Slime Regained

Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker by barry sonnenfeld. new york: hachette books. 368 pages. $29.

The cover of Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker

AT THE END OF MAY 2011 I was standing at the corner of Union and Court Streets in Brooklyn with a man in his late seventies named Bobby Russo, who was born in the apartment where I live. Bobby and I were stopped there because the street was blocked off so that Columbia Pictures could shoot Men in Black 3, a sci-fi action-comedy starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.

The street had been dressed to look like it might have in 1969, with Peter Max–style advertising in place of the usual signs outside bodegas. As we watched a scene featuring vintage cars and a bus being filmed with an elaborate camera rig, Bobby turned to me and said, “You see all this and you understand how they spend one million, two million dollars on a picture.”

In fact the total production budget of Men in Black 3 was $250 million. Columbia spared no expense to make it. That spring, Will Smith’s pair of fifty-three-feet-long, pop-out, two-story trailers—which housed a full-size kitchen, a bedroom, a lounge bar, a screening room, an office, a meeting room, and a full gym—had been rousing the ire of New Yorkers. It wasn’t just the amount of parking the trailers took up in the neighborhoods where the film was being shot. It was also the smells emanating from them when their bathrooms were emptied by Teamsters. Those trailers cost the production of Men in Black 3 close to a million dollars to rent, maintain, and staff. That didn’t matter. When it came out in 2012, Men in Black 3 made $625 million worldwide in first run, of which Will Smith pocketed $100 million himself. Critics called the movie “amiable” and “reasonably entertaining.”

While Bobby and I watched the vintage cars slide by, he told me that in the very cold winter of 1954 he had witnessed another movie being shot in our neighborhood, On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando. The total budget for Elia Kazan’s classic was $910,000, including Brando’s salary. The cinematic journey of my neighborhood as a shooting location, from On the Waterfront to Men in Black 3, has encompassed the span of Bobby Russo’s life, along with the history of Hollywood filmmaking from black-and-white neorealist drama to huge-budget action spectacle—from movies about the kind of people who had lived here and worked as longshoremen unloading ships, to movies about aliens from outer space. If Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black movies began as contemporary allegories about immigrants in New York, in the end they became stories obsessed with the past, filmed by armies occupying gentrified neighborhoods.

IN BARRY SONNENFELD, CALL YOUR MOTHER, Sonnenfeld’s recent autobiography, there is another connection between On the Waterfront and Men in Black 3. Roberta Hodes, who was the script supervisor on Kazan’s movie with Marlon Brando, was one of Sonnenfeld’s film professors at NYU about twenty years later, in the 1970s. Sonnenfeld is unkind to her, as he is to almost every older woman we meet in his book, starting with its costar, his mother. He calls Hodes vindictive, frustrated, and eager to imply that she’d had an affair with Brando while they were making On the Waterfront, which began shooting the year Sonnenfeld was born. Hodes was unimpressed with the fledgling efforts of Sonnenfeld and his film-school classmates—who included Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman, and Jim Jarmusch—barking at them, with a cigarette pasted to her lower lip, “What is this? A comedy? . . . Who cares about these people? Have any of you jerks led a life?”

Sonnenfeld’s book succeeds in proving that he has led one, and that it has in fact been a comedy. Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother is a tale of Jewish family dysfunction in the tradition of Neil Simon and Philip Roth (in that order), with a self-involved narrator who, despite his mother’s best efforts to pulverize his psyche, finds himself a great and unexpected success. The book begins at a Jimi Hendrix concert in Madison Square Garden and winds its way through Sonnenfeld’s eventful life, pausing now and then on his deck in Telluride, Colorado, so he can sip a martini, surrounded by his large, happy family. Sonnenfeld views all of it through the neuroticized lens of baby-boomer privilege, which distorts his blemishes, in a flattering way.

It’s a wide-angle lens, in other words, the kind Sonnenfeld brought to the movies he filmed as the Coen brothers’ first cinematographer, and then the ones he shot for the ex-spouses Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner, before becoming a director himself. That lens, the 21mm, was his whole secret, the post-blockbuster indie innovation that made his career. “I have always framed the images I photograph with very wide-angle lenses and dead-center framing,” Sonnenfeld explains more than once in his book. “I could be as close as five feet away from someone and yet see most of their body and with just a three-foot push in on the dolly be in an extreme close-up.”

His other moment of truth came to him, in gimmick form, almost at the same time. It happened in an editing room, after he had shot the now-famous bar-top tracking sequence in the Coens’ first film, Blood Simple (1984), with its infamous camera-hop over a passed-out boozehound. This simple bump over a drunk was a shock to viewers when the film came out. Initially, Joel and Ethan Coen wanted to cut it, worried it was “too self-conscious.” The man who shot it convinced them otherwise. Laughing at their concerns, Sonnenfeld pointed out to them that their whole film was “nothing but self-conscious shots.” The brothers, already their own editors, left it in, creating a whole school of hyper-self-aware postmodern cinema that has delighted and/or annoyed moviegoers for close to forty years.

Sonnenfeld continued in this style as a director in the 1990s, applying it to his Addams Family and Men in Black movies, Hollywood franchise films he oomphed with arty 1980s-style New York energy for a younger generation of viewers already too sophisticated for Spielberg and Lucas. His main competition in this field, narrow thematically but big at the box office, was Tim Burton, whose West Coast gothic sensibility lacked Sonnenfeld’s pizzazz and devil-may-care goofiness.

Raul Julia and Christina Ricci—as Gomez Addams and his daughter, Wednesday—inhabit that energy in Sonnenfeld’s films, perhaps even more than the toned-down and cool Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Where Julia is deranged and full of joie de vivre, Ricci is as serious as an undiagnosable illness. Only she and Sonnenfeld could have brought to life the monstrous grammar-school and day-camp plays in the two Addams Family movies, in which Ricci’s Wednesday obliterates her classmates, using Grand Guignol and arson in the service of anticolonial history. It is no wonder children raised on those films grew up to tear down statues and to despise any fathers less entertaining, understanding, and faithful than Julia’s Gomez.

SONNENFELD’S PARENTS, IT SEEMS, WERE AS GROTESQUE AND NEGLIGENT as the Addamses, but with none of their romance or charm. If Angelica Huston’s Morticia is too spectral a presence in the Addams Family movies, Sonnenfeld’s own mother, Kelly, is an ever-present lady ogre in his book, oppressing young Barry with her stinky breath, her unfeminine looks, and her incessant demands that he not stray from her side—unless she leaves him to be babysat by her cousin Mike, a pedophile who eventually tried to molest him. “Back then child molesting didn’t have the stigma it has now,” Kelly explains.

Like the mother in Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, Kelly hovers over Sonnenfeld’s New York skyline, blotting out the son. She was even a teacher at the public school he attended. Sonnenfeld is like Spalding Gray in the monologue film And Everything Is Going Fine, in which Gray says one of his great psychological epiphanies was realizing he’d dated only his mother until he was twenty-three years old. Perhaps not unrelatedly, Sonnenfeld took baths in a bathing suit until he was in high school “in order not to see [himself] entirely naked.”

In revenge, Kelly is dragged through this book by her hair. When not reminding us of the liquor bottles she would hide around their Washington Heights apartment, Sonnenfeld brings up his mother’s resemblance to the stocky, loud character actor Vincent Gardenia, to George Washington, and to the film critic Roger Ebert. He goaded both David Letterman and Billy Crystal into mocking her looks in public. Crystal, meeting Kelly on the set of When Harry Met Sally, informs Sonnenfeld that his mother is a lesbian. He once slammed the door of a Pontiac on her leg.

In this psychodrama, it may come as no surprise that Sonnenfeld married a woman several years older than him, one who also worked for his first boss. Susan Ringo, called Sweetie, a Texas beauty queen, was married to the photographer and cameraman Elliott Erwitt when Sonnenfeld met her. He worked for Erwitt for about ten years while getting to know his future spouse. As his friendship with Sweetie progressed, Erwitt began to mockingly refer to Sonnenfeld as “Susan’s hairdresser.” Erwitt seems to have been more angry and jealous about Blood Simple’s success—reviews mentioned its cinematographer by name—than he was about losing his wife.

Barry Sonnenfeld, Men in Black, 1997. Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
Barry Sonnenfeld, Men in Black, 1997. Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).

MOST OF SONNENFELD’S BOSSES WERE SIMILARLY CRUEL. After Penny Marshall’s Big became a massive success, due in no small part to his cinematography, Marshall told Sonnenfeld, “I never thought you were a good cameraman. But you picked a good film stock”—surely one of the meanest, dumbest, and funniest things a director has ever said to a cinematographer. In turn, Sonnenfeld points out that Marshall could not start a day’s work until she’d had “a dozen White Castle hamburgers and a carton of Marlboros” delivered to her on set. The Coens, however, a pair of matched obsessives who treated Sonnenfeld as a younger brother, emerge fairly unbruised. They shared Sonnenfeld’s sense of humor and invented new movie-production terms with him, such as “Clinkscales,” the “Larry Kasdan Panty Insert,” “giving someone a cake,” and “Greenberging”—readers interested in definitions can consult the book. The Coens were equally hapless, early on. While making Raising Arizona in Scottsdale, Joel got a ticket for driving too slow.

Will Smith once told Sonnenfeld he wanted to take him to public schools in Philadelphia to give kids hope—if this guy could make it big as a Hollywood director, anyone could succeed in life. The book’s most abject incident permeates Sonnenfeld’s work, and watching Sonnenfeld’s movies in order, it also comes to explain a lot about Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, and about America in the twenty-first century. Early in his career, before Blood Simple, Sonnenfeld worked as a cameraman on porn films. During one particularly arduous and lengthy shoot, an actress lost control of her bowels and shit all over him while he was filming her from below, using his other favorite lens, the ultra-wide-angle 10mm. It happened on his birthday, which happens to be April 1, April Fools’ Day.

Sonnenfeld’s chapter on his porn period is presented as hilarious and traumatic. It is also his birth scene, his origin story that explains so much about his life and work. He extricated himself from this placenta of diarrhea to become a top-notch director of photography, but he never mentions that a river of fundament runs through his solo work. The way the G-men played by Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are slimed by aliens again and again in the Men in Black movies, shot with the same lenses, replicates this primordial scene of viscous secretion in pursuit of a paycheck.

This reaches its apotheosis in Sonnenfeld’s late-period movie RV, in which the family man played by Robin Williams unleashes a literal geyser of shit at a desert trailer park while he is trying to repair his huge camper’s waste-removal system. I watched RV after I read Sonnenfeld’s book, and I could not help being reminded of the porn incident. Seeing RV also reminded me it was a film that came out at the height of the war in Iraq, in April of 2006. Recreational vehicles like the one in the movie get about four miles a gallon, and the fecal fountain in the movie, explicitly compared to an oil strike, in retrospect seemed like a sick reminder of how Middle Eastern oil still supports our way of life, which includes blockbuster movies made for the whole family. Look at them too closely and you can see what they’re coated with. In RV, Williams’s dad character keeps telling his family, “I have to get to that meeting or I lose my job and we lose a lifestyle.”

The erasure of memory becomes a theme in Sonnenfeld’s films, with various characters forced to forget traumatic incidents that happened to them during slimy alien encounters. In the second Men in Black movie, released the summer after 9/11, the Statue of Liberty becomes a monumental alien device that “neuralyzes” the populace, making them forget aliens live among us. Sonnenfeld describes a prank he plays on Will Smith in which he hides a threatening-mewling note inside a package of Tucks Medicated Comfort Pads, a product both men evidently prefer to regular toilet paper. This is something no one needed to know and that I wish I could be neuralyzed into forgetting I read.

SONNENFELD’S MOST BELOVED FILM MAY BE GET SHORTY, a 1995 Elmore Leonard adaptation starring John Travolta. The film deals explicitly in memory, specifically cinematic memory. The reason Chili Palmer, the loan shark played by Travolta, can succeed in Hollywood is because he is a classic-movie buff and has a better understanding of screenplay structure and plot devices than the lowlifes he’s shaking down. One of them, a B-movie producer played by Gene Hackman, is the auteur of a movie called Slime Creatures 3.

Sonnenfeld tells a number of funny stories about the making of Get Shorty, involving various levels of getting slimed. In one, Warren Beatty, interested in the lead role, drags Sonnenfeld from New York to the Hotel Bel-Air just to ask him, “Why would someone who looks like me be so far down the mob pecking order at the beginning of the movie?”

The two men ponder this question in the Bel-Air’s restaurant before Sonnenfeld slips out and goes back home. Later, he meets John Travolta in the restaurant at the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, a three-hundred-table ballroom where, at the only other table with diners, sits Luciano Pavarotti. Sonnenfeld, Danny DeVito, and screenwriter Scott Frank try to convince Travolta to take the excellent lead role in Get Shorty, but they get nowhere. Travolta seems not to understand the screenplay, and passes on the film. Later, Quentin Tarantino explains it to him and he says yes. At another restaurant he meets a waitstaff still traumatized by a visit from Robin Williams twelve years before. Sonnenfeld spends a lot of time in restaurants, and carries in his wallet a laminated photo of a steak to show how he wants it done.

He gave himself willingly to the Hollywood blockbuster, and now that the Hollywood blockbuster is becoming historical, like the Pyramids, it is interesting to note the differences between him and the Coen brothers, whose films his sometimes superficially resemble. Sonnenfeld makes it a point in the book to mention, more than once, that unlike the Coens, and unlike Chili Palmer, he is not a film buff. Sonnenfeld scaled the heights of Hollywood success, even surviving the failure of 1999’s Wild Wild West, the reboot starring Will Smith that was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made, and which flopped with critics and audiences. But since Men in Black 3, his career as a film director has sputtered. His last film, 2016’s Nine Lives, a talking-cat movie starring Kevin Spacey, was a French-Chinese coproduction. The Coens, meanwhile, have made less expensive, more ambitious films year after year, with other cinematographers. Sonnenfeld told Joel Coen he was writing his autobiography, and Coen told him to call it Asleep at the Eyepiece.

A. S. Hamrah is the film critic at The Baffler and the author of The Earth Dies Streaming (n+1 Books).