In the beginning was the word. Storytelling originated as an oral tradition, a means of transmitting the history and culture of a people from one generation to another. Actor-writer-director Julia Sweeney’s God Said “Ha!” shows the persistent power of this primitive bardic form, even when translated to an essentially visual medium. Nothing could be less cinematic than a woman talking about her life on a set designed to simulate her living room, but no movie I’ve seen so far this year has proved as richly satisfying.

Sweeney’s tale begins during what should have been a tranquil passage in her life. She had completed her four-year run as a member of television’s Saturday Night Live ensemble and survived the flop of It’s Pat, the 1994 feature based on the androgynous SNL character she created, as well as an amicable divorce. Ensconced in a cozy Los Angeles bungalow purchased and decorated with her television earnings, she planned to take time off for a well-deserved breather, an opportunity to recharge her creative and emotional batteries.

Then God, that prankster, hit Sweeney with several whammies. Her beloved brother came down with lymphatic cancer. She moved him into her home to care for him, whereupon her concerned parents arrived from Spokane and also took up residence, crowding a space suitable, at most, for two persons. In the midst of an already fraught situation, Sweeney discovered that she had a rare form of cervical cancer.

At the end of these trials, Sweeney laughed back at God by transforming her ordeals into a work of art: a smart, funny, moving performance piece. She began covertly, developing and testing the material at the Uncabaret, a West Hollywood comedy club. Encouraged by audience response, she shaped the piece into a 45-minute show, which gradually evolved into an hour-and-45-minute theatrical monologue, which premiered at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in January 1996 for a three-month run. God Said “Ha!” then moved to the Coronet Theater in L.A., where it attracted the attention of Quentin Tarantino, who decided to capture the performance on film.

After considering and rejecting the idea of filming the movie in a variety of locations, co-producers Tarantino and Rana Joy Glickman wisely chose to preserve the piece’s intimacy by shooting it in a studio, using a streamlined adaptation of the stage set. Sweeney directed herself, pruning the script to 85 minutes and filming two complete performances on a single day before departing for New York, where, while the project was being edited, she opened the show for a six-week run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater.

I won’t spoil Sweeney’s monologue by attempting to summarize it; nobody could tell her story as eloquently as she does. All that’s necessary is to indicate some of the themes she develops: her brother’s brave comic defiance of his physical decline; her provincial mother’s sweetly naive reactions to her daughter’s culinary tastes; her absurd treatment by the health-care system; her cat’s aloof withdrawal from the overcrowded household; her discomfiture at being forced to submit to parental scrutiny and concoction of devious stratagems in order to smoke, fart, and make love unobserved.

God Said “Ha!”‘s shortcomings are hardly worth mentioning: lackluster camerawork, several pointless self-referential shots that reveal the production crew at work, a few uncertain minutes at the beginning as Sweeney establishes her performance rhythm. What’s rarest and most memorable is the intelligent, generous sensibility she displays—tough-minded but tenderhearted, mainstream yet edgy, hip but humane. Don’t allow unrewarding exposures to other filmed performance pieces, especially Spalding Gray’s unctuous, narcissistic monologues, scare you away from Sweeney’s witty, touching tour de force.

Actor-turned-director Tony Goldwyn’s A Walk on the Moon showcases an ensemble of outstanding performers in an atmospheric romantic drama that soars for an hour, then disappointingly falls to earth.

In the summer of 1969—the season of the first moon landing and Woodstock—television repairman Marty Kantrowitz (Liev Schreiber) and his family—wife Pearl (Diane Lane), daughter Alison (Anna Paquin), son Daniel (Bobby Boriello), and mother Lilian (Tovah Feldshuh)—leave Brooklyn for their annual vacation at Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony in the Catskills, a working-class Jewish summer getaway. Marty’s job permits him to join his family only on weekends, leaving restless Pearl and rebellious Alison to their own devices during the week.

I can’t recall another movie that explores this unique setting, not to be confused with Grossingers, the Concord, and other better-known but long-faded Borscht Belt resort hotels. Dr. Fogler’s is a rundown remnant of the early wave of Jewish immigrants, an isolated enclave of cottages where communication with the outside world consists of daily visits by the “ice cream man,” “the knish man,” and other traveling vendors. Thirty-year-old Pearl, married to Marty since her mid-teens, is drawn to Walker “the blouse man” (Viggo Mortensen), a handsome drifter who sells his wares from a dilapidated bus. Behind the backs of her children and mother-in-law, she begins a steamy affair with Walker, just as Alison, in the first flush of womanhood, is drawn to the teenage son of a vacationing family. These passionate relationships force mother and daughter to reassess their values and make decisions that will affect the courses of their lives.

Pamela Gray’s screenplay parallels personal awakenings with an era of social upheavals and new freedoms—Vietnam protests, hippies, sexual liberation. Initially, these connections are subtly developed but later become heavy-handed. (Pearl and Walker screw as the moonwalk flickers on a television set. Unbeknownst to each other, mother and daughter sneak away for assignations at the Yasgur Farm bacchanal.)

Gray’s strongest achievement in her feature debut is the creation of meaty characters, superbly realized by Goldwyn and his cast. Schreiber turns in a remarkably shaded performance as the devoted but overly domesticated husband who has sacrificed his youthful ambitions to care for his family. (His showdown with Pearl after learning of her infidelity burns with pained outrage.) Paquin trumps her performance in Hurlyburly, in which she stole acting honors by underplaying while surrounded by a scenery-munching celebrity cast, rising to full power in a confrontation scene where she, too, reveals her awareness of her mother’s adultery. Mortensen’s rugged, confident masculinity makes him an entirely plausible object of Pearl’s impacted desire, and Feldshuh puts a fresh spin on what in less capable hands would have been a Jewish matriarch stereotype. Even Lane, whose inert performances grounded her early films (Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club), blossoms as an actress of unusual depth.

Like Mike Leigh, Goldwyn, in his directorial debut, demonstrates that he has a rare sensitivity to actors and ambiance. But, like his English counterpart, he’s less attentive to the substance and structure of his work. Having carefully established multidimensional characters and a lovingly detailed setting, he then falls back on disappointingly formulaic family-values clichés in a series of telegraphed resolutions that slow his quick-gaited movie to a crawl. The film’s last half-hour plods along, largely nullifying the freshness and energy of its preceding reels. Worth seeing if ultimately unsatisfying, A Walk on the Moon nevertheless leaves one eagerly anticipating Goldwyn’s next effort.

I can’t end without noting how strange it seems that, in a movie dealing with Jewish culture, directed, acted, and largely produced by Jews (among them Dustin Hoffman and playwright Murray Schisgal), the leading female roles are played by gentiles. Although I admire Lane’s and Paquin’s performances, their goyish faces seem as out of place in Goldwyn’s ensemble as Queen Latifah and Michelle Pfeiffer at a Seder. If I were a Jewish actress, I’d have some pointed questions to ask these guys.CP