By Amy Nicholson
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By Zachary Pincus-Roth
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By Amanda Lewis
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"It's been very busy," says a smiling but weary Eric Mendelsohn on a chilly January morning in Lower Manhattan, during a break from scoring and sound editing on his Sundance-bound second feature, 3 Backyards. "The deadline of Sundance has put a lot of pressure on, which is necessary, and I'm grateful for that," he adds between spoonfuls of oatmeal at Le Pain Quotidien. "But it's been intense. There's no money, and pressure plus no money can be a real disaster."
On the one hand, such pressure should be old hat for Mendelsohn, who's been to Park City twice before — first with a 30-minute short, Through an Open Window, and then with his debut feature, Judy Berlin, which won Sundance's Dramatic Directing Prize and went on to earn three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature Under $500,000. (It lost to The Blair Witch Project.) On the other hand, that was then — 1999, to be precise — and in the subsequent decade, Mendelsohn seemed to vanish from the indie-film radar screen. Such disappearing acts aren't altogether uncommon for award-winning Sundance alumni — among them 1990 Grand Jury Prize winner Wendell B. Harris Jr. (who has yet to direct a follow-up to his Chameleon Street) and Primer director Shane Carruth — whose striking, original visions often fail to connect with mainstream audiences or to attract the attention of deep-pocketed Hollywood backers.
In Mendelsohn's case, he's quick to note that he's been dutifully writing scripts and trying to get a film made ever since Judy Berlin wrapped, albeit with certain conditions. "I guess the real question is: Why didn't I go and make a studio film?" he says. "I was offered plenty of them, but I have no idea what you're supposed to do with three years of your life and a script you think is juvenile. To me, shooting and prepping and editing are unbelievably exhausting and important and meaningful, and the idea that I would do it on a project I don't have a feeling for — there's not a bone in my body that's compelled by that idea. I'm not saying that every script that was ever offered to me was bad, but there's so much I don't connect with. I also think — and maybe this sounds a little highfalutin — that I have a lot of respect for this art form, and I don't know how to do it casually."
Set in a stretch of Long Island graced with the mythical name of Babylon, in the hours leading up to a solar eclipse, Judy Berlin belongs on any short list of the most impressive debut features of the '90s, from its luminous black-and-white cinematography to the remarkable control of tone with which Mendelsohn navigates his way through a bittersweet roundelay of wistful dreamers and lovelorn romantics. It is a movie fully deserving of comparison to one of Mendelsohn's acknowledged inspirations, the French New Wave director Jacques Demy, whose own debut film, Lola, features a similar cross-section of lives suspended in time in the city of Nantes. "Jacques Demy does a thing that I find very brave in all the artwork that I'm currently studying from and learning from, which is, he takes the chance of looking simplistic," Mendelsohn says. "He chances being called childlike, when in reality, Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and moments in The Young Girls of Rochefort aren't in any way simple or casually careless."
But Mendelsohn says he's a fan of any filmmaker "who is using visuals as a language, because nowadays you see that there's kind of like an international style of making a movie, in the same way that in the Middle Ages there was what's called the international style of draperies and statues. I hate anything that's a given. I hate any assumption about visual language. I like to see people using it freshly."
One of his recent favorites is the Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman), of whom he says, "She's got new combinations of shots to tell a story, and that's what I'm aspiring to. I don't even have to understand or like her films — though I do, by the way. When I saw her work, I was just amazed. She just seemed to have popped out of Zeus' head fully grown and using her own language, and I will take one person's idiosyncratic, specific, internally developed choice — right or wrong — over a committee's smoothed-out, conventional, rational decision any day."
Another ensemble drama set in the Long Island suburbs, 3 Backyards (which, due to its hectic postproduction schedule, was unavailable for preview) is described by its director as being "about three main characters, three stories, all on the same day. None of the characters meet, which was a total delight for me to think about when writing it, because there's that convention in writing that says your one character, at the end of his or her story, goes into a deli and buys a snack from the counter person, whom then we stay with, and it's their story. It's such a convention, and when you unwrap it, what do you have at the bottom? This idea that it's a small world after all? Hopefully, like magnets, these stories will have pull and push and resonance with each other, because they were written to be together but not in any kind of literal way. Nobody stops short, honks a horn and almost kills the next character."
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