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Bean & Nothingness

Photo by Anne Fishbein

TWENTY MINUTES INTO AN OVERFLOW SCREENING OF THE BELIEVER AT THE 2001 SUNDANCE Film Festival, I was enthralled -- and scribbling in my notes that the movie will never fly with audiences who are not obsessed Jews like me, let alone snag a distributor. Henry Bean's fevered tale of an Orthodox Jew who remodels himself into a Nazi skinhead, then rediscovers his roots in the Torah and ends up living a vibrantly terrible double life as a Jew and a fascist, is a capable thriller with emotional intensity to burn and more than a few sly laughs. But Bean's script is laden with Midrashic commentary on the Jewish Torah; its star is a relatively unknown, if prodigiously talented, young Canadian actor; and the supporting cast is resolutely B-list and below.

The Believer brought down the house at Sundance and went on to win a Grand Jury award, which ordinarily is enough to draw a swarm of big independent distributors, cash in hand. They sniffed, but didn't buy. The critics liked the movie, and it played to appreciative audiences at festivals in Moscow and Munich, neither of which is famed for its philo-Semitic culture, and in Israel, where it was most likely to give offense. It's done very well in commercial release in England, a country with a long and queasy tradition of tolerating its Jews, on condition they don't act Jewish. But in the United States, home to one of the biggest, freest and least put-upon Jewish communities in the world, the movie couldn't find a distributor. It didn't help that Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a self-appointed film critic and gatekeeper to Hollywood of movies with Jewish content, told potential buyer Paramount Classics that the film didn't work: It lacked a good script, failed to provide motivation for the protagonist, and, he said, one crucial scene of a synagogue desecration offered a potential "primer for anti-Semitism." Although Cooper's may have been no more than the vote that tipped the scales in an industry notoriously skittish about making films with Jewish themes, Paramount did, in fact, pass, whereupon Showtime jumped in and bought the movie for cable. Then came September 11, with its attendant Hollywood nervousness about terrorist themes. Now, at last, IDP, the distribution arm of The Believer's production company, Fireworks Pictures, is giving the film a modest bicoastal release, to be followed, if all goes well, by 20 top markets around the country.

AT THE OUTSET, THE BELIEVER ANNOUNCES ITSELF as a simple story of Jewish self-hatred. Danny Balint, played by Ryan Gosling (former Mouseketeer, cohort of Britney Spears) with a taut blend of contempt, icy intelligence and naked vulnerability, is a young man driven by opposing forces. He's the puny, bespectacled yeshiva bocher arguing with his Hebrew teacher about the power of God; and he's the sneering, muscled überkind in a swastika T-shirt who likes to beat the shit out of puny, bespectacled yeshiva bochers. Obsessed with powerful fathers (God, Abraham) and powerless children (Isaac, the rest of us), Danny is, to all outward appearances, the powerful son of a weak, broken father. So dedicated a hater is Danny of himself and the forces that have shaped him that he is willing to try to annihilate both. Fascism is his ticket out of Judaism -- and, as the consequences of his defection and his betrayals come home to roost, his ticket back into it. The Torah is Danny's scourge, and his delight; his shame, and his pride.

Like many truly preposterous fictional characters, Danny Balint is drawn from life. In October 1965, The New York Times ran an interview with Daniel Burros, a former member of the American Nazi Party who had become King Kleagle in a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. When the reporter confronted Burros with the fact that he was a Jew, the young man threatened to kill both the writer and himself if his cover was blown. One hour after the story appeared, Burros shot himself in the head. It wasn't until 10 years after Burros' death that Henry Bean and his friend Mark Jacobson, neither of whom was in the film business yet, toyed with the idea of making a movie out of it. "Like millions of others," Bean wrote in an essay recently published together with The Believer's screenplay and several commentaries by prominent Jewish scholars, "we spent a good deal of time imagining the films we would make without imagining very hard that we would actually make them. For this purpose, the 'Danny Burros Story' was perfect: the craziness, the self-destructive fury and, above all, the endless ironies."

Bean did manage to write a short treatment, which he and Jacobson submitted to Dustin Hoffman's production company. They never heard back, and dropped the project when, in the early '70s, Jacobson moved to New York to study journalism. In 1977, Bean took off for Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. The Jewish-Nazi project languished for 15 years. "It wasn't that I was lazy or even stupid," writes Bean. "Perhaps, as with my inability to keep kosher or honor the Sabbath, there was a terror of what happiness I might find, like someone afraid to fall in love." By the time Bean returned to the project in earnest in the early '90s, his life had undergone a sea change, one that led him to make his character, unlike Daniel Burros, an Orthodox Jew.  

IT HAS TAKEN 25 YEARS FOR BEAN TO MAKE THE Believer, and about that long for him to become the man he is today -- an unbelieving, practicing Jew whose idea of a good time is to pass a Shabbat morning in close reading of the Torah. A genial, middle-aged, happily married Manhattanite, Bean couldn't be more different from The Believer's tortured antihero. Notwithstanding the busy cell phone and natty new laptop he brings with him to the conference room at Fireworks Pictures, Bean comes across much more like the sometime novelist he is than like a top screenwriter of high-end thrillers such as Internal Affairs, Deep Cover and Enemy of the State. Spend time with him, and it quickly becomes apparent why he originally conceived The Believer as an absurdist American romp: It wouldn't occur to everyone to cast Billy Zane and Theresa Russell as neo-Nazi theoreticians. A short, wiry man with the wisecracking exuberance of a New York­Jewish intellectual, Bean is funny and irreverent, with a touch of Catskills in his delivery. (On Lillian Hellman: "Horrible. Horrible. I hate that woman. Fortunately she's dead.") He is also -- not unlike Danny -- soulful, serious, intense, and possessed of a restless intellect that convinces you that he really has read Baudrillard, Derrida, Pound and Eliot. He talks like a man who's either been psychoanalyzed or read his way through Freud, or both. And, like Danny, who reveals his double identity as compulsively as he hides it, he's entranced by the dialectic of opposites. "I find Danny heroic," he says, "because I feel that he's acknowledging the contradictory pulls within himself."

Bean reminds me of the Jews I grew up with and, given the choice, still hang out with on a regular basis -- secular, analytical, somewhat rootless, besotted with irony, yet still hankering after a spiritual life. Except that Bean has found his spiritual path. Without it, he says, The Believer would never have been made. Born and raised in a Philadelphia suburb -- his father was a lawyer, his mother a housewife -- Bean comes from the kind of family known in the London Jewish community of my youth as TTAY Jews (that's "three times a year"). The Beans lit candles on Friday nights, went to Reform temple (where Bean's father was president) on the high holy days, celebrated Passover and Hanukkah -- and enjoyed their Christmas tree. Sparring with his father at the dinner table schooled Bean in the rhythms and cadences of Talmudic debate. Still, his was a minimal Jewish education, and yet, like most Jews of the post­World War II generation, he and his family and friends never stopped talking about the fact that they were Jewish, and about who else was Jewish, a practice Bean continues to this day. He can't help himself: This is the particular obsession of assimilated Jews who feel not quite American and not quite Jewish, who remain vaguely wedded to their tradition even as they feel it slipping away. "My father walks through graveyards on Normandy beach and looks for the Stars of David," says Bean. I counter that when my parents went to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London, their first order of business was to look down the orchestra list and identify the Jewish names. We laugh, the nervous laughter of children owning up to the fact that the distance they've traveled from their families is shorter than they sometimes like to think.

To Bean, that sense of feeling Jewish just because he didn't feel like a full-fledged American seemed like a poor excuse for an identity. "It was as if I had this identity that was one of the biggest things in my life," he says, "but there was no content to it." Had he not met his wife, Leora Barish, whom he clearly admires as well as adores (her screenplay for Desperately Seeking Susan, he says, was "much darker and funnier than the film. It made Thelma and Louise possible"), Bean might have drifted away from Judaism altogether. Barish, known around the set of The Believer as "Rock," coached Ryan Gosling -- who grew up Mormon -- in Hebrew and Jewish ritual. Gosling thinks of her as Bean's muse: "He makes everything for her and is very inspired by her. If Rock likes it, we move ahead." The daughter of a Jewish Army chaplain, Barish had a rigorous Jewish education from which she, like many children of the counterculture, had become estranged. Still, in the early years of their marriage the couple argued about Judaism all the time, and when their first child was born, Barish, out of the blue, began attending services at Mishkon Tephilo, a Conservative synagogue in Venice. Bean soon joined her, began taking classes in Torah and very gradually became observant.  

Today Bean keeps a kosher home and goes to shul three times a month at Ansche Chesed, the beautiful, tony Conservative synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side in which several crucial scenes in The Believer were shot. "I'm still not very observant," he says. "But observance is like exercise or yoga. You start, and then you want to go further, and you want to go further . . ." Judaism, says Bean, is "not a religion of belief. It's a religion of practice, of doing things. I have this argument [espoused by Danny in the film] that you can be an atheist and practice Judaism and there's no contradiction. Judaism works fine without God, you just do the stuff and it makes you feel good, it ties you into a community, it gives your life organization, ways to reflect on questions that everybody reflects on. I make it what I want it to be." Bean's comfortable, mix-and-match Judaism is a peculiarly American phenomenon, not uncommon among Jews who grew up with minimal religious training. Depending on which Jewish theologian you talk to, his approach will either save Judaism from extinction or dilute it to death. Bean doesn't worry much about the survival of Judaism. He's too busy studying the Torah, a practice that involves endless reinterpretation of the texts. He belongs to a minyan, a Torah study group, and writes his own short commentaries from time to time.

FROM A CERTAIN PERSPECTIVE, DANNY'S STRUGGLE with his religion in The Believer is a dvar torah, a Torah commentary, in its own right. For all its studied excess, The Believer is less a provocation about the extremes of Jewish and Nazi identity than it is a meditation on Jewish identity in general. Certainly it's an unfashionable, even anachronistic one in America, where Jewish identity typically is informed either by indifference or by the Holocaust. Twice in The Believer, Danny is told, first by a neofascist and then by a secular Jewish stock investor, that there is no Jewish problem anymore, that anti-Semitism is dead and nobody cares. This is the dilemma of Jewish identity in an open society. "If Judaism is not defined negatively," says Bean, "then Danny doesn't know how to know himself without that oppression." Hence Danny's statement to a group of visibly twitchy weekend fascists that if Hitler hadn't existed, the Jews would have had to invent him.

A book written after the Daniel Burros case by Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, both at that time rising stars at The New York Times, portrayed Burros as a self-hating casualty of the Holocaust. Had Bean chosen to follow that line of reasoning, it's likely The Believer would have had a smoother path to distribution. To the extent that Jewish themes have seeped into recent Hollywood movies, it's been through the prism of the European Jewish experience in World War II, which offers an easily digested narrative arc from oppression to nobility. Though the Shoah has its place in The Believer -- for all his hatred of the "weak Jew," Danny is haunted by a story told him by Holocaust survivors about a little boy whose father fails to protect him from the Nazis -- Danny's fierce hatred of Jewish passivity runs against the passion of American Jews, in an age of identity politics and the culture of the victim, for repossessing the Holocaust as their own story.

Whether as a Jew or as a writer of tales of power for the movies, Bean shares Danny's unease with narratives of Jewish weakness. "To me, the Holocaust as a defining attribute of Judaism is a nightmare," he says. "It's really a German story in the most basic Drama 101 sense. The Germans are the actors, the ones who make it happen. And that's why the Jews are just victims, and why today they are having this defining experience around a) they're victimized and b) they don't do anything except die, â and rather shamefully. And what's happened is that the Holocaust has become this cudgel that can be used on people." Small wonder that Rabbi Cooper and the Wiesenthal Center, whose goal is to keep the Holocaust alive in the American psyche, objected to The Believer.  

"The Holocaust, for all its horrible magnificence," says Bean, "is not nearly as interesting or complex as this absolutely unparalleled tradition, this unique, magnificent, incredibly profound tradition that has produced one of the great cultures of the world. That's what I wanted to talk about in my movie." But even the movie's dialogue with religion was a problem for Rabbi Cooper, who was offended by a scene in which Danny and his Nazi pals lay waste to a synagogue. At the time, Bean was infuriated by Cooper's response, which he had solicited. Though he's more philosophical -- or diplomatic -- today, he still can't resist giving Cooper a little shove: "I thought of having a coda saying 'No Torah was desecrated in the making of this film.'"

In fact, The Believer grew precisely out of the scene that so rattled Cooper, and that serves as a turning point in Danny's rabid rejection of the very tradition Bean has grown to love. When, in the synagogue, Danny and his fellow thugs begin to defile the Torah, we see him trying to conceal his anger and anxiety. He steals the Torah, takes it home, lovingly repairs it, wraps a prayer shawl around his waist, then struts around giving the Nazi salute and chanting the prayer that accompanies the removal of the Torah from the ark. Thereafter he lives a schizoid life, part Jew, part Nazi, two irreconcilable tracks that can only end in disaster.

THOUGH DANNY BALINT IS A PERSONification, however exaggerated, of the dilemma of the modern Jew, who can't live with his Judaism, yet can't live without it, that's not the only reason Bean stubbornly resisted redeeming him to reassure the audience. "I am really a creature of excess, at least in my imaginative life," he says. "I liked the operatic, over-the-top-ness of it." Indeed, he sees Danny as a Dostoyevskian figure. "As Danny's life becomes increasingly schizoid, he becomes more completely himself. He's going to play the whole thing out, and I find that heroic. It's terribly destructive to be that way, because you can't live a life that admits everything. But the impulse to do so, though very adolescent, is nevertheless grand."

Maybe a little too grand, even for the indie crowd. Though The Believer received four nominations for the Independent Feature Project Spirit Awards last March, it took away not a single prize. Perhaps the movie was a provocation on too many fronts -- too Jewish, too unresolved, too unwilling to cede an inch of ground to American political correctness, and, finally, too vocal and funny on subjects we've been trained to treat with silent reverence. Perhaps the movie creates a hero we can't bear, a man who owns to what is worst in him, as well as what is best. Perhaps, in our resurgently fanatical age, we can only avert our gaze from a man of such extremes. Nothing deterred, Bean is hard at work (with his old friend Nicholas Kazan) on a new movie about another fanatic, a man who is being driven crazy by the noise in New York City and who, once he tries to do something about it, can't stop, even though his efforts are hopeless. "It's a comedy, obviously," says Bean with a wolfish grin. "But I hope the noise in the film functions a bit like the rats in The Plague."

The Believer is reviewed by Manohla Dargis in the film section.

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