that's OK.

When Alice talks about her husband getting her a glass of water, without even asking -- it's something out of Chekhov.

The playwright I love is Thornton Wilder. There is so much of his influence here, as there will be in everything I'm ever going to do. I think he's completely underrated. He's got more in common with Chekhov than I think anyone wants to talk about, because they think he's all Currier and Ives. He's really ruthless. I just read "The Long Christmas Dinner" on the plane. It's contrived, but it's great, and I bet a production of that would slay you.

Your film provides a great valedictory for Madeline Kahn.

I'm honored till the day I pass from this earth that she is in this film, that we got to be friends, that I got to experience a talent that, from the time I was 5 years old, would set me shaking, it was so immense. And everyone thought that. My God, it's not like I had some different opinion.

It's funny that she won fame with Mel Brooks, and she caps her career with a guy who worked for Woody Allen.

I love a lot of Mel Brooks. I love "Young Frankenstein."

Yet she shows a side of her talent here she couldn't in those films.

That's what's so completely devastating. She was just about to show people; this was the first low-budget picture she had ever been involved in, and she was a very careful, very defended woman. The greatest gift Madeline gave me was, first, telling me she'd be in the movie, and second, two weeks before she died, telling me how proud she was of this film, and how much joy it had given her in the darkest year of her life. And I will never get another compliment as great or as timely as that.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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