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On ‘Barney’s Version’: The Canadian Jewish Experience

February 23, 2011 | by

A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Dear db,

I absolutely remember our conversation in or around 2000, and I may even recall that I felt a tinge of jealousy leaking through the phone line from you. But that was to be expected as I bragged about a project that any self-respecting Canadian Jewish filmmaker would give his left testicle to do—a project that I would not be formally contracted to do for another seven years, mind you. So yes, David, I may have been exaggerating slightly when I said I was in line to direct it, because at that time even though I had made Whale Music with producer Robert Lantos, who owned the rights, according to him, I was a far cry from the pedigree he was entertaining to direct this project. I’d sit down with Robert whenever he’d take a meeting with me and would look for the opportune moment to mention Barney, at which point he would condescendingly say in his thick Hungarian accent, “Richard, I am talking to Istvan or Sidney [Lumet or Pollack, I’m not sure which] about this one.” At which point I would dive into a prerehearsed diatribe about how I was the one to put this on film because I understood the nuance and character and I grew up in this world and my grandfather was Barney and blah, blah, blah. Cut to 2006: I slap my own adaptation of the novel, which I write on spec, moonlighting after finishing my current day job producing and directing CSI, on his desk. That was how badly I wanted to make this particular story. A story that you and I relate to mainly because it was the only thing that rang true to our Canadian Jewish ears. There was Davies, and Atwood, and for me, Quarrington, whose delicious and absurd sense of things always struck my cinema bone, but they didn’t speak to the Jewish experience. Richler was authentic and seemed to pull at me in the way that Philip Roth did when I was in college. Frankly, I may have told you I was in line to direct this book because of the sheer faith I had in my monstrous passion for it.

Why I had to make this particular story is a more difficult question. First, let’s tackle why people make books into movies in the first place. The most obvious answer to me is that original stories are very hard to come by. They are not a dime a dozen. A good story is a very hard thing to invent, as I am sure you, as a novelist, will attest to. So if books or plays aren’t getting made into movies then all movies are being written from scratch and then we have a veritable shortage of movies. And not very good ones at that. Simply put, good books contain good stories and good stories make good films. It’s very hard to make a good film from a bad story but it is entirely possible to fuck up a good story by making it into a bad film (e.g. The Prince of Tides!!!). But I digress. The other idea is that stories have a life, and that life is shared through transmission. People are shaped by story and myth and archetypes (as per Mr. Campbell) and we necessarily desire that a constant stream of anecdotal material be jettisoned into our psyches in order to stay satisfied. Stories have always been transmogrified—from hierolglyphics and cave drawings to sculpture and canvases; from campfires to proscenium stages; and from print to modern mediums such as film. And if you sit down with my mother for Shabbat dinner you will see that human beings have an innate need to tell the story OVER and OVER and OVER again.

Why this story? Perhaps I will answer in the Talmudic fashion—why not?

Warmly,

RJL

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