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A Fine Revenge: The Four Seasons Lodgers Live to Tell
An interview with filmmaker Andrew Jacobs on his new documentary by Jay Blotcher

Picture a table of old Jewish women having lunch. They’re clucking their tongues over the temperature of the soup and the size of the bread slices. A waiter approaches, takes a big breath, and says, “Good afternoon, ladies. Is there anything right?”

If this reads as sociology more than ethnic humor, then you know Eastern European Jews. They kvetch. (Yiddish term for “complain.”) I was reminded of this nagging truth on my recent trip to Lake Worth, Florida, where I spent five days with my father, his wife and their kvetching octogenarian friends.

For a few generations of Eastern European Jews, kvetching is their lifeblood. Refer to Fiddler on the Roof, Torch Song Trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Annie Hall. Then there are the Polish Jews in Four Seasons Lodge, the new documentary by Andrew Jacobs about an Ellenville bungalow colony. These people kvetch like there’s no tomorrow. They kvetch about the weather, they kvetch about needed repairs to their cabins, they kvetch about their myriad aches and pains.

But oddly, they barely kvetch about the biggest injustice in their lives. Most of these 80- and 90-somethings lived through the Holocaust before fleeing to America to rebuild their lives. When they finally share the agonizing memories, their voices change from strident to eerily calm, and the thoughts come forth unwillingly. This makes the segment all the more wrenching.

Four Seasons Lodge has been playing film festivals around America for several months now. Its New York City engagement in November, starting at IFC Center, was extended at The Quad Cinema.

The film began as a newspaper article. Andrew Jacobs, a New York Times reporter since the mid-90s, has been an Ulster County weekender for as long. (Full disclosure: Jacobs and I were part of a group who traveled here from New York City in 1996 to find a summer home and shared a Samsonville farmhouse in 1999.) When he learned of the denizens of this Ellenville redoubt, a tight-knit family of friends who regrouped year after year since the late 1960s, he recognized the teeming drama of the story.

Jacobs owns a 19th-century refurbished house on the grounds of a former dairy farm in Napanoch at the southern tip of Ulster County. In late summer 2005, he spent several days with the Lodge folk. The resulting article for The Times, one of a six-part series on Catskills life, focused on Four Seasons as one of a handful of summer resorts for Orthodox Jews that has survived in a region once teeming with such outposts. Appearing in September 2005, the piece was titled “Where 80 Is Young, All Friends Are Old Friends.”

Jacobs, who as we speak is rushing to his second New York City premiere this cold mid-November evening, recalls that the colony members welcomed him into their lives, an anomaly for a group predisposed to outright suspicion. “They were really open from the beginning,” Jacobs said. “Most people are not that interested in talking to older people, especially in this culture. Older people get ignored. The fact that there were some people eager to hear their stories, they were quite pleased.”

The article was brief, barely long enough to detail the richness of the personalities Jacobs had met. But the journalist retained the images in his head. And when he heard that Four Seasons might be bought out, that the tight-knit group might part for good, Jacobs the journalist had an idea. He felt that the drama of that final summer might be rich enough for a film. Lacking any track record in cinema, Jacobs nonetheless put together a production team, gutted his bank account and returned to the Ellenville site a few months later to begin filming.

His biggest coup was securing the talents of acclaimed cinematographer Albert Maysles. Working in the 60s and 70s with his brother David, Maysles gained fame as a pioneer of the cinéma vérité school of documentary work, on a par with Frederick Wiseman. On films such as Grey Gardens (1975) Gimme Shelter (1970), Salesman (1968) and Primary (1960), the pair eschewed sit-down interviews and voice-overs and opted to follow their subjects for days and weeks on end, waiting on those raw, unrehearsed gems of synchronicity that happen perhaps once in every 15 hours of filming.

“Once we had come up with the idea and we were moving forward, we thought to give [Albert] Maysles a shout-out and see if he was interested,” Jacobs said. “Not that I knew him or anything; I just called his office. The way that I imagined the film would be, would be like an Albert Maysles film in that it would be observational and not a talking heads film.”

When Jacobs began filming with his crew (Maysles was one of four cinematographers on the project), his subjects were already disposed to trust him. Gaining access was not a problem.

“There were really no ground rules [on their part],” he said. “They’re not media-savvy and they don’t have any experience with media or film. They were pleased to have someone listening.” Being of a generation that came of age before the invention of television, the Four Seasons lodgers do not don the carefully crafted masks that today’s reality television stars knowingly create, nor do they shrewdly fake their performances for optimum drama.

While taking Jacobs to their heart, the subjects of the film were wary of others. This reporter initially planned to interview the Four Seasons veterans in the summer of 2006, as Jacobs was filming. After giving an interview, groundsman Hymie Abramowitz changed his mind. He demanded that I do the right thing and hand over my cassette tape. Jacobs had to intervene and I beat a hasty retreat. No article was written.

Bracketing these bittersweet tales in Yiddish, Polish and English are a series of images of the passing seasons in the Hudson Valley. We see the pure, peaceful quiet of winters and the tumult of vibrant summers. As a recurring leitmotiv, they poetically mark fleeting time for a group nearing the end of their days.

If the novice director’s narrative occasionally slackens, each frame is infused with great heart. Jacobs adores these fragile, stubborn and resilient people. Even when they are seen at their worst—bickering among each other, talking past one another due to faulty hearing—the elderly people are limned with an overall nobility.

In initial sit-down interviews, the vacationers shared their Holocaust tales more freely. But when Jacobs chose the cinéma vérité, he decided that memories of Nazi Germany would not dominate the narrative. “We decided we wanted [the film] to be mostly a story about people in the here and now,” he said. “Obviously their past is very important and intense and raw. We wanted to give a hint of that. But we didn’t want to focus on 1939 to 1945 only.”

“I wanted to show they had created new lives and they have found beauty in the world, despite what they had been through.”

That defiance is articulated best by Fran Lask, 82, a Four Seasons resident who survived the German death camp known as Bergen-Belsen: “This is our revenge on Hitler,” she said. “To live this long, this well, is a victory.”

In the documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maysles reveal that their approach was not entirely a hands-off affair. They were drawn into the lives of faded socialites Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, and found themselves running errands and doing favors for the housebound women. Jacobs, whose credo as a New York Times reporter was to remain fully neutral in pursuing a story, found himself relaxing such strictures as a documentary filmmaker.

“I definitely didn’t maintain distance by that point,” he said of the filming. “I got close and connected. I didn’t even try. The whole film thing was new to me; I hadn’t read or studied about it. I didn't know there were rules.”

In all, Jacobs and crew shot 250 hours of film, most of it during the summer of 2006. His subjects got under his skin. Even after filming had wrapped, Jacobs would make phone calls to some of the stars and feel a tug in learning that someone had died. “[Y]ou can’t help but get attached to people …you spend so much time [with] . They’re lovable, really.”

Filming, editing and promoting Four Seasons Lodge was no mean feat for Jacobs; since April 2008 he has been a correspondent in the New York Times’ Beijing bureau. Traveling halfway around the world for the premieres, Jacobs describes the experience as “kind of exhilarating and exhausting.” Tonight he is ill with a cold and frantically looking for a parking space so he can make the screening. He’s also chafing because his lodge people have over-invited their own guests, which means Jacobs has had to disinvite some of his friends.

By the new year, Four Seasons Lodge will play movie houses in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami, the latter city harboring a receptive demographic, guaranteeing a lengthy run. (The film recently won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.) While he must return to China after the New York screenings, Jacobs is already weighing the prospect of a new film project.

And yes, Jacobs said, the Four Seasons people enjoyed the documentary—no kvetching.

“Anyone who’s in the film loved it, because they see themselves.”

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Photos by Rick Nahmias, Mike Nagle, Dan Levin

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