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I think it took me four or five months to learn the language, five or six years to get the culture.

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Uzi Parnes, self-portrait.

Uzi Parnes: Going All Out

MARCH 20, 2002. The New York-based experimental filmmaker and performer, Uzi Parnes, who immigrated from Tel Aviv to Levittown, Long Island at the age of nine, talks to The Gully about his life and work.

The Gully: You've said you were thrown into an American school not knowing any English. That must have been traumatic.

Uzi Parnes: It wasn't just not knowing English. Israel in the mid-sixties was a very different place than here. It wasn't just the language that was different, but the culture. I'd never been exposed to Christianity — there was a whole different iconic language. And it snowed all the time. I'd never seen snow before. I picked up the language much quicker than the culture. I think it took me four or five months to learn the language, five or six years to get the culture.

We were only in Levittown several months before we moved to the South Bronx. Everyone told my parents that they didn't want me to go to a public school there because I would be exposed to too many "undesirable elements," so my parents put me in an American orthodox Jewish school, a yeshiva. That was really an experience. After that we moved to Forest Hills, Queens, where I was allowed to enter public school again.

One of your entries into American culture was the TV.

When we came to America — I think it was on a Friday — well, that Sunday we went to a Times Square store in Levittown and bought a Zenith 19-inch television set. In Israel, we didn't really see much television. A wealthy relative had one, but there was almost nothing in Hebrew. It was mostly in Arabic. You could only watch belly dancing or movies dubbed into other languages I didn't understand, like Urdu.

But coming here, TV was definitely the formative influence. I was particularly enamored of the WOR Million Dollar Movie. They would show it cinema style, so you could actually watch the same movie five times in one day, or over and over during the week, and I was infatuated with the musicals of the 30's and 40's. I fantasized about being Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, or an amalgam of both, and creating that kind of cinema, which doesn't really seem to have a place anymore, though I haven't seen "Moulin Rouge."

There was a Jewish youth group that influenced you a lot, both politically and artistically.

That was the Hashomer Hatzair, a youth movement affiliated with the Socialist Party and the Kibbutz movement. I got involved after going to their summer camp in Liberty, New York. There were meetings every Friday in all the boroughs. We would do a lot of interesting things like go to the Guggenheim or Whitney museums. One of the things they took us to see was the surrealist movie "Un Chien Andalou" by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, where the woman's eyeball is cut open. That knocked my socks off. I'd never seen anything like that before.

We would go to see fringe theater in the West Village. I remember walking on St. Mark's Place for the first time, and past the disco that I think was the Purple Onion then. It was the sixties, and despite the group's connection to Israel, it was pretty much a hippy culture. The counselors were only five or six years older than us, very free thinking.

I was 14 when I went away to my first peace march in Washington — against my parents' wishes, I should add. When I called home to ask permission they refused, so I just didn't go home. I got in the van with everyone else and went to D.C. They were not pleased.

What really stayed with me from the group Hashomer Hatzair is that they put a lot of emphasis on being true to yourself, finding your own identity, and not fitting into one of society's stereotypes just because it is the norm.

It was really the antithesis of the bourgeois Jewish culture I was exposed to in Forest Hills, which was something I didn't want to become a part of. I was struggling with an American identity. Until I was 19, I believed that I would eventually go back [to Israel]. That changed when I went back for a visit, and wasn't allowed out of the country. They wanted me to serve in the military. I'd made arrangements with the military, but they stopped me at the airport anyway. When they weren't willing to let me leave the country, that made up my mind for me. It's not a free society if you can't leave when you want to, and I didn't want to live there. When I finally got out, I didn't go back again for a long time.

When did you make your first movie?

Let's see, my parents bought me a super 8 camera when I was 12 or 14. By the time my brother got married I think I shot the wedding. I actually came at filmmaking from the theater. My grandmother in Israel would take me to the Yiddish theater. I loved it. She was also responsible for my first experience cross-dressing. She would just go all-out for Purim.

But my first movie where I actually edited things was in college when I took film courses. My first project was a piece of a woman eating a banana, and as the scenes progressed she would be wearing less and less clothes until she was naked, so it ended up being very sexual. My teacher was just stunned and impressed, but I think it was the full frontal nudity that turned him on. It was very Warholesque. At the time, I was into the films the Warhol factory was putting out. And there was a Brazilian film, I can't remember what it's called, I know, Macunaima, it was based on a novel, one of the most surrealistic and insane films ever made. I think it starts with a black tribe in the Amazon rain forest and one of the children eats a berry that turns him white, and the whole thing just get crazy.

What inspires you to make a film?

It varies from project to project. Some are narrative oriented, generated by a story. Yoorzite Carnaval was inspired by a particular time and place. In that case, it was because I was going to be in Rio and it was also the anniversary of the death of my father. My family had wanted me to go to Florida and light a candle at the graveside. I shot that on his fifth anniversary. So the impetus for Yoorzite Carnaval was just creating a little memorial piece for him.

Uzi Parnes is currently developing a solo performance piece entitled "Big and Extra Cheesy." His plays co-written with Carmelita Tropicana include "Memories of the Revolution," "Candela y azucar," "Carnaval," and "The Conquest of Mexico as Seen Through the Eyes of Hernando Cortez' Horse." Films include, "Loisaida Lusts" (with Ela Troyano), "Maneaters" a trilogy, and "Queer Love Poem." Uzi was the founder and co-director of the East Village performance club Chandalier (sic) 1984-86.

Uzi Parnes' Yoorzite Carnaval

Related links:

For Levittown: Documents of an Ideal American Suburb. Great photos.

The Gene Scene, everything you ever wanted to know about Gene Kelly.

For About Hashomer Hatzair.

For Andy Warhol Films and Superstars - A chronological guide to Andy Warhol's films and the Warhol stars who appeared in them.

For The Gully's Queer Arts Series

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage New York City

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

From global warming to gay- trendsetting. Includes headlines, politics, and news from beyond.

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