Assi Dayan - Uri Gershuni - February 24, 2012
Assi Dayan. More artistic control than ever before. Photo by Uri Gershuni
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It's nice here outside," I say to Assi Dayan, who lives in a ground-floor apartment in one of the older parts of Ramat Aviv. "It's called Green Ramat Aviv," he explains to me. And it really is very green outside. Trees that look like they were planted long ago line the street and the path leading to the entrance to Dayan's building. And since we're meeting on one of the rainiest days so far this winter, the green gleams in a way that is rare in these parts.

The living room is furnished simply. A sofa, coffee table, armchair, desk, lots of paintings on the walls and books on the shelves. It looks old-fashioned to me, perhaps like a room on a kibbutz. I didn't tour the rest of the apartment, but as far as I remember, in the living room at least, I didn't see posters of films Dayan directed, or in which he acted.

We sit opposite one another. I'm on the sofa and Dayan is in the armchair, which he can raise or lower according to his needs. The coffee table separates us and I put my old tape recorder there. Dayan is amazed, because it's so old and I use old-style tapes in it. "But it works beautifully," I tell him, "so why replace it?"

The way we are seated, Dayan opposite me in the armchair and me opposite him on the sofa, is inevitably reminiscent of the series for which Dayan became famous in recent years: "BeTipul" (In Treatment), in which he plays the clinical psychologist Reuven Dagan.

But my meeting with Assi Dayan has nothing to do with therapy for either of us. We are talking about his new film, "Dr. Pomerantz," which premiered at the 2011 Haifa Film Festival and is now showing at cinemas across the country.

In his new film, Dayan once again plays a clinical psychologist; this one is named Dr. Yoel Pomerantz. Pomerantz's life is one big mess, both personally and professionally. His wife committed suicide because she thought their 5-year-old son was mentally retarded. The son, Yoav (Michael Hanegbi ), who is now 30 years old, actually suffers from Asperger syndrome. He works as a traffic inspector and more than anything else, loves to affix traffic tickets to car windshields.

Pomerantz's private clinic is not active; he works in something called ANA, a Hebrew acronym for Express Psychological Assistance, and specializes in conversations with potential suicides. But he is dismissed from his job when it's discovered that he uses the service to invite some of the potential suicides to his home for individual therapy, for a fee.

Pomerantz has only one asset: an apartment on the 12th floor from whose two balconies, one in front and one in back, one can jump to a certain death. Pomerantz decides to turn his apartment into a business. He rents it out for a day to potential suicides and for a token fee allows them to make the fatal leap.

Authentic schmattes

Dayan's new film is funny, touching and horrifying; it has excellent dialogue, is well directed and photographed (the cinematographer is Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov ), and its cast is very skillful. In addition to Dayan and Hanegbi, it includes Yosef Carmon, Shmil Ben Ari, Rivka Michaeli, Shlomo Vishinsky, Shlomo Bar-Shavit, Lucy Dubinchik and Tzofit Grant . When I voice these compliments to Dayan, he says he has to agree.

Dayan's speech and trend of thought are often associative, as though he is wandering through the corridors of his own consciousness. And that's what happens when he tries to explain why he is proud of his new film. He says he has always had the feeling that he's not a good director; that he directs his films in a seemingly offhand manner, without being meticulous. As an example he names "An Electric Blanket Named Moshe," a 1995 film that he particularly likes, he says, "but it's very badly directed. It's really a kind of schmatte [rag in Yiddish]. But it has authenticity.

"In Dr. Pomerantz I was far more exacting," he continues, "both during the scriptwriting stage and during the directing. I worked correctly with the actors, and even before we began filming I rehearsed with them here in the apartment."

Dayan notes that he doesn't rehearse with his actors in order to explain biographical sources and psychological motives. He has disdain for this type of work between a director and an actor. He does it in order to organize the character, as he puts it, and this time he was particularly successful.

He says he once worked with an actress who at some point during production asked him where her character was born. "'Do I have to know where she was born?' I told her. 'You have to know.' She was under the influence of Stanislavsky or something like that, which I really can't stand, but she let it go later."

How did you work with Michael Hanegbi, for example? Did you send him to observe people who suffer from Asperger syndrome? To see how they behave?

"No, no, no. That's the type of thing [film director] Uri Barbash does."

Dayan says he once knew a beautiful girl with an IQ of 180 who suffered from Asperger's and was never able to express emotion. He remembers her crying only once, and that was from anger rather than any other emotion. He tried to explain that to Hanegbi. And also that those affected by the syndrome don't suffer. They have a type of genius that is reflected in an obsessive focus on one subject. In the case of Yoav, Pomerantz's son, it's parking. He asks every person he meets where he has parked. People who suffer from Asperger's are very restrained, says Dayan. It's as though their nerves were paralyzed at some early stage of their development. This restraint, which prevents Yoav from reacting as ordinary people do, is what he tried to convey to Hanegbi.

Does the fact that you started out as an actor in other people's films, including those of foreign directors such as John Huston and Jules Dassin, help you in your work with actors?

"Of course, it makes a big difference. You know how to talk to an actor; how to illustrate what you want from him. How to explain what you want in a few words rather than a long speech, almost in understatement. It's important to me that the actors in my films act natural. I haven't heard many Israeli directors telling their actors: "Act natural."

It was important for him to preserve his identity as an artist in the film, and the insanity that is typical of his work, and he feels he has succeeded. He's right. "Dr. Pomerantz" is a film that has precision and discipline, things that had been missing from Dayan's films. And I think it was important for him to say that in his new film he has more artistic control than ever before, contrary to his image.

During our meeting, Dayan told me that a short interview with him would be broadcast that evening on the Channel 10 program "Tzinor Layla" (Nightline ), because of an article on his blog "Mar Nefesh," in which he attacked TV celebrity Yair Lapid. Among other things, he said that Lapid has "the resume of celery."

Because I had met with Dayan that morning, I watched the program. The Dayan item was introduced before the interview by the host, Guy Lerer, who said that we usually think of Assi Dayan as someone who has become passe - a statement that is irresponsible and infuriating. You only have to watch "Dr. Pomerantz" and see Dayan's performance in a brilliant student film in which he starred recently - more on that later - in order to understand that Dayan is not at all passe, that in spite of the vicissitudes of his life he is still one of our best filmmakers and film actors.

You refer to "Dr. Pomerantz" as the best made film you have ever directed. Even better than "Life According to Agfa"?

Yes, replies Dayan, explaining that for him, "Life According to Agfa" (1993 ) is a film seemingly composed of a series of consecutive skits. It lacks the meticulous narrative structure of "Dr. Pomerantz," and characters who are fully realized like most of those in his new film.

Although he doesn't say so specifically, I have the feeling that Dayan is trying to say that he thinks "Dr. Pomerantz" is closer to being a well-made film than any of his others; that it almost adheres to the traditional definitions of a good film. But Dayan is aware of the importance of "Agfa" to his career.

Fourth in a trilogy

Dayan's career as a director can be divided into three chapters. The first includes his first two films, "Invitation to Murder" (1973), a surrealistic mystery, and "Saint Cohen" (1975), the story of the national poet who goes to Metula to commit suicide. The second chapter is the comedies. Even Dayan himself describes these as "bourekas films" (a genre of melodramas and comedies that deal mainly with Israel's Mizrahi population ). The most famous and successful of them are "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" (1976) and "The Hit " (1979). And then came "Life According to Agfa," followed by "An Electric Blanket Named Moshe," "Mr. Baum" (1998), "The Gospel According to God" (2004) and now "Dr. Pomerantz." Dayan describes it as "the fourth film in the trilogy," which began with "Agfa" and continued with "Electric Blanket" and "Mr. Baum."

"It's a philosophical trilogy," he says, "because it has a philosophical foundation that is reflected mainly in the fourth film, in which I discuss the temporary, the random and the ordinary. We're here on a temporary basis. We're here on a random basis. We don't know what will happen tomorrow and we don't always remember what happened yesterday. It's all ordinary, and when dramatic or traumatic things happen to you, they don't contain much drama."

Dayan agrees that his comedies differed from the bourekas comedies directed by Boaz Davidson or Zeev Revah, and that they already contained elements that linked them to his later films. I remind him, for example, of his 1981 comedy, "Am Yisrael Hai" (The People of Israel Live ). It was a very embarrassing film, but the screenplay idea was brilliant. It told the story of a right-wing MK who believes in the erect stature of the Jewish people, but himself suffers from erectile dysfunction.

Dayan agrees that there is continuity through his films, but also says that "Life According to Agfa" was the film that changed his attitude toward himself as a director. Until that film, says Dayan, he suffered from a "hysterical lack of confidence," and the success of the film changed that. Success also changed his status in Israeli cinema. After "Agfa," the various foundations that finance films in Israel stopped sending back his scripts as they had done previously - sometimes without even opening the envelopes in which they were sent.

Dayan says he understood that something had happened in his career when at the end of the screening of "Agfa" at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, there was total silence in the hall - like a period of mourning - for three minutes, and only then did the applause begin.

Two additional elements connect Dayan's films. Many of them, including the comedies, have a surrealistic dimension. I think "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer," for example, is a great surrealistic comedy. Dayan agrees, but says that his surrealism differs from that of writer Etgar Keret, for example, who is married to a relative of Dayan's (Shira Geffen ). It also differs from the intellectual surrealism of Luis Bunuel, he says.

"There's surrealism of the type that is alongside life, but mine is within life. Let's take, for example, the idea that a person rents out his apartment so that people will jump from it. On the face of it that sounds like black humor rather than something highly surrealistic. When you see it in the film, it begins to acquire a surrealistic dimension. But it's also conceivable, because it's based on a philosophical idea.

"But it's not that I'm enamored of surrealism as a psychological, philosophical or aesthetic method. Aesthetics in general is a complicated matter. I'm a student of Immanuel Kant, who said something I really like. He said that beauty is something with no purpose. The only purpose of beauty is beauty."

The second factor some of his films share is the preoccupation with suicide. It was already a plot element in his second film, and in "Life According to Agfa," which included a very powerful suicide scene. And now, "Dr. Pomerantz" deals entirely with people who commit suicide, even citing Albert Camus to the effect that suicide is the most difficult philosophical question.

Dayan agrees that the subject preoccupies him, and for him is related to loneliness, which may be the central theme of "Dr. Pomerantz."

"Pomerantz is a loner, an outsider, he lives with his son, who is a burden to him," says Dayan. "Loneliness is a subject at which I'm quite expert in my life,, too. I have no friends, and with the exception of my son Lior, I don't have much contact with my children. I'm not the father of the year.

"The characters who come to commit suicide in Pomerantz's apartment are in a psychotic state, and in that situation you lose your independent identity even more. Their entire being centers around the idea of suicide, and the first thing they do when they enter Pomerantz's apartment is to check whether it's high enough. They're determined, obsessive. As opposed to psychological therapy, where things are divided into those who have a reason and those who don't, that doesn't interest me. They're simply sick and tired of everything."

How did the idea for the film originate?

"Several years ago I had the idea of writing something about someone who rents out his apartment for the purpose of suicide; maybe a short film, maybe even a play. Years past, they put me under house arrest with Kushi [Rimon], because I slapped someone and confessed, and there, where Kushi lives, the earth boils, bubbles, it's 42 degrees in the shade, and I wrote the idea for the film in three pages. Then I wrote the complete script.

"I have a writing style that's completely unique to me. Just as you can see a shot from a Fellini film and immediately identify it as a Fellini film, in the same way if you read two or three sentences I've written, you know immediately that I wrote them.

"When I directed the film I based the character of Pomerantz, whom I play, on Menahem Golan, in whose film 'Operation Thunderbolt" I starred. I tried to behave like him, to sit as he does, to speak like him, to convey something of his bestiality."

Seventeen takes

Dayan insists there is no autobiographical element in his films. Maybe only in "Halfon Hill," because he served in the paratroops and spent time in areas where the film takes place. He is also tired of the fact that no matter what part he plays, people revive Uri Kahana, his character in "He Walked Through the Fields," the 1967 film that made him a star. They claim Dayan is once again demonstrating what happened to the handsome and heroic young sabra - he has become an importer of sunglasses, as in "Mr. Baum." He doesn't think about this and it doesn't interest him.

But at the same time, it's hard to ignore the fact that, just as there is continuity in Dayan's films, there is also continuity in the characters he has played in his films and those of others. Is it a coincidence that shortly after "In Treatment," he chose to play a clinical psychologist in a film that he himself directed? Does "Dr. Pomerantz" correspond with "In Treatment"? (Dayan speaks of the series with admiration; he describes it first as a "phenomenal invention" and then corrects the definition to a "phenomenal case." )

Is the film a reaction to the series?

"It didn't actually happen on purpose," says Dayan, because he had the idea for "Dr. Pomerantz" before "In Treatment." But yes, he wanted to make a film about a clinical psychologist who was very different from the one he played in "In Treatment," which would also require a completely different type of acting from him. With "In Treatment," says Dayan, as an actor he felt like one of those dogs placed on the car dashboard, whose head never stops moving. All he had to do was react to the actors who appeared before him, and they didn't even appear with him. They were filmed first and he would react to their appearance on monitors placed in front of him. The actors, says Dayan, were envious of him and also wanted monitors with Dayan's character before them, instead of a script girl who read Dayan's texts to them.

When you talk about films you've directed, I feel that you speak about many of them admiringly. What about your work as an actor? Do you see yourself as a good actor?

"I think so. Yes, I'm an actor. I'm the raging bull. Seriously. I'm a person who begs them to start running the camera so I can start acting. I'm not one of those actors who suffers when they act. I know actors, even from the films I directed, who use all kinds of tricks in order to delay that terrible moment when they have to act. An actress comes and says: 'Just a minute, I'm not ready yet, I have to fix my lipstick.' Nonsense. Just at the moment when the camera is on, I feel like a different person. Not the character necessarily, but a different person. That excites me and I go with that excitement, which is good excitement."

During our conversation we mention the names of several of the films in which Dayan starred but did not direct. He expresses particular admiration for Eitan Green's "Until the End of the Night" (1985) and David Volach's "My Father My Lord" (2007). A film he doesn't admire is "Things," Amos Gitai's 1995 version of Yaakov Shabtai's book, "Past Continuous." "I told Amos: 'How do you dare to touch that book?'" says Dayan.

Dayan's love of acting is also reflected in the fact that he recently performed in a student film, a job he certainly didn't take for the money. The Tel Aviv University Department of Film and Television produced a series of short films that refer to Israeli films of importance in the history of local cinema. Dayan stars in the brilliant short film "Sahkan Safsal" (Bench Player ), which refers to Uri Zohar's 1974 film "Big Eyes."

In the film, directed by Gil Weinstein, Dayan actually plays three characters. One is Uri Zohar (although his name is not mentioned in the film ). In one scene, a taxi driver asks the hero of the film whether he's the person whose name is on the tip of his tongue. In another scene the hero asks if he's still handsome . There is also Baruch, a Haredi man who goes to visit a woman from his past (Evelin Hagoel ); and Benny Furman, the character played by Zohar in "Big Eyes" (Arik Einstein's "The Ballad of Benny Furman" is at the end of the film ).

Dayan's weighty presence fills the film, and once again his greatest ability as a film actor is in evidence: Simply behaving in front of the camera. Dayan says he really enjoyed appearing in the film, which he calls "tragicomic," and enjoyed working with students who are diligent, energetic and enthusiastic.

How did you actually come to cinema? Did you think in your youth that you would be a movie actor and director?

"Not at all. It started from nothing. At the Hebrew University I studied philosophy and English literature. I was an extra in the film 'Sayarim' and I had to say 'Be careful, there's a mine,' and it took about 17 takes until I managed to say those few words. I directed two short films and then I went to Greece, where my sister Yael had connections with film and theater director Michael Cacoyannis, who directed 'Zorba the Greek.' He directed a bad film there called 'The Day the Fish Came Out,' in which I was also an extra. And somehow things ended up with 'He Walked Through the Fields' and I was chosen by John Huston to play in his film 'A Walk with Love and Death' with his daughter, Anjelica Huston."

Did you like cinema? Did you watch films?

"Of course. I admired the great stars, Gary Cooper and James Dean. We grew up during the great period of European cinema, the cinema of Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni and Truffaut and Godard. Incidentally, my father religiously watched the Arab film that was broadcast every Friday afternoon on Channel 1. When that film was being screened, we weren't allowed to utter a word in the house."

What do you like best about cinema?

"I'll tell you what I like least. The fact that cinema combines four or five different arts, and you have to combine them in such a way that a concert is created. It's very hard work that very few people manage to pull off. Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts' was such a rare concert. I like to make films and to act in films because it's the only thing that gets me out of the house today, and then I'm surrounded by people and feel fulfilled."

"Mr. Baum" is the first film you both directed and starred in. Were you worried about that?

"No, I wasn't, but I don't feel comfortable with the fact that I'm starring in a film that I'm directing. I feel like a schizophrenic. To whom exactly am I saying 'Action'? To whom exactly am I saying 'Cut'? And how exactly, when I'm acting, can I assess the work of the other actors? But fortunately, in most cases I performed in scenes with only one other actor, so it works."

Which part of cinematic work do you like best?

"The writing, of course."

Dayan has published three books, including one novel, "Table of Contents." It's clear to me from his films and from my conversation with him that his heart is in literature and philosophy. I ask him whether he would be a happier person today if he were known as an important writer rather than an important film director. "Of course," he replies.

Dayan relates how he once visited Nobel Prize laureate author S.Y. Agnon and asked him to read a script he had written based on "And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight." Agnon was not enthusiastic and said that the only type of cinema he liked was cowboy films. Westerns, in other words, which he and philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem went to see together. "I can't help laughing when I imagine those two giants going to the Edison Cinema in Jerusalem to see cowboys," says Dayan, laughing.

Toward the end of our conversation, Dayan picks up a small pile of printouts from the end of the coffee table that stands between us, of several articles he posted on his blog. Underneath them is a lovely photograph of Assi Dayan at the age of 15 or 16, seated next to his father, who is wearing a uniform at some military ceremony.

"This is the only photograph of my father in which he's smiling and looks really happy," Dayan tells me, as we part and I go back to the green foliage outside. W