Thursday, April 9, 2009

An Interview with Cindy Kleine, director of Phyllis and Harold

Assistant Programming Coordinator
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

Film and video artist Cindy Kleine brings her most recent documentary,
Phyllis and Harold, to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. In this film, Kleine whimsically blends animation, family photographs, home movies and cinema verité to tell the story of her parents’ troubled 59-year marriage. Set in the vividly-recreated upper-middle class suburbs of Long Island, this tour-de-force documentary captures the values, ambitions and stifled longings of her parents’ generation of North American Jews.

You can visit Cindy Kleine’s website, by clicking here.

Filmmaker Cindy Kleine

Stuart Hands: Would you mind talking about the evolution of your film, Phyllis and Harold? How was it initially conceived?

Cindy Kleine: It started with the interviews that you see in the first quarter of the film, the ones where [my parents] are wearing their sunglasses. I interviewed them separately and asked them the same questions, and they answered with completely different perspectives. I was shooting those interviews with the intention of using them as dialogue for a fiction film. So I started editing them to make transcripts for the actors to read. And as I was in the process of cutting, I became completely enamored of how incredible these interviews were when cut together. I then ended up not doing the fiction film, because I thought you could never get actors to do this convincingly, and the material was so strong. So then I just used what I cut together for the transcript, which became a short film called Till Death Do us Part. That film was shown in 1998 and 1999. It was not shown widely because I didn’t want it to be distributed, as my parents were still alive at that point and I knew I wanted to keep working on the film. I knew I couldn’t tell the whole story while my dad was alive so I kept working on it in sections. I had this idea of making a feature-length film out of three or four short films. I then made the second section, which showed them reading the letters—that was at one time a kind of separate film—but it didn’t really stand on its own. It kind of went from there, and little by little, over twelve years, it kept growing and evolving into what it is now.

The two interviews from Till Death Do Us Part, which reappear in Phyllis and Harold

Married for 55 years, Phyllis and Harold read their love letters from their courtship

SH How much of Phyllis and Harold did your mother see before she passed away?

CK: Sadly, she didn’t see the whole finished film. She died before it was finished. What she did see was Till Death Do Us Part, the twenty-minute short of those interviews, which she loved. My father saw Till Death Do Us Part before it was completely finished, when it was a ten-minute film, but it didn’t have my mother blatantly talk about the affair she had: She sort of eluded to it in a way that, if you didn’t want to get it, you didn’t get it, and he didn’t get it. He looked at the ten-minute cut of the interviews and thought it was hysterically funny, which amazed me. He was just sitting there laughing and he grabbed my mother’s hand. I realized later that he thought it was so funny because she was saying things like, “oh those so-called love letters he sent me”, where she was being really negative. But, on the other hand, she married him and here they were sitting there fifty-five years later, still together, and somehow it struck him as hilarious. I was nervous because I didn’t know if he would be hurt by it. I had no idea how he would react, but he loved it.

SH: Have any friends or family of your parents seen the film?

CK: A lot of their friends aren’t around anymore, but there have been several of their friends who have seen it. It’s very difficult for their friends. A couple of my mother’s friends have seen it. They knew the story, knew her basic story, so it didn’t really come as a complete surprise, but I think it was very difficult for them. I realized when I showed it to them that each of us is a different person to whoever knows us in our life— your mother sees you in a totally different way than your friend sees you, and your sibling sees you differently than someone else does—so I realized that, for them, it was difficult for them to see me portraying my mother as a kind of narcissist. Nobody had any objection to my portrayal of my dad. In fact my dad’s brother just saw it recently. He watched it without me—in fact I didn’t even know he watched it—but he loved it. I was really worried about him seeing it, but he absolutely loved it and wanted to see it again. But, one friend of my mother’s—her best friend—was quite upset by it: She felt that I portrayed my mother wrongly; it wasn’t the way that she saw her. I think what happens is that people project their own issues on to it and so she saw it in her own way and we had to have some discussions about it. She is fine now, but she wasn’t thrilled about it.

SH: Over the course of your filmmaking career, did it take time for your parents to become comfortable in front of your camera?

CK: No, not at all. One of the big lucky things that allowed me to make this film is that they were completely comfortable with the camera from the first second I turned it on. I didn’t have to coax them. A lot of people asked me, how did you get them to do this? That was a non-issue. I would just turn the camera on and they would talk really freely, my mother more freely as you can see. My father is not a big talker, but they were both very happy to answer questions. The only times that they were slightly [ill at ease were when] I was filming them in their house and they are walking around in their underwear and doing their own thing: They would suddenly get self-conscious and look at me and say, “Why are you filming this? Don’t you want us to do something? Why is this interesting?” They felt funny just being filmed doing nothing. Other than that, they were fine. My mother would just light up in front of the camera—she absolutely loved it.

SH: What has been the response so far to your film, Phyllis and Harold, among American Jews of your parents’ generation?

CK: Not surprisingly most American Jews of my parents’ generation find at least a little something they can relate to. It’s only been shown at one Jewish film festival [The Boston Jewish Film Festival] and that was my best screening, because it was a huge audience which just seemed to relate to it on an even deeper level and more broadly than most others. It seemed that a lot of people were laughing at most things that I think are funny, which most people don’t get, because it’s got that dark Jewish sense of humor. Every time I’ve shown it, people come up to me and say, we lived in Long Island right near there and my marriage was exactly like that. People really relate to it, not only Jews, but many people of that generation.

SH: Were there Jewish women in the audience that could relate to the sense of being stifled like your mom was?

CK: Absolutely, I think that’s one of the things that most women could relate to. I think that whole generation of women was really stifled. They were trapped in their lives and their marriages by the cultural expectations and what it meant at that time to be a wife. It’s not just the Jews of that generation, except that I think, at least for my parents, there was a [Jewish emphasis] on family that it made it very difficult to get out of marriages— people didn’t get divorced if they were unhappy. There was a sense of having to stick with it, not wanting to destroy the family. You married someone that you didn’t necessarily love, but they were your high school sweet heart and you didn’t want to disappoint your family if you didn’t [marry them]. There was a lot of that stuff going around for my parents and their friends.

An early home movie seen in Kleine's Phyllis and Harold

SH: Despite the bitterness you must have developed toward your parents while growing up, you display sensitivity and understanding toward them in your film. How were you able to achieve such perspective?

CK: Achieving a certain perspective, I would say, is just who I am, who I grew to be. Maybe it’s from coming out of that family. From a very young age, I remember my parents screaming at each other, and I would go into my room, close the door and draw. It was as if making art was my own way of making my own world, blocking them out, deciding how I can make my own reality. Making art can be a very redemptive activity, almost like an alchemical process, where you take reality and transform it into something else, something more like you want it to be. I think there is [a kid] in every family who is just always on the outside, just observing, and that is who I was. The act of making my family members into characters in my films also allowed me to [see] them at a distance, to objectify them, to see them with more perspective and, I think, therefore, with more compassion too. I wasn’t embroiled in my own emotions toward them as much. Maybe that’s also partly why I became a filmmaker. You remove yourself and put yourself behind the camera. Maybe, in a sense, I learned that from my father, because he was always doing that—he was kind of always there but behind the camera.

SH: Was he more comfortable like that?

CK: I think he was. He even said in the film at one point, “you know me, I’m not a communicator.” He wasn’t a big talker, he didn’t talk about feelings or emotion. As kids, he adored us, but I think he felt more comfortable taking our picture than grabbing us and putting us on his lap and telling us a story. He was sort of shy and uncomfortable with children, which I think was a generational thing. I think a lot of men [of that era] were uncomfortable with children because they were off working all day while the women took care of the kids.

SH: What gifts do you think your parents gave you? What positive lessons did they teach you?

CK: [Concerning my mother], in one way, I feel her character was a study of narcissism, but on the other hand, she was trapped in her life and her marriage—but she talked about it so freely. In a way, she became my teacher, the person I learned from [in terms of] how I didn’t want to live, the kind of marriage I didn’t want to have. So her talking about all that was a gift to me. And, in a way, my father was also my teacher: He taught me how to use a camera; he was always making these gorgeous photographs, even when his subject was this family that was completely dysfunctional. He made photos that were gorgeous as well as really honest: As you see in the film, he didn’t only make my family look fabulous. He also took those bizarre pictures of my sister looking like she wanted to flush me down the toilet. He saw with an honest eye, I think.

SH: You said in a previous interview that your father as a photographer had a great sense of composition.

CK: Oh yeah, I think he was really talented. He took thousands of pictures. I had to choose from approximately 2500 slides that he shot; the amount used in the film is nothing. Actually I still have this idea of one day publishing a book of his photographs because they are really classic forties and fifties family shots. He had an amazing sense of composition. He was a really great, talented, creative guy. I once said to him, “you’re so good at [photography], you’re really talented.” And he said, “Ah, you’re ridiculous, it’s just a hobby” Anything that you didn’t make money out of didn’t seem to him as being valid. To him, work equaled money, otherwise it was just a hobby, so he sort of poo-pooed it. But he was very talented.

SH: Your short film Nana focuses on your mother’s mother. What do you feel are the differences between the marriage of your grandmother and that of your mother?

Shots from Kleine's Nana (1987)

CK: It’s an interesting question. I would say that I come from a long line of matriarchal Jewish women. They all were very powerful. My grandmother was the ruler of the roost—[her home] was her domain and she hardly ever left it. She moved around her house like my mother did around hers, but with total control. In some ways, they both married similar kinds of men: They both married men who would allow them to be the boss and let them walk all over them, be mean to them and yell at them. My nana would scream at her husband all the time. They were married for 68 years and they fought the whole time. [My mother and grandmother] had similar marriages, but the difference was generational, as my nana was a first generation Jew.

My great grandmother Rose—my Nana’s mother—came over in steerage on a boat from Europe at age 18: She was pregnant and had a miscarriage on the boat. She came over by herself because, while on the train before they got to the boat, her husband was hauled off the train by the police because he didn’t have his papers when he went to go use the washroom. So Great Grandmother Rose was pregnant, sitting on this train and her husband never came back from the bathroom. She got to the place where the boat docked and waited for him for three days, but he never showed up. So she got on the boat by herself and ended up on Ellis Island by herself, after having a miscarriage on the boat. She then found some relative on the Lower East Side, moved in with them and opened a saloon. She became a saloon-keeper—she was this tough, fierce, big lady. She single-handedly ran this saloon and would throw out drunks by herself, apparently. She had ten children and her husband, I was told, was a Talmud Scholar, so he was always upstairs studying, because he was too religious to work (that was the phrase I always heard). So my nana, from age 12, grew up working in this saloon and pouring beer for the big, drunk guys. She was very tough, had a very hard life and she never complained. I’m sure my grandmother had her issues and fought all the time with her husband, but she would never have whined and complained about it: [She felt that one had their] lot in life and you did what you had to do, and you worked very hard.

My mother, on the other hand, had a very easy life. My grandmother had enough money for my mother to go to Brooklyn College for day classes, which was a big step up in the world. My mother then married someone who had money. So she had a relatively easy life and didn’t have to work nearly as hard—if at all—like my grandmother did, but she was always complaining about her marriage. So I think there was this big difference in generation.

SH: Do you think there was a certain strength that was passed from your grandmother to your mother, but your mother had no place to use it?

CK: I think there is something to that. I think my grandmother passed a lot of things to my mother and I don’t really know a lot about them. Nana never really talked about anything personal. I never saw my grandmother cry. She was a very tightly-wound person. I can’t really imagine what kind of mother she was. The only thing I know about her was that, as a mother, she—and I think this is very generational thing—brought my mother up to be this beautiful darling that would attract the right man. It was very important that she always looked perfect—you can see that in the old home movies. She had these gorgeous outfits that Nana made her—coats with beautiful fur collars—and she always had beautiful makeup. I think she primped her like a doll. When you had a daughter at that time, you had to make them very attractive, charming and lady-like so they would get a good man who could support them. There wasn’t a sense that she would make a living or become a professional woman, because it was too early for that.

SH: I wonder if your mom hadn’t had everything done for her, had she been given a greater sense of independence, would she have been as preoccupied with this affair and the life she could have had with this other man?

CK: I don’t know if the life she had with the other man was just a fantasy that she would have needed within any marriage. I get the feeling that if she had married this lover, she still would have been unfulfilled, but I obviously could never know that.

SH: While growing up, did you feel much connection to your Jewishness?

CK: Growing up, my Jewishness was something I just took for granted because I didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t Jewish. In Long Island, my whole neighborhood was Jewish. Like other kids, I was dragged to the temple for high holidays and forced to wear new outfits. It never really meant anything to me and, in fact, it really bored me. [At synagogue] my friends and I would go into the bathroom and smoke cigarettes and stuff. I knew we were Jewish and I knew what we were suppose to do, but nobody really ever taught me what it meant to be Jewish. Then when I went to prep school, where I was one of five Jews in the whole school, I started to have a consciousness that there is something different or weird about being Jewish. But, it wasn’t until I was 40 that I started to become interested and embraced [my Jewish roots]. Two things happened simultaneously. First of all, I met the man who is now my husband Andre [theatre director, actor, playwright and painter Andre Gregory] who is the first Jewish man I ever had as a boyfriend. All my boyfriends [that lasted beyond a couple of weeks] were not Jewish. Also, when I turned forty, I started to take Kabbalah classes from this amazing Rabbi here in New York named Joseph Gelberman. He is about to have his 97th birthday and he is still teaching. He changed my life. He really became an important teacher for me, as he really taught me what Jewishness was and what it meant to me, mostly through the mysticism side of it. He officiated at both my parents’ funerals as well as married my husband and I here in New York. He’s become a very important person to me. It’s only been in the past 10 years that I’ve been into that.

SH: Did your parents attend your wedding?

CK: We had two weddings: the first was in Hawaii in the garden among the ruins of an old Sugar Mill. My parents did not come to the wedding because it was too far away, which we kind of knew and that is why we did it there. The minute I told my parents that I was getting married—they both were on the phone—it was one of the most hilarious conversations I ever had with them. The two of them were on the phone in different parts of the house and I’m in New York telling them. The reaction I expected was, “oh congratulations that is so great”. They—especially my father—[responded with], oh my god we’ve got to tell everyone, we’ve got to invite so and so…people I had never even heard of. I realized that in five minutes, they were going to insist on having this wedding with 300 people I didn’t know, and I started to panic. So we ended up going to Hawaii, where there were only 12 guests at the wedding. And a couple weeks later, we had a New York wedding for our family, where the Rabbi married us again. My parents were at that wedding, in fact they walked me down the aisle.

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