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Reel Life: playing with matches

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Four years ago Mark Wexler set out, he says, to "make an objective documentary essay about dating and mating in America, about the search for the perfect woman." A photojournalist who's done assignments for Life, the New York Times, and other national publications, he'd moved back to Chicago from southern California to hone his documentary skills with the help of filmmaker Michael Rabiger at Columbia College.

Years before, Wexler had done a magazine piece about a Jewish matchmaker in Boston, and now he decided to turn his camcorder on a Chicago counterpart. He went to the library, he says, and "typed in "matchmaker' in the computer. Boom, Irene Nathan's name came up." He looked up Matchmakers, her service, in the phone book and called her. "We met at a kosher restaurant in Uptown. After ten minutes of talking with her, I knew I had my subject. That was in March of '94."

For the next 18 months Wexler (and sometimes a two-man crew) closely followed Nathan in her daily life as she interviewed prospective clients, strategized with current clients, shopped, cooked, and dispensed motherly advice. Wexler ended up spending much more time in her west Rogers Park home than he'd anticipated. "A bond formed between us," he says. "She became a mother figure."

The secrets of Nathan's success, as artfully revealed in Wexler's hour-long documentary Me & My Matchmaker, are her instinct for sizing people up and her playful maternal concern. Trained in clinical psychology, she also "dabbled in real estate and interior decoration before starting the service with partner Judy Friedman and another friend in '79," according to Wexler. Nathan's own marriage lasted four decades, until the death of her husband. "She believes everyone should get married," Wexler notes, "and that it's not a decision to be taken lightly." The 250-some Jewish singles who are Nathan's clients pay $400 a year for her services, which are advertised in local Jewish newspapers and the Reader; Nathan, an Orthodox Jew, discourages intermarriage. ("Five out of six of those marriages fail," she says disapprovingly. Most of the 280 marriages she's arranged, on the other hand, are still going strong.)

About a month into the shoot, Wexler found himself fielding questions from Nathan about his singlehood. "I wanted him not just to be a spectator," recalls Nathan. Wexler at first resisted. "I'd studied anthropology with Gregory Bateson at University of California in Santa Cruz and was taught to be an objective observer," he says. But he was soon pulled in. "You can't really make an honest personal film without laying your own cards on the table too. So I went all out."

In the documentary his own love life comes under scrutiny. Though he'd thought that people who resort to dating services are mostly "unattractive losers," he ended up briefly dating two of Nathan's women clients--without her permission. "Irene wanted me to convert first, because I'm a bottom-half Jew." Wexler's father is Jewish, his mother a non-Jew. His relationships with these two women and a California girlfriend are candidly chronicled, along with those of assorted other Nathan clients, but Nathan disapproved of all three women as a match for Wexler. "She didn't think they were right for me, perhaps because she sensed I wasn't ready to commit," he notes.

The process was cathartic for Wexler, however, who's thought about marrying only once, during a New York relationship that lasted several years. His mother, who taught design and painting at the School of the Art Institute, is divorced from his father, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, whose best-known directorial effort is Medium Cool, a highly politicized look at the '68 Democratic convention. In the documentary, Wexler interviews his mother about her divorce, then follows with the observation that his father's rejection of her still haunts him; his father never appears in the film.

Now, with Me & My Matchmaker under his belt, Wexler plans to deal head-on with the demon of his father's renown. It took him almost a year to sift through 120 hours of footage for this documentary, but at 39 Wexler feels ready to embark on a directorial career. "For a long time I didn't want to be in the same field, to be overshadowed by my father," he says. "Now I feel more relaxed and secure." Though he's currently working as a photojournalist, Wexler has planned his next documentary, which will focus on famous fathers and their sons. "Who knows?" he shrugs. "Maybe like this documentary it'll raise more questions for me than answers."

Me & My Matchmaker will have its local premiere at the Film Center of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, this weekend. Wexler will talk about his work after the screenings, which are Friday and Saturday at 6 and 8 PM and Sunday at 6:30 PM. For more information call 443-3737.

--Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Irene Nathan, Mark Wexler.

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