Jay Anania is a New York
filmmaker. His brother-in-law might be Vice President next year. But, BEN SMITH reports, he’s not
planning to make any campaign documentaries next year.
The last time Jay Anania filmed John Edwards was July 30, 1977,
the day Mr. Edwards married Mr. Anania’s older sister, Elizabeth.
“That was in the height of my experimental days,” Mr. Anania said
recently in a Boston bar, where, dressed all in black, he’d found some refuge
from the swarming Democratic National Convention. He ordered a glass of water,
half-still and half-sparkling, and recalled how, a quarter century earlier, his
“kinetic” Super-8 production hadn’t been exactly what John son-of-a-millworker
Edwards and his bride were expecting.
“They were shocked,” Mr. Anania said. “They were just, ‘Ja-ay,
what are you doing?’ So I have not photographed him since.”
This is, Mr. Anania’s friends tell him, a shame. His would be a
great campaign film, Alexandra Pelosi meets Ingmar Bergman. And he knows it.
“I’m really a good documentarian, and obviously the access is
unparalleled. And I just keep putting it off,” he said.
Vincent J. Anania Jr., 53, is the charming, hyperactive and very New
York arm of the down-home Edwards family, a self-described “auteur” who teaches
film at New York University. New Yorkers might think of him as their own
reality check on a campaign that spends most of its time playing to the
battleground states of flyover country. If you watched Mr. Edwards’ speech, you
would have seen Mr. Anania’s two young sons (enrolled at the United Nations
International School) in the family box, sitting just above Mr. Edwards’
parents. But Mr. Anania himself, in his black suit, black loafers and spiky
white hair over clear blue eyes, hadn’t quite fit in with the colorfully
dressed Carolinians, and he and his wife Jacqueline Sohier were seated outside
They are just getting used to the strange role that family plays
in the campaign machine.
“It’s as if you were sitting by the side of the road chewing on a
piece of wheat grass, and a train comes by and hooks you,” Mr. Anania said.
“The thing is that we have no idea where the train is going or how fast it’s
Mr. Anania is the second of three Anania children. He and his
sisters, Elizabeth and Nancy, grew up on a series of military bases, spending
much of their youth in Japan. “We had no place where we were from,” he said.
But he followed Elizabeth, “a raven-haired beauty,” to the place she’s now
emphatically from, Chapel Hill, N.C., where she thrived in law school while he
meandered through a seven-year undergraduate career, playing some basketball
with his future brother-in-law.
Mr. Edwards and Ms. Anania married after their law-school
graduation, and built their legal careers in North Carolina. Mr. Anania
eventually found his way to Boston, where he built a small niche shooting
documentaries in the Third World for Boston’s public television station, WGBH.
In the days before digital cameras, he traveled alone to places like Kenya and
the Philippines, shooting solo with a Super-8 camera. In 1994, he moved to New
York and switched over to features, most of them nominal thrillers that dwell
more on aesthetic than dramatic values.
And while he hasn’t returned to filming his brother-in-law, Mr.
Anania has done some thinking on why, exactly, the camera loves the North
Carolina Senator quite as much as it does.
“John’s interesting because people either look better or worse
when they’re photographed. John looks exactly the same. It’s this unusual,
freakish non-effect that the camera has,” he said. And here’s the film-theory
explanation of why it’s so effective: “If we recognize that that’s true, in
some part of our brain we recognize that this is exactly who this person is,
and that fact appeals to us.”
Mr. Anania, who considers Mr. Edwards a latter-day Atticus Finch,
has been an enthusiastic supporter of his brother-in-law’s political career
since its abrupt beginnings in a 1998 Senate run. When Mr. Edwards ran for the
Democratic nomination for President earlier this year, Mr. Anania was a quiet
presence in the New York fund-raising operation, speaking at house parties and
making calls. “There was none of the ego stuff that you associate with
candidate families,” said City Councilman Bill de Blasio, who ran Mr. Edwards’
New York campaign. Mr. Anania also hosted fund-raisers at his spacious loft on
Mercer Street in Soho, where he also holds dinner parties that include everyone
from the New School president Bob Kerrey to the English poet James Fenton, who
is the godfather of Mr. Anania’s sons.
Mr. Anania is utterly loyal to Mr. Edwards, despite political
leanings that don’t exactly match up.
“I’m way to the left-way to the left of all that,” Mr. Anania
says, pointing left with his thumbs to dramatize his distance from the
Democrats’ center. “I agree with a lot of what Ralph Nader says, for instance,
although I wish he would go away.”
Mr. Anania and his sister argue about the Iraq war, which Mr.
Anania protested in New York while his brother-in-law voted for it in
“I remember repeatedly arguing we don’t have affirmative reason
to believe” reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Anania said.
“I remember my sister said, in order to end the conversation, she said, ‘Well,
Jay, if that’s not true, then George Tenet has lied to John.'”
Mr. Anania didn’t quite buy it, but he still defends his
brother-in-law. “John did the right thing based on what he was told,” he said.
A few days after returning from Boston, Mr. Anania was sipping
Lagavullian single-malt Scotch-“the best”-at an outdoor café on Hudson Street.
His bike was standing, unlocked, on the pavement nearby. He brought along a
pair of his more recent films, but his drinking companion, his former lawyer
Jed Alpert, had another coup to mention: Mr. Anania may have broken the record
for return on investment in the film-production game, selling a film he made
for $350 to the Independent Film Channel for $50,000. Called Girl Under the Waves , it was improvised
and unscripted, shot nearly in real-time with a single camera.
“That’s a very, very good return,” said Mr. Alpert.
Mr. Anania is an unusual character: a successful filmmaker
without any commercial hits, perhaps because he’s not a fan of the
elements-plot, for example-that usually drive such movies.
The most widely released was the 1997 Long Time Since , starring the retired supermodel Paulina Porizkova
and the English actor Julian Sands. Ms. Porizkova got the part halfway through
the first sentence of her reading. “She walked into the audition and she had
done herself up, and it was almost like a force field. The physical beauty
almost extended six feet beyond her,” Mr. Anania said.
Long Time Since is a
chilly drama whose plot hinges on a woman remembering a murder, but which
spends much of its 89 minutes exploring Ms. Porizkova’s cheekbones in a stark,
white light. The soundtrack consists largely of the soprano Judy Kuhn’s
rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” over and over.
Ms. Porizkova, Mr. Anania said, was perfect: “She could have that
chill and that formality and still seem like a human being in some way.”
Long Time Since was not
a great commercial success, something that Mr. Anania said didn’t come as a
“I don’t want to be an A-list director,” he said. “The film is
too slow for many people; it’s too kind of formal and stylized for many people.
But nobody denies its pure visual and aural beauty.”
Don’t accuse the man of false modesty, but he has a point. His
austere films, shot on minuscule budgets ( Long
Time Since cost $140,000), are characterized more by lovely, lingering
shots than by compelling characters. Everything is in minor key. Mr. Anania’s
films also show a painstaking attention to technique. The Citizen , a 1999 drama about an American reporter who falls in
with Salvadoran revolutionaries in the 1980’s, uses a method called “bleach
bypass” to render sections of the 35-millimeter film nearly colorless.
“He has resisted compromising
his idea of what a good film is,” said another downtown filmmaker, Alan Wade,
who has encouraged Mr. Anania to film Mr. Edwards.
This fall, Mr. Anania plans to shoot another thriller, this one
starring Charlotte Rampling as a downtown theater director losing her mind, but
his most recent film is The Visitors ,
a dark drama about a pair of con artists who invade the lives of a couple
(Julianne Nicholson and Julian Sands) in their seaside home. Unlike a typical
mystery, there’s no moment when the plot resolves itself.
“Mystery is more interesting to me than, let’s say, knowledge,”
the filmmaker started to explain. “That’s sounds like an incredibly pompous
thing to say. Don’t make me sound too pompous.”
Given Mr. Anania’s attachment to ambiguity and shades of gray, it
may be just as well for Mr. Edwards that his brother-in-law didn’t turn out to
be his chronicler, although Mr. Anania’s been considering it since Mr. Edwards
ran for the Senate in 1998.
“I thought I should just start to shoot it,” he said. “Then I
said, ‘I don’t know-maybe let me think about it tomorrow. And that’s been going
on ever since.'”
But he just won’t make that
film. And sitting amid the buzz of the Fleet Center’s radio row, Mr. Anania
didn’t have much good to say for the sort of soft-focus propaganda that
political campaigns demand, or the quick-cut techniques that now dominate political
“I’m very glad Michael Moore’s there, but I think that he is not
an immensely skilled filmmaker,” he said of the recent Fahrenheit 9/11 . “I think it actually didn’t say all the things
that you could say about Bush, and on the other hand the cinematic tricks of
manipulation were so transparent. Even as propaganda, it was weaker than it
could have been.”
Indeed, for all Mr. Anania’s downtown-left politics, the divisions
he gets really worked up about aren’t between the red states and blue states.
“On one side is John and the Rolling Stones and [French director
Jean-Luc] Godard,” he said, drawing puzzled looks from the political staffers
waiting for their bosses’ radio interviews to conclude. “On the other is Paul
and the Beatles and Truffaut.
“I like John and Godard and not Paul and Truffaut,” Mr. Anania
said. Rimbaud and Wallace Stevens also figure in here somewhere, with Mr.
Anania so firmly in the Rimbaud camp that his first feature film was called The Pagan Book of Arthur Rimbaud .
The Pagan Book of John
Edwards will remain, it seems, unmade. For now, Mr. Anania is trying to do
his part for the campaign by sparring with talk-radio hosts. He’s already late
to the convention’s radio row, and the convention’s radio producer is angry.
(“She’s going to fucking kill me, kill me,” he says mournfully.)
Waiting to have his interviews rescheduled, Mr. Anania tired of
talking about Godard and turned his attention to his current obsession, Fox
News personality Sean Hannity, who was broadcasting his show from radio row.
“I would love to get a piece of Sean Hannity,” he says, wheeling
around to look for the burly Fox star. “I’ll kill him with love.”