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It's Eric Mendelsohn's turn in the spotlight. The 34-year-old stood behind the camera to shoot his first feature film, Judy Berlin, but the movie's acclaim has turned the attention around. Mendelsohn is about to have his coming-out party, because Judy Berlin, after garnering him the Best Director award at last year's Sundance Festival, has found an American distributor. But don't confuse his first-time status with an immaturity in his work.
Judy Berlin is about a day in the life of suburbia, and then some (it was first screened here at the FIU Miami Film Festival; see the February 24 issue for review). Mendelsohn incorporates a lingering camera that reveals the nuances of his native Long Island and the characters within. "[The film] had to feel like the characters: mature, introspective, sometimes funny, sometimes just beautiful," he says. He uses a process of reduction to create a sparse landscape that illuminates the mundane. The town of Babylon, Long Island, seems both familiar and otherworldly. "Start removing what doesn't help -- Häagen-Dazs stores, J. Crew outlets -- and what you're left with, if you're careful, if you're rigorous, [is] a look, a concentrated, microscopic, myopic look."
The details within the film do not attack the viewer. Rather the viewer's eye is allowed to explore a space, as if spending an afternoon strolling through Babylon. "My movie is about the tiny things that get people through the day," the filmmaker explains. "Personally I have never thrown an alien out of an air-lock hatch in outer space." Instead of the fantastic, Mendelsohn uses humor and realism. He concentrates on form to highlight the tenuous connections between people.
Mendelsohn cites French filmmaker Jacques Demy as his narrative influence. By collecting a series of images and moments he "felt were right," Mendelsohn was able to weave together one eclipse-blackened day in a series of characters' lives. The stitching is seamless. "If you're as specific as possible about certain elements of your film, [about] certain truths of your story, you can't help but also be universal," he says. "Coming of age in Samoa, well that's not coming of age in Babylon, Long Island, but I get it. As human beings we have an amazing capacity to identify with other people, through film especially."
Yet Mendelsohn himself does not identify with the typical Hollywood, goal-specific protagonist. His characters, frequently searching for answers when they haven't yet zeroed in on the question, reflect this preference. "I am never the hero in my own life," he admits. "I am always clunkily, clumsily figuring out my life for the first time, and I would rather see a movie that has characters like that in it."
For Mendelsohn film serves as an opportunity "to erase the sense of being alone -- that when we go home, and put our head on the pillow, we are only inside one person: us." In that sense the sun's eclipse in Judy Berlin might be likened to the house lights being dimmed as a film is about to begin; characters within the blackness are able to form connections that wouldn't be permitted otherwise. "I like the idea of describing the seemingly insignificant, as if talking about it with a megaphone. Film is a megaphone," he offers.
When asked what it means for a film to be independent today, Mendelsohn replies that it's "when your mother cooks vegetarian Boca Burgers for the entire crew." He is unconcerned with titles and genres; he views his first film as a learning process and a personal success. "It is unbelievably gratifying that people from all walks of life and in all countries of the world get it," he says. "I have heard real directors say that you make a movie so you don't have to explain it to people." Mendelsohn's Judy Berlin defies simple synopsis. It should not, however, escape your attention.
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