It took me seven years to make my documentary film, "The Poet and the Con", a "personal voice" autobiographical movie about my relationship with my uncle, Harvey Rosenberg, a career criminal who spent more than half of his adult life in prison for crimes as varied as armed robbery, commercial burglary, and ultimately, murder for hire.
I had never made a documentary before and during this time I became part of the International Documentary Association and its worldwide community of estimable documentary filmmakers. For most of the seven years, I never knew if I was going to finish the film, which like many documentary projects take a long, winding road of time and devotion, but the act of making the film changed my life and took me unexpectedly on the road when my uncle became a fugitive and was profiled on "America's Most Wanted", and into Judge Lance Ito's courtroom shortly before he came to the bench on O.J. Simpson's infamous trial. It took me another two years to market and distribute the film which played theatrically in Los Angeles at various Laemmle Theaters in 1999, and which is now available on Amazon and Netflix, but which will screen again in LA for the first time, after 15 years, on August 9 in Culver City. (See details below about screening information.) The upcoming screening has made me reflect back on the journey. It was a long one.
It began in 1990 when my friend, Ed Coupee, an aspiring filmmaker, asked me if he could make a documentary film about... me. "You're kidding, right?" "No, you've had a really interesting life. I think it would make a good subject for a film." "C'mon. No way!" I couldn't quite handle being the subject of my own documentary film at age 43, but I suggested to Ed that he could make a film about me... and my Uncle Harvey, who had recently been released from prison to a recovery house on Lake Street in Los Angeles called "Beit T'Shuvah", meaning "House of Return" in Hebrew.
Yes, my uncle was a Jewish criminal. Back in the day, he knew Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, and although modern day American Jews don't much like to own up to their criminal roots, I personally was fascinated by my uncles' life. I went so far as to romanticize it and even identify with it. After all, I too, was the black sheep of my family, the artist-clown who had taken the road less traveled, and I wondered why I, a USC college prof who came from a middle class suburban family on Long Island, New Yawk, identified more with my bad-ass criminal uncle, a professional criminal, than with my more "normal" relatives in New York and Woodland Hills, right here in the San Fernando Valley.
Harvey was my always favorite uncle, one of my mother's two younger brothers, born to hard-working Russian immigrants in Queens, New York, in 1933, right in the middle of the crushing Depression. He was unexpected by his parents and a full 11 and 13 younger than his two older siblings. As a result, he grew up on his own, often tagging along with my mom and her middle brother, but eventually carving out his own identity on the hard-scrabble streets of New York. He learned how to fight and how to survive. There's a story about how tough Harvey was back in the day, when he fought nine anti-Semitic teenagers in a row, beating them all, in a park that, until this day, is still called "Jew Park".
But growing up in conservative 1950s Westbury, Long Island, I never knew this about my uncle, who would occasionally come out to visit with a couple of tall, leggy girls on both arms, and shoot baskets with me in the driveway on Valentines Road. Little did I know that Harvey was pimping for these babes, or that he would become deeply involved with the porn industry years later in LA, not far from his brother's home and over-protected family in Woodland Hills.
That was the thing. My family was always full of secrets. No one every told me, or wanted to admit, that Harvey was the "bad seed" of the family. How could a "nice Jewish boy" be doing such nefarious, criminal things? Instead, they turned the other cheek and welcomed him into their homes on weekends, whenever he showed up, babes or not, and treated him as if nothing was wrong. They bailed him out of jail in the early days, and paid off judges for leniency when the arrests started to pile up. They "enabled" him, as the modern parlance goes, and eventually Harvey ended up becoming part of the most successful commercial jewel burglary team in Southern California and the advisor for James Caan's character in the Michael Mann film, "Thief". As well as... spending a good deal of time in federal penitentiaries. Leavenworth. Sing Sing. The list was impressive. And completely hidden from me until I started making my film.
But in 1990, shortly after I had just recovered from a bout with Hodgkin's Disease, cancer of the lymphatic system, I reconnected to my uncle out here in LA. On Lake Street. At Beit T'Shuvah. During the making of the film. I'd go over to the old, rundown Victorian house for Friday services or a 12 step meeting, or Harvey would come over to my one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, and we'd talk, while Ed would roll the camera. We'd talk about how we both admired each other. Me, romanticizing his life of crime, he romanticizing mine and wishing he had the opportunity and strength to make some of the choices I had made in becoming an artist.
"There's a star up there with your name on it," Harvey said to the camera, as my rag tag crew hung on every word about how he had collected a bad debt at Tony Roma's Italian restaurant.... outstretched and ominous gun in hand. He was our real life John Dillinger. We talked about how both of us, the artist and the criminal, felt like outsiders. How we both had "demons" inside us. We talked about family and crime, morality and art. And our DP, Arnie Sirlan, rolled the 16 mm camera. After about six months, we'd cut together a 23 minute black and white piece... that was beautiful... and interesting... but didn't quite seem like a film to me. Ed moved on and I spent the next year and a half raising, begging, and writing grants to complete a feature length film called "The Poet and the Con".
Along the way, I, extraordinarily, got arrested for commercial burglary. No, I didn't knock off a jewelry store like my uncle, but more comically, I got arrested for using the Xerox machine at Universal Studios. Many times. Not arrested. But using the Xerox machine at Universal... "breaking and entering" at night... to copy my Hollywood creative directories with the names of all the development executives in town that I had assembled in my tenacious assault of Hollywood. I spent the night in the Beverly Hills jail, a very nice establishment, and it took me two years to convince Universal to drop the charges, that although "comic, were, in fact, a criminal felony, and could have, quite easily cost me my job and my career. Along the way, I got to see Snoop Dogg in Lance Ito's LA courtroom, convinced John Walsh to give me the rights to the "America's Most Wanted" episode with my Uncle Harvey in it, went many times to visit my uncle in the hospital ward of LA County Jail when he also contracted cancer, secretly filmed a murder trial with a concealed camera, and... well, for the rest, you'll just have to see the film.
But seven years after we began, the film was finally finished. It took a lot out of me and I've never wanted to make another film. It got good reviews (http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/19/entertainment/ca-9444), and it played at many film festivals around the world. At one of them, I fell in love with a French documentary filmmaker, with whom I planned to go to Bali and for whom I planned to move to Paris. However, when she dumped me six months later, I went to Bali by myself in 2000, where, also extraordinarily, I met my wife to be, a young Indonesian girl from the island of Sumatra who was 31 years my junior, who didn't speak any English, and who didn't know who Richard Nixon or the Beatles were. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trules/july-4th-rediscovering-am_b_5507649.html). As ex-heavyweight champ, Sonny Liston, used to say, "life... a funny thang."
If you live in the LA area, please come to the screening on August 9.
Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/events/521802297920882/
Providentially, it will be shown at the new Beit T'Shuvah on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. There will be a Q&A with me and Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who also providentially, was one of my uncle's running mates back in the day, before he worked his program and became a rabbi, author, and respected community builder. It should be an interesting and lively discussion.
Hope to see you there. If not, there's always Amazon and Netflix.....
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