It was truly an honor to get a chance to interview Jules Feiffer, who wrote the critically acclaimed “Carnal Knowledge,” a movie that was the subject of a Supreme Court case about whether it was obscene (they ruled that it was not). He also illustrated one of my favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth, wrote a book about the history of comics, and many, many other books for children and adults. His latest movie is Bernard and Huey, based on a script he wrote thirty years ago.
The full interview is on The Credits. Here’s an excerpt:
Is the conquest more important than the sex for Bernard and Huey?
Conquest is major with Huey, but he also loves sex, and giving pleasure to women. Once it’s over, he’s indifferent, and wants them out of the way. This point was made more openly in Carnal Knowledge, where it’s clear that heterosexual men didn’t like women, they liked women’s bodies. And once the sex was over, and the cigarettes smoked, they wanted the girl gone, so they could go out with the guys (their real relationships), and talk about how, and with whom, they scored. Bernard would love a real relationship. He’s just too screwed up to maintain one.
Lately I feel like for a lot of young people, at least let’s say millennials, there’s such a weird storm of 9/11 followed by economic collapse, followed by the Internet and social media saturation that serves to kind of douse youthful rebellion. It all kind of paralyzed them into thinking that nothing can really change. First of all, it was terrorism, then it was an economic rug being pulled out from under them, coming out of college, not having a job, suddenly feeling old because you have a $100,000 loan or at least $20,000 and then the Internet which gives you a false feeling of accomplishment because you’re zipping around on it but not doing a whole lot on it. Of course some people certainly use it as a very good tool but for a lot of people it is just an equivalent to worry beads, just to check, check, check and post, post, post and selfie, selfie, selfie. That’s the worst example, of course, and there are plenty of people who use it as a tool in a good way but it can serve to make young people not necessarily the vanguard of any change in the last 15 years. There might be rebellion but it isn’t directed rebellion in any way.
There’s no mass movement possible anymore because of digital culture. The last real musical movement was grunge. After that, everything was atomized; sliced and diced. Porn got sliced and diced into what fetish you were into and boys are saturated with porn before they have sex. So, when they have sex they are imitating it rather than just being it or trying it and girls are kind of just going along with it, and then sexualizing themselves whether they want to or not because that is currency. It is an imitation of porn and it didn’t feel sui generis, it felt quickly commercialized. Even sexual top or bottom became a capitalist kind of thing that you have to be if you’re on Grindr and it was important to decide so you can present yourself with all the things people used to find out about each other when they got to know each other established up front. So, everything started becoming quantifiable and sellable.
Capitalism does that but now it is done in a very efficient way because of digital media, so that serves to dampen the young person being at the vanguard of actual change as opposed to surface rebellion. The old people got scared about things changing became punk and they voted Trump in and they are welcoming him smashing all tradition. They don’t care anymore that he is inept. They are watching it burn. They didn’t believe that he wasn’t going to be corrupt and or that he’s going to drain the swamp. They just saw someone going in there like a child has got the controls. It’s like, “What’s been happening so far sucked, so might as well do this throw a monkey in the driver’s seat,” and some of them are still enjoying it; it’s kind of mindless punks as opposed to any focused punks.
The new possible kind of punk that I can see coming is like the Parkland teenagers. These are the post-millennials. They are coming up in high school with Trump in office and they can’t believe it and they’re getting shot up and there is one thing that they can do, maybe stop the NRA. That is one issue I think is going to hopefully be the beginning.
I think punk changes for every era but we know it when we see it and usually it’s about smashing up stuff so that new stuff can grow.
Scott Myers has an excellent guide to understanding the arcane world of screenwriting credits. For example:
Here’s the deal with “&” and “and.”
When you see an ampersand (&), that means the writers worked together on the project and are considered — at least for that project — a writing team. So whatever revenue they generated in the form of compensation, production bonuses, and residuals gets split. If it’s two writers as a team, each gets 50%. If it’s three writers as a team, each gets 33%. In the case of a movie like “The Simpsons Movie,” which has 11 writers with Screenplay By credit, each with an ampersand between them, I have no clue how they divide that pie.
When you see the word “and” between two or more writers, that means the writers worked independently of each other and are not considered part of a team. So for instance if you look at the writing credits for The A-Team, you’ll see this:
Written by Joe Carnahan & Brian Bloom and Skip Woods
That means that Messrs. Carnahan and Bloom are considered a writing team on the project while Woods’ contribution was as a solo writer.
Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”) is an observant Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, but she reminds me in our interview that for more than half of her life, she was a secular Jew living in America. “I’m 50 years old. I became religious when I was 27 years old and still have lived more years secular than religious, still am. All my memories, all of who I am, this was not in a religious world.” That is an important part of what makes it possible for her to work with actors and crew who have different levels of religious observance and to relate to the audience for her films as well. While her new film, “The Wedding Plan,” like her first one concerns a young woman’s decision about who she will marry. But “Fill the Void” was set in a deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, while “The Wedding Plan” characters, like Burshtein herself, are those who have chosen a more observant life as adults. So we see more variation in their practice, some uncertainty and inconsistency but more of a sense of intentionality.
The central character is Michel, played by Noa Koler in an award-winning performance of stunning intelligence and sensitivity in her first lead role. “This character is very, very complicated because she is supposed to make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it’s very complicated for any actress and… So it’s like you can’t discover anyone at that age so good but it’s not true, because Noa, she’s an actress in Israel, she played in the theatre. Everyone knows that she is talented. Nobody gave her a leading role. Ever. At the age of 35. And she’s like a genius. She is extremely talented, It’s like, I’m telling you there is no way to compare anything that she does in an audition than to other very professional actresses–good actresses. She has something that few people have in the world.” Burshtein said one of her most important roles as a director was to show Koler that she had confidence in her. “When I believed a hundred in her then she believed a hundred. But if I believed eighty, she would believe zero. Everyone around me didn’t think I’m doing right. Everyone was trying to convince me not to take her. Everyone knows that she is talented. People didn’t think that she could handle a role where all those nice guys want her. She is like the neighbour’s daughter, she’s not not Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill.’ You have to believe that Oz Zehavi, the guy that plays Yos, who is like a big star in Israel, that he would go for her. But I know that at the end when someone is so sincere and like the model of truth, this is what you fall in love with at the end. Even a rock star, that what you fall in love with, you don’t fall in love with a pretty face. We don’t fall in love with a pretty face, that was part of me saying that because today nobody is even asking that question. Nobody thinks that it’s unreal that he wants her.” Making that believable is very important because it helps Michal truly understand that she is lovable. “It’s like ‘La La Land,’ says Burshtein. “She brings this thing out and it suddenly all the actions are opened. She believes that the sky is the limit. It’s an energy shows in her and that brings a lot in.”
In Israel and Europe, the film was called “Through the Wall.” Burshtein says, “It’s not ‘Behind the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Breaking the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Climbing the Wall,’ it’s ‘Through the Wall,’ which is something that you cannot actually do you know. A wall is a wall. You can’t go through it unless you have a door. But that’s what she is doing. She’s going through a wall.
Burshtein wants to deliver a message with this endearing romantic comedy premise of a young woman who hires a hall for the date of her wedding even though she does not have a groom. “There is a thing that I call ‘the imaginary option,’ It’s like you always think that there is someone a little bit better than what you will have sitting in front of you. You do not see what is in front of you because you have a picture of something else. From my research, the women that can fall in love with everyone are married.” She points out that when asked why she wants to be married, Michel gives almost every possible answer except for the most important one: to love. “I would sit with a girl and ask ‘What are you looking for?’ and she’s going to give me that list. And the whole list, which is very interesting, would be what he could give her. I never had girls writing down ‘I feel like I want I want to give. I want someone that I want to do for.'”
Israeli-American Joseph Cedar wrote and directed one of my favorite movies, the Oscar-nominated Beaufort, and I am a fan of his film “Footnote” as well. Both are in Hebrew. So it was a great pleasure to talk to him about his first English language film, “Norman,” starring Richard Gere and Steve Buscemi. Gere plays the title character, a schmoozer and small-time wheeler-dealer who gets caught up in international politics when he befriends an Israeli government official who ends up as Prime Minister.
Who casts Richard Gere is as a shlub?
I think it’s the ultimate challenge. I like it when actors act. It’s gratifying to see an actor do something that is very far from who he is or how we perceive him in other films, his persona. It’s also gratifying to see an actor do something that is genuinely difficult that other people can’t do. And I found that in what Richard was doing, it’s like watching a circus act. It’s was remarkable for me in every scene to see him just be someone he’s not.
The hair really helps create his character, very different from the more glamorous image we have.
We did something with this whole physical appearance which is subtle but changes the way he looks to an audience. More importantly, it changes the way he looks to himself. He’d come out of makeup and wardrobe and look in the mirror and he wasn’t seeing the Richard Gere he is used to seeing on a movie set. That is helpful to create a body language that was different and specific for Norman. And this made it possible for him to do things that he doesn’t normally do in movies. So we did play around a little bit with his physicality.
It was almost as surprising to see Steve Buscemi as a rabbi.
That’s less of a stretch in my mind, I think Steve Buscemi would make a great Upper West Side rabbi. He’s a New Yorker and that is in itself most of the research but I did introduce him to a rabbi and I think it was more for Steve to feel comfortable not trying to be something that’s exotic. I introduced him to someone who gave him license to basically be himself. The character he plays was something we discussed like I would discuss the character with any actor but it was more about the circumstance that he is in, the financial situation his synagogue is in and just how communities are organized at least in New York. Those were the things that we spoke about. I thought it was interesting for him and for me to be a big part of where Norman sits in the grand scheme and the big deal that he is putting together.
It seems to me that one thing that makes it possible for Norman to succeed as much as he does is that he has no social shame. Most of us would cringe at making ourselves vulnerable to so much rejection.
What’s odd about what you just said is that in a different context someone who is shameless is considered a negative thing but I think it’s actually a really positive quality not to have pride or to be willing to take humiliation. It’s something that most of us aren’t willing to do and many times we rely on other people not having those inhibitions, those blocks that we put on ourselves.
I have to really not look at Norman from the outside but be in Norman’s shoes. Norman isn’t aware that he’s doing something that is humiliating. He sees his goals and obviously he is doing things that most people won’t do to achieve that goal but he has his way of denying the insult when it happens. He thanks most people after they push him away. It’s part of what allows him to do what he does and it’s his survival tool, not really being aware of how other people see him.
I think the point for me in just figuring him out is just realizing that it’s not really humiliating, wanting something and being willing to do everything including doing every once in a while a conniving trick if it’s serving something that he thinks is good, then I respect that. The world needs people who are willing to do what Norman does.
Could Norman tell you exactly what he wants? A specific policy goal or project or just being a part of things?
Is it self-serving or is it a mixture of wanting some influence or having a position or having access to something that is good for Norman — but isn’t there also always something else or there might be something else that can be a result of that that is good?
I think it generally starts out that way but then it can get lost. Look at your Prime Minister character, Eshel. He begins as somebody who says, “No I couldn’t let you buy me these very expensive shoes,” and he ends up as somebody who has to do a lot of compromising.
What happens in that scene from my point of view is morally challenging. If I put myself in both these characters’ places, I don’t think I would accept a $1200 gift from someone I just met and I probably wouldn’t give a gift that is so expensive to someone I just met. So there’s something that feels wrong about the whole encounter and what makes it happen is that both sides convinced themselves that it’s okay. Eshel’s character convinces himself that by accepting the gift he is actually already returning the favor and that he is in a way giving Norman some sense of being part of an important mission or something bigger than himself by offering him a representative in this case of Israeli government, by offering him something that would make them feel more comfortable or feel better about himself. Norman is seeing this as an investment that will help him forward other initiatives that he has been trying to do and has not been successful. It’s a risky investment because Eshel may never call back or may never deliver or may never turn into someone who actually has power, but it’s worth it to him on instinct. He feels that this can work because he really needs to take every opportunity he can to get in. To have a foot in the door.
But that brings us to his downfall. Because he has that strategy or that impulse to take every possible advantage he gets into a conversation on a train that turns out to be kind of disastrous to him because it’s too revealing.
I agree with you in calling it an impulse, it’s not really something he can control, it’s what he does, it’s who he is, it’s an expression of his deepest core. He can’t hold back.
Norman does what he does on instinct. He is wired this way and it’s a survival thing more than a planned-out business scheme. It’s just how he survives. It’s his function in the world.
You live in both the US and Israel. We seem to be in a uniquely tumultuous moment. What comfort do you think people can take from watching this movie?
Hopefully there’s a lot of comfort to take from watching this movie but none of it should affect their mood about what’s happening in America. If anything the times we’re living are times that call for action. We shouldn’t take things for granted and we should try to influence our surrounding.