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Psychic Scars and Something Wild: A Conversation with Dramatist, Filmmaker, and Holocaust Survivor Jack Garfein

Written by Eli F. on March 20, 2017 

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That might be true. Well, back to Something Wild. One of the most distinctive sequences in the film is the dream sequence set in the museum. It reminds me of some of the short films of the Surrealists, and it feels totally unlike anything seen in commercial Hollywood cinema at the time.  So I’m wondering, who or what were your stylistic inspirations for that sequence, and what made you confident enough to include it, even though it represents a major departure in style from the rest of the film before and after it?

Well, I felt that with what Mary Anne did, the fact that she reacted to protect herself from a certain violence, and kicked out Mike’s eye… she’s not just haunted by the rape, but also by what’s happening to her, by her own responses to things.

So I spoke to my cousin, who’s a painter, and I said that I’d like to find a way to dramatize what haunts this girl – not just what she went through in the rape, but the guilt that lingers as a consequence of what she did too. I felt that it had to be a dream where you see the eye melt down, the mutilation, and that’s what makes her run – realizing it’s violence, connected even to the rape. My cousin was the one who came up with the idea, and I said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”

And the way in which it was shot – were there any particular films or filmmakers that influenced you? Or was it just intuitive?

No, it just came from me. I think in End as a Man, Fritz Lang’s influence was very strong, particularly on the scene where the cadets get together. But here, no, I never thought about that. Well, perhaps subconsciously – maybe one day I’ll look at a painting and I’ll say, “Oh my god, that’s where it came from!” Because, again, all the arts are a work of art because they’re personal, and the source is subconscious. And in my case, I didn’t even grasp and understand Something Wild myself until the last few years.

For example, I mentioned previously about my experience when the film was screened at the Film Forum as part of that tribute a few years ago. At the time I wasn’t even going to watch the movie because in some ways, as a director, even when people you respect tell you it’s great, the fact that people didn’t go to see it, and the fact that it wasn’t a success and it hurt me professionally – I felt there was something I did wrong. Like in the scene where Mike first gives Mary Anne the food, [it was supposed to be funny and] the audience didn’t laugh. Sometimes audiences walked out before the end. So this time I didn’t want to put myself through that, with the New York audience. But then at the last minute I decided, “Okay, I’ll look at it again.”

Now I looked at the film, and then the scene came up where he feeds her, and the audience laughed. And then at the end of the movie there was silence. And some people went out wiping their eyes, in tears. And I was leaving the theater, and Foster Hirsch, the professor and critic, was behind me, and he said to me, “Well, Garfein, how does it feel after 50 years for the audience to respond to your movie like that?” I turned around, and I said, “Alright, Foster, what is it? What made it happen and why?”  He said to me, “9/11, Jack, is what made it happen.”

And I was shocked, but I realized, it was the first time in America that had happened, in a sense. Innocent people had nothing to do with it, and this thing came along – something wild. And the fact that people realized what can happen, and suddenly they didn’t feel as secure and safe, and knew that the danger of it changes you as a human being. You’re not the same as you were before. Somewhere I read an article about psychoanalysts who are trying to get survivors to forget about it, to forget what they went through – which is horrible. Don’t try to forget. It doesn’t mean you can’t live your life – you live, but your view is different, and your relationship is different. But you can go on, particularly through love.

something-wild-3So you think this kind of response to trauma is something that can characterize a whole national character, not just individuals?

Of course. Because if the individuality is specific, and made in a certain country, like it was made here, it reflects something that was going on here. Consider the fact that people didn’t accept the film, and now the critics are coming out saying, this is not just a film that’s contemporary now, it’ll be contemporary forever. Well, I never would’ve dreamt of or said something like that.

But what is it in the film, that’s done that? Because the idea here [in America] is like, “Forget your troubles,” like what MGM wanted. “Go back and don’t think about those things. Just start your life again.” But there’s no way, of course, you’re not troubled by it – you can live, you have children, you have family, but you are not the person you were before it happened. And in this film what occurs is not exactly what you’d call a happy ending; that’s the reality, when you go through a certain trauma. Particularly for a woman. Women are judged, when it comes to sex [and to rape]: “Oh, they enjoyed it; oh, she could have fought; oh, she was provocative; oh, don’t make a fuss about it.” But the truth is, such an experience destroys a certain part of a woman’s life, and she has to deal with that.

But I felt that in this story, there’s a guy, too, who has also been beaten down by life. And somehow what brings them together, without consciously thinking about it, is that both of them have been wounded emotionally by life, and so they can build something out of that without denying it. So when the mother says at the end, “What’s happened?” And Mary Anne says, “What’s happened has happened.” Meaning, there’s nothing we can do about that. We can protect ourselves for the future, but that’s what it is.

Moving forward, but also moving back a little bit: much about the film, to me, feels startlingly modern: the lengthy stretches of minimal scoring and dialogue, the darkness and ambiguity of the narrative, the sparse naturalism of the performances, and the understated psychological realism of the roles. Even the central thematic conceits – those being the way our society deals with the victimization of women and the way individuals cope with the very private and taboo trauma of rape – have taken on renewed relevance for an entire generation of Americans, as you can see just by watching the news. My next questions are in regard to this quality of the film. The first one, I think, we’ve now sort of covered, but if there’s anything else to say: How did people react to the film publicly and privately back when it first released, and how have you witnessed people’s reactions change over the years?

Well, I only saw the change back when it was shown at the Film Forum. I suddenly saw this, and that’s why I turned to Foster and said, “What happened?” Now, in Europe, they’ve had the experience – they knew. They went through wars, they went through [all of] this. And an interesting thing that happened here is that a young [American] girl saw the film, and she said, “I saw that movie, but god, it’s awful to see what a person goes through like that.” And then there’s a young Turkish girl who’s studying acting, and by chance she saw the film, and she said, “My god, I can’t get over it to this moment!” Because she’s from Turkey, she’s experienced and known that, the fact that these kinds of things can happen to you, like 9/11. And now we are in the presence of it. We know it can happen to any one of us. We read about it every day in the paper. “We are strong, we protect ourselves,” yadda yadda – we know this isn’t true.

Look, even World War II, sometimes Americans say, “Oh, we went to Europe, look what we did! We sacrificed our lives to help the Europeans!” Excuse me? Excuse me? Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1942. The British were pleading for help, they were already in the war three years and Roosevelt didn’t do anything, until guess what happened? Hitler declared war on the United States. That’s when they went to fight. And Churchill said, “Well, maybe now they see what can happen to them.”

And so I mean somehow, this isolation, protecting ourselves from things, and wanting to think that no matter what we can get over it, not even think about it. You think I can get over my little sister, killed in Auschwitz at the age of 10? My mother, at the age of 34? My grandmother, my grandfather?  “Oh, forget it Jack!” Is that possible, to live like that? I don’t want to live like that. I can still live because they would want me to live, to go on, not to be pulled down – but not ignore it, or suppress it, like it didn’t have any effect on me, or it doesn’t have any effect on me.

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Speaking personally, as a younger audience member and film enthusiast, I’m so tempted to try and imagine what this story might look like adapted into a modern setting with contemporary filmmaking techniques. Even as I was watching it for the first time, the little aspiring screenwriter in my head was typing out parallel scenes, imagining how every beat and line of dialogue might play out in the cinema today. It feels like such a contemporary story, and the central characters – this young woman, thrust from childlike naivete into a kind of jagged, volatile independence; this man, living an alienated, self-loathing existence, harboring these intense, unhealthy, double-edged feelings about women –

Yes… by the way, one shot that United Artists wouldn’t let me redo, and it still hurts me every time I see the movie, is that when Mike shows Mary Anne the scrapbook, I forgot to take a close-up of the scrapbook, which is New York Times scraps, high society women getting engaged – women getting engaged, and couples getting married. That’s what he kept in his book.

That would’ve been especially interesting. These characters feel almost like people I might have known, people I have known in school and in young adult life. And one thing that stands out to me is that today these two characters would express themselves with computers and technology. But would the story that unfolds between them be much different? What do you think, if anything, would be different about the story if it were retold through a contemporary lens?

I think that even then, you had telephones, you had letters, right? I mean, I came out of the war alone, I was 14 years old, I was in Auschwitz when I was 13. I think what I had to deal with was existence. I don’t think that technology, in a sense, would in any way ease that – unless there was somebody on the technology who related to an experience like that, who would touch the other person and say, “Yes, I see.” You have to deal with that with your life.

But I’ll tell you about technology: so they’re doing a documentary right now about my life, French filmmakers with American filmmakers. They brought the crew here to New York, and they wanted me to walk across the bridge where Mary Anne tries to kill herself in the movie. And I thought, fine, that’s great, I’m going to show them how we shot in this place, that place, you know. And we get to the spot on the bridge and it now has a huge fence over it, and the cameraman says, “They must have seen Something Wild!”

But what happened was, I looked down at the water, and I suddenly think, oh my god, I’d love to just jump in there. To have all my life, all I’ve been through, just wash off my back. The cameraman, who didn’t know what was going on, said, “Are you alright, Mr. Garfein? What’s happening?” I said, “Alright, I’m fine.”

But I couldn’t do, oh, this is what we did here. I suddenly realized that at the time when I was shooting it, I knew what I wanted, this sense of relief, peace, escape from everything… an embrace. I asked [my DP] Eugen Schufftan, one of the greatest cameramen in the world, I said: “Eugen, I want a shot where the water is inviting. It means peace and rest.” And I said to the actress, “Look down there, it looks so relieving; you will be free of everything. You won’t have to deal with what you’ve dealt with.”

And I didn’t think of it at the time, but now, just two years ago, I’m walking on the bridge and I think, “Jesus.” I was almost afraid. I said, “I’m glad I never did this alone, before they put up the protection.” Because at least there was a cameraman, I was doing something. But still the thought had come to me, god, just to get everything over with. Peace. No more.

So there you are; what I mean is, I was in the age of technology, but the basic things that happen to human beings… they’re no different. That’s why you can read Shakespeare today, and the Greeks particularly, and say, “Wow, it’s so true, it’s so real!” (The Greeks, by the way – they had it, man.)

So the truth and revelation of life and what goes on is something continuous, and we can never get to the end of it. You know, the greatest influence on my life has been Einstein, because he said, “In order to have a happy life, you need to believe in mystery.” We live with the mystery. There’s no question about it.

And that’s the significance of art, I think. To embrace and celebrate mysteriousness in life.

Exactly.

Without having to codify it as science does.

That’s exactly right.

And Einstein was an interesting scientist, in that he spent a lot of time talking about God, and about what’s incomprehensible, which would seem to run contrary to his discipline, but it makes him a fascinating role model.

My favorite is Aristotle’s definition. He said: I’m not interested in convincing people about the existence of God. I don’t want to blame God for all the bad things that are happening, why should I believe in Him? What interests me is people who would like to believe it, but they think everything happens by chance – that’s how we develop. So, let’s examine chance. Well, suppose I need a hundred drachmas, and I decide to go to a friend to borrow the hundred drachmas, but on the way to my friend I find a hundred drachmas on the street.

Okay. That’s chance, right? For chance to exist, first comes intelligence. You have to aim for something, and then chance can occur.

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