Deconstructing Dad - Assi Dayan's Oeuvre Through the Eyes of his Son, Lior Dayan

Edited by Lior Dayan
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Movie Clips


Dear dad,

Here we are. The time has come for me to break you down into 8 scenes, which means you must well and truly be dead. After all, death as a process is made up of several stages of breakdown. It starts with the breakdown of cells in the “deceased’s” body; a task assigned to well over a hundred trillion ready, willing and able enzymes and bacteria that fast-track the job which usually takes them upwards of eight-to-nine months to finish, depending on the size of the “deceased.” Then comes stage two of the breakdown during which you spend the next few years as an “open buffet” of sorts and whatever’s left of you becomes sustenance for all kinds of worms, maggots, and strange little fungi. Next up is the stage when you’re broken down into an Assi Dayan Film Special on local satellite television on the anniversary of your death and finally, we’re at the stage where you’re broken down, scene by scene on the Israeli Film Archive website. And when that happens, that can only mean you’re about as unequivocally, categorically, decidedly dead as they come. This really is the point of no return.

I have to admit, it is a little amusing to have to break you down into scenes, seeing as how I’m essentially a type of scene, myself. After all, I literally am a product of Israeli film. And if I’m honest, I owe the fact of my very existence to Israeli film. In the beginning, there was a screenplay titled King for a Day. Then came the casting (with one main and rather fateful casting choice for the female lead), shooting, editing and finally – the theatrical release – 213,00 ticketholders at the box office and one blond baby boy at the maternity ward – that would be me. If it weren’t for the budding romance that blossomed in between takes between you and my mum, Caroline Langford who played the lead, I wouldn’t be here right now. To cut a long story short, I can’t very well deny the reality that Gabi Amrani [the film’s male lead – EE] is in fact part of my origin story.

As a product of Israeli film, I was destined to shadow you from the sidelines and watch you come into your own as a filmmaker – which, in a way was like watching Israeli film as a whole coming into its own. Certainly when Haaretz’s [leading Israeli broadsheet – EE] number one film critic, Uri Klein crowned Life According to Agfa a film that is “simultaneously a summary of the films that came before it, and a piece that is also a harbinger of the films that lie ahead.” A turning point in Israeli film history; a milestone indeed.

I was there on all those film sets, from Agfa through to Dr. Pomerantz, and long before there even was a set, through the writing stages. I watched you at nights sitting down, typing out words that turned to sentences, and then unforgettable dialogue and I knew that we’re coming up to that moment when you would say that thing you always said when you’d just finished writing a new script, “I’ve already watched the film in my head. Now comes the annoying bit; filming it.”

I was the quintessential film set kid. Standing on the side and watching you between the ‘actions!’ and ‘cuts!’, film after film, getting it all in one take; two at most, and on the rarest of occasions – three. People on set were always astounded by it. “Where do you get the confidence to shoot it all in one take?”, they’d ask you. And even though you wouldn’t usually answer while on the set (what with having to concentrate on running this whole show we call “film shooting”), I knew full well why you shot it the way you did. It wasn’t so much confidence as it was a philosophy according to which the script, the story are the most important things, and the camera and screen are the red tape hoops you have to jump through in order to get them to the viewers. And red tape is something you want to get through as fast as you can.

You once told me how you’d prefer it – a million times more – if you were a novelist instead of a filmmaker, speaking in prose instead of camera angles and all this zoom in, zoom out business. Yet at the age of 21, you somehow ended up in the world of film, and you stuck around. And yes, you may have carried around with you this constant feeling of loss over the author you could have been but I always knew that I had a dad who made movies that spoke fluent prose. You wrote poetry in frames and created an experience in your films that goes well beyond a super-sized popcorn & soft drink special offer at the multiplex, and a projector showing the film on the cinema screen at 24 frames a second, surround system and all.

You had me, and 14 feature-length narrative films that transformed the Israeli film landscape into something that much more diverse and interesting. You were our dad and now, it’s time to break you – and them – down to select scenes. That’s it then, daddy dearest. The time has come. Happy breakdown.


Movie clips

The crying scene and Smadar Kilchinsky’s close-up in Life According to Agfa

As a kid who was raised on Assi Dayan – otherwise known as ‘dad’ – film sets, I know the sensitivity with which my father approached the action we know as the ‘close-up.’ In my dad’s films, close-ups are very few and far between. He would seldom opt to use this tool and even explained it to me once. “The single most-difficult and important thing to shoot, is the close-up,” he said. “It’s a directing challenge and it’s especially a writing challenge because as a writer, you’re meant to be writing things that would justify all this enormous intimacy on a screen so massive and to have this gigantic head talking at you, and it needs to speak to you in colours, and form, and have this tremendous presence about it, which it why I’m pretty cautious when it comes to using this thing.” (Of course, it was nothing if not amusing hearing him talk about himself being “cautious” when otherwise, as a person he was pretty fundamentally, systematically, and consistently anything but.)

Anyway, of those few, meticulously shot close-ups that did occur in his films, I would say that the one in Life According to Agfa where the camera moves in ever so slowly, with the most exquisite finesse as if it were tiptoeing, straight into Daniella’s face (played by Smadar Kilchinsky) whilst Cherniak is singing her the song that bears her name – that is a moment that more than justifies “all this enormous intimacy.” In the actual film, the close-up comes right after Cherniak explains how he had written this next song for Daniella as a going away present, ahead of her emigrating. In reality, that close-up was Avi’s gift to Smadar who knew how to love him so uniquely and purely when they were a couple.

The nude scene in Mr. Baum

Mickey Baum’s shower sequence, just moments before his death when he’s bare naked and fully exposed is an extraordinary scene. Not only as it is a key scene and one of the most climactic moments on the story’s timeline (that final shower before he gets into bed ahead of his impending death,) but also because the way it came about offers the most loyal representation of its creator and his method. What does that even mean? Originally, this wasn’t even meant to be a nude scene but rather, just another garden variety, nudity-free shower scene. However, the night before filming, my father – who, in the film also played Mickey Baum – decided that he would do the scene in the nude. For the record, by no means was this a rare occurrence because anyone who has ever worked on one of my father’s film sets will tell you then every shooting day is a surprise in the making because often, he would tweak or even flat out overhaul the scenes he was going to shoot the next day.

What is particularly interesting about my father’s choice to do this scene in the nude was his full awareness of the fact that he, himself was considered the epitome of the legendary, native Israeli ‘sabra’ – the handsome and dashing young man with the full head of hair who Walked through the Fields [a reference to Dayan’s role as Uri in He Walked Through the Fields, 1967] and shot at terrorists in Operation Thunderbolt. I remember him explaining on set that his nakedness in that scene is a parallel of sorts to the State of Israel which – much like himself, went from something that was once beautiful and idyllic and turned into this fat, flaccid, dangling thing. Like his own body. It was clear that the naked body in that shower scene was an art installation of sorts which symbolised the State of Israel’s own declining state (incidentally, since that film marked my first time as a Crafty, I consider it a great success that at no point during the film do we see so much as one character looking even remotely thirsty, nor is there a single shot with some disposable plastic cup that happened to accidentally end up in the frame. I consider this film a tremendous milestone indeed in my career in the craft service.)

The scene from Electric Blanket where Gil Alon plays a disgruntled doctor and delivers a spine-tingling monologue about prolonging one’s life expectancy and the horrors of life and death in the hospital’s A&E

As far as my dad was concerned, Electric Blanket was his finest work. It was the film that was nearest and dearest to his heart. Oh, and I absolutely get why. The film itself – in terms of script, storyline, and directing – plays out pretty chaotically. There’s pandemonium everywhere and events seem haphazard, inconsequential and with little rhyme or reason, just like he was in life. At any rate, personally speaking, Electric Blanket, I feel isn’t his best film. That being said, if you were to lay out all his films, side by side, and break them down into scenes then this is the one that contains the finest scene he would ever write and direct.

The scene in question is the one where the three chavs – Levy the pimp, played by Shmil Ben-Ari; Moshe, his bodyguard, played by Uri Klauzner; and the grand high whore-queen, played by Rivka Neuman – end up in A&E after getting beat up at the ‘Hooker Desert,’ otherwise known as Tel Baruch Beach. There, they meet the haggard and worn on-call doctor at the end of a long shift, and his tether. Fed up with life altogether, the doctor proceeds to deliver a monologue about “prolonging life expectancy,” old age, and the misery that comes with it. It is a spellbinding monologue, delivered with the utmost care and precision by Gil Alon. In fact, the performance was so captivating that my father would boast how Hanoch Levin (whom he considered, along with David Avidan, “the official moderniser” of the Hebrew language) once told Rivka Neuman – who had starred in many of his plays – that he had watched the film and that if there’s one enviable monologue he wishes he had written himself, this was it.

I imagine that the moment my dad heard from Rivka Neuman what Hanoch Levin had told her, must have been one of those rare moments when he felt genuine professional satisfaction. For the most part, and I daresay – to a chronic extent – he went through life feeling pathologically, professionally dissatisfied, and a through and through failure. As someone who knew him well, I’m going to indulge in a bit of ‘shrinkery’ here and argue that this was in fact the driving force that kept him in constant action mode. Hounded by a permanent sense of failure (which was all in his head and nowhere else), he wrote and wrote and wrote nonstop, as if he never did quite figure out that this sense of satisfaction he was chasing, he wasn’t going to get through awards and applause. That sense of satisfaction is a philosophy; it’s an attitude, a decision one takes.

"The Shiva [Jewish mourning period] scene in "The Hit

As far as I’m concerned, this scene is the crystallised epitome of my father’s finetuned ability to play with the Hebrew language as only a few (e.g. Meir Ariel, Hanoch Levin, David Avidan) in Israeli culture have ever been able to. This hysterically funny scene is peppered with so many achingly brilliant turns of phrases (from “the day before yesterday was only yesterday and tomorrow’s already the day after”, to “Nablus and Gomorrah”, “a terrible tragedy; national tragedy,” and “must life go on” to name but a few,), one cannot help but rule that this is by far and wide, one of Israeli film’s greatest linguistic and comedic triumphs. I have firsthand knowledge that my father too, considered this scene one of his screenwriting peaks and to this day, I have this memory of him quoting dialogue from that scene and cracking up, etched into my mind.

The closing scene in King for a Day

For me, the film King for a Day is so much more than just another 90min feature film. This film is essentially the inciting incident that would lead to my eventual arrival into the world. It was there that my mother, Caroline Langford who played the lead, and my father who wrote and directed the film first met and embarked on a passionate (at times, to the extreme) romance that ultimately resulted in my grand arrival three years later in 1983 at Assaf Harofeh hospital. Therefore for me, personally, there is an element no less than prophetic in that final scene that begins with a black screen with a caption that reads “three years later”. In the actual scene you can see my mum pushing a pram with two blond toddlers inside – just like me. And just in case you’re losing me here, here are the technical details which I think you’ll find, speak for themselves: the film was shot in 1980. I was born in 1983. I believe that says it all.

The scene from Dr. Pomerantz where Yosef Carmon comes into Dr. Pomerantz’s office for his therapy session, donning a Beitar Jerusalem FC scarf

This scene contains one of the most poignant, razor-sharp observations about a contrast-riddled Israeli society or to be more precise, the rifts that run through it. In this scene we see the patient, Stark (played by Yosef Carmon) waiting for Dr. Pomerantz at his clinic. And when Dr. Pomerantz’s son decides to play a song by king of Israeli Middle-Eastern soul music, Zohar Argov on the office sound system, Stark launches into a short and flawlessly spot on monologue that delivers a succinct summary of the polarised reality in our country – the country of all its ethnicities: “d’you ever notice how those ‘darkies’ hardly ever kill themselves?” he says. “Quaking their way through life; never even getting round to despair between all their holiday feasts and market stalls. We, Ashkenazis, we lead a lowercase life; keeping a tab at the corner shop, loving the queue at the GP’s, our holiday is Holocaust Memorial Day and our women… always under the weather.”

The death scene in Mr. Baum. The scene where Mr. Baum is lying in bed after he had already passed away, and the camera scours his body – from his feet all the way to his face – and he is seen wearing a pair of orange shorts and a matching t-shirt.

I should disclaim that we’re about to enter obscure, micro-trivia territory here but personally, as far as I’m concerned, this scene is massively important seeing as how Mickey Baum’s choice of loud orange deathbed colours contains a hidden tribute to Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv FC – the football team I support whose uniform is famously orange. I remember how seconds before shooting the scene, my dad called me over and told me that in case I hadn’t noticed, the matching orange outfit Mr. Baum is wearing just before his death is a special nod to me. And right afterwards he said to me, a smile on his face, “orange on the rise!” [the team’s motto – EE], and the next moment you could already hear the Floor Manager’s voice bellowing, “quiet on the set!”, followed by the Soundman’s “Speed Rolling,” and the announcement, “Action.”

A particularly musical scene from Fifty Fifty where Avi is on stage, singing with his guitar

My father, bless him, really was a man of many talents – so much so that you’d sometimes be telling yourself how statistically speaking, it just doesn’t add up – that this much talent could end up in just the one man. A gifted writer, director, actor, and artist and as if all that weren’t enough, a breathtaking stunner too. However, there was one area in which his awfulness excelled to the point of outright atrocity levels: singing. As someone who once heard him attempting to belt out a tune, I can honestly say it was an act that can only be classified as a “public safety hazard.” And yet, in one of his first films it was (rather puzzlingly) decided that his character would take to the stage, guitar strapped to him, and sing. Well then, my advice to any secret service officers reading is that you would do well to sample this scene and play it on repeat to any uncooperative suspects in your custody. I guarantee you that by the time Avi’s through with them, they’ll be the ones doing the singing.

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