Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother

Picture this:

You’re Barry Sonnenfeld, a high-school junior, on a date with a classmate at a Madison Square Garden “Woodstock Reunion” concert. And just as Jimi Hendrix is about to come on, you hear an announcement over the loudspeaker:

”Barry Sonnenfeld, call your mother!”

That’s the opening scene in this memoir.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Barry Sonnenfeld. I hadn’t. For the three of you who also haven’t heard of him, he’s a famous cinematographer and film director whose movies range from Blood Simple to The Addams Family to Men in Black. Whether you know his work or not, you will find this book absorbing, funny, and informative.

Do keep in mind that it’s a memoir, not an autobiography. That matters. Actually, as you can see from the cover photo, the subtitle is Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker, but the singular/plural distinction doesn’t matter.

You can tell that the book was written by a filmmaker. It consists of an episodic series of short scenes, all of which add up to a picture of the author and how he got where he is now. Since it’s a non-autobiography, it’s quite incomplete and not entirely chronological: the skeleton is a linear story, but there are a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards — as you would expect from a filmmaker. Sonnenfeld is perfectly willing to name names, so you get a certain amount of juicy gossip along the way. If I knew more about Hollywood, I might be able to tell whether any of this is really new news.

There’s one more way in which it’s important that this is a memoir, not an autobiography: some of the content might not be true. It’s all a reflection of Sonnenfeld’s memory, after all. But I have no way of telling what’s true and what isn’t. It’s all interesting, at any rate. If we’re thinking of it as a movie, however, I do need to warn you that a couple of troubling parts would get it an R rating: Sonnenfeld’s early (and brief) work in the porn industry before he gained enough experience to move on to legitimate films, and his descriptions of his encounters with his cousin Mike Laurence, referred to throughout as “CM the CM” (which stands for “Cousin Mike the Child Molester”). Clearly these experiences, along with his parents’ horrible parenting, helped make him a “neurotic filmmaker.” It’s not completely clear what made him an esteemed and successful filmmaker, but you can draw your own conclusions from what he writes in his memoir.

Categories: Books