08 November 1999

Being Michael Stipe

WHILE HE’S PUBLISHED BOOKS OF HIS PHOTOGRAPHY, MICHAEL STIPE IS BEST KNOWN as the frontman for supergroup R.E.M. For most of the past decade, he’s also quietly gone about a mission of changing the face of American movies. As a producer, he’s put his interests and time behind projects both large and small, such as the remarkably funny documentary on no-budget filmmaking, American Movie. But his biggest splash to date is Being John Malkovich, the surreal, subversive comedy of what goes on in the minds of those who wonder what goes on in the minds of celebrities, written by first-timer Charlie Kaufman and directed by video wonder Spike Jonze.

Being John Malkovich takes big chances, starting with its nutty concept, its casting-against-type (John Cusack as a sniveling puppeteer; Cameron Diaz made ordinary as his unloved wife) and working through to its weird and farcical conclusion. It’s filled with the kind of artistry that doesn’t come from formula. We talked on a recent Saturday morning in New York, Stipe walking into the room with a freshly made omelet and hash browns.

Playboy.com: So what prompted you to produce?

Michael Stipe: I’ve been working in film for 12 years, which most people don’t know. Probably the only thing that came out with something of a wide release was Velvet Goldmine, the Todd Haynes glam-rock film. But I’ve done six feature films. Most of the stuff I’ve done is really under the radar.

PB: What do you like about film?

MS: Like music, it’s a very powerful medium. I’m drawn to it. I’m a photographer myself, and I have a lot of friends who work in the film business. There was a point in the early Nineties where I’d been working on very, very guerrilla independent films for a couple of years. Then I wanted to go Hollywood! I knew a lot of people who were incredibly frustrated with the material that they were offered as actors or directors or editors or writers or lighting people or what have you. Naively, I thought, Well, I’ll just create another film company that will make movies that don’t suck. It’s just as easy as that.

PB: So, most movies suck?

MS: Yes. I was on vacation in Athens for a week, having just come off tour with my band before I had to come up for this thing, and I really just wanted to just relax and go see movies with my friends. With all the multiplexes in Clarke County, Georgia, out of 35-odd films playing, I couldn’t find one fucking thing worth seeing that I hadn’t already seen, which was about three of them. I thought The Sixth Sense was wonderful.

PB: American Beauty is what everybody’s talking about.

MS: That was my movie! Seriously, I wanted that script. I thought it was great. We wanted to make it, but we were outbid.

PB: So Being John Malkovich counts as going Hollywood?

MS: This is it. This is my Hollywood. How d’ya like it? This is it.

PB: Did you know Malkovich before?

MS: We met after this project. Actually, we spoke on the phone years ago. I walked into my house after a fact-finding mission to South America and the phone rang. I picked it up, it was John Malkovich. I was asking him to this charitable, human rights thing, which he declined. But we met through this project. I don’t call that a relationship — a refusing phone call! But it was my brush with the greatness that is Malkovich.

PB: Was it always John Malkovich?

MS: Yeah. The short list of alternatives was really dire. And [screenwriter] Charlie [Kaufman] can’t answer, “Why John Malkovich?” For whatever reason, he always just shrugs his shoulders. There is really no one else who could have pulled it off.

PB: Did you ever consider a backup celebrity if Malkovich wouldn’t do it?

MS: No. There’s nobody else who really could have filled that. It was original enough of an idea that we could have tried to insert someone else, but I don’t think it would have worked.

PB: Why?

MS: Y’know, I can’t say. And honestly, believe me, we had a short list of “What if Malkovich is horribly offended and wants to sue us?” and “What if he says this is a crock of shit and I want nothing to do with it?” Who else could do it?

PB: There’s a rumor that Steve Buscemi’s name came up.

MS: Buscemi would be okaaaaay. But there’s something about Malkovich that’s more than his public persona. Which he so brilliantly sends up, and that takes, I’m sorry, that’s a lot of balls to really send yourself up like that.

PB: The obvious dumb question is, What would someone see with a portal into your brain?

MS: [Laughs] The scene where Lotte and Maxine are being chased through his subconscious [witnessing a dozen childhood humiliations]. It’d probably be not dissimilar to that.

PB: Anyone whose eyes you’d like to see through for 15 minutes?

MS: I don’t feel like I need a portal to see into people’s heads. It’s not that hard.

PB: If you sent yourself up musically, what would it be like?

MS: It would be not unlike some version of this film with the Spice Girls. I would go for the biggest buck. I would probably hire teenagers to lip-synch along and disguise my voice so it’s not Michael Stipe. I would hire beautiful young teenagers and strap them into latex and put them on stage.

PB: The Spice Girls?

MS: [Smiles] I wouldn’t do it. I would key into whatever was the next coming musical thing and do that.

PB: Do you find the movie business or the music business more treacherous?

MS: That’s such an easy answer. Film. Hands down. The music business is a walk in the park, because with MP3 all you need is a tape recorder and a guitar.

PB: Any interest in directing?

MS: No desire at all. I know directors who wake up in the morning and they see movies in their head and it’s their place in life. I’m 39 and pretty much I’ve made my mark in music and I’ve had an interest in film since I was 22 and I’ve been a photographer since I was 15. Those are my three creative outlets.

PB: The scenes when Malkovich goes into his own mind is deeply troubling, and so is the end where Malkovich becomes a conduit for dozens of souls.

MS: Yes, the woman on the piano is terrifying. I thought both scenes were brilliant plot twists and a fine ending for a film. It begs the questions, What are we? Who are we? How separate are we, one from the next? It asks all these questions of gender, questions of identity. I’m just hoping this film puts a few more chinks in the armor that is the studio system. [Originally published at playboy.com.]

01 November 1999

Being Spike Jonze

FAME IS PAIN AND FAME IS CONFUSION.

That's one of the underlying messages of Being John Malkovich, an insane premise for a movie developed with its own dear, cracked illogic. It might be brilliant or a masterpiece; the likes of Esquire magazine have already anointed Spike Jonze's masterful direction of Charlie Kaufman's inspired screenplay with those dangerous encomiums.

Being John Malkovich is a terrific shaggy-celeb fable, developing and elaborating on the rules of its world with uncommon diligence. In contemporary Manhattan, Malkovich plays "himself," a deracinated version of a celebrity of whom everyone on the street can (and will) recite the same handful of sloppy factoids. John Cusack is Craig, a greasy-haired, rotten-hearted puppeteer who wants to crush a world that doesn't appreciate his genius. Cameron Diaz, under a mud-and-stick colored wig, plays Lottie, Craig's animal-clutching, love-starved wife. And, as the lust object of most of the movie's men, the always wonderful Catherine Keener makes hay with her particular beauty (and just a dollop of extra cerise lipstick). One day, Craig makes a discovery behind the filing cabinets of the odd office where he works -- a portal that allows entry into the mind of John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes, you're ejected into a muddy ditch alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. An entrepreneur is born. Who wouldn't want to be someone else for fifteen minutes?

Jonze restrains his rambunctious rock video-trained eye and conceptual swagger to serve Kaufman's script. Rules are established, genders are bent, the idea of becoming "someone else" is more frightening by the moment. It's a different can of existential worms than, say, King of Comedy, wherein Jerry Lewis' talk show host reflected his own notorious prickliness as well as Johnny Carson's cool reserve. Malkovich is playing an idea more of celebrity, of elevated existence, than any reflection of whatever may go on in his head. Try not to hear too much before seeing the movie: I'll just mention that when Malkovich attempts to take the trip into his own head, he disguises himself as a tourist, with an I Love N.Y. cap pulled down over his expansive brow.

Jonze, 30—born Adam Singer—is widely admired for his video and commercials work, but he's not known for long moments of introspection. (He make his big-screen acting debut this fall as well, in David O. Russell's Three Kings.) While Kaufman's script had made the rounds for almost five years, Malkovich committed to the film after Jonze visited him at his home in France. "We didn't have to pitch it or anything. He read the script and he liked it for the same reasons we all liked it. It's funny, it's original. Y'know, complex character and relationships. He just had to figure out if it was something he really wanted to do or not. There wasn't anything we could say or do, he just had to say yes or no."

The film is as twisty as anything out there, and it's not a one-joke twist, like certain surprise endings that have made a mint this year, or the "discovery" in The Truman Show. Jonze hopes there are a few surprises for audiences after the first weekend. "I love watching movies where you don't know too much about it."

For someone whose work hadn't demonstrated knowing too much about directing actors, there's a consistency of tone that impresses. Probably the greatest challenge was how to direct someone playing a version of themselves. "Yeah, yeah," Jonze agrees. "It's like, 'John, you're not getting the character right. Malkovich would do this.' All the scenes with Malk where he was playing Malkovich, we talked about him as a character. So, John, this Malkovich thinks of himself as a lover and a ladies' man.' He'd just laugh and say, 'Okay.' He read the script so he knew what was up."

So the movie went according to plan? "I dunno," he says, pausing again. "Overall I wanted things to be played like Charlie's writing, you can enjoy on a lot of different levels, the comedy, these really interesting ideas, these characters and these relationships. Playing those as our priority in terms of the acting, the art direction, the music, the wardrobe, and just play these characters, these people. All the other things, the ideas would be that much more interesting and the humor would be that much more fun."

Did he miss all the toys from his other work? "Um. No. I think there are certain scenes that required more complicated camera stuff. For the most part, we only had a certain amount of time to shoot the movie, and we had to make sure everything you were going to spend your time and money you really wanted and needed."

Jonze thinks for a long time when he's asked if his first feature held any surprises. "I dunno. It turned out basically... um. Everything changes in preproduction, casting, the script, all these little things keep developing, yet it turned out overall the way I wanted. It's the small stuff that changes."

[Newcity, Chicago, 1 November 1999]

22 October 1999

Kidney Stoning

We all have different ways of demonstrating tenderness or affection. "If you want to live, call 911," that's what Jude, the alluring black widow antagonist of "Kiss Me, Judas"" leaves in a note for hardluck ex-cop Phineas Poe. That's right after getting him drunk, fucking him madly, drugging him, then stealing one of his kidneys. And wouldn't you know, this all-too-modern girl has an even softer spot for Poe once he hunts her down. Will Christopher Baer's elegantly-plotted debut novel is being sold as a Raymond Chandler-like thriller, but his language ranges from the carborundum precision of Hammett to the phrases of fancy of any number of good poets. A stale sickness hangs over the neediness of these characters yet we know these colorful post-Hiassen freakazoids: Baer makes them as real as your saddest friend.

The velocity of 32-year-old native Tennessean's tale winds up in some feverish wonderland akin to the family home of the killers in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but Baer cuts a wonderful pattern on the twisty path toward his slow fade out. Staggering through a snowy Denver, his guts held inside by a few artfully slapped-up staples, Poe muses on love and longing and his own sad life. "A part of me still sleeps beside her," he thinks, "twitching and bloody in a cooler meant for soft drinks." Poe is a romantic and a pragmatic; he wants back that piece of himself and a few more pieces of Jude. "She's taking my kidney to Las Vegas. She's going to trade it to the devil for a record contract. I will find her. I will come to her dressing room with champagne and chocolates and I will kill her." Or will he? Love is murder meant for two. Showy without ever growing truly showoffy, Baer's stylish prose lacks for neither wit nor precision, and is often explosively funny. I read "Kiss Me, Judas" with a flush, anxious to finish, ready to start reading all over again.

Kiss Me, Judas
Will Christopher Baer
Viking, $21.95
222 pages


[Newcity, 22 October 1998]

19 September 1999

Best of Chicago 1999

Best Punk Rock Ghosts
Fusion 660
Not all of us recall the glory days of Chicago punk, having stand-up sex in the O’Banion’s women’s room in ankle-deep water, but those of us who do have always have a double-take or two in mind in the various culinary incarnations of the former pogo chateau. Whether serving indifferent flautas, Chinese under the name Won Ton club or the current incarnation, the memories reaming fragrant in the deep, oblong space.

Best caffeine buzz
Mexican soda at Jinx
1940 W. Division
The double latte's not bad. The American coffee is strong, hot and there for the asking. And while products from south of the border are available at many groceries throughout the land, Jinx specializes in the sugary, super-caffeinated stuff that marched its way north into your own clouds of buzziness. No fountain drinks for you, bud. Tank down a couple of these Latin Coca-Colas and climb atop a sweet sugary cloud of buzz.

Best architecture in Goose Island
Republic Doors and Windows
Geese flock to Goose Island, waddling and WONKing at each other. drawn by the river and the Water Management site. They tramp along the green triangles of grass. Corporate HQ new-builds and dullard warehousing, some dowdy and one fantastic. The old brick that still stand. Ugly, pre-fab metal and board. Industrial suppliers and wholesale grocers. But tucked back on Hickory Avenue, Republic Windows and Door factory and offices. Hiss of traffic. Staggering of aluminum, the height, it's like designed by ---, surrounded by pale pink tea-rose bushes. Glorified corrugated overhead doors, died and gone to heaven, reincarnated as Vancouver International Airport. Surrounded by its maroon semi-trailers for dispersing their product. Seen from the west, the front porch eaving upward like a ski ramp that shoots toward Sears Tower in view ahead. (A trajectory that is likely not unintentional.) The front roof, five slats across with no roofing. The front entrance, building-height clerestory windows. Bold black steel letters with the company name, clean like the building. A breath of fresh air. The flowers leading up to it, gaudy magenta petunias and egg-yolk marigolds are almost a tacky afterthought. Blue spanses of glass, the metal panels. Simple, direct, unneedful of ornament. lines as clean as a new Beetle or an Air Canada terminal.

Best hidden night-life corridor
Chicago Avenue from Green Street, north along Elston, west along Division on a Friday or Saturday night
Every possible pole and tree is stapled full of posters for this week's DJ spins, albums being released, concerts coming up. Move past the Performing Arts school—black-sooted yellow caution horses are up to prevent anyone from parking in front of the rapture-illumined facade of the cathedral, generously soiled surface. The empty bike paths this time of night are illusory—smells of the river, of new construction's lumber fill the air. A hint of grease past the Yellow Cab garage. The sound of repair in the shop all night long. Approaching Division, cars and cars and vans are lined up toward Life's Too Short. "Don't Drink and Boat!" warn signs but say nothing about the rave-head teens out of ratty vans or borrowed daddy vans clustering on the verges of the road, chatting, smoking, waiting for cops to roust them. Pass under the expressway west on Division. Salsa pours out of cars around you. Traffic swims erratically, haphazardly in both directions. Past the Amoco and Shell lit for mothership landings where human-scale architecture once stood. Past Ashland then, past the yupsters hubbubbing outside Mas, then the line in front of Liquid Kitty. Who are these people? Why are they wearing those clothes? Do they like this music? Do they know about the club a mile back on our journey? And where do I get the cell phone plan they've got. Then further west—all is quiet as a suburb. For a few blocks, at least.

Best hotel view
Four Seasons by land, Ritz Carlton by sea
it depends on what you want to see—water or land. Avail yourselves of a room on the higher floors of either and see friends and enemies alike vanquished to blurs smaller than ants, the prairie of residential architecture stretching west to the sky, or

Best meat cloud
Ashland and Division
It's olfactory mayhem: the smell of the singe of beef, a tsunami of Argentine churrusqueria, the inside of your nostrils rubbed shiny with a cloud-like chamois. A place well-known to those returning from United Center after a ball game or the Stadium after a hockey game, with always-clamoring lines. With the three storefronts belching Pasadita's sensory-demonstrative verve, the cookie cutter Pizza Hut and Wendy's nearby are just apostrophes in a sentence of meat.

Best night-life corridor (Randolph)
On any night late in the week, an aerial view of the broad esplanade of Randolph Street's reupholstered market mile stretch will reveal the antlike crawl of restaurant row traffic, gathering and disgorging clusters of the peckish and moneyed. There is the dance of car hikes and taxis and speed-walking pedestrians along the stretch just west of the Kennedy Expressway. Even when the faces aren't pretty, most of the clothes are. A local magazine with a prodigious inferiority complex Second-Citied this ever-bustling stretch of eat-and-be-seen real estate as "The future SoHo of Chicago." But why settle for that belittling metaphor when there's so much more to eat so close to home? It began with the likes of Marche, Vivo and Red Light, yet it remains Chicago’s great white way.

20 August 1999

Angels' Flights

Any time of day, the sky is filled with souls, shot from city to city thanks to advanced avionics and the endless human capacity for denial. Aloft, there is always the potential for sudden, violent death.

Or is there? In the introduction to "The Black Box,” author Malcolm MacPherson points out that the number of aviation accidents has plummeted since the early 1960s. In 1996, the 394 aviation-related deaths in the United States barely compared to almost 42,000 people killed in automobile accidents. In 1993, only one person died in an aviation-related incident in the United States—a man struck by a propeller blade on the ground.

It’s amusing, then, that these reassurances precede transcripts of the final moments of twenty-eight in-flight accidents. Between the road-hazard orange paperback covers of “The Black Box,” mundane dialogues between co-workers make for compelling reading. Among the higher profile air disasters in MacPherson’s book, there’s the final cockpit commentary from the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades and the 1994 American Eagle flight that iced up after leaving O'Hare and crashed into an Indiana soybean field, killing sixty-four.

]I was perverse enough to take the book on a cross-country flight. Maybe I would rediscover a fear of airplanes. Or perhaps I could provoke someone with the simple obscenity, the talismanic rudeness of reading the book while flying.
There is an airline that allows you to listen in to the cockpit conversation, at least until there is commotion in the air, when the channel usually cuts out abruptly. You ride the turbulence that follows inside a cloud of their radio silence.
MacPherson does not cut away. Indeed, most of the transcripts begin after the first instant of potential disaster. The first few are outright horror shows, with MacPherson's commentary concluding with variations on "All aboard were lost," lending a timeless maritime feel to the tragedies.

It’s time to order a glass of the rotten in-flight wine. The cabin crews complain about warm drinks and bad food. They talk about wives and bad bosses, just another day on the job until, say, a goose is sucked into one of the engines.
A captain whose plane eventually crashed into the side of a Colombian mountain complains of cockpit fatigue: "Yeah, a friend of mine... uh, he used to fly that Sao Paulo [route] all of that time—you're fuckin' killing yourself doin' that shit. You really need that extra couple hundred bucks a month or whatever when it comes to retirement?" Their fatigue leads to a series of small missteps, no single one of which would have led to disaster, but together led to a loss of what NTSB investigators might call "situational awareness."

Six or seven miles below me, the crosshatch of crops gives way to desert, to timeless tectonic guttering, the chasms into which one could hurtle, through curtains of flame, falling below and beyond. My heart races a touch at the thought. The plane shudders forward through a pocket of choppy air. A few gasps issue through the cabin, followed antiseptic, industrial calm.

The sun sets. I read more transcripts. A simple line: "CABIN: [Screams]." I read faster, skimming past moments of confusion, unequivocal declarations of "Shit!" and "Goddammit!" and "We're goin' in, we're goin' down."

The most painfully ironic moment comes from a flight in which a co-pilot leaves a personal message just before a fiery crash: "Amy, I love you." The man survived despite burns over eighty percent of his body. MacPherson does not annotate the message.

The authenticity of the terror would work in no other medium. In fact, the documentary banality is part of the book's power, even in a chair bolted to terra firma. There is also the expectation that mayhem of an apocalyptic fervor will conclude each portentous passage.

Yet MacPherson has the good taste to end with a remarkable twenty-two page chronicle of a veteran, 58-year-old DC-10 pilot working through a forty-one minute nightmare, drawing on years of experience, the ability to stay calm, even a folksy sense of humor. His efforts saved the lives of most of his passengers after an engine explosion disabled all steering mechanisms. While an exception among the terrors documented in "The Black Box," this triumph of professionalism is, statistics show, the norm in the air.

Maybe that’s why in the two hours that it took me to zoom through "The Black Box," no one noted my choice of reading material. Everyone remained cocooned in the particulars of their destinations, responsibilities, fears.

The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-flight Accidents
Malcolm MacPherson
Quill, 190 pages, $15


[Newcity, 20 August 1999]

28 June 1999

Reviewing "Sleepwalk"

Pick up an issue of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve comics and the first impression may seem of a bleak, pinched, even morose world. Yet you can't look away. The 23-year-old Tomine's panels are immaculate, and instantly recognizable as his own. "Sleepwalk" collects the sixteen stories from the first four issues of Optic Nerve published by Drawn and Quarterly between hardcovers. An earlier collection, "32 Stories" drew from Tomine's earlier work, dating back to 1991. He hadn't refined his style, his deft pen-and-ink figures, faces, haircuts and headgear. And his stories hadn't yet attained their lapidary, contemplative quality. Tomine works with the deft, terse strokes of a short story writer, examining a small idea or a simple notion to its logical, and usually poetic conclusion, yet he has a cinematic knack for finding the proper composition, the telling angle to capture these pensive instants. Yet his medium of choice surpasses the movies: no one would let you tell these modest, eloquent tales on celluloid. Your heart skips along with those of his characters. A chance meeting between ex-lovers on a man's birthday--no, she doesn't want to hear that he still loves her--is succeeded by a dumb, completely undramatic car crash: broken boy, broken car, abandoned under streetlight. A couple peeping into a neighbor's apartment suddenly discover a fear of the city, bringing them together: the story then reveals a cityscape of windows, some lit, some not, all unpeopled. An old woman makes her lunch, goes out to the street and eats her baggied sandwich in her 1950s car where she revisits her life as a younger woman in that car, but not alone. The friendship between a blind man and a supermarket clerk ends with a dazzling shift in perspective. This kind of fluent, restrained work surpasses most of the contemporary fiction I read. I know Optic Nerve only comes out quarterly, but I can't help but look in vain for a fresh issue whenever I'm near a comics rack. Between hardcovers, Tomine's work could discover a broader audience, outside of those racks and on better coffee tables and nightstands everywhere.

"Sleepwalk and Other Stories"
by Adrian Tomine
Drawn and Quarterly, $29.95
102 pages

15 May 1999

Artless at work

THE WOMAN IS STARING INTO SPACE. A notebook lies open beside a mug of coffee. Her hand lies flat across a book, as if she were blind and it were Braille. Across the room, a goatee wearing a nervous man pinwheels a pencil at eye level, diverting attention from the mound of medical books bunkering him down. There is the discordant music of fast, brutal typing: if the laptop woman is composing a love note, she will swallow her lover whole. I have discovered all this while staring into space, my comp book open beside a mug of coffee, a book on my table.

We are writing.

Novelist and essayist Michael Ventura tells young writers about commanding "the talent of the room." "Unless you have that," he writes, "Your other talents are worthless. Writing is something you do alone in a room."

But what exactly are all these people doing? Reports, makework, mastering computer Solitaire? Ventura's room can be anywhere: "If you’re the young Ernest Hemingway, your room is a café table;" he continues. "If you’re Emily Dickinson, your room is your garden; if you’re Marcel Proust, you write in bed; if you’re William Faulkner, you compose 'As I Lay Dying' in six weeks in a humid shack while you work days in a factory... but whoever you are, whatever shape it takes, that room is the center of your life and it’s very crowded. Everything you are and everything you’re not backs you up against the wall and stares at you. You stare back. And eventually you get some writing done."

I read these words aloud as I sit in a tavern, talking to a painter. It is near midnight and we are in a crowd. He stands, moves his hands, creates scenes with words, then wipes them away; I sit on a stool, back against the formica bar. We swap the good, all-too-colorful stories about the prodigious quantities of drink and gossip and fisticuffs that Manhattan's abstract expressionists who lingered in the 1950s-era Cedar Tavern are legend. The room is filled with conversation, but this is the kind we will wind up having. But we are not nostalgic for a time in which neither of us lived, yet we wonder for a moment about the friends and acquaintances who surround us. We wonder, too, about the writing and the painting that gets done before a line is drawn or a sentence drawn out. Sure, there are people around us who are here to drink or flirt or brag about how much they drink or how flirted-out they are or how work has worn them down. Most of these familiars, our communicants, have done a lot of work, whether they are musicians or cinematographers or record label owners or architects or artists or the opposite sex, seeking any of the above. Faces bear flickers of contentment, nothing morbid in the mood of the room.

But is the work really put away for the day? Or are thoughts racing behind the stares-into-space? What is being examined in the middle distance? A melody; paint that no longer requires more paint; a few good sentences. These lustrous designs surface and recede amid the mash of bodies, the play of smile or glare, the faces, alert, searching, content to be out of the writing room or studio. After being alone with one's words, oneself, all the livelong day, this indoors is expansive as all outdoors.

Then, after shucking the creative trance, what is this need to observe, to take in this murmur? To be among others instead of sinking into television? Strangers to a place like this tend to sniff at those assembled. (That is the job of being a stranger: to find things strange.) In "Bohemia," a book about his travels through San Francisco and New York from the 1950s onward, Herbert Gold writes, "Pernicious and premature nostalgia was one of the felonies of the Bohemian life; nameless longing merely a misdemeanor, punishable by being forced to linger at cafe tables, gazing at representatives of whatever dream of fulfillment passed by. The passersby were probably committing the same error, only with different fulfillments in mind."

This is a pretty picture of students, want-to-bes, dreamers, none yet prepared to crack the nut of life. (They will be haute-bourgeois little worker-bees soon enough.) But by those I know, in their thirties, in their forties, work is being done. And part of the work is contemplation, gestation. The lingering is a vastly underestimated component of it. Serendipity is being taken on all around us like crates of precious spices that Hannibal would have caravanned over the Alps. Rilke wrote in 1899, from his "Diaries of a Young Poet": "For the solitary person there are no chance occurrences... With each meeting chance begins. It exists where two or three are together in its name, and its power increases with the number of those assembled."

The beer or the cigarette, the coffee or the greasy breakfast, these are motions repeated while the subconscious churns, seeking the epiphany that only seems unbidden, a gift, instead of a product of all the hours of the days of our lives, diamonds that twinkle in the coal fields of the imagination. We look outwards, into ourselves, until a friendly face looms up or the red-and-black pattern of the floor tile makes our eyes cross. Camel Lights are bummed, Leinenkugel is lavished, these are the ways of our life. This is the project of no apparent project, awaiting an insight like—oh!—a shiny dime on a sidewalk.

You can plow thoughtlessly through the familiar food served by accustomed faces, let the lizard brain negotiate the chores of sustenance, leave the mind free for the unexpected daydream, the unwarranted thought. What's the line from James Salter's "A Sport and a Pastime"? "A flash of calf and I am tumbled into unbearable love"? You look up from your cup, the waitress turns kitchenward, her ankle blooms with daisy. I do not know her name, only this tattoo and smiles of hello or good-bye. This is a demonstrative solitude. Even silent and shy and swathed in shadow in barroom darkness, this, too, is sociability, the contact buzz of other human existence. I will write about you: but that is another story.

In David Mamet's essay, "Writing in Restaurants," which has very little to do with writing in restaurants, he asserts, "When we demand a rational and immediately practical translation of rituals, we deny their unconscious purpose and power; we, in effect, reject our own power to solve problems—to deal with the abstract. So doing, we are forced to ignore those problems incapable of immediate, rational solutions. As these are the problems most important in our life, by denying their existence we create deep personal and communal anxiety."

The poet and novelist Jay Parini is less the philosopher on the subject. In "Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics," he says: "Surrounded by people you don't necessarily have to interact with, you feel free to concentrate. Once I'm involved in the tactile process of writing—the pleasurable transference of emotions and ideas into language—I find that I don't really have to worry about concentration."

Writing, we must always remember, is labor. It is not a romance, it is not some idyllic subsistence. In his agile, glib Greenwich Village memoir, "Kafka Was The Rage," the late New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard recalled, "Half the young men in the village were writing notes. They wrote them in cafés, in the park, even on the street. You'd see them stop and pull out their pads or notebooks to get down something that had just struck them—the color of the sky, the bend of a street, an incongruity. These notes were postcards to literature that we never mailed." Harrumph. A passage that demonstrates just how easy it is to cross the line between being Walter Benjamin's "attentive flâneur" to becoming a self-regarding boob. And it is a dangerous impulse to covet the lives of people already dead instead of deciphering one's own, craving a colorful life of "high abstraction" that would warrant a chapter that opens with the sentence, "One night in the San Remo Bar Delmore Schwartz invited me to sit in a booth with him." I pass time in a world of week-old cold pizza and dollar-fifty beers.

I'm more partial to Bertolt Brecht's "Of Poor B.B.," as translated by Michael Hamburger:

In the asphalt city, I'm at home. From the very start
Provided with every unction and sacrament.
With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy.
To the end, mistrustful, lazy and content
.

Another day passes. Two hours outlining an essay, typing up some hasty scrawl for a story I must finish tomorrow. Then strange coffee and the New York Times in the lunchroom down the street. There is no fever, yet somehow there is focus. Weaving between the murmur of words and the working of the kitchen comes rain on the roof. A thought arrives, an observation, for another motley piece. I scrawl it hastily. The rain breaks, and I walk home to finish reading a book, and decide I should bat out a fast, short review. When everything hums and works well, there is commonly a jangle, a nervousness that follows and all that can fix it is more of the same. I settle into the specific stink of a particular bar in a pool of book-friendly light and take another plunge into the sea of words. I plan to be alone, not lonely, in the crowd. (Writing is a kind of companionship with yourself.)

A friend says hello after weeks away. A stranger, on first glance, dazzles me with a smile, then on second glance, annoys me. A cell-phone wielding baseball cap is parked in a knot of pals, reporting their slumming whereabouts to another cell phone somewhere in the crackling night. I put my book down to ask how another friend's screenplay is coming. Now the conversations come fast and furious. Patterns are readily decipherable, anecdotes mesh with history and gossip becomes the fuel of friendships, further stories to be built. The architect is flying first thing in the morning to check on a project in Moscow, a filmmaker wants to tell me the latest barrier thrown up in the path of his unreleased movie. Everyone works. Everyone has stories to share.

The play of all these distractions is a heightened form of the tumult of the subconscious, that which allows you, when the time is right, each day, every day, to squeeze out the necessary word-count, pages, to embroider hard-won perceptions. To challenge one color with another, shifting what you thought the first color had been. A warm-bodied analogue to the primordial soup of the next page waiting to be written, the inchoate painting. These are your friends, this is your life, but this is what it is as well.

Night grows deeper still, the day is ended, work pushed aside at least until the next, familiar itch to reach for the UniBall Micro that must be instantly gratified. The deeper thoughts, of love and God and death and the many ways of postponing the contemplation of death or deadlines will wait. These thoughts, and words, unbidden, unformed, will accumulate once more, awaiting the next day, later. For now, the sped-up cartoon of commerce and social intercourse before our eyes in the saloon or coffee shop, the always-hypnotic play of unchoreographed, serendipitous communion. No one person created this. If art reflects one person's vision, then this room is not a work of art. But it is a metaphor. It represents the pages that await peopling, the blank of the next day's work to come that all this sweet-faced fracas defies. A day nearer the grave, a few moments closer to the opening of the next paragraph.

[Published in a slightly different form in Newcity, 15 May 1998]

27 April 1999

Kiss or Kill (1998)

THE OUTLAW COUPLE GENRE, a subset of the road movie, is endlessly open to variations, limited only by how well you keep your eyes on the road ahead. It's also open to endless retreads, so many Bonnies, so many Clydes, so little inspiration. Bill Bennett's conspicuously charming Kiss or Kill is pretty much a delight from start to finish, working with Frances O'Connor and Matt Day, two fresh-faced actors seen earlier this year in Love And Other Catastrophes. Bennett had been bedeviled for over a decade by its story of two lovers on the run who can't trust each other. While Bennett helmed the ill-fated Sandra Bullock-Denis Leary vehicle, Two If By Sea, his two-decade career allows him to blossom in the looser form of Kiss. There's an offhand panache that leavens even some pretty dark moments. Petty crimes lead to larger deceptions, and soon a pile of bodies are left in their wake. Witty, farcical and uncommonly smart, Bennett's semi-improvised caper is a sweet piece of malice. Nikki and Al are a pair of grifters who latch onto libidinous businessmen in hotel bars, whereupon Nikki chats them up and together, after she's drugged them, they shake them down. One such scam goes awry and they're soon bolting across the Australian desert, encountering one delicious minor character after another. While the film has movie-movie production design, the camerawork is as jumpy as the impulsive, hair-trigger outlaw couple on the run. The hand-held shots, jump-cutting and a general sense of unease and enigmatic portent draw us inexorably into Nikki and Al's twisted, often hilarious, world. Charm is part of any con and the greatest part of this smooth anecdote. It's amazing nowadays when you can grin through the darkest complications of a plot-or when you even care to.

[Newcity, 27 April 1998]

22 April 1999

Herpetology complex

In Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedy, “The Lady Eve,” explorer and herpetologist Henry Fonda exclaims, “Snakes are my life!” To which card sharp and all-round siren Barbara Stanwyck exclaims, “What a life!” That joke is so much more polite—and funnier—than the clichés about the farther reaches of the American South. Toward what group is contempt most permissible in common culture? Poor, ill-educated, white Southerners. “Poor white trash.” (Even poor white trash use the phrase.) White or black, poor or rich, all feel free to badmouth the “redneck.” Think of the reaction, then, that many might have to the content of Scott W. Schwartz’s remarkable little book, “Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers.” David L. Kimbrough’s 1995 “Taking up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky” is a more detailed study of the same subject, drawn from years of participation and observation. Yet there’s a valuable immediacy to Schwartz’s slim volume, studded with privileged pictures. The photos are not technically admirable, but the content startles and transfixes, against the plain white cinder block walls of a rural church, say, the True Tabernacle of Jesus Christ in Middlesboro, Kentucky, or the Church of the True Jesus Christ in Ross Point, Kentucky. A square-headed, burr-topped, fireman-mustachioed man, eyes cloud, testifies into a hand mike. Another man: Plaid-shirted, mouth slack in shout, wild-eyed as the diamond patterns of a sizable serpent coil against his patterns. Another: chubby, bare feet astride a dishtub of water for ceremonial washing. All gestures of supplication or abandon, reminding us that one may not discount or dismiss the rapture of others. Schwartz works to explain how it’s physiologically possible to walk on coals, get snakebit, talk in tongues, sing praises, draw adrenalized highs and remain alive, attain holiness. “Anyone who handles poisonous snakes is crazy,” Schwartz’s colleagues tell him with contempt. “The wrath of God is what you have to fear if you’re not a believer,” one John Brown, Sr., allows. The thunder of sermons and the vibration of gospel song ask, “Death where is thy sting?” And there is none, even when a snake takes one of their own. There is only faith, humility and the hope of redemption.

Faith, Serpents and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers
by Scott W. Schwartz
University Press of Mississippi, $25, 94 pages

25 February 1999

Withnail & Penman & Robinson & I

"The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman" is one of the best reads in an age, a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged fart writing about himself as a just-turned-teenager discovering booze, cigarettes, girls, and his grandfather's pornography collection. This is the book that some seem to be talking about when they invoke "Confederacy of Dunces"—funny, elegant and utterly stenchy, squelchy and full of the glories of shambolic, virulent, crapulent, blessed invective. Heaps of it. It's to be expected, but also to be congratulated. What other film aspires to the condition of literature or dankest self-loathing as Robinson's 1985 exemplar "Withnail and I"? In that damp, outrageously ribald film, Richard E. Grant as Withnail, embodies all the soddenness of post-collegiate pretension and dipsomania. "You're full of gin, you silly tool" is a common enough cry, and then there's the plaint upon consciousness of the first rounding thrum of hangover: "I feel like a pig shat in my head... I've gone blind, my bladder's exploding, I've got to have a slash." Propitiously, Robinson's portrait of a bollocksed boyhood (from the poxy adolescent's perspective) in 1950s England has the same furious cleverness, mounted in gorgeously cadenced descriptions that could leave you pissing your pants like clockwork with small-bladdered glee. Thomas is 13; mum and dad hate each other, but silently and with vicious actions; grandfather is Thomas' favorite, for the plate in his head and his collection of quaint pornography, which runs to photos of himself, prodigiously tooled, alongside a bog-bottomed woman encompassing an unlucky duck. Thomas falls in love, shits in the hats of his enemies in the coatroom at school, gets called out for the vainglorious wanker he is. Some might invoke "Catcher in the Rye," but Thomas isn't the precious little snot Holden Caulfield remains; closer kin is J.P. Donleavy's profane "Ginger Man," and many passages of "Thomas Penman" hew to the mad set-pieces of that masterpiece, much like Donleavy’s kitchen-destroying "goat dance." Robinson has the proper indecency to waver from first sex to further embarrassment, describing "tingling like sherbet" and how Thomas can "smell the hot earth, bluebells and her hair," then naturally passing on that he "could feel her racing heart and, as he began to fuck her, something cold going up his arse. Was it her? It wasn't. It was a dog, a fucking Corgi, sniffing and licking his bottom. He had paws on Thomas' back, and was trying to mount him." This is farce with spark, and prose with bite. It doesn't get any more exaggerated or true than this.

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman
by Bruce Robinson
Overlook, $24.95
278 pages


[Newcity, 25 February 1999]