31 August 1998

Big Hair in Beverly Hills

"THE JEWISH JOADS" IS THE POIGNANT PHRASE Tamara Jenkins applies to the itinerant Abramowitz clan in Slums of Beverly Hills. "The story has a large autobiographical aspect," the hyper writer-director says of the 1976-set comedy of a 16-year-old girl's sexual awakening that incorporates a gold mine of insecurity, neurosis and class conflict. "What we discovered is that even though the streets were lined with gold, we still didn't have any. The whole context of growing up on the outskirts of Beverly Hills in a motherless household, that's my own history. I always wanted to mine the period in which I grew up there as the first movie I made."

Jenkins, a former performance artist in New York, moved on to make short films at NYU's graduate program, and made her mark when they were shown at Sundance. Her background may be what emboldened her to make the tonal shifts from comedy to drama in the often appallingly detailed nightmare of Vivian's nomadic adolescence. There are laugh-out-loud scenes, but Jenkins has made a tragedy in sheepish clothing. She expresses at least mild concern about how the film will be perceived. "The whole need to categorize things as comedy or drama, it happens without it necessarily being your intention. Nothing that's a hybrid is properly perceived in the world of marketing, although that's the kinds of thing that I like."

The casting of the movie is particularly adept, a roster of memorably fidgety performers. As Vivian, Natasha Lyonne is a voluble presence, a wisenheimer diva with the amused-by-life smile of either a preternaturally wise person or a lunatic. Alan Arkin is as mesmerizingly intense as ever as her divorced father, along with pot-addicted overachieving teenage brother (David Krumholtz) and a cranky little brother (Eli Marienthal). Then there's Marisa Tomei as Rita, a cousin just escaped from drug rehab. Jenkins says she was casting for dramatic chops more than comedic ones. "Sometimes you're talking to an actor who says, 'It's supposed to be funny, right?' and you go, yeah, but you don't know you're in a scene. You're just experiencing life. The characters in this film are not walking around saying, 'Hey, we're in a comedy so we have to act like we're in a comedy.' Too many movies, actors seem to be doing that."

Natasha Lyonne, hair piled high, face filled with fleeting expressions and instants of adolescent terror, is simply remarkable. But, Jenkins says, "When her name was mentioned to me when I was looking all over the place for an actress to play Vivian, I said, oh no, she is totally wrong, based on Everyone Says I Love You. Her performance was really mannered in that movie. Then I met her and her actual human-beingness, I was very interested." Lyonne was game. "She was sick of playing daughters. She's at an age she wants to be a grown-up already. She was 18 when we made the movie, and I told her, look at [Truffaut's] 400 Blows and she became really excited at the power of following someone at a young age which she had discredited as dumb girl stuff. I wanted an adolescent survival story less than a story about mortification." Jenkins says she was following her muse more than any other filmic influence. "There weren't any movies whose tone I was borrowing from. I love Billy Wilder, who plays with tone, movies like The Apartment. A combination of dark and light like that would be something I would aspire to."

Several times in the story, the Abramowitzes move from one apartment to another in the middle of the night. "These tacky apartment houses in Beverly Hills have all these names like 'The Paradise' and 'The Capri' that promise this life of leisure. But they're like California tenements, but with this fake fanciness. Living on the edge of wealth gives you a kind of inferiority complex, which is true of the whole family, especially her father. But I was interested in how much that mirrored the inferiority a 15-year-old girl like Vivian already felt."

The offhandedness of Jenkins' depiction of Vivian's tribulations makes them even more pungent. When her racy cousin Rita joins the clan, Vivian has an older female figure to learn from, even if a slightly deranged and truly loose one. One scene between them is particularly rich, a gleeful dance they share to "We Got The Bump" where Rita and Vivian are tossing a vibrator around; gee, wouldn't it be awful if dad walked in on that? "There was no privacy. Female coming of sexual age is very public, particularly if you have breasts and there is something the world can scrutinize. The world starts treating you differently while you're straddling girlhood and adulthood. You don't have the manual for dealing with it, yet you're walking around with all this hardware."

Jenkins makes extensive use of body doubles for sight gags, and other devices as well. "Natasha has small breasts, so we gave her breasts. The fact that we had to give her breasts was like the prefect experience. She got these prosthetic silicone-y packet things that go under your bra. They move, they're very real. When Natasha got them, she was like, 'These are great! These are so great! I've always wanted these!' I said, look, I don't even know what your thoughts about them are, I want you to go out into the world and function with these. She came back, 'Okay, I get it now.' She had to experience Vivian's adolescence in a day, that very specific thing about being sexualized because of the size of something you had nothing to do with."

01 August 1998

Circling π with Darren Aronofsky

CYBERPUNK LIVES AND THRIVES IN DARREN ARONOFSKY'S π, a relentless, pulsating paranoid thriller about chaos, Kabbalah, Wall Street and the elegance of numbers. The 28-year-old American Film Institute graduate, who won the director's award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, found his $60,000 high-contrast black-and-white film the subject of a bidding war, and it went to Artisan Entertainment for over a million dollars. the self-avowed "science fiction guy" says the movies in his head are of far greater scale than the usual indiefilm "vision." Aronofsky has burst boldly from the indie scene with a $600,000 pay-or-play deal through Miramax's Dimension films to direct Proteus," a big-budget historical sci-fi thriller that takes place on an American submarine during World War II. (He and his co-writer got $300,000 up front against a $600,000 back-end price for their screenplay as well.) Another deal has been announced for Aronofsky to adapt Frank Miller's DC samurai comic Ronin for New Line either before or after Proteus; that writing-directing deal could go as high as $1.3 million. A big leap for a director who cut his entire crew in for substantial shares of the producers' profits--in the once-unlikely case there would ever be any.

Entering his Chicago hotel room, I find the hyper Aronofsky bent over his brand new Mac G3 laptop, perusing the intricate website for the film (www.pithemovie.com) designed by its star, Sean Gullette. The website contains selections drawn from Aronofsky's effervescent shooting diary, including the rules he abided by for his production draft of the script.

In π Max Cohen (Gullette) is about to have a breakthrough and a breakdown, as ten years of work seem about to reveal a numerical pattern running under the stock markets, the ultimate system of ordered chaos. While there's a Wall Street firm ready to kill for their formula, so is a Kabbalah sect who believes that Max's work will unlock their ancient holy texts and bring on the end of the world.

Before telling his crew they'd get potentially worthless points, how did motivate them, how did he explain this story? "It's about God, math and bad-ass Jews," he says, laughing. "My twenty-four words or less when I had to use that was it's a sci-fi thriller about a renegade mathematician searching for numerical order in the New York Stock Exchange. I didn't mention anything about the Kabbalah. Now I might say it's a ninety-minute roller coaster ride about the meaning of life. It is hard to describe."

While there are resemblances to earlier movies such as Welles' The Trial, Aronofsky is more likely to cite Frank Miller's graphic novels and the writing of Philip K. Dick and Rod Serling. "Story-story-story" is at the core of movies that he likes. "The bottom line is that 'π' is a thriller, a chase movie. That's why I don't like comparisons to 'Eraserhead.' They look similar, maybe, but Lynch's film is totally expressionistic and doesn't have a narrative. I'm a total narrative junkie. That's what I aspire to—well-made stories. Stories that actually move. I want my 90 minutes of distraction, I want my 90 minutes of taking a roller coaster ride. That was the core. π had to have a thriller before I could add any of the esoteric material."

I wondered what Miramax's Bob Weinstein and New Line's Michael DeLuca had responded to in π. "I think it's a better question to ask Bob Weinstein, what they saw in the film was, at least what they told me, they liked the way that I was able to bring together all the different elements of filmmaking, from sound, to editing, cinematography, and tie it all into a cohesive piece of work. For me, filmmaking is a full sensory experience so every single element I try and tie into the narrative. When you come up with an idea, you talk to your friends about it, They say, 'I just read something about that,' then you go, 'Oh!' and check that out. That's how it happens. It's all about communication. All the ideas are out there. There are no original ideas, there are only original ways of dealing with story."

While exploiting mathematical history, Aronofsky says that "ultimately it's not a math movie. The math [in our story] is the cool math. This is a mad scientist story, a retelling of the Frankenstein myth for the digital age. Instead of the monster, we have Euclid, Max's supercomputer." Aronofsky is keen to admit he draws inspiration from any source he can. "For me, writing is a jigsaw puzzle. I take things I think are cool or experiences that are very interesting, things I've read, I try to shuffle the deck, make my own mixture that becomes my movie out of everything I've experienced."

But it always comes back to story. "Everything has to tie into the essential theme, and if doesn't you need to cut it away. Everything has to have a core of what the film is about, but once you tie in all into a theme, as many different pieces as you can throw in is a good thing." He sees π as "an extremely commercial movie," pointing out the worldwide bestsellers "The Celestine Prophecy" and "Bible Codes," a book about Kabbalah. "I think everyone is interested in themes that are covered in π, and that is the star of our movie, the concepts. Since we crawled out of the primordial soup, we've asked why are we here, what's the meaning of life, is there a god, what is God, who is God, where is God, that is the core and essence of 'π.' I think audiences around the world are going to dig that."

What were the inspirations that go him this far. "Definitely seeing the success of American independent films. That you can just go out and do it. When you get Robert Rodriguez's story, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, you know you can do it. We wanted to make a comic book, paranoid sci-fi film. That was always the goal. The first cyberpunk movie."