By strange and fortuitous coincidence, my meeting with Jack Garfein fell upon the nexus of several intersecting moments in history. It was Friday, January 27th — International Holocaust Remembrance Day. One week earlier, Donald J. Trump was sworn to office as forty-fifth President of the United States; and in the ensuing weekend, allegations of Trump’s unpunished sexual misconduct, callous attitudes toward women and courting of radical right-wing supporters helped bring about the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest mass protests in the nation’s history. All around, people are anxiously reading the past with tenuous hopes and fears for the future. History, so often a thing defined after the fact, is currently in violent and furious motion.
Jack Garfein is living history, and he’s not shy about telling it. Born to Ukrainian Jews in 1930, Mr. Garfein personally witnessed as a child the rise of Nazi Germany and the horrors of their regime, surviving no less than eleven concentration camps – including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen – which took the lives of his parents and much of his family. As a teenager, orphaned and alone, he relocated to New York, where he channeled his wayward emotional energy and indomitable thirst for life into a prodigal career with the up-and-coming Actors Studio. Over the next half a century, he would act as pupil, mentor and friend to a veritable who’s-who of American screen legends, including (but by no means limited to) Elia Kazan, John Ford, James Dean, Sissy Spacek, Paul Schrader, Steve McQueen, and his former wife Carroll Baker.
Mr. Garfein is a born storyteller and instinctive dramatist: every person he speaks to is an audience, every conversation a stage. Gregarious, theatrical and undaunted by his advancing years, he drops names from his decades-long dossier of celebrity friends and admirers with aplomb and shares colorful stories of his past with equal vigor. His ice-blue eyes radiate with life, in spite of his past, in spite of his age, and to be in his presence is to feel as if he is a dear and eccentric old relation one has known all their life.
I was invited in January to speak with Mr. Garfein at the Criterion Collection’s offices near Union Square in NYC. The occasion was Criterion’s new release of his second and final foray into filmmaking, Something Wild (1961). Hailed as a lost classic of American independent cinema, the film stars Mr. Garfein’s theatrical colleague and then-wife Carroll Baker as a college student whose violent rape triggers a complex and emotional spiral into erratic behavior, in a stark vision of New York laden with repressed emotion and hidden violence. A domestic flop in its own time, the film spent decades languishing in obscurity before its critical rediscovery within the last decade. If the film’s premise sounds distinctly modern — at least compared to the more conventional Hollywood cinema of the era — there are more than a few viewers, then and now, who agree. The late Italian author Albert Moravia (whose work is best known to the English-speaking world for inspiring acclaimed adaptations by Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci) is said by Mr. Garfein himself to have cited the film as an unmistakable product of the twenty-first century — back in 1961.
I came to see Mr. Garfein with questions about Something Wild, and we discussed the creative origins of the project, Mr. Garfein’s relationship with the Hollywood studio system, the inspiration for some of the film’s more idiosyncratic elements, and his interpretation of the controversial and ambiguous ending. In the process, however, our conversation took on a life of its own. Spanning wide across topics as diverse as trauma, spirituality, gender, history, violence and the media, our meeting ran over three times the scheduled sitdown period. (My apologies to the patient and supportive women and men at the Criterion office, who waited out our extended conversation to close up as late afternoon turned into evening.) Mr. Garfein is such an electrifying and intimate speaker, his voice so rich, humorous and distinct, that it seems an injustice to try and reduce his statements and near-endless reservoir of colorful anecdotes to a series of box quotes and soundbites. He is a lifelong storyteller, and in service to that I have sought to reproduce his story in much the same way as he tells it. What follows is edited for clarity, but otherwise a faithful recreation of our 90-minute conversation that Friday afternoon.
How did you become attached to Something Wild? What drew you to this project?
Well, what happened was Audrey Wood, who was Tennessee Williams’ agent, read the book. And she wasn’t my agent, but she knew me – but that’s sometimes how things happen, by intuition, you know? She called me and she said, “Jack, I read this book, and I think it could make a very good movie in your hands, and I think your wife [Carroll Baker at the time] would be right for the part.” So she sent me the book, and I read it. But again, you know, real creations are subconscious. You’re just impelled to do them, you don’t even know necessarily why, but something draws you; and so, when I read the book, I immediately thought after the first reading that I wanted to do this. But if you asked me at the time why, I just would tell you that I was taken by this story – I thought it was a story about a girl who was raped, and that was how I approached it on the first reading. So I called Audrey Wood and I said, “Alright, I want to do it, so I’d like to get the rights to it.” And my ex-wife also read it and liked it and liked the part. So that’s how it started.
The title of the novel was not Something Wild but Mary Anne. I was wondering how the change of title came about, and for those who haven’t read the book, what other changes (if any) were made from the source material.
Well, I would say that the title for the film came from me. It was more than just Mary Anne. I just knew – intuitively reacted – and felt that something happens in life that we’re not in control of, that happens to us and can change our lives. And, never even relating it to my own life, I just felt that this is what’s happened to this girl; that this element exists, a wild element, and by “wild” I mean something like… that you’re innocent, and you’ve done nothing to it, but it comes and finds you.
So you think that “Something Wild” is that violence that comes into her life?
Yes. The element that exists in life – a war, or anything that takes innocent people who have done nothing, and suddenly affects them in a certain way and changes their lives.
Something Wild was your second and final time in the director’s chair, and since then your main focus has been on theater. What made you gravitate away from cinema? What are some things you’ve felt that you had the opportunity to do in the medium of theater that you would not have been able to do in cinema, and vice versa?
Well, first part of the question: it started with my first film [The Strange One (1957) starring Ben Gazzara, adapted from the theatrical production, End as a Man, also directed by Garfein]. The cast was all unknown actors I’d worked with in the Actor’s Studio and prepared them. When it opened on Broadway it got rave reviews for the acting, and Ben Gazzara, who was totally unknown, became a star. So did Pat Hingle, so did all of them – totally unknown before.
So when I found out that then a film was going to be done, I fought to try and keep as much of the story as I could. Well, there was no ending for the film. So one night I went down to Florida, where we were going to shoot, and I saw a train coming from the South – this was during the segregation era – and on the train I saw black people sitting with children, even on the floors of the train. In a way it touched something in me – [it reminded me of] the deportation trains in Europe. And suddenly I said, this is the train that they’re going to throw [main character] Jocko on to humiliate him in some way.
When I called the producer, Sam Spiegel, he said, “Well, great! What a great idea! Genius!” But then it got to Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia: “What? Blacks in a movie? Black actors in a movie? No such thing! We’re not gonna get distribution in the South!” So he said, “Jack, it’s gonna be a milk train.”
And I said to the assistant director, “No, it’s not gonna be a milk train.” And the assistant director says to me, “Jack, do you think if I hide black actors – nobody can see them, and then you can have your shot. I’ll just put them in the car but without having a full car load of black people.” And I said, “Okay, fine.”
Well, Spiegel suspected something, so he advised the other assistant director to make sure there were no black actors on the stage. And then he shows up in a limousine the night that I’m shooting this scene. And [as] I’m shooting the scene, Pat Hingle came up with an idea: he spreads the word that there are snakes around, and Spiegel will never get out of his car. And we did exactly that. We spread the word that there were snakes around, and so the assistant director took two black actors, put them in the scene, and we shot the scene.
Spiegel then called me over and said, “Jack, I want you to reshoot that scene and take those black actors out.” I said, “Sam, you want an Auschwitz survivor like me to cut black actors out of a movie?” He said, “No no no, I want my Jewish director.” I said, “But your Jewish director is an Auschwitz survivor, so I can’t do it.” So then he went and talked to Ben Gazzara about getting another director to cut the scene and to reshoot it, and of course Ben Gazzara refused to do it. So my contract with Columbia, because of that, was cancelled. So then the only thing I could try to do was to do an independent film – and I had Mary Anne, or Something Wild.
So MGM was at first interested in it, but they said to me, “Jack,” – and they had two other writers there – “It’s a nice idea but you know, after the girl gets raped, she doesn’t talk to anybody. She moves out of the house. That’s not going to work. Our idea is that what happens is, she loves her uncle, and her uncle is coming for a big celebration in the house, they have a party, and that night she’s in bed and the uncle comes into the room and rapes her. And the reason she can’t talk about it is because it’s in the family, she’s afraid it’ll wreck everything, and that’s why she walks out. But not just a stranger, somebody reaching out and raping her. And then, Jack, what you should do is after a while she reaches out and talks to a priest, and the priest sets her straight, and then she goes back to college, and one of the boys that was interested in her before is interested in her again, and that’s the ending of the movie.”
They offered me quite a bit of money, and I refused. So then United Artists said, “Well, we want to do the movie, but Jack: you’re going to work for minimum, and do everything for minimum, [if] we will do it. Otherwise, we’re not gonna take any risks.” And I said okay, as long as I can do what I want to do, it’s fine, I’ll do it that way.
So what happened was I finished the film, they didn’t understand it. The critics here in America just killed it, except for The Saturday Evening Post, and great writers like Henry Miller – who I didn’t even know at the time – who would write to me about it. “Wow,” Henry Miller said to me, “that guy, Jack, that’s me in that movie.” And the famous Italian writer Alberto Moravia wrote a review, and he said: “You want to know what the 21st century will be like? Go to see this movie.” The British press compared me to Strindberg, and the Swedish press – of course – compared me to Bergman. But here, I was a dead duck, in a sense, because the movie made no money and the audience didn’t react in any kind of a positive way.
So what happened was, Aaron Copland, who wrote the music… on his 80th birthday, the mayor of New York invited him, and said, “The city of New York would like to give you a present. What would you like?” Expecting him to say an orchestra, or a choir. He said, “I want Garfein’s film shown.” So they set up a screening in the Metropolitan Museum – just for Aaron. And I think Stillman Rockefeller was looking at the ceiling, and Senator Leland was looking at the floor, because those were the days of the Doris Day movies, you know. And after the screening, Aaron saw that I was disappointed again, that things were not going to get any better. He took my arm and he said, “Now Jack, as far as this movie is concerned… just live long enough.” So I tried to do that.
You took him up on it.
I took his word, I tried to do it. But what’s so fascinating is that he understood the movie better than I did. And if you see the film, you can see the way he uses the music – he realizes when the silences and things are important. He understood that film. When I was making the film, first I went to [Dmitri] Shostakovich, and the Soviet Union wouldn’t get me through to him. So then I went to Leonard Bernstein, and Leonard wouldn’t do it. So then I went to Aaron, and I said, “Aaron, I went to Shostakovich, I went to Leonard… what about you?” And he said, “Jack, I have to see a rough cut.” And of course United Artists got very upset, said, “What, you’re waiting to do the movie because of a composer?” I said yes, I’m going to wait.
So, [Copland] saw the film, I showed him a rough cut, and he said, “Okay Jack, I’ll do it.” And obviously he did. But as I said, sometimes the person who creates it doesn’t know [what it’s really about]. If it’s a work of art, it’s personal, and it comes from the subconscious. It’s only later, years later, that suddenly you say, “Oh, I see, so that’s it.” So for me, it happened [six] years ago. The [New York] Film Forum gave me a tribute, and they showed the film. And I was sitting next to the critic Kim Morgan, and suddenly as I’m watching the film, I say, “Oh my god – that [girl is] me.” It made me think of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. When he was asked about Madame Bovary, he said, “Madame Bovary? C’est moi. That’s me.” Part of my life is reflected there, and this is how I came to grips. But I could get no jobs. Since then, I’ve written a couple of very important screenplays – I think they were ahead of their time. One of them, The Farm, is based on a book by the African American novelist Clarence Cooper which deals with the topic of heroin addiction.
While I was working on it with Clarence – who was still on drugs – I got a visit one day from Harold Clurman. Great director, teacher, writer. He walked in and he saw me working on one of the parts, miming a state of heroin addiction, and he said, “What the hell are you doing!? Crazy Actor’s Studio! You went and you actually used heroin! You’re out of your mind! This is madness!” And after I snapped out of it, he said: “Garfein, stop teaching acting or making films. Tell people how to do what you’re doing. Much more important. You’ll save more lives like that.”
So, what is it that I touched on, that was so convincing to him? The fact that everything first is a human condition. A human need in nature. The drugs and all that are simply a way to reach a certain level [of experience], which you only reach naturally on the rarest occasions. This is just another way, an extension of that. And everybody has experienced it on a certain level. I still don’t think [Hollywood has] touched on that like I did in the script.
I also wrote another screenplay about my experience during the war as a kid with my mother and my sister. It goes all the way to Auschwitz. And, you know, people who have read it, they’ve never seen the Holocaust like that, because most Holocaust movies don’t come anywhere close to touching what happens. You know, in most Hollywood movies, the train arrives in Auschwitz – “AAAAHHH!!!” – they all scream. You know what my mother did? She brushed my sister’s hair. She straightened out my sweater. She made sure that because we’re coming to a new place, we have to make a certain appearance.
The title of that screenplay is A Rose in the Field. Because what happened was, we were probably the last transport to Auschwitz. And the Hungarian Jews came in from East Europe. And my grandfather was a very wealthy, influential man, and he for some reason believed that we were going to be resettled in Hungary. And only when we looked out of the barbed-wire window of the cattle car, and saw we were in Poland, did he realize where we were heading and he had a complete breakdown. I remember even seeing it. And once we arrived in Auschwitz, I remember hearing him say, “Dear God, what have we done to deserve this?” I thought he referred to us as the rose in the field. That’s why it was called that.
So anyway, the scripts are there, I still haven’t been able to get the finances. I’m still now trying to see if I can get it done.
So yes, I went back to working in the theater – I worked with Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, it was wonderful. I learned more from working with them on their plays than I ever have before. That’s the great advantage of working with playwrights like that. And I recently, three years ago, did my own adaptation of Kafka’s Address to the Academy in Paris, with great reviews, and I’m now trying to see if I can get it done in London. Because here I was told you need either a television star or some big actor, otherwise they’re not going to back you.
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.
So 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.
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.
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.
So, you accept the idea that set groundwork rules of existence were laid out, and then allowed to take on a life of their own?
Yes, but I believe it’s all mysterious. And the last thing [scientists] came up with, where this was the one thing they’re sure of, is that nobody will ever discover what happened before the Big Bang. You have to live with that; there’s no clue, no way to go back and see it. You have to accept the mystery.
I, of course, I believe in the existence of God; there’s no question about it. And I know what Jesus said: “Ask, and it shall be given.” There’s a French short story writer who said, “Look at the wind. Can you see it? You can feel it, but you can’t see it. Do you know what the wind is capable of? Making things roll; destroying things; breaking things!”
Meaning, there is something, not like our lives are, a power that is there. Something that exists, and is aware of its creation of you, like it is of the planets, of the sun, of all that. But it’s something inconceivable, in terms of giving it any kind of concrete vision or anything like that.
I mean, look at Michelangelo’s God with Adam.. I’ve always been against it, only for one reason: because in the Bible, it says “God created Man and Woman. In His image He created them.” Not “Man” – meaning, God is both male and female. Without body, but there it is, the idea of it, the principle of it.
Right – hence, for example, the idea in Judaism (and Islam) that God should never be visualized. The closest we could ever come is a burning bush.
Yes, that’s right. But what’s so amazing though, to me, in terms of Judaism is Moses. What an astonishing human being. First of all, I believe, no question – he was not Jewish. He was an Egyptian prince. Imagine the story – the Jews have to throw their kids in the water; the princess found this little boy. In the court, they would see a little boy and say, “Where’d you get him? What happened? How did he get to talk to Pharaoh?” So really, for much of his life he was not a Jew, in the sense of what Jewishness is supposed to be. And yet, look at his grasp of the freedom of humanity; look what he did. He saw people enslaved for 300 years – the longest enslavement in history. And he knew that this was against the laws of the universe. Did you know that only 20% of the Jews went with Moses?
I had not heard that.
80% did not go with him; they stayed in Egypt. Only 20% went. And they never said that Moses did anything. And before dying, you know what he did? He walked away. He didn’t want anyone to worship him, or to set up statues or sculptures or anything. He said, “It’s not me. It’s the universe. God. You’re entitled to freedom; I’m just a messenger. That’s all I am.”
He went alone to the mountain.
But, look how brilliant he was. When the Hebrews worshipped the Golden Calf, he destroyed the Ten Commandments. His brother Aaron said to him, “Great! Wonderful! What do we do now, we go back to Egypt? You’d better come up with something!” Because these people did it out of a certain need.
So Moses came up with this idea: you melt the Golden Calf down. You take the ashes and you mix them with water. Whoever worshipped the Golden Calf, all they have to do is drink a bit of the ashes in the water, and all is forgiven. But now, there were people who didn’t worship the Golden Calf. So he said, the people who didn’t worship the Golden Calf, if they drink the water and the ashes, that’s a sin. Meaning, what he was saying is that if you’re enlightened, and you see things, you don’t do just the ceremonial things. And that’s what I understand, in religion.
Human beings are fragile. [Take the subject of Heaven.] They want to know – “I’m dying, what’s gonna happen?” You live here, you have food, you have virgins like the Muslims – all that is there for you, don’t worry. Not that we don’t know – like Hamlet says, we have no idea, so we stay with what we know. “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Right? But the point being that we don’t know. We live with that. And it’s not like the extreme Orthodox Jews thinking we’re going to have a feast up there, with food, with a banquet – because they want to think that everything is going to be like it is just now.
Who wants that?
Yeah! That means I have my dinner with my wife, my kids, I’m gonna see my grandmother, my great-grandfather, I mean, [but]… I always think of the animals. So what happens to the elephants, and the mice? Do they all have their own..?
That was my concern as a child. Do the dogs go with us? And then, if heaven is happy for everyone, then how can people who like dogs and people who don’t like dogs both exist in heaven?
I love Voltaire. When he was dying, they brought a priest in, and he said, “No thank you, I can handle it myself.”
So do you go to shul?
Yes. I keep the High Holidays, I keep Shabbat – only because it gives me something, not because you’re supposed to do it. I always learn, I get something out of it. For example, I didn’t understand why the women light candles, you know. And when I found out, I said to Henry Miller – he wanted to know, he was not Jewish – I said, “Well, women bring life into the world. They’re supposed to look up, and when the first star comes out, they’re supposed to light the candles.” Henry loved the story so much that he would light the candles on Friday night! He would look out and light the candles.
But then I never understood the fire. Why candles? Which the Jews came up with, all the other religions adopted it – candles, lights, all that. I said, why do this? Why the candles? Why light something, you know? I didn’t understand it until a few months ago, which is when my bride Natalya lit the candles. After that, I said, “My God, I understand it!” She said, “What do you understand?” I said, “Why did you light the candles?” She said, “Well, you know, I’m a woman, I bring life into the world, and so on.” But I said, “Why candles?” And then I said, “Fire. Fire is the instrument of God. Everything is done with fire. All the suns, the planets, everything. The Earth, inside, full of fire. And that’s the thing, it’s relating to that. It’s wonderful.”
And then, look what my acting class did for me. One thing I never understood about Jesus was the fact that he talked about bringing humanity together, uniting them. And I felt, “Come on! He’s a brilliant teacher, but is an American Indian going to feel the same way as a Japanese or a Chinese person?” I mean, how could he conceive of something like that?
So, last year I was teaching a class in London. I had Chinese, Japanese, South American, European students. And when they work on something from their own lives, I always tell them, “Don’t translate, do it in your own language. Don’t worry about us understanding it or not.” So, a Japanese girl did these scenes, and suddenly it came to me – I realized what Jesus saw. Emotionally… feelings are the same in everybody. It’s only the articulation, the language, that changes – the thing that defines it. But the feelings, the relationships that happen? Exactly the same. So I thought, that’s what he saw, that’s what he felt. On the basis of that, there could be a unity of humanity. I got it from my acting class!
That’s what I mean. When you work on anything, in the sense that you want to discover the meaning – not even think about it – subconsciously, you pick it up. And if it’s based on something real, and if it’s based on the truth – not, you know, some arbitrary rule and circumstance… you sense it.
I know I’ve definitely had moments of clarity like that. I’ve loved for many years various works of art, or fiction, or even religion or mythology, which have certain mysterious elements that defy systematic explanation. And at certain crucial moments in my life, I’ll just suddenly be hit with this sort of gut realization of, “Oh, that’s why this character did that in this scene.” I can’t really fully articulate it, but I identify very much with that experience.
Well, look at one of my favorite characters, who’s influenced my life: St. Joan. Here was a girl who couldn’t read or write. What did she do? She listened to her inner voices. She gave them names: St. Catherine, St. Bernard. But when the Church came, and she said they were the words of God, they said: “What!? The words of God, from this ignorant little girl? No, we decide the voice of God!” And of course, she wouldn’t give up this truth of what was happening inside. And it was a big lesson to me, because I realized so many times in my life, I didn’t listen to that – and then there are consequences. Henry Miller once asked me, “What is the difference between destiny and fate, Jack?” What do you think is the difference?
Well, as I understand it the difference is mostly semantic.
I couldn’t explain it. And Henry said, “Destiny is that which every human being must fulfill. If they don’t, fate is that which kicks them in the ass for it!” So, I felt with St. Joan, that’s what happened – you don’t listen to your inner voice, you’re gonna get kicked in the ass! Fine. You pay a price for it, if you go just with your head.
So do you think, then, that we command our destiny, or that we merely listen to it?
We fulfill our destiny. Meaning, you have to always discover it. Look at me, in a crazy way… [It’s 1946,] I come to the United States, I’m totally alone. I was a kid, I was fifteen years old, I came to New York totally alone. My uncle put me into a foster home, I couldn’t even speak English, and I felt completely isolated. My entertainment was, I would ride buses in New York, just to ride buses, to see the city. I said to my uncle I wanted to be an actor, and he said, “What? Half of America want to be actors! You don’t even speak the language!” And he thought I would forget it.
I wouldn’t. I kept looking – where could I go? And I also wanted to write – I said, “No, I can’t, they would make fun of my writing.” But that didn’t make me give it up; it made me even go further. So finally when I was in a foster home, and I kept at it, I got a scholarship, got to the Dramatic Workshop with Ben Gazzara, Tony Curtis, Eli Wallach, all these actors who were in the Dramatic Workshop at the Piscator school, before the Actor’s Studio. But still, I was totally alone, isolated. Even when I got into the Actor’s Studio and worked with the actors, I worked as a package boy in the Beacon Hotel to support myself. And then, when I did one of my first productions, End as a Man – first time, they invited me for Passover dinner.
What I’m saying is, I didn’t know [consciously]… there was just something inside that said, this is what I have to do. I knew if I didn’t do it I’d feel terrible. And I rehearsed with all these actors for the first time – James Dean, Pat Hingle, all of them. So many times I didn’t listen, particularly in relation to love, in relation to families… and I realized it was the war, that was the effect that the war had on me, which I only got through a few years ago. It took that long for me to look at women a certain way. To relate to them as human beings, what they are able to offer and give.
Alright. Well, for as much as I could spend hours and hours talking about God, religion and art…
Yes, we’ve got to talk about Something Wild. Yes, yes.
Believe me, I love talking about it all, especially in relation to art, because I think that’s what makes me interested in art. I’m not an actively religious person – I went to two years of Jewish day school – but, you know, I’ve never been good about ritual. And yet, I’m incredibly fascinated with the topics of God, and spirit, and I’m incredibly drawn to those themes in art.
Oh, yes. You have to, I mean, you can’t go without that. You can’t go without that and without love. Those are the two things that you have to find. I mean, look at the sun – you need more than that. There it is, a certain distance, certain number of feet… Every little leaf, every little worm, every little life, is it all by chance? It’s all by accident?
Once, in my acting class, somebody said, “Mr. Garfein, acting is pretending!” I said, yes, well you know, I knew this young woman once. She was very much in love with this boy. And he left – she was uncertain, and she felt suspicious that he was going to leave her, that he was involved with somebody else, and so on. At night, she would hold the pillow next to her and break down, crying and wanting him, and experience his presence in bed. And in the morning she would wake up with tears in her eyes, and her mother said, “What’s the matter?” And she would tell her mother, “I can’t stand it! I miss him so much, he is with me all the time!” And the mother said, “Oh, you’re pretending!”
Meaning, I’m trying to make them see, acting is part of a living experience that every human being has. Like people have voices, people have talent for music, people have talent for writing, and nature also gives human beings the talent to be able to relive emotional experiences. To different degrees, some have it at a certain level, some have it at others. But it’s part of life. It’s not something outside of it. It’s what people, unfortunately, don’t realize. They’ve been given the wrong ideas.
Well, for my last few questions about Something Wild – first may be the most challenging one. So, speaking of changing reception to the film: I suspect, just from observing the way people talk and the way discussions are happening in media channels today, that if it were released today to a general audience, the film would be hugely controversial – not for the rape scene, but for the ending. I can imagine that there would be some very impassioned responses and critiques in the media, to the effect that the ending romanticizes abuse, or that it exonerates a violently misogynistic and oppressive character in the form of Mike. I’d be curious to hear from you how you might respond to that kind of a critique, and how you interpret the ending.
Well, first of all, I’m sorry to say, but they’re bringing cliché conventional ideas to the table. They’re not realizing that someone like Mike didn’t do anything deliberately. That even the way Ralph Meeker performs him – you know he’s innocent. What happened was, he got drunk because he was so overwhelmed by what was going on; he had saved this woman, in a sense, because she was going to die and he also, himself, is in that state. And he sees the potential in this woman, and doesn’t have any idea that he did anything to hurt her. And he thinks that she doesn’t trust him and tries for no reason to go out and maybe kill herself. And because of his life, because he too has been rejected, because of whatever his experience has been, whatever he’s been through, when he finds her, that’s why he proposes marriage and wants to have a life with her. Because he feels, just like what Henry Miller said: “When that guy says to her, ‘You’re my last chance,’ Jack, that’s me! That’s me, Jack!” In a sense, he’s saying to her, not “I want to rape you, or seduce you,” but “You’re my last chance at having a life. I never thought I would ever come across someone with whom I was emotionally connected like that.”
And so, I think that’s a kind of a judgment, others saying, “I think it should be this and it should be that.” Like, judging life on a conventional basis, this is what it’s supposed to be. Somebody even said once, “Why doesn’t she break the window and get out?” What’s she gonna do? Go to the police? They’re going to help her? She’s gonna be able to live? She’s gonna be able to relate to things? No, she’s gone through a complete transformation.
I think that what is difficult for people to understand is the fact that it’s not Stockholm syndrome, that’s not what it’s about. He’s not locking her up because of that. Mike knows one thing: first of all that he’s totally unaware of what he did, that he got drunk, because finally he rescued a woman with whom he felt a connection, and he couldn’t really take that. But if she leaves, where is she going to go? Is he going to let her go back to the five and ten-cent store? Let her go back to the bridge? She feels totally isolated from the people, from the city, because they have not related to the experience she has. And so, in a way he thinks he is protecting her, and that somehow she doesn’t see him as a guy who loves her and tries to protect her, because of the incident that occurred. So he thinks that keeping her there is out of love, and out of a desire to protect her. In Stockholm syndrome the kidnapper doesn’t let the victim out, she’s freed – it’s not the same thing. But here, when she reveals to him what has happened – what he tried to do to her, and the fact that she’s responsible for the eye– then he realizes that she cannot have faith in him, she just can’t believe in him, because what he did wrecked that. And so he leaves the door open. He says, “Okay.”
She leaves. She experiences. She thinks she’s going to go home or somewhere, only to find herself in the spot in front of the bridge at that place, and she suddenly realizes, intuitively she was brought back to that place, the only place that recognizes her emotionally and accepts what’s happened.
I know this experience in my own life. I mean, I finally met a woman, whom I’m now engaged to marry, and where does she come from? The Soviet Union. As a kid, there was a terrible experience in her life. At the age of three, two and a half, she noticed that there was a fight going on between her mother and father. Her father didn’t get up to fight, he was in bed. And the mother went and poured a bucket of hot water over his head. And the neighbors came, and the kid was screaming, and she was there. And they took her out, and it was her grandmother who knew what she had to deal with, and tried to bring her up to confidence.
In a way, her experience is an Auschwitz experience – in some ways worse! Because in my case, I was thirteen years old, and it was terrible – this break from my mother, and all that. And not just terrible, but I wished she dropped dead, or that I would die, and that would really get her. But I explained to Natalya, I said, “You were two and a half, you didn’t even understand! At least I knew what was going on! But for you, what? The person you love most, the person you were with – he’s screaming in pain, and for what? There was no comprehension; I don’t know how you survived it. I don’t know how you got through it,” I said. “In some ways you were lucky because your grandmother really understood that she had to take you and give you confidence and build everything up for you, and so on.”
And so I’m saying that, this notion is something people would like to believe: “Oh, yeah, I can go back and I’ll be the same person as I was before.” It’s not true. It’s not true. Either you suppress it, and you live with suppression, or you accept it.
She never realized. We met, she was attracted to me, I was attracted to her, we never realized that something else, here, brought us together, that nobody else could grasp on a certain level. That, yes, she had to find an Auschwitz survivor, and I had to find someone from the Soviet Union who went through something even worse.
Now I’m telling you, if I had seen for example what Elie Wiesel saw… I came on the same night, to Auschwitz, that Elie Wiesel came! And he said that what he saw was the Nazis throwing children into a pit of fire. Well all I can tell you is, if I had seen my sister thrown into the fire like that, I wouldn’t have made it. I would have gone and done myself in. So you can see that it’s not the literal experience that each person has, but it’s something [psychological].
For example, after that incident in her childhood, every time Natalya saw a man with a red beard, she would say, “Pick me up! I wanna touch your beard!” And her mother would say, “Stop that! Don’t do that!” But she couldn’t stop her. Because she loved that man [her father], she experienced that, you understand. She was a baby, you know, she didn’t understand consequences, [she was] so pure! Because the love at that point is so pure, particularly with a father. That’s why, for women, the love of the father is so important, because the love is there without sex. That’s why it’s so important that it never happen that the father misuses that. That gives them faith that men are capable of something beyond sex.
But do you think, though, that it’s wrong that Mike imprisons Mary Anne against her will, and essentially commits an act of violence against her in that way?
No, I think that he tries to protect her from herself, just like how she tried to jump off the bridge. It’s after the incident with the eye that she starts to want to get out, before that she didn’t want to get out. But he doesn’t know that he did anything, he just thinks she’s going to go out there and go through the same thing because of the state she was in. Nothing else has changed in her life. She’s not going to go home and deal with her mother and her father on that level, or the school, or anything like that. And also, he feels for the first time a love for another human being, you know, that will give him a life. He doesn’t just want to seduce her, that’s why he offers marriage.
And people try immediately to go with the conventional idea that he imprisons her. He doesn’t imprison her; he doesn’t know why, but she’s his chance to have a life. He’s not interested in just going to bed with her. And the thing about the drunkenness is, he’s so overwhelmed because he thought that this would never happen to him, for there to ever be someone like this. He got drunk without even thinking about it, and he explains to her the next day: “I don’t know what happened,” he doesn’t even remember what went on.
But do you think that, even under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a person can ever really do something like that totally by accident? Doesn’t it reflect something in their nature?
Oh, I believe that you can get so drunk that… maybe subconsciously, it was like wanting her. But I absolutely believe that in his case, he was so lonely and so alone, and finally there was this break where he has this woman. Even under normal circumstances, the man is always afraid that she’ll be lost, or she’ll leave, or find somebody else, or something like that. And for him, for the first time in his life, he finds somebody on his own level, in terms of a connection. And she trusts him! And she knows what happened, but he doesn’t know. And I don’t know how, if she got out of there, she could live with that idea.
So in the end, you believe that the right thing happened for those characters?
Oh! They’re lucky. It took me a lifetime to find the woman that I could connect with in my life, even though I’m much older than she is. I try to tell her that – and her mother at one point even threatened suicide because of my age, but she felt, no no, this was the first time that, on a certain level which she didn’t even understand at first, she connected with someone and felt, “Oh no, I can’t lose this.” And I, too, I felt that. I even began to speak Slavic again with her, which I never did before, and she speaks Yiddish in some way. And I’m just amazed at the things that happen. What the consequences will be, [who knows]… all you know is, this is what’s impelling you. In the film, Mary Anne is pregnant, they’re going to have a child. And I’m sure that she’s never going to find anybody who’s going to be able to relate to her the way this man can relate to her. She’s not going to be looking, even. And he is lucky to find a woman like that.
Dovetailing again off of the film’s immensely contemporary feel: you have a particularly fascinating life story. There are few living people in Hollywood, or America for that matter, who have borne witness to the scope of history – both the world’s and the industry’s – that you have experienced in your lifetime. And given this, I’m incredibly curious to get just a little bit of your perspective on the state of the world today: where cinema is at, where theater is at, what’s happening politically right now in America and Europe, what you think about the advancement of technology and its impact on life and on art.
Well, let’s take one thing at a time: Hollywood. Unfortunately, Hollywood tries to flatter people. They want to make them feel that everything, in the end, works out well, and if not you’re responsible for the things that went wrong. And also that you should forget about anything bad that happened to you, you know, don’t think about it. Which is very bad.
It happened to me. When I was liberated in Bergen-Belsen, I weighed 48 pounds, 23 kilos. I couldn’t walk anymore. I knew I had about three days to live. And then the British liberated me, and they wanted to put me through disinfection but I wouldn’t give up my clothes. My hair was thick with all sorts of stuff; I hadn’t been bathed in who knows how long. They brought a British officer who spoke Yiddish, and he assured me that he would take my clothes and he would have them cleaned and I would have them back. So I agreed, I gave them the clothes, and then they cleaned me up, they cut my hair, and then they put me in a room by myself. And that afternoon the British officer showed up with my clean clothes.
I won’t go into what happened after, but later I came to America, I was in a foster home, and finally the Jewish Childcare Association, which took care of me, put me into a very nice home on Central Park West with a doctor and his wife. They were nice people. Jewish Childcare only took care of you up to the age of 18, so at 18 I was on my own. I packed my bags, and got a job at the Beacon Hotel as a package boy, and as I was leaving I couldn’t find the clothes from the camp. I turned to the woman, and I said, “Where are my clothes from the camp?” “Oh, Jack, I didn’t want you to think about that, I didn’t want you to relate to that experience, so I threw them in the garbage.”
There you have the attitude of America, in a sense, in a very specific way. The fact that they couldn’t take that step; that only made me feel more alone. I think in Hollywood, they try only to make the audience feel good. You know, that this is all good, that justice has been done. So, except for great directors, every once in a while – it’s not Hollywood, but Bergman, people like that. John Ford, in some ways. So that’s Hollywood.
Politically, I went through a very bad experience, three days after Trump was elected. In a sense, I didn’t think I had these emotions anymore. I never dealt with them, because I grew up, I went on. But now I woke up in the middle of the night, and I felt the same feelings I had when I was eight years old, in 1939, when Hitler came to power in Germany. Not because of Hitler coming to power, but picking up the uncertainty of my parents, who didn’t know where they were going to go, how they were going to protect themselves, what was going to happen to them. And at the time I didn’t know what it was. Outside I heard the fascists screaming, “Jews out! Czechs out!” It was in Slovakia, joining into an alliance with Hitler. Not the Czechs, but the Slovaks. And suddenly back in the present I had to talk to myself, I had to say, “Wait a minute. It’s not the same. There is still a strength in this country, something that has seen this country through.” But for the first time, I felt the insecurity that I felt as a kid during the war.
And then what worried me were two things. What worried me, basically, is the fact that these people who are there with Trump, I don’t see them ever giving up power. I mean, they have weapons, they’ll legalize this, they’ll legalize that. I was afraid about the next election, any future election, that it may take who knows how long. The other fear was when I saw that Trump was lying, and obviously lying, I suddenly felt, “Jesus, if the President’s lying, suppose something happened in the world and he said, ‘Oh, this is what’s happening, we have to attack, we have to do this or that.’ How can I believe him?” How can I believe it’s true? I said, “I feel absolutely lost.” I feel lost, but I also feel that there is something in this country that I don’t think can be destroyed completely. But it might take a hundred years to get back to [how we were], I don’t know.
On technology: Well.. it has positive aspects, for example if you’re doing research. You put something inside of yourself. It’s wonderful that it’s there, and the fact that you can be in touch with things. But, I feel that today we’re surrounded by so much technology – by cellphones, televisions, emails, SMS, all this – that what happens is, we’re not getting images and ideas from other people. The most important thing is direct connection with other human beings, and that’s being lost quite a bit.
I tell people, “Please, go to the theater. Even bad theater is important!” It’s important because human beings are doing it. It’s not something that’s sent to you. And I tell them, “Read books, because when you read books, you create your own images.” And the danger I see today, is – and they see it politically now, too – that not only are they sending you false images, and false information, but that you have to connect yourself to human beings individually, it’s the only way today. And to literature, and to art, where it reveals an aspect of life – the revelation of life.
But the fact is, yes it can be used well, but it’s dangerous. And you can see even in this election, politically, that it’s dangerous. And look what they sell – and again, it’s somebody’s image, fine. But as long as something else is also there: theater, real literature, dealing with the complexity of human nature and life and the mystery of it. Something that reveals, that gives you some revelation of what you are about. And there’s no end to that. But if technology takes over all of that, then it’s dangerous.
I was going to say earlier that I think Something Wild in particular may appeal to a lot of younger people, people of my generation; partly I think because of technology, we experience a sort of emotional alienation and social alienation that is kind of historically new. Partly due to technology, but also partly history, economics, there’s a whole bunch of factors leading to, you know, what people talk about as the “postmodern condition”. But it’s sort of, the way that we’re defining reality and connecting to each other has become very different compared to your generation.
Also, when people use technology, [information is] erased, nothing remains sometimes about what our communication has been and on what level. And I think that’s also a danger. I don’t know which way we’re going and what can be done, but… You know, the Jews have a saying: “If the fish stinks, it stinks from the head.”
Never heard that one…
So with anything like this, the head people, the people who are in charge of this… like, if you see the television shows that are being done, most of them are lies about human nature. But the people who do it, and approve it, part of it is their life, that’s what they live, and this is what they think the world wants to see and they impart that. And I would say that the people in charge today, too, are responsible for that. They stand for profit, not for revelation.
We would like to thank Courtney Ott, Bingham Bryant and everyone else at The Criterion Collection for making this interview happen, and of course Jack Garfein and Lori Styler for their participation.
Eli F. is a freelance writer based out of New Jersey. You can contact him by email.