The bottom line

Iconic director Paul Mazursky on why the J'lem Film Festival is the one worth traveling 17 hours for.

yippee film 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
yippee film 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Director Paul Mazursky has had a long career making movies that both define their times and are a little bit ahead of them. His latest movie (and first documentary), Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy, an account of a journey he took with the Breslav Hassidim to Uman at Rosh Hashana, fits right into that pattern. The 77-year-old American filmmaker, who is here to present Yippee at the Ninth Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival and receive that festival's Lifetime Achievement Award, took some time out to reflect on what secular Jews can learn from hassidim and vice versa, working in Hollywood, dealing with the Holocaust on film and a variety of other topics. But no matter how serious the subject, Mazursky peppers the conversation with jokes and juicy anecdotes, mixing the serious and the comic, as he does in all his films. "I really came here to buy underwear," he says over breakfast at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the day after receiving his award at the opening of the festival. Come again? It seems he forgot to pack underwear when getting ready for his trip, so after he accepted his prize - he told the packed hall at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, "This is the only festival I would travel 17 hours to come to" - he stepped down from the stage and was handed another package, which he called "even more valuable," containing new underwear purchased by the Cinematheque staff. "Why'd they ask, 'Are you large or extra large'?" he groused at the reception. "Why not 'small or medium'?" But although Mazursky, a born comedian and raconteur, won't stop with the jokes, he occupies a very serious place in the history of American film. The Brooklyn-born Mazursky started out as an actor, appearing as one of the streetwise kids in the Glenn Ford classic, Blackboard Jungle, and in one of Stanley Kubrick's first films, Fear and Desire (he still acts in movies and television series such as The Sopranos), but he's best known as a director. He burst onto the world film scene in 1969 with his feature film debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which shocked many in the US with its depiction of a swinging, non-monogamous lifestyle, not among unwashed hippies, but with two upper-class California couples, one member of which was played by an American icon, movie star Natalie Wood. An Unmarried Woman (1978), starring Jill Clayburgh, defined the era of women becoming truly independent, without resorting to humorless gender politics. In 1976, he made the semi-autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village, which looked back at his birth as an artist in the 1950s and the sexual and social reality of the period with clear eyes, free of the foggy nostalgia that has clouded so many other films about this period. When most Americans weren't yet aware that a new breed of self-assured immigrants were doing anything they could to reach the US, Mazursky made Moscow on the Hudson (1984) about a Russian jazz musician, played by Robin Williams, who defects while shopping at Bloomingdale's. The issue of homelessness was just beginning to reach public consciousness in 1986, when Mazursky made Down and Out in Beverly Hills, starring Nick Nolte as a clever vagrant who stumbles into the yard of a crazy rich couple, played by Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler. And in 1989, he was one of the first and perhaps the only director to look at victims of the Holocaust as flesh-and-blood human beings and not glorified martyrs, when he made Enemies: A Love Story. AND NOW, when many directors would be resting on their laurels, he decided to head to Uman, to document the pilgrimage of 25,000 hassidic men to the grave of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Nahman of Breslav. He was introduced to the idea of this trek by his optometrist, David Miretsky, who accompanied him to Ukraine. "I met people there who said, 'I couldn't live without it, I couldn't live without making this trip every year,'" he says. "You know, it's not a luxury vacation. There are hardships." He recalls the makeshift apartment he and his crew rented from a local man. "The food isn't good. I had one meal that was all right in goyishe Uman, but it's not good food." He also traveled with a broken arm, against doctor's orders. Much of what he found in Uman surprised him. "There were about 10,000 Israelis, a lot of them were living in tents. And about 15,000 others. There were kids, they were so cute. Some of them were running around, running a little wild. And there was that ecstatic dancing, that's what they do, they pray and dance until two or three in the morning." Although many Israelis are familiar with the joyful philosophy of the Breslav Hassidim, seeing the embodiment of this teaching was very moving for Mazursky, who quotes an interview he did in the film with Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, who says, "Better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say, 'Yippee! I'm alive!'" Mazursky was also taken by surprise by the sophistication he encountered among some of the faithful (although some scenes from the film make it clear that many of them had no idea who he was). "David [Miretsky] asked me if I ever read Philip Roth. I was surprised that he had - he's a hassid. He said, 'Yes, I read him, but only in the bathroom.'" He also includes in the film a "serendipitous" encounter with an Orthodox British neurologist, Julian Unger, who credits his embrace of the hassidic philosophy with turning his life around. Recalls Mazursky, "Unger said, 'Why did Nahman ask to buried in Uman? He was from Breslav.'" The answer, according to the neurologist, is that Uman was the site of several massacres of Jews. But Mazursky was also pleasantly surprised at the acceptance he encountered in what he describes as "goyishe Uman." "They think the hassidim are a little strange, OK. But they like it that they make all this money at Rosh Hashana. And I talked to that one man, he was a little drunk, and he said, 'They're here to reconnect with their roots.' He really understood." The acceptance that he, as a secular Jew, met with among the hassidim was also very moving for him. "A lot of them asked me, 'How are you feeling?' like they wanted me to say my whole life had been changed or something. But when we went to film on Shabbos at the rabbi's apartment, they let the camera right in. They didn't say a word. I did tell them the camera crew was all non-Jews, but I was still very surprised." MAZURSKY'S LIFE did change in some ways as a result of the film, although he hasn't become observant. "I'm more tolerant now. When I was a kid, I would see the boys with the payos and I would tease them, you know, 'Yeshiva bucher, yeshiva bucher!' But now, they were so tolerant to me, I learned to be tolerant to them." Echoing the upbeat Breslav philosophy, Mazursky is also tolerant of Hollywood, although he has not been able to get a movie made in years. "Movies are made for kids these days. I think it's gotten worse. It's hard to make the kind of movies I make today," he says, meaning intelligent movies for thoughtful moviegoers and not big-budget special effects extravaganzas. He recalls the difficulty he had, even back in 1989, getting the budget for Enemies approved. "[Movie executive] Michael Eisner said, 'Why is the budget so high?' It was $10 million. And I said, 'It's high because it's a period film.'" The movie, based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel about a Holocaust survivor living in New York who is married to the Polish woman who saved his life and having an affair with a gorgeous but depressed woman who is also a survivor, only to be blindsided by the discovery that the wife he thought perished in a concentration camp is still alive, is set in the late 1940s. "Eisner said, 'Couldn't you update it?' 'Update it?' I said. 'OK, I'll make it with a Cambodian man and three Cambodian women.'" Eisner got the point and Mazursky got his budget. Mazursky is now considering a script based on Singer's last book, Shadows on the Hudson, also about a Holocaust survivor. Singer feels an affinity for Singer's work, he says, because "there's no one else who writes that way, who combines those three elements: darkness, folklore and it's funny." Mazursky recalls going to Miami to visit an ailing Singer in the early 1980s, when he was at work on the Enemies screenplay. Singer was dozing by the pool when Mazursky arrived and he told Alma, the author's wife, that he didn't want to wake him. "How will you talk to him if I don't wake him up?" she asked. She did, and Mazursky showed the writer photos of the stars he proposed for the movie. "When Singer saw the picture of Lena Olin, he almost dropped it, he was so excited," he recalls. But Singer warned him, "I didn't like Yentl with Barbra Streisand." Mazursky assured him no one in Enemies would sing. In Mazursky's free-flowing conversation, this brings up another anecdote, about the time Streisand almost teamed up with Ingmar Bergman for a remake of The Merry Widow to be produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Bergman, a stickler for punctuality, grew upset when Streisand was late for their meeting. An assistant called her assistant, and it turned out the star was taking a shower. According to Mazursky, Bergman remarked, "Tell her to take all the time she wants," then left the room and boarded a plane for Sweden. But that wasn't the end of the project, which was then offered to Mazursky. "But I couldn't do it, I couldn't direct a Bergman script with Streisand." In his memoir Show Me the Magic, Mazursky, a prolific screenwriter, gives the outlines of half a dozen screenplays he never made. One of them, "My Friend, the Messiah," is a reworking of The Third Man, set in Jerusalem, about a Jewish New York mystery writer who goes to Israel to attend the funeral of his Catholic childhood friend, who has died here. It turns out that the friend isn't really dead, but is hiding out and has messianic aspirations. Asked if he is scouting locations for the project on this visit, he says, "I'd love to make it today. I think it would work." His ideal cast, he says, would be Johnny Depp for the Jew and Russell Crowe for the Catholic. But Mazursky says his wife of 54 years, Betsy, was apprehensive about his safety on this visit and worried about this more than she did that he would become a hassid in Uman. A proud family man, Mazursky flips through a copy of Show Me the Magic and shows photos of his daughters and grandchildren, updating their ages and talking about what they're up to. But now the clouds outside have lifted, and Mazursky is eager to get going on a tour of the Old City. "I hope I'll be back in Israel soon," Mazursky says, as he and his new underwear, head outside.