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Filmmaker Barry Sonnefeld’s Memoir Chronicles His ‘Narcissistic Rage’


You’d expect Barry Sonnenfeld to give the world a funny memoir. After all, he’s Jewish and in show business. In interviews promoting his book, he’s been jokey and self-deprecating, the yutz who somehow wound up a top Hollywood cinematographer and director.

But this is one grim read. If the novel Portnoy’s Complaint was “an assemblage of gags,” as Irving Howe said, Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker is an assemblage of insults intended as gags. What Philip Roth cartooned, Sonnenfeld lived—except the real-life version is far less funny, and seems not to have involved psychiatry.

Raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, Sonnenfeld had not only the Yiddishe mama from hell, but a terrible father. An elementary school art teacher and teacher’s union stalwart, Mrs. Sonnenfeld was also an alcoholic who hid the empties from her husband and only child, and got her way through whiny manipulation.

Sonnenfeld senior, nicknamed “Sonny,” was an adulterous lighting equipment salesman who threw the family’s savings away on reckless business ventures and had connections to organized crime. A cousin sexually molested the author and one of his friends, for years, and both parents looked the other way. When Sonnenfeld writes that “My mother, father, and [the perpetrator] should have been jailed,” we sympathize with him.

That’s early in the book. He spends the rest of it being someone for whom it’s hard to feel sympathy.

Freud, Call Your Office

A shutterbug from a young age, Sonnenfeld has the photographer’s ability to train his gaze on people and things in a very granular way. The consequences for his readers could not be more burdensome. The contours of a kidney stone he passed are on page 130.

The acne on the face of a neighbor girl; “my mother’s mouth stench”; Rabbi Baulmal’s “huge black wart below his left nostril . . . baggy eyes and a bird’s nest coming out of his nose and each ear”; the author’s fourth-grade habit of “pulling out single strands of my hair and scraping off the fatty root substance at the base of each follicle between my front teeth”—these are a few of the details that come at us for hundreds of pages straight. He has suffered, so now making you uncomfortable evidently makes him feel better.

When the director of Get Shorty and the Addams Family and Men in Black movies drops the names of famous people, which he does constantly, the name-dropping is generally divided between those who support him in trying to cope with his emotional infirmities – his sciatica, “according to Howard Stern, Emma Thompson, and my back doctor, the late John Sarno, is brought on by unconscious narcissistic rage” – and those who, having disrespected him, deserve to have their inadequacies exposed. After we learn of Penny Marshall’s directorial mistakes, and her breakfasting on “a dozen White Castle hamburgers and a carton of Marlboros,” we learn she wanted to fire him as the cinematographer of Big.

There are sharp-elbowed people in the movie industry, so payback is to be expected in a Hollywood autobiography. But in Sonnenfeld’s case the hostility is so integral that it’s depressing. In terms of the “vicious triangle” that is the Sonnenfeld household, that hostility attaches much more to his mother than to his father.

Of the latter’s infidelities, he remarks: “I didn’t really blame him. I wouldn’t wish sex with her on Hitler.” It was decades ago, he writes, that he began blurting out in media interviews that his mother’s overprotectiveness made him wish she were dead.

This book reveals that it wasn’t just overprotectiveness that got under his skin but the failure to protect him when it really mattered. On the other hand, his urge to rebel against “her insanity, her fears, her lies, and her neediness” has been a perverse a source of creativity. He highlights how it shows up in his work, from the student film he made at New York University to The Addams Family.

The intended effect here is to be savagely funny, but it’s the savage part that comes through. Sonnenfeld catalogues the endless ways people mistreated each other, and him, whether in the home, in the ’hood (the young and undersized Sonnenfeld got mugged, a passersby did nothing, and the boy cried out in protest), in college, or on a pornographic movie set.

He revels in life’s dark side, in the filthy condition of his mother’s kitchen, in the bad turns his parents did him—they stole the gift money he got on his bar mitzvah—to such a degree that one begins to wonder if some of this might be made up. Anyone who’s been through what he has is bound to focus on the negative. Might it not be a temptation to paint every aspect of life in matching shades of bleak, for the sake of symmetry?

Fear and Loathing

One thing Sonnenfeld says about himself is shockingly matter-of-fact. It’s that he didn’t enter the film industry because he loved movies. He didn’t grow up a fan of them, wanted to be a writer not a filmmaker, and only attended New York University’s film school on the suggestion of his infernal mother. He wasn’t picky about what kind of projects he worked on, hence his apprenticeship in porn.

Years later, to break the ice with Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia on the set of The Addams Family, he tried to regale them with stories of that apprenticeship. It “didn’t go well.” Why he expects it to go better this time is a mystery.

Clearly he would like this memoir, if it had a rating, to be “NC-17”—a mere “R” rating being so namby-pamby at this point in history—so he narrates at great length what the actors he was filming had to do in these movies. He deploys his techno-geek love of cinematic equipment for comments like: “Miking this moment made no sense, given that the sound of sperm fleeing the penis is not a dynamic one.” The anecdotes in this part of the book entail a lot of vomit and excrement, as well, and to get maximum laughs out of the degradation, he goes on for pages about that.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but eventually a certain fascination did set in. I continued to read so I could find out: Were any tinges of love, respect, or appreciation of others going to enter this story, to lessen the harshness of the author’s passage through this cruel world, and give some respite to all the fear and loathing?

Some softening occurs when he speaks of his wife and daughter (more than a little, actually) but he seldom credits other people with his level of intelligence or talent. Nor does he vouchsafe to us wisdom hard-won over 67 years on the planet. No, the memoirist isn’t aiming very high here—out of crassness, to be sure, but also, one senses, out of modesty.

For all the name-dropping, the bragging about even the smallest career successes (the “star-studded Macy’s commercial” he directed), and the preening about his elite lifestyle (such as a photo he took of a martini glass on the deck of his ski chalet in Colorado), this is a man who in his heart of hearts does not believe himself deserving of love or happiness.

Rage Is His Copilot

The book is really about the struggle to lead a productive life by one scarred by an injustice that will never be punished. Somebody else would have directed those movies if Sonnenfeld hadn’t. Other cinematographers would have been hired for the first three Coen brothers films, Big, and When Harry Met Sally if Sonnenfeld wasn’t. That it was he who did all of that is impressive, to say the least.

How wearisome it is, though, to discover that not only the director’s works but his method can be explained in terms of the “unconscious narcissistic rage” of someone who has been wronged and needs self-assertion as a defense. The Sonnenfeld preference was always to use “wide angle lenses and dead center framing” to capture images because this “forced the viewer to look exactly where I wanted them to.  . . . I found a way, only child of Jewish parents that I am, to make the audience pay attention to me.”

He makes much throughout the book of his fear of flying. Especially suitable to his gallows humor is the fact that a private plane in which he was travelling crash-landed on the runway in Van Nuys, California in 1999. The National Traffic Safety Board released a report on this accident, which he cites.

Selectively cites, I should say. As the only passenger, he claims he was also the only calm one on the ground—that he had to save himself since the three crew members ignored him as they ran out to the tarmac. It’s not hard to look up the report. The investigators took a statement from the copilot, who “said he looked directly at the passenger and instructed the passenger to leave his bag and follow him.”

I believe the copilot.