“It took me a week to finish the first sentence.  In the remaining month, I wrote 280 pages.  What made beginning so difficult, and the remainder so seemingly automatic, was imagination – the initial problem, and ultimate liberation, of imagining.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

As a story, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated has gone through several incarnations.  It began as a short story in the New Yorker.  Foer then expanded the story to a full length novel, which was one of the most well received books of 2002.  Reviews raved, calling Foer a “wunderkind” and the “best young novelist around.”  The book was called “a work of genius” and “brilliant.”  Finally, the story was turned into a movie by actor-turned-director/screenwriter Liev Schreiber who had first been exposed to it in its New Yorker incarnation.  For the film, Schreiber decided to adapt the short story from the New Yorker, so a huge section of the novel is not reflected in the movie.

“Rather than aligning itself with either ‘how things were’ or ‘how things could have been,’ the novel measures the difference between the two, and by doing so attempts to reflect a kind of experiential (rather than historical or journalistic) truth.  Novels don’t strive to get to the bottom of things, but to express what it’s like never to be able to.”  – Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated was inspired by Foer’s own trip to the Ukraine, with only a photograph in hand, in search of the woman, Augustine, who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis.  The story is told by two separate narrators.  One is the Foer character  and the second is Alex, Foer’s Ukrainian translator.  Alex, aided by his handy thesaurus, writes and speaks a unique brand of English.  A heavy reliance on synonyms lends itself to some fun language choices.  While not an original literary technique, the book’s use of language is clever and playful, sometimes leading to a more truthful telling than a conventional use of the language would lead us to.

“I was just adapting the short story and the narrative structure I had chosen, given the limitations of budget and scope, was really just the idea of a road trip – so I have taken out huge sections of the novel which was the parallel chronological history.” – Liev Schreiber, Director and Screenwriter of Everything is Illuminated

The film version of Everything Is Illuminated was released three years after the book.  The directorial and screenwriting debut of actor Liev Schreiber, the film was massacred upon its release and time has done little to add value to it.  Elijah Wood portrays Foer (and I am sorry to say not very well).  Wood almost completely disappears behind his oversized glasses and timid characterization.  Eugene Hutz is more successful in playing the translator, Alex.  Better known as the leader of the band Gogol Bordello (who do make a cameo appearance in one scene), he is fine but his mismanagement of the English language is less fun and clever than it is in the novel; they come off more as mistakes than unintended poetry.

The film does not shy away from its literary roots.  Like the novel, the film opens with Alex writing a letter to Foer.  The film is broken up into “chapters” which we see being written out.  All of Alex’s voice-overs in the film also use the language of his letters in the book.  In the film, Foer’s journey is strictly a quest to answer the following question: “Who is Augustine?”  The Foer of the movie is a collector.  Taking that idea to its most literal place, Foer actually puts every family relic into a protective ziploc bag.  Through this collection, Foer believes he’ll be better able to discover his own identity.  But while the novel, love it or hate it, has a consistent tone, the film always feels like it is searching for its place.  There is no magic in the film.  And although there are some beautiful images courtesy of DP Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), the film is just a series of events that never come together.  Everything is too spelled out, including what feels like a slapped on klezmer soundtrack.  It was all just too straightforward.

about a trip taken by a young American Jew (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who is looking for Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in the Ukraine.

On Deck: Fingers

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Before Jacques Audiard directed A Prophet, he did this remake of the James Toback 1978 film Fingers.  Check out both The Beat That My Heart Skipped as well as the original.

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“As you change, your dreams change.  So the first incarnation of the movie is not the sixty-sixth incarnation of the movie, but it’s very similar.  It’s still the same heart and soul; do you know what I mean?  The story is very similar, but what changed in those years was, I think, the artifice was stripped off.  And it became more and more honest and more and more real . . . I took out the facade, the artifice, the archetypes; I took all of that out.” – Derek Cianfrance, Director of Blue Valentine

Director Derek Cianfrance has been trying to get Blue Valentine off the ground for the past twelve years.  The film melds a two-part story of a couple: the meeting and courtship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and the falling apart of the relationship after six years of marriage.  There is no “event” that leads to the couple’s problems.  Just life.  Utilizing improvisation and documentary film-making style, Blue Valentine plays like a working class (500) Days of Summer (without the cards on screen telling us when events are taking place).

“[John] Cassavetes’s influence is all over the movie . . . you just try to take the spirit of them to know it’s possible, to be brave and personal.” – Derek Cianfrance

While Cianfrance wanted to pause six years between the filming of the couple’s courtship and of the relationship’s crumble, the folks paying for the film were not as interested in that.  They compromised and the filmmaker and cast took a month off during the filming instead.  During that time Cianfrance,  Gosling, Williams, and Faith Wladyka (who plays the couple’s 5 year old daughter) all lived together in a house outside of Scanton, PA.  And they lived the relationship.  They shopped (on a realistic budget), did their own dishes, and had a Christmas celebration.  Gosling and Williams were spending time living as a couple.  This work was then used to shoot the “falling out of love” scenes.  In addition to the month together, both Gosling and Williams have been involved with the project for years (both are also credited as Executive Producers which it sounds like is more than the honorary credit stars often get).  While Gosling and Williams did not really know each other before the film, it was clear that everyone was going to be on the same page once the cameras were rolling.  Everyone was comfortable with each other.  And that shows on screen.  There was some controversy regarding the sex scenes in the film and the MPAA gave the film an NC-17 rating first time through.  As Blue Valentine is a relationship film, sex was going to be part of the story.  Like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, sex is shown but not eroticized.  While 9 Songs depicted sex more explicitly, Blue Valentine was nevertheless saddled with an NC-17 rating which would have crippled its box-office, and perhaps award, potential.  Ultimately, Weinstein & Co were able to get the rating changed to an R (without making any additional cuts to the film) and that is why you can now see Blue Valentine at a chain theatre near you (at least one that shows mid-major “art films”).

“This movie is a duet.” – Derek Cianfrance

Both Gosling and Williams are known for their committed and truthful onscreen performances and Blue Valentine is no exception.  Their relationship seems genuine in both the highs and the lows that couples can go through.  While I have never serenaded anyone on the streets with a ukulele, I certainly did recognize certain elements of those first moments of connecting with someone new.  It is to the credit of all the actors that the situations they find themselves in on screen come off as realistic and authentic while also being dramatic and watchable.

“I think what’s really special about the movie is that it’s not pretending to have any answers; it doesn’t pretend to know anything.  We’re trying to ask a question.  What happens to love?  Where does it go?  How is it that you can be so in love and then years later you’re trying to kill each other?  Why is it that that happens?” – Ryan Gosling

Does this all sound a tad indulgent?  You bet.  While the film is not totally successful, there are some real tender moments and I think the film does accurately show the moments in the cycles relationships go through.  Not everyone is going to like this film, but if your idea of a good night is watching A Woman Under the Influence, then this is probably as close as you are going to get in a theatre that is also playing Tron: Legacy, Little Fockers, and The Green Hornet.

Pavla Fleischer’s documentary The Pied Piper of Hutzovina is a very personal film.  Fleischer met Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz in 2004 and “fell under his spell.”  The film opens with home video footage of Fleischer spending time with Hutz, showing them not as filmmaker and musician but as two people testing the waters.  It is clear from the outset that Fleischer is smitten with Hutz and I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that Hutz was interested in getting “carnal” (to borrow a term from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) with Fleischer.  Following an eventual romantic encounter, both return to their respective lives.  Fast-forward a year and Fleischer is with her camera crew following Hutz on a trip back to the Ukraine and Russia to explore his Roma roots.  It is a personal journey to explore the Gypsy spirit and his own cultural heritage.  “I’m the ultimate eastern European mutt,” Hutz says of himself.  What is the film about?  Hutz would say, ” It’s about my meeting Sasha Kolpakov, one of my musical gurus.”  But The Pied Piper of Hutzovina is also a portrait of unrequited love.

“My romantic interests were not part of Eugene’s plan.” – Pavla Fleischer

Very early in the journey it becomes clear that the experience is going to be a different one than Fleischer originally intended.  Another woman came accompanied Hutz on the trip.  And, per Hutz, she was not to be filmed.  It was a “take it or leave it” proposition.  Fleischer, in her voice over, says that “to have a film I would have to let Eugene lead.”  She does allow Hutz to call the shots and the film suffers some for it.  There is a ramshackleness at play here.  As an audience we are never quite sure where we are going.  There are portions of the film where Hutz disappears with his girlfriend and Fleischer and the crew are left wondering when he will return.  And when he does eventually appear, there’s always the question of where he (and they) would be going next.

A bit about Eugene Hutz.  Born to an assimilated Gypsy family in Kiev, Hutz and his parents left the Soviet Union in 1989 and eventually ended up in the United States when he was a teenager.  Hutz moved to New York in 1998 and started putting together the band Gogol Bordello.  Like all Gypsy music, Gogol Bordello produces a hybrid sound.  It is a mix of punk rock, hip-hop, dub, and traditional Gypsy music.  Hutz described his interest in forming the band as follows: “It’s all about tribal connections.  The first time I saw Iggy Pop on video I knew that was that.  I noticed some ethnic music to be quite psychotic and shamanic, and I couldn’t help but see the similarity.  Rock ‘n’ roll is dying, basically, in the west.  It does not deliver the energy it was supposed to.  Instead I’m creating my alternative, and that is Gogol Bordello.”

Pavla Fleischer is a Czech-born filmmaker based in London.  As the daughter of screenwriter Jan Fleischer, she grew up around filmmaking.  But a career as a filmmaker was not a given.  After graduating from Cambridge, with a degree in Italian, she spent five years traveling and working in a variety of industries.  And then, in  2003, she followed her then-boyfriend Joshua Faudem to Tel Aviv to make a documentary called Blues by the Beach about how life can be normal in Israel.  Fleischer said of the experience, “Together we were commissioned to make a film about a small bar on the beachfront of Tel Aviv, Mike’s Place.  Two weeks into filming I was there with a camera when a bomb exploded in the bar, so obviously the whole intention of making a film about the happy side of Israel went in a different direction.”  Her next project was The Pied Piper of Hutzovina.

The Pied Piper follows Hutz as he journeys from Carpathian Gypsy camps (with lots of footage of children dancing) to cosmoplitian cities like Kiev and Moscow.  Once Fleischer gets a handle on how to proceed with the film, it plays as a fairly straightforward travelogue, with musical accompaniment from Hutz.  With a brisk running time of a 63 minutes, even the moments thats drag are short lived.  Eugene Hutz is always “performing” (which seems to be at the center of his charm and infectiousness) and the film certainly serves as a good introduction to him as the personality and spirit at the center of Gogol Bordello.

Also starring Eugene Hutz as translator Alex, actor Liev Schreiber’s directorial debut, Everything is Illuminated is based on the best selling novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.

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Available to watch instantly on Netflix

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I know I am late to the whole gypsy-punk movement of Gogol Bordello.  I had read that Tom Morello was a fan (he was the one responsible for hooking the band up with uber-producer Rick Rubin) and had heard a bit of their music in passing.  But then I heard this interview with Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz on NPR’s Fresh Air in December and decided to find out some more about Hutz.  This doc from 2004 was my first step.

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