- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

BEYOND HOLLYWOOD COLUMN:

He is the director of “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno” and now “Up in the Air” — movies revolving around, respectively, a tobacco lobbyist, a pregnant teenager and a guy who fires people for a living.

But Jason Reitman doesn’t want you to get hung up on the unique situations of the characters in his movies.

“I try not to focus on their face-value elements but try to explore what makes them human beings,” he says while sitting in an interview suite at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. “They become methods of exploring stuff that everyone can understand, even if they’re done through unique people.”

Consider the protagonists of his first two films.

“Thank You for Smoking’s” tobacco lobbyist. Nick Naylor, “is exploring the difficulties of being a parent,” says Mr. Reitman, son of “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman. “Everyone understands the complications of how to teach your child about the world, how to really prepare them for life’s difficulties. He just happens to be the head lobbyist for Big Tobacco.

“Juno is a girl trying to decide when she’s supposed to become an adult, which is something everyone understands. She just happens to be pregnant.”

Given our shaky economy, it would be understandable for people to get caught up in the drama of the protagonist’s job in “Up in the Air.” George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who travels the country firing people who have become redundant in a globalized economy. The film opens with a montage of laid-off workers wondering what they’re going to do with their lives.

“That’s only supposed to be a metaphor for a man who’s trying to figure out who he wants to be and what he wants in his life,” Mr. Reitman explains. “I’ve always thought of it as a movie about a guy who’s trying to figure out whether or not he wants to be connected to people and who he wants in his life.”

The disconnectedness of the single, peripatetic Ryan’s life was one of the things that attracted Mr. Reitman to Walter Kirn’s source novel; in his job as a commercial director, Mr. Reitman also spent most of his time on the road, jetting from place to place.

The unplugged feeling that came with that gig was a choice, one that often is misunderstood in today’s society, he says.

“For a lot of people, being alone is a real life choice that is much more politicized than the economy,” he suggests. “I think that somehow, living alone is considered lonely. Wrong. Sad. Unfortunate. That to live alone is to miss a large portion of life. And there’s many people who do it and live happy lives. I think it’s almost more polarizing — the idea of living alone — than the idea of firing people for a living.”

20 years of Jewish film

The Washington Jewish Film Festival celebrates two decades of existence this year with a slate of films from around the world and an impressive lineup of filmmakers willing and ready to talk about their endeavors with eager audiences.

The festival — which began Thursday and runs through Dec. 13 — will showcase feature films, documentaries and short programs at locations around the city.

Michael Verhoeven will receive this year’s Visionary Award, an honor bestowed on someone who “recognizes and pays tribute to courage, creativity and insight in presenting the diversity of Jewish experience through the moving image.”

Born in Nazi Germany in 1938, Mr. Verhoeven directed his first feature, “The White Rose,” in 1982. His Oscar-nominated “Nasty Girl” was the opening-night film of the 1990 WJFF and will be replayed Sunday at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street Northwest. After the screening, there will be a discussion of the film and Mr. Verhoeven’s work between the director and Sharon Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film.

Mr. Verhoeven also will be at the Goethe-Institut the next day for a one-hour discussion about the “roles of film in the ongoing denial and revelation of historical facts by parts of the German society.”

“Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist” is another highlight of the festival. Eisner was one of the pioneers of the graphic novel, and his pre-eminent creation, “The Spirit,” is considered one of the groundbreaking works in the genre.

“Portrait of a Sequential Artist” includes interviews with literary greats such as Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman; after the Sunday screening at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, director Andrew D. Cooke will be on hand to chat about the picture.

Those looking for a program of short films — a rare treat in our feature-length-focused world — would do well to check out Shorts Program 2 on the last day of the festival, Dec. 13 at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater.

For a full schedule of screenings, including prices and locations, go to WJFF.org or call 800/494-8497.

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