2011-11-18 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

A Filmmaker In Rockaway
by Stuart W. Mirsky

The communities of the Rockaway peninsula are known for lots of things, starting with our beaches and all the things people like to do on or near them. But we’ve also got a cultural dimension which is sometimes overlooked.

Home to communities of artists of all stripes, from painters, sculptors, performers and novelists, Rockaway also boasts its share of independent filmmakers. Unlike many of the other arts though, filmmaking’s a collaborative endeavor, requiring teams of people – from scriptwriters to directors, to actors, to cameramen, to technical personnel and consultants and, of course, producers who put it all together. Guiding any movie from conception to screening takes teamwork. And it inevitably takes cash.

Independent filmmaker Yisrael Lifschutz grew up in Rockaway as Richard Lifschutz and moved back here in the eighties after undergoing a personal awakening that reconnected him with his Jewish roots. But he never gave up on his various passions which run the gamut from basketball (he was a varsity level competitor in college) to mugging for the cameras – a bug he caught after landing a job as technical consultant and bit player in The Chosen with Robbie Benson (based on the book of the same name by best selling author Chaim Potok). But Lifschutz’ unique specialty of playing Hasidic men, based on his shaggily bearded mien, has been a limiting factor as well as a door opener.

Playing bit parts and advising other Hollywood film efforts based on the Hasidic Jewish experience – including “A Stranger Among Us” (with Melanie Griffith as a woman detective seeking a murderer in an orthodox Jewish community) and “A Price Above Rubies” (Renee Zellweger as a Hasidic woman fleeing hypocrisy at home for a new life) – Lifschutz got his groove. But he also exhausted most of the opportunities open to a guy who looks like Santa in a long black coat with dangling sideburns (the traditional “payos” worn by some orthodox Jewish men).

But the bug had bitten him and he became increasingly fascinated with film. Denied opportunities to achieve much more than bit player status in a movie industry with little call for Hasidic look-alikes, Lifschutz turned more and more to the production side, parlaying his talent for schmoozing the bigger players he had come to know into a series of independent films of his own making. Now, on December 18 on cable’s JLTV (Jewish Life TV), his latest work is set to be aired in its world television premier.

“H.A.G. The Story of the Hasidic Actors’ Guild,” makes use of footage from movies Lifschutz has had a part in as well as from others (like Mel Brooks’ comedy “The Frisco Kid” – an orthodox rabbi heads west) to give us a selfmocking send-up of Lifschutz’ own obsessions about filmmaking and performance. Like Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” the unfortunately titled H.A.G. (who picked that name?) follows the career of a mostly mythical “Izzie Lifschutz” through the reminiscences of colleagues and friends, interspersed with amusing clips from other films and some of Lifschutz’ own heretofore unheralded work. The result is a cleverly compiled “mockumentary” that veers, sometimes a little uncomfortably, between what’s real and what’s obviously made up. Some of the stuff skirts the line as when Lifschutz places his fictional “Izzie” in a concentration camp photo. At some point the humor is unavoidably lost.

On balance, though, the film is clever and always interesting, from Gene Wilder’s westward faring rabbi in “The Frisco Kid,” who mutters to himself in Yiddish as he faints on learning that the Amish men he’s bumped into aren’t “landsmen” after all, to the faux interviews of some well known personalities, like music performer Kenny Vance, and Lifschutz’ own wife, Barbara, as she struggles to keep a straight face while recounting their peculiar courtship and characterizing her mate as someone who never seemed to have a real job.

The film’s ostensible purpose is to document “Izzy’s” rise in the film industry and his founding and leadership of the so-called “Hasidic Actors Guild,” leading to an inevitable breach with other film producers (over Izzy’s obsession with hogging the spotlight) and with Hasidic rabbis because of his often irreverent portrayal of their community. Moments of bad taste aside, and there are more than just the cameo in the concentration camp, the film has a certain dynamic narrative power and a remarkably polished look. Even the interspersed camcorder shots of a fake Hasidic chorus line dancing up a storm on a local stage or Izzy in dark glasses, performing karaoke style at a Jewish wedding, keep the comic momentum going. If we’re sometimes prompted to wonder whether we should really be laughing at all, there are plenty of times when doubt is dispelled and the cleverness of the parody shines brilliantly through.

This isn’t Lifschutz’ first film by any means. He did a documentary on Jewish basketball stars a few years back (one of the highlighted films at the last Rockaway Literary Arts and Film Festival) and was a co-producer and adviser on the award winning independent film “Pi” before that. But this one’s got the feel of being something special for him – and it should, considering that he’s the writer, producer and star this time, in a film that portrays a fictional version of himself! At a little more than an hour in run time, it’s an entertaining and clever diversion. Locals in Rockaway will see a few familiar sights, too. And not a few familiar faces. It all airs this December 18 on JLTV.

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