Hello, I’m director Eric Wenger, pleased to be here providing commentary for the twentieth-anniversary DVD re-release of Daniel Kaufman’s Bar Mitzvah Video: The Director’s Cut.
Boy, this takes me back! August 1990: I was three months out of SUNY Purchase ﬁlm school, broke and living in the basement of my aunt’s house in Hoboken, and I suppose the Kaufmans, old family friends, did me a favor. Our troubles really began in that heated preproduction meeting in their kitchenette.
I suggested we shoot on a Northern California mountaintop at the golden hour, for that lush Terrence Malick cinematography. The Kaufmans were difficult, and booked a Forest Hills synagogue on a Saturday morning. I wanted something Bergman-esque — allegorical, full of religiosity, muted Scandinavian chiaroscuro. They preferred a derivative remake of their neighbor Jessica Cohen’s rather mainstream Bat Mitzvah video. I was set to attach a taller, blonder actor for the lead — preferably a Gentile. They insisted on their own son. One makes concessions, that’s all.
Oh, this scene! It took me hours to get it just right: a long, slow tracking shot through the window and then up to the dais, where Daniel stands reciting from the Torah — an homage to Welles’s Touch of Evil, but also to Ernest Goes to Camp. Knocking down the protagonist with the camera was completely improvised, but I kept it in; it just felt true. Look at the anguished expression on Daniel’s face as he hits the ground—very Peckinpah, with just the slightest dash of the Wayans brothers’ Little Man.
By the way, I had most of Daniel’s dialogue and speeches punched up by a script doctor in postproduction. That would account for some of the dubbing problems, as well as the references to “following your heart” and the catchphrase “It’s Torah time!” — which, perhaps not surprisingly, failed to catch on with the ’tween audience.
Does the subplot work, the one between Rabbi Horwitz and the beautiful call girl with a potentially dangerous secret? The secret was that she was sleeping with the cantor. Can’t tell…
Can you make out Daniel’s grandfather sitting in the front row? The elderly, wheelchair-bound man in the throes of spiritual ecstasy? Weeping softly, tenderly, with patriarchal love? Now, without warning, he’s performing the hora all by himself in the aisle, and swinging his tallis overhead in the manner of Slim Pickens with his cowboy hat in Dr. Strangelove, or Billy Drago with his pickaxe in The Hills Have Eyes? I wasn’t satisﬁed with the original take, so with the re-release I had that last bit computer-generated. Adds some drama and an homage to an otherwise flat mise-en-scène.
Also new is the hundred-person African-American choir leading the congregation with a gospel-tinged version of “Baruch Adonai.”
Act III. I endlessly focus-grouped the climactic scene with various members of the Forest Hills Jewish Community Center. Should it be uplifting — perhaps the Bar Mitzvah boy triumphs over the synagogue bully by French-kissing the hottest girl in Hebrew school? Or tragic — Mrs. Kaufman succumbs in the rabbi’s tan, loving arms from an unnamed terminal illness? I eventually went with my gut and with an ending that elegantly captured the Talmudic origins of bar mitzvah, meaning “one to whom the commandments apply.”
So here comes the food fight. Certainly, I had Buster Keaton’s deadpan sensibility in mind here, although, given the air of urbanity and cynical underpinning, one could surely make a case that it owes a greater debt to Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. The theft of
my tripod just before the shoot became a blessing in disguise —the handheld camera lends the scene some Cassavetes-style vérité, as does my audible cursing.
Sure, the critics later complained that the scene felt incongruous—and Mr. and Mrs. Kaufman never really “got” my artistic vision, either. They mostly appeared concerned with the dry-cleaning costs. And their son’s concussion and dizzy spells. Difficult. Very difficult.
An aside for all you cinephiles: I also shot a controversial alternate ending in which Daniel angrily renounces Judaism, à la Peter Finch in Network. The Kaufmans “left it on the cutting-room ﬂoor,” or, to be more precise, burned it in their backyard.
Wow, what a rite of passage this whole experience was for me as a director! Here are the title cards foretelling what happened to those involved with the ﬁlm. The Kaufmans opted not to bankroll additional feature projects with me as auteur, and stopped returning my calls after I hand-delivered the original Betamax cassette.
But that’s showbiz, ain’t it? One year, you’re the new Coppola; the next, you’re substitute teaching at a high school and, on the side, operating your own infomercial production company, which recently won three “Mersh Awards” for its role in selling high-efficiency pasta cookers and nonstick skillets.
Am I proud of my work? Sure! Do I wish I’d done things differently? Of course. Which is why I’m currently meeting with investors about a sequel. Two decades later, and the filmmaking world has finally caught up to my aesthetic: Rapid-ﬁre pop-culture banter! A nonlinear, multiple-POV narrative! More handsome, goyish characters. And, now that the actors are no longer minors, full-frontal nudity.
Thanks for listening. Have to get out of the AV room now. Back to class. Kickball today. See you around town — I’m often nursing a vanilla fizzy at Friendly’s.
So… a little help shutting this goddamn contraption off?
This piece is reprinted with permission from Mike Sacks’ Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason, which comes out tomorrow from Tin House Books. Sacks is an editor at Vanity Fair and the author of And Here’s the Kicker.