Monday, September 22, 2008

#79 "Wee Folks"...The Movie--pt. 2

Picking up from Saturday's post: Caryn Lazar Amster's heart-touching memoir, The Pied Piper of South Shore: Toys and Tragedy in Chicago has all the elements of a good, even great movie. Character, action, even narrative structure could be taken mostly whole cloth to the screen by a good director and careful casting. Again, I think Mandy/"Manny" Patinkin would be ideal for the lead role, especially given his very personal connection with the story. He's aged appropriately since Inigo Montoya in "Princess Bride" (and since his second-best, in my opinion, award-winning Broadway role in Steven Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" as painter George Seurat, along with another favorite of mine, Bernadette Peters. In fact, I'm putting the Showtime film version on my Netflix queue right now...but I do go on)--and could communicate very effectively the kind, avuncular personality that I imagine the real Manny Lazar must have been.

But Mandy and his costars would need more dialog than is provided in the book, though it's there, albeit in latent form. You can see that in a thematically wonderful scene (truth being always stranger than fiction)--laden with that astounding cosmic convergence that we seem to meet with all the time. Following the "main event" in the opening chapter, as we recall, the author flashes us all the way back to (both) family's roots in Russia; takes us through a kind of mini-chronicle of the trials of the modern-day Jewish Diaspora (a page-turner all the way); and at one point brings us up to the young Manny's first view of The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor:
After two long weeks, the City of New York approached the Port of New York. As he peered through the ship's rail, eight-year-old Manny Lazarus caught sight of Lady Liberty. Who, he wondered, was this? Was it the statue of some famous military leader? [INTERCUT CLOSE-UP OF PEDESTAL/PLAQUE/POEM/NAME HERE] Not until much later did my father that a New York Jewish woman of privilege, one with the same name as his family, had written a poem about the Statue of Liberty in 1883. "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus ["Give me your tired, your poor..."] had been engraved on a plaque at the base of the great lady as if to welcome this newest Lazarus family to their new world. [emphasis and addenda mine]

How's that for built-in dramatic irony?! We are let in (visually in the would-be movie) on the the little secret that the great lady holds, and we already know another tragic one, the murder in Act I, unknown to the happy family on The City of New York. There's a bit more irony to come in a minute, but first: you can see the latent dialog in the scene above. In the movie, Manny would simply ask out loud what he was thinking. Perhaps to his father, or a curmudgeonly perfect stranger...whoever. Now the very next scene in the book could be a real cinematic treat. Here the family is going through the notorious Ellis Island routine, and have come to the business of getting the family surname "correctly" recorded:

The name of each person on the ship's manifest had to be found and transferred to the inspector's record book. In a moment of confusion or power, the inspector changed our family name from Lazarus to Lazar. Dad always said of the experience, "When we came to America, they made us drop the 'US.'"

And more bureaucratic indignities were to follow, of course, but this could have been the unkindest cut--the desecration of the family name, and, inferentially, of the tradition represented by another Lazarus a scene two before. And the the audience is aware, even if the actors are not. That's the definition of dramatic irony. In addition, some trenchant tragi-comic dialog could come out of this scene. Let's make Herr Inspector petty, peremptory, AND stupid (in his capacity he should have, after all, made the connection with Emma Lazarus across the way on Liberty Island)--and the confused verbal exchanges can ensue. For the sparkling screenplay, we'll get David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, State and Main), who--get this--grew up on the South Shore!

Finally, the film adaptation, like the book, would have very satisfying "take-away value," as I like to call it, somewhat simplistically I guess. These are the lessons learned, the themes pondered, after leaving the theater. You've got a bunch of them here. One such strand would be covered in my would-be title, "Wee Folks." (In the tradition maybe of Todd Field's excellent "Little Children" 2006) Figuratively and indeed sociologically speaking, the shooter Thomas Gunn (seventeen for his first murder) and his gangland buddies are wee folks...bad ones--stunted and shrunken beings psychologically: brain-deprived and heart-starved souls in need of the kind of nurturing environment exemplified in the Lazar family, and by extension symbolized in the happy-happy spirit of TOYS. Buying, giving, sharing, cherishing--the whole megilla, if you will. They didn't have any of that, literally or otherwise. And to end on a mundane but topical note: GANGS and their depredations upon a peaceful society pose a clear and present danger TODAY. Take my word for it, right here in Raleigh--seemingly so far away in space and time from the "Toys and Tragedy in Chicago."

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