The Meshuga Plum Fairy
James Killough discusses the Holocaust film via his own misadventures in filmmaking, and somehow manages to review Sarah’s Key.
Even if you’re not in the film business, most people are conversant with how hard it is to deal with the studios when making a feature film. Any given episode of Entourage is a slice-of-life peek into the morass of ego and fear and plain bad taste that is the development and production process. But what is seldom examined is the darker corner of the film business, that mysterious tangle of dank, bat-filled caverns behind the studio walls, which has so bewildered so many unsuspecting filmmakers that some have disappeared forever in its mazes. I am, of course, talking about Distribution.
The experience of having a movie released theatrically by a major distributor can sour even the most optimistic producer, who might still be in love with the business despite actually having made it as far as being able to show his oeuvre to the public, which is akin to winning a season of Survivor. The accounting practices are legendary, especially the bit when they offset the losses from another film on the profits of yours if it’s a hit. There are other traps, too, like that guarantee of a healthy market saturation of five hundred screens and a Christmas release, which is suddenly moved to February and dropped to five theaters. What are you going to do? Hire a litigator for a minimum of $50,000 and go through the process of suing a studio?
It’s possible to sue, I know producers who have done it and succeeded. Of course, then you risk becoming known as “Shithead” in the corridors of Paramount, and can’t get another movie set up for six years, but chalk that down to just another cost of doing business, n’est ce pas?
I’m still in Miami. Now that it has stopped raining—and it rained continuously for two months—it’s not that bad. But despite the annual Art Basel event in December and lots of other cultural initiatives, this city remains a cinema backwater. It’s something of a revelation to me as an indie filmmaker as to why it is so hard for our films to make any money. This isn’t Bumfuck, NJ where Mr. Baker lives. This is supposed to be a major city. Yet very little that isn’t Hollywood crap comes to Miami, even to the art house cinemas. The situation is so dire that we’ve had to suspend the video film reviews until the end of this month when I return to LA.
The worst case in point has been the release of Pedro Almodòvar’s The Skin I Live In. This is a apparently a classic from the master of contemporary Spanish cinema. I wouldn’t know, I haven’t been able to see it; Skin hasn’t been released in this predominantly Spanish-speaking city yet, but the mediocre Sarah’s Key, a film about the Holocaust starring Kristin Scott Thomas, is showing on several screens.
I can only think that this is because as much as South Florida is Hispanic, it is also Jewish. Only a few hours spent on Sunny Isles near where I am will show you how that balance works: members of The Tribe will be sitting in the cafés eating overpriced pastries, reading brochures about very well-priced condos nearby, served by waiters speaking to each other in island-accented Spanish. After seeing Sarah, I told my Shriekin’ Rican, Willy, my theory about the non-distribution of Skin versus the relative local market saturation of Sarah, and he nodded and rubbed his fingertips together.
“La plata,” he said. The money.
Knowing how the bean-counting, focus-grouping distributors in Hollywood work, there is little mystery as to why this imbalance exists: Jews go to see movies, especially ones with Jewish themes. Hispanics don’t go to see anything, apparently, not even a masterpiece by a Spanish master. It might also be that they socialize differently; like the British, Hispanics might find that going to the movies fucks with their drinking and carousing. Sitting in a dark cinema is part of a mating ritual for some cultures, while others would rather throw back the rum and dance to live music. I don’t know.
The only thing worse than a mediocre Holocaust film like Sarah’s Key is a bad Holocaust film, and the only thing worse than a bad Holocaust film is Inglourious Basterds, but I seem to be completely alone in my opinion about that. I am alternately repelled and fascinated by the Holocaust, so I will watch almost anything about it, but if that almost anything sucks, then I’m extra repelled.
Just after I replaced Channing Tatum in the film version of Hatter with young Israeli actor Michael Lewis, he and his manager joined me LA for meetings. There was some talk about Israeli financing for the film, about which I was extremely wary, but my producing partner and lead actor Alan Cumming was insistent we pursue it. I found Michael’s manager, Adi Cohen, to be not only a little dodgy, but also more than a bit meshugana, Yiddish for crazy. Perhaps it’s because I’m a crazy-but-in-a-good-way person myself, but I can almost smell insanity on someone else at times. And Adi reeked of it. (In defense of my particular brand of crazy, there is a stark difference between being deeply eccentric and having a personality disorder, but the two are definitely related.)
Michael and I got along very well right from the start. I genuinely like the guy. He’s not just big and gorgeous and masculine, he’s got the kind of street smarts, natural abilities and grounded common sense that I fell in love with quickly, but in a bromantic sort of way, nothing sexual or outright romantic. If I can smell insanity on some people, I can also tell when a guy is so heterosexual he doesn’t mind modeling underwear in gay bars and admitting it on TV. And it was in a gay bar in Tel Aviv watching said underwear fashion show that Adi Cohen discovered Michael at the age of sixteen and made him a star.
As E! Entertainment said when they named him one of the sexiest men in the world, which was around the time we were on this trip to LA, Michael was so famous in Israel “he should have his name printed on the money.” In my opinion, and not just my opinion, Adi was in love with Michael, but the feelings weren’t reciprocated. But as I know very well from my own past delusional romantic pursuits, love doth make fools of us all. Adi could barely think straight when it came to Michael, full pun intended.
We were invited by the Israeli Consul General of LA to a special screening of a movie in Westwood. My creative partner, Rain Li, was in town and we were already meant to have dinner later that night with some producer friends which sort of conflicted with the timings of the screening, but we thought we’d dip in, shake hands, humor the Israelis and leave when we had to. It is hardly unusual in LA to have to leave a screening early, unless it’s a Holocaust film and you are a guest of the Israeli government, apparently.
Regardless of distributor Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.’s gross overstatement in a speech before the movie started—“The moment I saw this film, I knew I just had to have it”— you didn’t need to be a filmmaker to see from the first five minutes that this was a turd. Ten minutes into it, Michael Lewis on my right started squirming. On my left, the chronically jet-lagged Rain Li fell asleep on my shoulder and started “dwibbling,” as she calls drooling in her Beijing mockney accent. After twenty minutes, the biggest star in Israel got up and hauled his six-foot-four gorgeous frame out of the theater. Roused by him passing in front of her, Rain said, “This is crap. And I’m hungry.” So a polite five minutes later, we muttered our excuses and left, too.
Outside the theater, we saw Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., the purported massive fan of this drek, scarfing down what he could from the concession stand like a fat bitch in the throes of a massive anxiety attack. Michael, who was only twenty at the time, was sliding down the cinema’s staircase banister. So we grabbed him and headed to dinner. He would be better off meeting producers of movies for his age group than hanging around there for another two hours polishing the banister with his ass.
“I’m so bored of Holocaust films,” Michael said on the way to Weho. “It’s always the same thing. Enough already.” It was one of the rare things he said which reminded you that he was barely a year away from being a teenager. I don’t agree with him, but I can understand how growing up soaked in that lore relentlessly might start to wear on an impatient youth.
For the all of crazy-person-sensing reasons I mentioned earlier, I knew that Adi Cohen was going to turn this incident into something more than what it was. I said to Michael over dinner, sincerely, “Whatever happens next, I want you to know I would have cast you in Hatter anyway.”
What happened over the next few days was nuts. Adi Cohen turned it into a faux diplomatic incident, locked himself in his hotel room for five days, missed every meeting relating to the film, and then returned to Israel to plot and scheme. The outcome was really quite delirious, but I won’t detail it in this post. The upshot is eventually his plotting and scheming derailed the production completely and now Hatter is being turned into a play. At some point, when the storm of his shenanigans reached critical mass, I dubbed him ‘The Meshuga Plum Fairy.’
Indeed, it seems that a Holocaust film with government backing—any government—is inevitably going to be particularly sanctimonious and overly reverent. The better ones of recent years— Life is Beautiful, The Reader, The Counterfeiters, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—were unfettered by having to answer to institutions and could take liberties with the angles they chose, successfully. When you see the government of Île de France, the name of the state that encompasses Paris, in the opening credits of Sarah’s Key you know that you’re in for an uh-oh experience. It is no longer a feature film, it’s an historical reenactment of sorts for the local Jewish museum, a fictitious docudrama.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays an American journalist with anachronistically crippling Gentile’s Burden, who has lived in France for twenty-five years and is married to a Frenchman who has inherited an apartment in the Marais district of Paris. The apartment was once home to a Jewish family deported to the camps during the shameful La Rafle, a roundup of Jews that interred them momentarily in the Vel d’Hiv indoor bicycle race track before shipping them off to the camps. The film flits back and forth between the summer of 1942 and the present, and when it stops flitting it sinks.
Eerily, the title character, Sarah, seems to be the same little blond Jewish girl who appears at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, except Tarantino’s version grows up to be a terrorist who assassinates Hitler, while this one becomes a suicidal depressive, which is more much likely, much more Sophie’s Choice (would that it were).
Kristin Scott Thomas does her best to rise above this limping hagiography of the seventy-three thousand from the Vel d’Hiv who were murdered by Nazis (abetted by the French themselves), just as she rises above almost everything she’s in these days. Full marks for passion, Kristin.
What always surprises me is how beautifully Kristin speaks French. She speaks it as well as she speaks English, absolutely flawlessly; she would have to have been born in France to speak it so well. It is remarkable that, according to Wikipedia, she learned it at the age of nineteen—puts mine to shame, I feel like a lazy bastard. Her American accent is almost as good, with a slight Ameropean accent that this Ameropean found believable.
I had to stay until the end credits to see if my friend Darren Evans, who often does Kristin’s makeup, was responsible (he wasn’t) for the orange lipstick in the scene in Florence when Kristin’s character meets Sarah’s son for the first time, played by Aidan Quinn. This is the moment when you think you can hear that World War II sound effect of a Kamikaze plane spiraling down as the film crashes and vaporizes into sentimental drivel, a disaster from which neither Kristin nor Quinn can eject themselves.
Kate Winslet is often erroneously quoted as having said the following about The Reader during her Oscar campaign, when it was in fact a scripted guest appearance on HBO’s Extras with Ricky Gervais:
“I don’t think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? How many have there been? I mean, we get it: it was grim, move on. No, I’m doing this because I’ve noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust — guaranteed an Oscar. I’ve been nominated four times, never won. The whole world is going, ‘Why hasn’t Winslet won one?’ … That’s it. That’s why I’m doing it.”
And then she nabbed the statuette for her role as an illiterate concentration camp guard.
Sarah’s Key is being released by the Weinstein Company, so Harvey may have vague, half-hearted plans about making a run for a nomination for Kristin as well. While I don’t agree with the above statement from Extras, it is true that good Holocaust dramas do seem to win a disproportionate amount of awards. This is because it is an event in our recent history from which millions of searing dramas can be woven, which was my fundamental problem with Inglourious Basterds.
But that’s for another post.