Sunday, October 25, 2009
Sleepers haunted me for days when I saw it in its initial release. It's haunting me again since I saw it Thursday at the closing night of Fordham Law's Film Festival. Director Barry Levinson, the book's author Lorenzo Carcaterra and DA Charles Hynes discussed the movie with Fordham's Thane Rosenbaum.
The film is based on Lorenzo's book. It's his life story. He grew up in 1960's Hell's Kitchen which was Irish, Italian (he pointed out that he spoke Italian and didn't learn English until he started school) and Puerto Rican. He and many of his friends came from violent households. DA Hynes said that once you grow up with violence you never forget it. He experienced it in his house at age 5.
The boys were getting into trouble. There was the local priest, Fr. Bobby (played by Robert DeNiro) who had the same upbringing, but was trying to steer these kids in a better direction. Lorenzo and his 3 friends (he changed their names to protect their privacy-but still sees those still living for dinners) play a prank on the hot dog vendor and it turns ugly. They are sent to an upstate NY reform school where they encounter the out of control quartet of wardens led by Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon as his creepiest). Sleepers is a story of revenge and the families that form from neighborhood ties.
Cartcaterra's story has been challenged as a work of non-fiction. The NY courts have said they have no record of the trial that occurs in his story. The priests that served at Sacred Heart say they never perjured themselves (as Fr Bobby does) and are unaware of the story. The school states Lorenzo only had 14 absent days from school, making it impossible for him to be away at a reform school for over 6 months. Lorenzo still stands by his story.
As crazy and as turbulent a childhood he had, he said he and his friends were well read, far more than kids today. The Count of Monte Cristo was one of his favorite books and plays a part in the movie. He credits Catholic school with rounding out his love for literature. The neighborhood was a family. Kids playing on the streets, all looking out for one another. The West 50's was never a wealthy area, but according to Lorenzo it fell apart with the proliferation of cocaine. I've heard other people mention the destruction cocaine has caused. Nancy Wilson of the band Heart felt the music business took a turn for the worst when everyone started using cocaine. Musicians used to be a collaborative community. Cocaine made it everyone for themselves.
Levinson talked about the greatness of Dustin Hoffman. He wrote an additional scene just so he could see Victorio Gassman (King Benny) and Hoffman interact. Hoffman steals the scene with an ad lib about a drug problem.
Diner, Levinson's directorial debut is one of my favorite movies. I know it inside and out. I can quote it ("I'll hit you so hard I'll kill your whole family", "Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?" "You know what word I'm not comfortable with? Nuance."). The ending of Sleepers is so close to the ending of Diner. A bunch of friends gather around a table and reminisce, laugh and enjoy each other's company. The slow motion of the gestures ("Gesture is a real word") is a defining part of both endings. The films turn out different, but they are both about a family of friends. Kevin Bacon and Ralph Tabakin ("Bonanza doesn't look right?") appear in both films.