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Focus(2001)

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teaser Focus (2001)

The feature film debut of celebrated photographer and commercial director Neal Slavin, the 2001 drama Focus is based on Arthur Miller's 1945 novel about a meek, quietly conformist personnel manager at a New York company whose life is transformed after he gets a new pair of glasses. "They make you look Jewish," his mother complains, and sure enough longtime neighbors and co-workers start looking askance at him. William H. Macy plays Lawrence Newman, a Presbyterian who traces his American ancestry back to the 18th century and a life-long single man who cares for a wheelchair-ridden mother. When he falls under suspicion of Hebrew ancestry, his middle class Brooklyn neighborhood puts him on "the list" and the anti-Semitic harassment begins, as it does with the Jewish news agent on the corner (played by David Paymer). Laura Dern co-stars as Gertrude, a New York girl who is herself mistaken for Jewish when she interviews for a job at Lawrence's company, which has a strict hiring policy: Christian only.

Focus is based on the sole novel by playwright Arthur Miller, which was written while World War II was still being fought and published in 1945. "It was probably the first novel about anti-Semitism ever published in this country," said Miller in a 2001 interview, and it made some publishers nervous at the time. Neal Slavin first read the novel in 1962, when he was a student at New York's Cooper Union School of Art, and by his own account he reread it over a dozen times since. As he explained in an interview, "I loved this book, not because of its insights into anti-Semitism, but because it was a metaphor for all racism, all prejudice and hatred, the blindness of it." It took years for Slavin to convince Miller to let him tackle the novel.

Actor and playwright Kendrew Lascelles adapted the novel and conducted his own research to get the period and the politics right. The novel and the film offer a fictional force called the Union Crusaders, an American fascist group led by a religious demagogue based on the real-life Father Charles Coughlin, but the anti-Semitic bigotry was real. "Arthur wrote about real things that were going on at the time," Lascelles told The Los Angeles Times in 2001. "I have newspaper cuttings from that period. There were big stories of Jewish kids being beaten up and synagogues [being vandalized]. It was very bad."

Slavin sets the film in a stylized recreation of mid-1940s Brooklyn, with cozy houses and neat lawns and bright sunny colors that could have come out of an old Hollywood studio picture but was in fact shot in Toronto, on a street that reminded Slavin of the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. The idealized faade turns dark and ominous when the sun sets and the ugliness emerges in the dark of night.

William H. Macy was hesitant to take the lead role because he didn't think he looked Jewish but Slavin insisted that was the point. "He saw it almost as a fable," recalled Macy. "It's not about who looks Jewish and who doesn't look Jewish. It's about the idea that people's perceptions are often so thin and so prejudicial that something as simple and meaningless as buying a specific pair of glasses can make people feel different about you."

"[T]he movie's surreal style, with its film-noir camerawork and ominous lighting, turns the story into a fable about fear and nonconformism," wrote Stephen Holden in his film review for The New York Times, "and Mr. Macy's and Ms. Dern's carefully shaded caricatures match the mood." Though it was not a box-office success in the United States, it earned the Human Rights Award from the U.A. Political Film Society and William Macy's performance earned him the Best Actor prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2002.

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
"Every Picture Tells a Story," Cindy Fuchs. Philadelphia City Paper, November 1, 2001.
"A Close-Up of Bias," Jon Matsumoto. Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2001.
Focus Film Review, Stephen Holden. The New York Times, October 19, 2001.
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