Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Author and Comics Scholar Paul Buhle on Who Framed Roger Rabbit

During its 18th Festival last April, The Toronto Jewish Film Festival presented a sidebar series entitled People of the Comic Book, which celebrated the Jewish pioneers and creators of comic art and animation. As part of this special programme, author Paul Buhle (Jews and American Comics and The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics) provided a special introduction to the American animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), contextualizing it as a Hollywood phenomenon of a distinctly Jewish character.

Author Paul Buhle

Much of the interest in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and its role in film history, animation and otherwise, is about technique, and that is entirely proper. The fact that a combination of live and animated materials could be done so deftly, in an age before digitization, is almost incredible and the discussion of this breakthrough with all the complications, including the use of characters owned by one film studio in the film by another studio, is the heart of the discussion among filmmakers that you can find on the DVD set.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit set a new standard, but what I want to offer to you as a new idea, or anyway, my idea, is that we can see the connection with the early Fleischer Studio experiments, at the early end of film history, and the related connections of live and animated material in American Splendor, with Harvey Pekar as the indispensable protagonist.

No one has pointed out, to my knowledge, that all this--these three connected points of animation breakthroughs in what might be called postmodern modes, but has precedented and succeeded what has been called postmodernism--are also JEWISH moments, Jewish breakthroughs. I don’t think that I can prove this point, but it is something to ponder as you watch the film.

A scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit

You will be seeing, after brief remarks from me, one of the most important but also intriguing animated feature films ever made. It is important, in a business sense, for reasons that you can easily find on the web or histories of animation in film and television. It is intriguing in ways that do not usually get discussed, involving Jewishness and the complications of Golden Age Hollywood’s Jewish presence, the sudden further corporatization of Hollywood at the eclipse of both the New Deal and the Golden Age boxoffice, in the second half of the 1940s. The loss of large-scale dreams about artistic independence and a more cooperative society. And the legacies left behind right up til now.

Let’s take on the film industry business side first and get it out of the way. Animation peaked in the 1940s, like the whole film business. But crashed more definitely in the 1950s, so much so that the effectively unionized and large Jewish world of animation workers saw wide-scale unemployment, with some economic relief but also artistic disappointment in the television work of the Hanna-Barbera studios. The best animation seemed likely to be made abroad, for a very long time.

It would be intriguing to say that the experiments of Ralph Bakshi during the 1970s made a lasting impact but like assorted television special animation features, the prospects of animation for adults remained uncertain. Then came Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, winning wide audiences for its innovative presentation, mixing live action and animation across feature-length, for its humor and for the strength of its story line.

It also brought Steve Spielberg into animation (he had done some cameo shots before) full scale as a producer, and with him Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of Disney animation, returning animation into the number one moneymaker of Disney enterprises, with two Jewish Americans atop a corporation once known for its hints of anti-Semitism, under Uncle Walt.

Industry professional Tom Sito, a self-made scholar of the field and a former student of Harvey Kurtzman at the New York School for the Visual Arts, told me that without Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the distinctly postmodern characters of alternative comic artist Matt Groening would never have been invited on to The Tracey Ullman Show and from there, the creation of The Simpsons. We are now more than twenty years since The Simpsons debut and it is still going strong. As social commentary, in my humble view, the Simpsons view of middle American life is unsurpassed. As animation, its success is not likely to be equaled.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

So let’s go back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the subtext, as Sito, inviting me to the hang-out cafĂ© of the animation workers local IATSE 839, described to me. The largest trauma in Hollywood Jewish history is of course the Blacklist, a leading subject of the 2007 Toronto Jewish Film Festival and a leading subject of my interviewing oldtimers. General readers often think of the Blacklist as being exclusively about Communists and ex-communists, and perhaps about accusations of divided loyalty among Jewish Americans. This view separates Cold War issues from all the other things going on in the film capital simultaneously. The end of the war saw another, sometimes violent, war over unionization, with thugs brought in to break union picket lines and, we learned later, actor Ronald Reagan as an FBI informer against the very largely Jewish Left in the unions and studios.

The sharp decline of revenues after 1947 was a body blow, considerably before television had reached the hinterlands and had its blanket effect on filmgoing. At the same time, hopes for independent production were still very much alive--the dream of writers, directors, grips and some stars that there would be a creative breakaway from the oligopoly of the handful of big studios, and the creation of art films that were popular. Abraham Polonsky, the great noir director and my favorite interviewee, seemed to be reaching toward that goal successfully, at least with John Garfield as his star, until the blacklist closed in on him.

Meanwhile, LA itself was being transformed in many ways, the most dramatic, to working people at least, taking place in the shutdown of what had been a superb mass transit system. It became clear later that this was a conspiracy of sorts to compel automobile sales, one of the great scandals in America’s loss of crucial human transport relative to the rest of the world and runaway sprawl.

So much happened so quickly that LA looked like a different place to many residents looking back from the middle 1950s to the middle 1940s. Jews continued to move there in large numbers, but so many democratic prospects were gone and the new residents seemed unaware how they had slipped away.

Roger Rabbit, then, is subtly about recovered memory. The Toons, animated characters, are the ordinary film workers and community, which was never as Jewish as writers, producers and even stars, but was Jewish enough for a kind of stamp of specialness, a semi-Jewish world that is losing what it had and that needs a kind of redemption. There’s a moment in the film, directly about mass transportation, the Red Cars, that makes this all clear. But you have to watch carefully for the explication.

Our protagonist seems to be on a much more normal noir detective plot--normal if we remember that the invention of the noir was largely by the Jewish Left in Hollywood--reflecting their view that the world of FDR and national unity was now gone, replaced by intrigue, betrayal and greed.

As you will see, the evil plot to take control of Toontown, to destroy it for a freeway and then force people to use that freeway by destroying the trolley fleet, is not entirely a product of fantasy. You have mostly seen the film, and won’t be surprised to learn that a crucial secret identity is involved here, or that the secret identity most common in Hollywood was the secret identity of Jews, disguised by name and perhaps nosejob, as gentiles.

There is so much to appreciate in this film, at any number of levels, that only by looking back toward the era when live-action and animation had not yet been mixed successfully (although attempted from earliest animation, as seen yesterday in Fleischer studios work of the early 1920s), we can only marvel at the smoothness and hilarity of the breakthrough. But it’s also true that animation, after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, rarely came back to the story of Hollywood itself, and the more hidden story of Hollywood Jews who did not become moguls or stars. Enjoy!

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Interview with the Co-Directors of the Israeli Comedy, A Matter of Size

A Matter of Size, the opening night film of the 2010 Toronto Jewish Film Festival


FilmMatters and Programmer
Toronto Jewish Film Festival

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival opened its 18th year with A Matter of Size, an uproarious “coming out” comedy of a different kind. Tired of being slaves to the “dictatorship of skinniness”, a group of overweight Israelis discovers the world of Sumo, where wrestlers are revered for their size. As they embark on a rigid training schedule under the strict watch of their Japanese coach (the owner of a Japanese restaurant in Ramle), each of the men embarks on a journey of self-discovery. While the audience is kept in stitches for much of the film, A Matter of Size ultimately delivers a serious message about learning to accept oneself.

Co-directed by Erez Tadmor and Sharon Maymon, A Matter of Size has won multiple international awards and has played at numerous festivals. The Weinstein brothers have recently purchased the film and an American version of the film is in the works. Susan Starkman recently had the chance to interview both of these directors about this film and some of their earlier works. The interviews were translated from Hebrew by Tamar Klarfeld.

Sharon Maymon (left) and Erez Tadmor (right) at TJFF's opening night screening of A Matter of Size.

Interview with Sharon Maymon

Susan Starkman: A Matter of Size is less about Sumo than it is about self-acceptance. What made you decide to use Sumo as a vehicle through which these men would come to accept themselves?

Sharon Maymon: The idea was indeed to write a film about self-acceptance and coming out of the closet. Because I did not want to write about that directly, I decided to look for another story through which I would be able to get the message across in its subtext. And then it struck me that I could use Sumo wrestling as a catalyst for freeing overweight people, and deal with the subject in this way. In addition, the protagonist of the film is called Herzl, named after Theodor Herzl, Hoze Ha'Medinah [visionary of the State] that freed the Jews from being dispersed all over the world. Like Theodor Herzl, Herzl in the film is a leader of sorts who frees and brings independence to overweight people. I wrote the script with Danny Cohen-Solal.

SS: At one point in the film, Aharon comments that there is no Sumo in Israel because there are no fat people in Israel. Do you think that Israeli society is as obsessed with being thin as North American society?

SM: Yes, I believe that similar to North American society, Israeli society is also controlled by the ‘dictatorship of thinness’. In Israel, good-looking equates to being thin. Everybody drinks diet cola and counts calories. It begins when kids are around 11, in elementary schools.

SS: The character of Mona, Herzl’s mother, reflects a conflicting attitude towards food; on the one hand, she criticizes Herzl for being obese and, on the other, she acts like a stereotypical Jewish mother by offering him more to eat. Do you see this contradictory relationship toward food as being a particularly Jewish phenomenon?

SM: Truth be told, Mona’s character’s is very close to my mother’s. I simply wrote the character based on my mother’s behaviour and it is difficult for me to analyse her. I think that at the end of the day her behaviour stems from love. She wants her son to be happy so she smothers him with love to the point that it suffocates him. In addition, I think that there is a connection between over-eating and being Jewish because on holidays we eat so much, much more than you would think is possible. After the holidays you can say that all Jews are on a diet, or at least claim to be.

SS: Both A Matter of Size and your earlier film, Mortgage, deal with serious social issues through comedy. Do you find it difficult to find a balance between keeping your audience entertained while still getting your message across?

SM: Yes, the movies that I write are dramatic and comic at the same time. I believe that it is easier that way to sweeten the pill and deal with difficult subjects in a lighter and communicative manner. Every time that I write a dramatic scene, I must temper it with humour in order to prevent it from becoming schmaltzy. It is easier for the audience to empathize with the situation if they can find a release through laughter.

Eli Finish and Hilla Sorjon-Fischer in Mortgage

SS: Mortgage explores the strain that financial problems can cause on a marriage. Do you think that working with a female co-director (Tal Granit) contributed to making the relationship between the husband and wife onscreen seem so realistic?

SM: I wrote Mortgage with a woman and therefore after the audience views the film they say that they felt that the woman sounded like woman and the man sounded like a man. There’s no doubt that you have to be a woman to write a woman’s role and the opposite.

SS: Where did you meet Erez Tadmor and how did the collaboration with him on A Matter of Size come about?

SM: I met Erez Tadmor on my first day of classes at Camera Obscura [Film School in Israel]. Already as students we worked together on projects so it was natural to direct this film together.

SS: Can you elaborate on the visual style of A Matter of Size, particularly the vibrant colour palette? How were you able to incorporate a Japanese aesthetic into an Israeli film? Are there any specific Japanese directors who influenced you artistically?

SM: No, we were not influenced by any Japanese directors, but the idea was to combine elements of Oriental art and Japanese styles. Erez and I travelled to Japan and researched the Japanese culture in general and the Sumo culture in particular. We combined elements of Japanese drawings, primarily in Kitano’s house and in the forest scenes where the actors were wearing the red “mawashi” (Sumo uniform). Regarding the colours, the idea was to start the film with dark and grey colours and, at the moment that Sumo entered the plot, the colours became warmer (with the introduction of the red mawashi). The idea was to pass the message of how the characters were feeling through the colour scheme.

SS: How much training did your actors go through before they could film a credible wrestling scene?

SM: The actors underwent sumo training for three months. Approximately one rehearsal was necessary on the film set in order to begin filming because the rehearsals had been precise and exhausting.

SS: How did Togo Igawa (Kitano), a Japanese actor based in England, become involved with this film?

SM: Our casting director found Togo Igawa. She auditioned him in England and both Erez and I flew to meet him in Germany. We auditioned him in our hotel room and, from the moment he entered the room, we knew that he was the one.

SS: Mortgage and A Matter of Size are both set in Ramle. Are any of the characters in these films based on people that you knew growing up in that city?

SM: Yes, many of the characters are based on archetypes that we knew in Ramle. Today I live in Tel Aviv, but when I sit in my writing room to write, I go back to the city of my birth and write about the people I met there. These are the people that I’m really interested in writing about. I guess I have Ramle in my blood.

SS: Like so many of the characters in Mortgage, Kitano is missing part of his finger as a result of a work-place accident. Will the characters in your next film have all of their fingers intact?

SM: The missing finger motif began with Mortgage and continued into A Matter of Size. My father lost a finger in a carpentry shop and apparently this influenced me and became etched in my memory. The idea of the missing finger connected naturally to the character of Kitano since, as everyone knows, the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) chop off fingers as the punishment for betrayal. The lead role in my next film (Good Death) is based on the character of Yehezkiel from Mortgage who was played by Zeev Revach. It can be seen as a sequel to Mortgage and he will be missing a finger in this film as well.

SS: Can you tell us about your other project with Tal Granit called La’harog Devora?

SM: La’Harog Devora is a short film that I directed with Tal Granit. The film was awarded best short film in the Haifa Film Festival. The film is, in essence, an allegory of Israel society. It opens with two men killing a bumblebee, which leads to a mass murder.

Interview with Erez Tadmor

Susan Starkman: A Matter of Size marks a radical stylistic departure from some of your more improvisational films such as Strangers and Offside. How did you approach writing a more conventional screenplay?

Erez Tadmor: Sharon Maymon contacted me after he finished the first draft of the film script that he co-authored with Dani Cohen Solel, and suggested that I join him in directing the film. From that moment, we embarked on a cross-border adventure. We started our research and travelled together to Japan. We stayed there for two weeks, where we were hosted by the Sumo University, and watched from the sidelines as the students trained – eating for three hours, training for three hours, round-the-clock training. We learned a little about admiration, how much the Japanese admire their Sumo stars – almost like the Italians with their soccer. We returned to Israel with the answers that we were looking for, and we started rewriting the script from a more knowledgeable perspective.

SS: Your last film, Strangers, is the first Israeli film to be listed on the Danish website Dogme95 (although, strictly speaking, the film does not adhere to all of the stringent restrictions laid out in the Dogme manifesto). How much influence do directors like Lars von Trier or Thomas Vinterberg have on your approach to filmmaking? What other directors have influenced your work?

ET: I was familiar with the Dogme films of Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier from the early Nineties. They brought a new and refreshing approach to filmmaking with films like The Celebration and The Idiots. So many directors adopted the Dogme Manifesto that they authored that it began to grow arms and legs. Even the creators of the Manifesto began to break the rules. That’s what we did with Strangers. We wanted to take two actors and film them from 8 in the morning until midnight every day and see what developed. We chose a couple that would be well matched and they met for the first time on a train in Berlin (in the opening scene of the film). That’s how it came to be that we had four people on the set, two directors (me and Guy Nattiv), a cameraman and a soundman. We decided where to take the characters and guide the actors’ improvisations – and then something amazing occurred. A romance developed right in front of our eyes and, of course, in front of the camera lens, a kind of romance that continued through to the end of the film. We felt that the Dogme approach to filmmaking was an effective way to capture the love story in the film and liberate it from the conventional mode of love stories.

SS: While the majority of the conversations between Eyal and Rana (the young couple in Strangers) were improvised, some of the scenes were scripted. Were their discussions relating to the Arab Israeli conflict and the war in Lebanon improvised or were they written beforehand? Did the outbreak of the second Lebanon war during the shooting of the film have any impact on the relationship between the lead actors?

ET: During the filming of Strangers we got a telephone call from the leading actor’s (Liron Levo) father, telling him that two soldiers had been kidnapped in the north of Israel. We wanted to film what really happened in that year and so we incorporated it into the film. We were so preoccupied with the love story that we didn’t even notice that a war was breaking out right under our noses. When we comprehended that fact, we stopped and thought about how to continue with the film. We couldn’t ignore what was happening so we decided to take the realism to the limit. Lubna Azbal, who played Rana returned home to Paris and we returned to Israel with Liron. We were there for a week, organizing ourselves, and focussing on soothing the nerves of our producer who was worried that he had only half a film. Then we travelled with Eyal to Paris and integrated what was happening in Israel at the time into the characters’ relationship. We decided not to film in Israel, so that the war would be depicted from the outside, through the perspectives of a non-Israeli and an Israeli living away from the country. The love story even grew bigger, since when Liron arrived in Paris he stayed at Lubna’s apartment. The script evolved with each day that we filmed.

SS: Two of your short films, Strangers and Offside explore issue of Arab-Jewish relations, but Offside presents a much bleaker message about the prospects for peaceful co-existence. Does this reflect an increasing pessimism on your own part? Can you tell us a bit about the third short film that you are planning to do to complete the trilogy?

ET: The first film in the trilogy, Strangers (the short version), deals with the Israel-Arab conflict, but from the perspective where we are all the same and we all have to join forces against the real enemy which is racism. The ending of this first segment is optimistic, but this is the segment based on a real experience that Guy Nattiv and I had, a personal experience that was etched in our memories. After the success of this film and the many awards it received around the world, including the Sundance Award for Best Short Film, we decided to do another segment, this time with a much more tragic approach to the situation. We showed that war was not child’s play and that when you arm soldiers (on both sides of the border) there is also the chance that they will use those arms. We didn’t want a rosy ending for each film in the trilogy. The problem still isn’t solved, it still exists and we wanted to emphasize this. After the premiere of the film at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, we were approached and embraced by Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian film directors. They said that the film should be screened all over the world and that it was important that it be seen how we are trapped in a dangerous cycle, just like the four soldiers in the film. The third segment will be much more optimistic, and it will be filmed soon.

Liron Levo and Lubna Azbal in Strangers

SS: The feature-length version of Strangers was warmly embraced internationally as a story of love triumphing over politics. What was the critical reception to the film in Israel?

ET: The film Strangers (the feature length version) was screened for the first time in Jerusalem and invoked an angry response. People wanted to know why we decided that the couple should remain together. The Israeli public still wasn’t ready for this. They connected with the love story but didn’t want them to be together at the end and that was sad. What does that say about us? Are we ready for peace? Only after the film was picked up for international distribution after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response at Sundance, did Israeli critics finally begin to treat us favourably. It was a difficult birth.

SS: You frequently work with a co-director (Sharon Maymon in A Matter of Size and Guy Nattiv in Strangers and Offside). What are the advantages to directing with someone else? Do you have plans for any solo projects?

ET: Two directors working together always benefits you as an artist, vis a vis the producers, vis a vis the funds, and vis a vis the actors. It’s not that the work gets easier; it’s even harder sometimes, but there are many advantages to having two brains on the film. I have also done films together with Guy Nattiv (who co-directed both the short version and feature length version of Strangers as well as the short film Offside). There was no ego-tripping over who would direct, stemming from our mutual desire to produce. Without these impediments, there are no problems: anything is possible. Also, the work with Sharon Maymon on A Matter of Size was very interesting and productive. We studied together at film school and so we understood each other. The producer was less satisfied because there were more takes, but the editor was happier.

SS: A Matter of Size explores the issue of the discrimination faced by overweight people in a society preoccupied with being thin. Did you visit any weight loss clinics as part of your research into the film? Are the leaders of these groups as brutal as Geulah or are they more supportive?

ET: Before we started filming, we met with a group of overweight people who belonged to a social group that was proud of being fat and believed that everyone should be more like them. They were a close group of friends who met regularly at restaurants and movies. They met with us after reading the script and helped us to fine tune certain aspects of the story, particularly the areas that related to the “dictatorship of skinniness” and the inner feelings of an overweight person in Israeli society. They told us about all kinds of diets that they had been on and the various diet coaches they had seen. These experiences were an important step towards their final liberation from the societal pressure to be thin.

SS: Itzik Cohen (Herzl) is best known in Israel as a drag queen and as the gay Hitler in the Israeli production of The Producers. How did you get him to become involved with the film?

ET: We contacted Itzik Cohen after seeing him in the Drag Show “B'not Pessia” and many other popular performances at the Israeli Cameri theatre. We believed that he was the only person to play the role of Herzl. We approached his agent, but he claimed that Itzik did not want to play a leading role that portrayed him as a fat person. We told the agent that he must read the script, but Itzik refused. Only after a personal meeting with the actor, where we explained why he must play a fat man, did he understand and agree to read the script. But there were many other crises along the way. He didn’t want to take off his shirt at first, but he finally got used to the idea. The Sumo training tired him out (there really was some rigorous training) and he nearly left the film during the rehearsals. Each day we could never be sure if he was in or out of the film. Every day there was a new surprise. It was only once that filming began that he was committed to seeing the project through.

Right: Itzik Cohen in the Israeli production of The Producers

SS: Was it difficult to find an overweight female lead willing to do a film that deals so explicitly with the issue of obesity? Did the actors bring any of their own experiences of being discriminated against to the film?

ET: We were lucky, early on, to have discovered Irit Kaplan, who played Zehava. There were no particular obstacles to overcome with her. She was a professional actress who understood her role from the beginning and cooperated with every scene. Each of the actors took their own journey through this film. The most difficult scene for Irit was the moment where she was “lynched” by the inmates of the women’s prison for being fat. It reminded her of how she had been treated in the past and that made her very sad. The same was true for Itzik and the rest of the actors in the film.

SS: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

ET: I wrote a film called The Son of God that I will be directing it with Guy Nattiv. The filming is scheduled to begin around October 2010. It is a story of a father and son who go out in search of a magician that disappeared in chilly Poland. The father, a Holocaust survivor who was once a magician, and the son, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Breslov rap singer, have not spoken in years. They find themselves on a journey in search of the man that saved the father. This is to be the last chance to thank the man for teaching the father the art of magic that ultimately saved his life during the war. The journey will serve to bring the father and son together to rediscover their relationship. It is an Israeli-Polish co-production and some of the actors will be Polish.

Itzik Cohen and Irit Kaplan in A Matter of Size