Hello, I’m director Eric Wenger, pleased to be providing recorded commentary for the twentieth-anniversary DVD re-release of “Daniel Kaufman’s Bar Mitzvah Video: The Director’s Cut.”
Boy, this brings me back! August, 1989: I was three months out of NYU 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 pre-production meeting in their kitchenette. I suggested we shoot on a Northern California mountaintop at the golden hour for that lush Terrence Malick cinematography; they booked a Forest Hills synagogue on a Saturday morning. I wanted something Bergmanesque—allegorical, 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. You make concessions.
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.” 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 Bobby De Niro as Jake LaMotta.
By the way, I had most of Daniel’s dialogue and speeches punched up by a script doctor in post-production. That would account for some of the dubbing problems, as well as the catch-phrase “It’s Torah time!” (which, inexplicably, failed to take off with the twelve-to-seventeen-year-old demographic).
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 by himself in the aisle and swinging his tallis overhead in the manner of Slim Pickens with his cowboy hat in “Dr. Strangelove”? I wasn’t satisfied with the original take, so for the re-release I had that last bit computer-generated. Adds some visual movement 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 loving arms from an unnamed terminal illness? I eventually went with my gut and an ending that elegantly captured the Talmudic origins of “bar mitzvah,” meaning “one to whom the commandments apply.”
Thus, 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 Billy Wilder. The theft of my tripod just before the shoot became a blessing in disguise—the hand-held camera lends the scene some Cassavetes-style vérité, as does my audible cursing. True, Mr. and Mrs. Kaufman never really “got” my artistic vision, and they mostly seemed concerned with the dry-cleaning costs. That, plus Nana Ruth’s concussion.
Wow, what a rite of passage this whole experience was for me as a director! Here are the title cards foretelling what happened to the main characters. Daniel never attended rabbinical school, as his parents hoped, but ended up getting expelled from Syracuse for a nationally covered frat-hazing incident. The Kaufmans opted not to bankroll additional feature projects with me as auteur, but instead stopped returning my calls after I hand-delivered the original Betamax cassette. But that’s showbiz: One year, you’re the new Coppola; the next, you’re substitute-teaching phys-ed at Hoboken High.
Am I proud of my work? Sure—despite crediting myself as John Doe-Schwartz. Do I wish I’d done things differently? Of course. Which is why I’m discussing a sequel with investors—Adam and Judy Birnbaum of Weehawken. Two decades later, and the filmmaking world has finally caught up to my aesthetic: Rapid-fire pop-culture banter! A non-linear, multiple-POV narrative! More handsome, Goyish-looking characters!
Hang on to your yarmulkes. It’s Torah time.
Mike Sacks is a writer on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair. His first book, “And Here’s the Kicker,” was published in summer, 2009.
Teddy Wayne is the author of the novel “Kapitoil,” available from Harper Perennial.