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Richard von Busack talks to director Eric Mendelsohn about 'Judy Berlin'

Eric Mendelsohn is one of the best hopes of the alternative cinema. His feature debut, Judy Berlin, made in 1999, has been playing in limited release in larger cities. The simplistic American Beauty has been praised as a cutting-edge look at suburbia. Unfortunately, Mendelsohn's far less melodramatic, and far more sensitive work, hasn't received comparable fame.

Mendelsohn's wistful but piercing visions of the suburbs--aided by his photographer Jerry Seckedorf--began with his short film "Through an Open Window." This emotionally overwhelming work, which turns up frequently on cable television, stars Anne Meara, the mother of Ben Stiller.

Meara's Mrs. Jensen is a woman expelled from the safety of her house by a bird that flies in her window during a summer's day. Through glimpses of the violent emotional life of a outwardly repressed woman, Mendelsohn presents the New York suburbs with an even hand--leafy, comforting and generous, yet fearful of contagion and intrusion.

Judy Berlin is at times less tragic than "Through an Open Window," but it is still profound. The film gives us the tragic/comic tale of one day in the life of Babylon, Long Island, with focus on the title character, an aspiring actress (Edie Falco), and her acquaintance, a rejected filmmaker named David Gold (Aaron Harnick).

Mendelsohn is easy to spot as a master filmmaker even with his first feature film, and I can't wait to see his next one. For that matter, I can't wait to see Judy Berlin again.

Metro: What baffles me is how a film that has been so honored on the festival circuit took more than a year to be released.

Mendelsohn: It's a compliment as far as I'm concerned. With the amount of dreck that's going around in the world today, when this isn't perceived as that, you've gotta just take the money and run. From the beginning, I think it's obvious why we made the film: for reasons that are outside Hollywood and for reasons that are outside the independent-film world.

When we were happy with the script, we stopped. When we were happy with the casting, we moved. When we were happy with the editing, we called it done. And there so many people right now who are literally finishing their films for Sundance [just] to get into the festival. "We have to get this film finished at such and such a date for Sundance." And I say, "You will have this film forever! Take the time! Get it right." Sundance is just seven miserable days. When we didn't get it picked up [for distribution] at Sundance, it didn't surprise me or bother me. What I got making the film, what Madeline Kahn and Edie Falco and Barbara Barrie meant to me--that's a gift, that I can live with for the rest of my life.

Metro: How autobiographical is Judy Berlin?

Mendelsohn: Very autobiographical ... in a sense. None of the plot is like anything I've been through. I grew up in that town, Babylon. [Pause.] I guess I've been avoiding the truth. I'm embarrassed about autobiographical material in the film, and I've avoided talking about that. Using aspects of your own life in a film feels like cheating over your own shoulder in a math test. Truly, those are not my own experiences. I am not David Gold, and I haven't been to California to make a film career for myself. I never lived back in my parents' house. I've never met a girl named Judy.

What is indisputably true--in the autobiographical sense--is that those are spaces, literally landscapes, that I know. I was dying to make a film that represented something about my emotional experiences on the Earth--something that was wistful and hopeful, and at the same time eerie. Something that was goofy and had a loopy humor and something that was as elegant as a harpsichord score. This film is a grab bag of my feelings about being present here for the human race. Just wanted to sort of send that out, like a radio broadcast: Does anybody have these feelings, this completely diverse group of emotions?

If anyone were to return to the town where they grew up ... and drive through that town on a day when no one knew they were supposed to be there ... and drive by the school bus stop and see new kids there ... and drive by your parents house and watch your mother on the telephone from the backyard, but not tell her you're in town--you don't have to be from where I live to understand those sorts of feelings. That was I was trying to get across.

Metro: In the various drafts of the screenplays, did the story start more sarcastic and end more loving? One aspect of Judy Berlin that stands out to those who love it is the absence of sarcasm.

Mendelsohn: I think from moment one of writing this script, I knew that David Gold had been sarcastic all of his life and had used sarcasm and wisecracks to float through high school. ... I'm completely tired of the raised-eyebrow, shooting-fish-in-a barrel type of irony. This movie pokes fun in a good-natured way at the provinces, but it also takes them very seriously. David was a person who had in lots of ways failed, because he had only had sarcasm and never had the ability to wholeheartedly believe in anything. I couldn't make the same mistake in writing the film.

Metro: Then from the beginning, the idea was not to explain what had happened to David Gold when he went to California?

Mendelsohn: Nobody doesn't understand these characters. I don't like to give you a literal back history. You'll get it. It's funny how much people pick up. In a brief instance of time upon meeting someone, they'll think, "I'd like to date her" or "She seemed troubled." People are more perceptive than American films will allow. People are smarter than flimmakers want to believe.

Metro: One of the things left open in Judy Berlin is the precise nature of the memory lapses afflicting Alice Gold (Madeline Kahn). The Hollywood Reporter described Alice as an alcoholic. Was she?

Mendelsohn: No. They liked the film so I wasn't about to complain. I think whoever wrote the review brought that idea to it.

Metro: And Box Office Magazine described David Gold's name as allegorical, presumably because he'd been defeated by the forces of Mammon.

Mendelsohn: I went to school with Lesley Gold, that's as far into the psychology of that name as I'll get. The movie was always intended to be a fable about real, hard truths, and that's a hard thing to go for. What is a fable about hard truths? But that's what I wanted, a tiny little black-and-white snow globe of a town, in which there were all these complex unrevealed people.

I was thinking of the kind of towns represented in children's books when I was little. Robert McCloskey used to be one illustrator of these tiny towns, with their empty lots and junkyards full of tires. I wanted to make a film as simple as that and as complex as something that was going on in Bergman's Persona.

My feeling of what happens to Madeline Kahn's character is a series of abandonments--by her husband, her son, her maid and her house. You'd think after all of that she becomes unmoored. In a way, she gets a sad sense of truth. And I feel like she gets stronger as the movie goes on. She has the sad realization that she needily pulls people into her orbit, to keep from realizing some very hard truths about her life. She's the kind of person who's desperately afraid of being left alone.

Madeline loves the character ... [Mendelsohn unconsciously referred to the late Kahn in the present tense, than corrected himself] ... loved Alice Gold. ... When we started working together Madeline made sure that I wasn't making fun of the character, and she was really happy to learn I was just as crazy about Alice as she was.

Metro: Do you remember what your specific direction was to Edie Falco during the pioneer-woman scene?

Mendelsohn: She takes seriously what she does, and the scene wasn't so much about getting laughed at by commenting on the character ... but instead getting laughs being the character. Judy doesn't comment on the fact that she has to work in the period-recreation pioneer village dressed like a pioneer. It's work, it's acting and that's great. Edie has done so many crazy jobs over the course of her life and taken them seriously--wearing a Madonna costume at bar mitzvahs on Long Island or waitressing ...

Metro: Was the history village a real place?

Mendelsohn: A stone's throw from my parents' house. When I was a kid we could sneak into the back. I thought it was delightful. To me, it was a chance to see that there actually was a history to a town that in all other respects seemed to have been invented in 1959.

Metro: The scene was an excellent counterpoint to the scenes of the contemporary angst.

Mendelsohn: People say why did you put this recreation village in there, with actors dressing up as pioneers and performing for an audience? The reason why I did it is that there isn't much difference in whether you are pioneering the land, putting away canned goods for winter or holding your tongue in the express lane when someone brings in 11 items.

Metro: Pauline Kael was writing about an Antonioni movie she didn't like, and she said, "When I get up in the morning, make the coffee and put out the dogs, I don't think I'm any more alienated than someone who lived 100 years ago."

Mendelsohn: It all takes a kind of perseverance and steadfastness that I admire immensely. It's all hard; I don't know how people do it. And I admire anyone who makes it through to the end of the day.

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From the April 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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