21 December 2000

See the sea

The uncharted desert isle called elegance and simplicity

To attain the sublime, sometimes you must tempt the ridiculous, a thought that may occur when you are watching a movie where Tom Hanks' best friend is a volleyball named Wilson.

"Cast Away" is not ridiculous. Indeed, it often tempts greatness. Hanks may offer the year's best performance in Robert Zemeckis' haunting, masterfully restrained, breathtakingly refined story of the road not taken. "We are not promised tomorrow," the Bible reminds us, and "The journey is more meaningful than the destination" is the wisdom of another culture. Zemeckis and company manage to simply, lyrically meditate on those notions for more than two hours, and never once bang us over the head with a banal observation. This is a simplicity and elegance that tempts platitude and commonplace, but in the film's final twenty minutes, simplest emotions take on deepest heart. When a plane bearing FedEx efficiency whiz Chuck Noland, leaving behind his fiancee (Helen Hunt) splashes down in the Pacific, he's stranded on a reef-encircled island, alone, with little more than his wits -- and a few choice FedEx packages that wash up -- to survive. If you make it through this ordeal, the film asks, can you ever be the same again? "Cast Away" ends on perhaps the year's sparest note, yet it is a conclusion of thrilling hope, in which Chuck has learned about journeys and about necessary choices.

Talking to Hanks and Zemeckis, their seriousness about craft is stirring. One of "Cast Away"'s most compelling aspects is its restricted point of view. "Bob is brilliant about that," Hanks says. "He never cuts to the exterior of the plane going through the clouds or something like that. So all it is these people inside this little [compartment] where all of a sudden all hell busts loose."

"I approach everything that I do that way," Zemeckis adds. "I actually have a theory that the really great movies are all told from a singular point of view, and anytime you're watching a movie that ten minutes in you cut to the bad guy's headquarters, you're already in some not-that-great-a-movie. I don't care how big the cast is, when you cut to the bad guys, it's like OK, we see how this movie's going to work. But when I approach a scene, I always have to know, wait a minute, whose point of view is this from? And then everything is about that."

Hanks adds that authenticity was important, too. "We couldn't fall off into a realm of cinematic narrative that wasn't going to adhere to [the idea] that this takes place in a real universe and it happens to a real guy. How does he get off the island, that was a huge question. Does a boatload of Japanese tourists show up out of nowhere, a deus ex machina? Does Elle McPherson come ashore with a Sports Illustrated photographer? Does he go crazy and start talking to himself? We didn't want this to be a kind of thing, that four years go by, and he's learned a lesson about himself, and he becomes Nature Boy when he gets back. Because I got news for you, you've been on that island for four years? You're going to take a shower and you want to go to Pizza Hut as soon as your stomach can digest the food! That was the area where it was tough. We could figure out the logic of how he got there, and we could work on the authenticity of everything that happened to him on the island. But when it came time for him to come back to Memphis, that where it became very complicated."

The only "music" in the island passages of "Cast Away" is orchestrated sound effects, and that is a marvel as well. "If you pay close attention to the sounds of the island, we took out all real production sounds," Zemeckis says, "and the sounds of the surf and the wind as best we could are used to score. When there's tension in a scene, the surf is much more pounding, the waves come in at a quicker rate. When it's a melancholy moment, the surf is softer and the wind is softer, so we use the sound to score, definitely."

Zemeckis, always a master of special effects, has strong ideas about how they should be used. There is a gorgeous, radiant shot of an island disappearing behind a gentle gray curtain of rain. Is that the future of effects? "Yeah," he says. "Not even I can be rolling when something like that happens. But there's an example of something that there's no other way to do a shot like that. It's poetic, and that's what I think special effects should be used for, to be able to just paint an image like that to advance the story."

Simplicity's failure becomes triteness. I wondered how Zemeckis' approach to straightforward storytelling was more intuitive or intellectual. "I think it's a combination of both. I think as I've made more movies, I've been more in tune with my instincts. I'm finding that I can feel them. When I'm instinctually saying, 'This is working,' I don't beat myself up over it like I used to, to make sure. That's an eloquent way of putting what the process was. That was the endless process in the screenplay, which is that balance. That balance between it being too earnest or saccharine and to be truthful, and that was -- beyond shooting in the surf and all of that -- the biggest challenge of the movie. When we got to the preview process, we were pretty far down the road. There wasn't anything that jumped out when the film was finished. There weren't any groans or anything coming from the audience. But that's why I do preview, because sometimes you don't know. Sometimes it's very much a mystery."

[Originally publshed in Newcity, 21 December 2000]

30 November 2000

Greek to me

Communing with the oracle of cinema in Thessaloniki

JETLAG 8AM ON A SUNDAY MORNING, or is it midnight Saturday?

The north of Greece: I am trying to discern Mt. Olympus through lustrous fog over the silvery sea, shimmering like scales on a great fish. I've got PJ Harvey's "Stories from the City, Stories From The Sea" clamped to my ears, a song called "A Place Called Home." I stare at the horizon, city behind me, the Aegean before me, watching a pair of tankers over the duration of a song just discernibly part, move to opposite ends of the world. I had watched five films on the first Saturday of the forty-first International Thessaloniki Film Festival, I'd been on the phone to the states near dawn for an hour, and I craved the narcosis of sun and sea and mute dazzle. I stared, tried not to blink.

My vacation the third year in a row, indulging a grand secret city filled with food, drink, cultural mysteries, and as for the festival, the best of a poetic, alternately sober and delirious kind of cinema. The tossed-off term is "arthouse," and U.S. distributors and exhibitors call it "specialized." I just say it is what I want film to be. Thessaloniki is not a premiere festival, like Sundance or Cannes, or a catch-all like Toronto, but ten days with one and a hundred pockets. Most of the films have played elsewhere, including Chicago's festival. But the combination of films and filmmakers are always a great treat.

Several retrospectives are shown each year, in 2000 including the old man of the Greek cinema, Theo Angelopoulos, and it gave me a chance to revisit a couple of movies he shot in Thessaloniki, the city so many of his stories return to. Jerzy Skolimowski was the president of the festival jury, and getting to see "Deep End" on screen, his 1970 masterpiece of male adolescent dreaminess and erotic rage, would have been a highlight of any festival.

Borders and cultural miscommunication were the subject of many of the films I saw, as if the lowering of frontiers in the European Community had freed both the imaginations and the production capabilities of the filmmakers. David Gordon Green's "George Washington" was a strange jewel out of its American context: its fragrant Southern poetry is so delicate that it was lost in translation to south central Europe, and I had to do a kind of simultaneous translation for a friend from Bucharest. Pawel Pawlikowski's "The Last Resort," a sturdy BBC-made film, shot on digital video, took the festival's three highest prizes, and its tale of a Russian woman and her child stuck in an emigrant encampment in the U.K. -- and made by a Polish-born director -- gained greater cosmopolitan clutter by having its Russian dialogue subtitled only in Italian and Greek. Paddy Considine, excellent as a scary neighbor in "A Room for Romeo Brass," is superb here as an arcade manager who takes the lost pair under his profane wing.

Dino Tsintsadze's deadpan comedy, "Lost Killers," was also filled with cross-cultural commotion in the story of a pair of inept assassins in Mannheim, Germany, one Georgian, the other Croatian, who keep stumbling in their attempts to kill a Russian businessman, eventually soliciting an immense Haitian who is about to sell a kidney and his girlfriend, a tiny Vietnamese prostitute, into their ill-fated schemes. The film takes a while to warm up, but eventually its skewed, drunken universe is as convincing as it is laughable. "Im July," Fatih Akin's hilarious road movie, was perhaps the champion border-crosser, with "Run Lola Run"'s Moritz Bleibtreau as a naif pursuing a mysterious Turkish woman from Hamburg to Istanbul. The story races across southeastern Europe, and it may be the most polished German movie I've seen since Tom Tykwer's masterful bubblegum. (It also has one of the best scenes I've ever seen about someone discovering marijuana: both poetic and hilarious.)

More traditionally German was Christian Petzold's "Die Innere Sicherheit" (The State I Am In), a lovely, severe and haunting story of couple on the run since their terrorist past in the 1970s, with a teenage daughter straining their camouflage. Julia Hummer's performance as the young girl grounds a serious, elliptical story, and the film's look, emulating the brilliant hyperrealism of the photographs and figurative paintings of artist Gerhard Richter, dazzles. Mokoto Shinozaki's "Not Forgotten" was a sentimental favorite, about a quartet of aging Japanese war veterans who still have not reconciled with their treatment after the return from the islands. One of the characters is played by an actor who was one of the children from Ozu's 1932 masterpiece, "I Was Born, But... ," and the spareness of Ozu is present in the film. More importantly, as a protege of Takeshi Kitano, Shinozaki understands a thing or two about bursts of the unexpected, and the ending of the movie is both shocking and grand.

Some of the Best Foreign Film nominees played as well, including a snort-worthy comedy from Croatia about the return of a late dictator's ghost, "Marshal Tito's Spirit"; and the unlikely but lovely light-hearted look at schizophrenia from Iceland, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's "Angels Of The Universe." (Among Fridriksson's other loopy Icelandic gems are the comic culture-clash road movie, "Cold Fever.") A movie that should be wending its way to Sundance and onto U.S. screens is "Songs From the Second Floor," Roy Andersson's Swedish black-comic parable of a world in unending gridlock. Its dry wit that suggests Terry Gilliam, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel having a big laugh over several pitchers of Bunuel's Virgin Martinis.

I miss the white light on the screens there, but even more? I miss the Greek sunlight. Movies are always better as part of a balanced diet.

23 November 2000

GIMME PROVIDENCE: Sympathy for the documentarian

YOU CAN'T ALWAYS SEE WHAT YOU GOT.

Thirty years after its coming—as a kind of bookend to both the optimism of the 1960s and the school of American cinema verite—David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin's 1970 Gimme Shelter has been restored and reissued, both on screen, and, as a Criterion Collection DVD that, among other features, includes five unheard, unseen songs from the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour, audio commentary by Albert Maysles and Zwerin and a high-def digital transfer from the original camera negative.

Gimme Shelter."Gee, whiz. What can be said about this movie? The Stones are on tour, and a free concert in the San Francisco area is shifted to the Altamont Speedway at the last hour; crowds crowd, Hells Angels cause and prevent as much ruckus, a man dies before the camera's lens. The Stones, notably a taciturn Mick Jagger, observe the footage at some point in the future/present. We return to the past/present: figures scurry into the night, across smoky backlit hillsides as if escaping the primitive past. Gimme Shelter is an exemplar of documentary opening its eyes to life, succinctly and tellingly ordered, as the stuff of drama. But it does not tell you what you should think, pronouncing what the material you are regarding means. It's all a matter of letting the mix of music, Jagger charisma and terrible menace speak quietly, yet stereophonically, for itself. Godard called Maysles the best American cameraman, and there are moments in this brilliantly edited masterpiece that take the breath away: an amoral eye, greedy only for a picture of life.

This is rock; this is dread; this is sex and longing; and Gimme Shelter is an exquisite microcosm of ambiguity in an observer's art. I dare you to put half a dozen people in a room and get them to agree on any aspect of Gimme Shelter but its essential excellence. Here are a few words from surviving Maysles brother, Albert. At 73, he has multiple projects in play, including a portrait of contemporary filmmakers for the Independent Film Channel. We talked to him over dinner, then a formal interview the day after the he revisited the picture at the Chicago International Film Festival.

"Did I tell you the story of my experience with Fidel?" the generous, avuncular raconteur begins. Yes, but tell us again. "In 1960, I spent a lot of time with Fidel and with Che, also. I was making a film that ended up being called, 'Yanqui, No.' One day, Fidel mentioned that he was going to the Chinese Embassy for a party, did I want to come along? I said, 'Sure.' So I'm with him at the Chinese Embassy, standing shoulder to shoulder, I don't have my camera because I couldn't just walk in with it on my shoulder, I would need someone to do sound. A messenger comes rushing in, hands a telegram. He opens it. As he's opening it, reading it, knowing that I don't speak or read Spanish, he turns to me, and says, 'Shall I translate it for you.' I say, 'Please do.' Just inches away from me, he tells me, 'The State Department has just broken off relations with Cuba!'"

Maysles smiles. "I have some plans to go back to Cuba. This time, I'll have my little video camera." He holds up his palm to show the camera's scale. "If I'm at the Chinese Embassy, the Romanian embassy, wherever it is, I'll have that little camera ready when he reads the telegram which he'll translate, saying, 'The American State Department has restored relations with Cuba'! I missed the first one because of the movie camera. I'll get the second one because of my video camera!"

As with the myriad details of the Altamont Speedway crowd in Gimme Shelter, Maysles loves discerning details afterward in the miles of footage that video now allows you to burn through. "There are things you noticed at the time, but later, things you didn't think were that important then, are on tape, you can use it." Maysles says video's affordability as a recording medium leaves the documentary maker no excuse not to shoot, and to shoot promiscuously, with today's equipment. "The tape for an hour runs only ten dollars. A little cassette. For a day's shooting, you can carry the tapes in your pocket."

So you can find the authentic moment accidentally? Let God offer you the world? "Y'know, actually, in the case of the documentary filmmaker, God is reality," he says. "Or, as the word that was used most often a couple hundred years ago, Providence. Reality is the great provider of subjects, of events, of drama, of insight. If it's a brief moment that's very telling, you've got it on tape. I joke with my kids, when we have a dinner party, I make a toast to Providence and they roll their eyes. 'Oh, Providence again!'" A pause. A big smile.

This interview was conducted with the invaluable participation of documentarian Amy Cargill. "Gimme Shelter" is available on Criterion DVD.

[Newcity, 23 November 2000]

09 November 2000

SUSHIOLOGY 101

With more raw fish on Division Street, Ray Pride swims with the school

I HAD TO BE PLASTERED and it had to be right after this year's Oscars to wind up drinking gold-flecked sake for last call at Mirai. I had no delusions about my date or our shared laughter, the room was warm and friendly, the staff trim and cool, and the other customers less than the sum of the sweet burn of the pricey pour. Atmosphere was all. I didn't make it back for the fish until Friday the thirteenth of last month, when one of my best friends rang me up and reported he was ready to go out for dinner for the first time since recovering from major brain surgery. Something better than cheeseburgers and some place not too loud, as the accompanying steroid treatments made his anger surge. How about a super-popular Division Street sushi joint at eight on a Friday night? Perfect.

Division Street wears its celebrated tradition of immigrants and emigrants and shifts and changes, literary and literal, on its bookshelves. How many apartments within a mile of Wicker Park have barely-cracked copies of Studs Terkel's "Division Street: America" on the windowsills? We got a table on the sidewalk, and, as the full moon rose behind scudding bars of charcoal smudge, we piled on the basics: I was dying for Udon noodles, which came in a flavorful, not-too-rich broth with tempura vegetables, which I set to dipping. Two were special, a sweet contrast between pillowy shitake and brisk mint-leaf with plum paste.

There's a light breeze and we're away from the conversational din inside. It's all good: Tuna roll, wild yellow tail (buri) and salmon (sake) and freshwater eel (unagi). The waitress is funny, obsessed with the rare conjunction of the full moon, Friday the thirteenth, and the traffic light that had been out for an hour at Damen and Division. It's perfect; my friend and I laugh at life, the moon, the increasingly drunk and loud and vacuous table beside us, and at ourselves, and we order another round of sushi, appreciating the fish but also the unusually moist, dense ball of rice that Mirai serves.

Raw fish and rawer truth, from Nelson Algren's "City on the Make": "And Chicago divided your heart. Leaving you loving the joint for keeps. Yet knowing it will never love you." Cities change as quickly as we allow ourselves to change our minds about them. So, too, do culinary trends. In an era when sushi is served at Bridgeport all-you-can-eat buffets, you start to wonder if anyone knows what truly good sushi should be. Bob San, another sushi restaurant, opened cheek-by-jowl with sturdy Leo's Lunchroom. I visit with a great friend at Bob San's, open until midnight, and we ate late on an off night, spotting only a couple of neighborhood faces before ducking to our table.

Again: solicitous, amusing service. And on this quiet night, a respite from the incessant stream of the eager-to-be-pleased at Mirai. We share a spicy tuna roll, which, when split for two, had a curious burrito-like consistency. A salmon skin (sake) hand roll had delicious crisp bits that when dropped sent chopsticks dueling. Other bites were disappointingly mild-bland more than agreeable-such as sea water eel (anago); a prosaic asparagus beef dish, with fibrous asparagus and tasteless beef in a lackluster marinade; and a pale bit of snapper that left a lingering, odd but not unpleasant chlorophyll taste. Worse was the spicy scallop, its zest more picante than what we thought we knew to be Japanese. Best were the edamame, the soybeans moist as we popped them out of their pods, with a light, toasty savor.

A few nights later, we impulsively check into Mirai. While a few parties of destination-driven, too-cool-for-their-shoes, gracelessly aging thirtysomethings herded loudly through the room in ostentatious layers of leather -- in a virtuous world, the cow would be wearing them -- the meal was a revelation. A server going off duty offered suggestions before our own arrived, and we were both simply anxious for good, simple flavors. Kani nigiri, king crab marinated in a spicy sauce, was both cool and pungent in a single fresh bite. Madai, Japanese red snapper, had a so-fresh, meltaway texture, subtle enough not to mask the gentle notes of the vinegar between the fish and rice. The anago, again, a bold contrast from what we had a few nights earlier, elsewhere. Simple, vivid and memorable. The distance between the two meals was more than a city block. Kanpachi, Japanese amber jack, had us rolling our eyes until we could swallow and then smile.

Food, atmosphere and savor matter. We eat, we survive, we thrive. Little bites get us through life. The big bites are when setting and situation provide social grace notes, a kind of effortlessness and conversation that requires no-second-guessing which makes the transitory experience of the nosh something more than brief moments, digested, discarded. "Narrative bliss," the French essayist Roland Barthes called it: anecdotes and sweet bites alternate, a form of storytelling told by two. (Tell me about your food. Tell me about your day. Tell me about you.) The elegant simplicity of a proper, traditional-sized morsel of sushi means the food does not get in the way. We ordered a couple more pieces, a couple more, okinomi style, the sushi bar was closing, she was going, the fragrant fish would soon be memory, I finished my Kirin, the room was emptier, emptier: I watched her face. Some things are fresher than others.

Bob San, 1805-07 West Division, (773)235-8888
Mirai Sushi, 2020 West Division, (773)862-8500, www.miraisushi.com

25 September 2000

Best of Chicago 2000

Best VIP pillow turn down
Ritz Carlton Hotel
We've seen weather reports, menus, remote controls, bookmarked TV Guides, mints, condoms, mint-flavored condoms, and they have their place when you're living your so-called lush life out of town. What do we know about Chicago hospitality? Friend calls during the June food show, she's been left a pallette of chocolate, she says, hurry before she eats it all. It sounds like "pallet"--a slab of chocolate? THat's no fun, and dangerous, to boot. But the half-eaten carcass we encounter once there: a fist-sized artists' pallette, held aloft by profiteroles and surrounded by gorged, feverishly red strawberries, dipped in a thick cap of even more chocolate. Chicago never seemed so sugared.

Best 90-second shopping
Joe's Shoes, 2122 N. Milwaukee
It was a good bet. Can you walk into a store in ninety seconds and come out with something substantial that you need? Our friend laughed when we told her it would be a shoe store--"Not even a man can get out of a shoe store in nientiy seocnds"--and she took the bet, for twenty dollars. To the man behind the counter at Joe's, "Orange Chuck Taylors, size 9, and I want them now." He looks at the pair of us, nods, reaches for a box, sets them on the counter. "$21.80," he says. There's only one thing to add to that: "Got a twenty?"

Best movie popcorn aberration
Goofy cheese
The savor of popcorn is usually defined by the quality of the topping, some kind of butter or oil or oleo. But the new Landmark Century Cinemas offers a variety of toppings for your popcorn that are as eccentric as the layout of the place. You can take the brewer's yeast: we'll take white cheese.
Landmark Century

Best Chicago nostalgia magazine
The Our Town section of the Reader
There's a certain age where one reads the obituaries less out of curiosity of the many talents of the fallen than out of an increasing awareness of mortality. Live long enough, you'll joke that you're just making sure you made it through another day, not finding yourself there. That kind of clogged-artery self-referentiality steeps most issues of the Our Town section these days. Their Town finds less time than in its sundry past for celebrating the motley liveliness of somewhat thriving down-at-mouth commercial establishments than to mark or mourn the death of yet another dry cleaners dear to the particular scribbler, or a dance auditorium, or a some mom-'n'-pop confectionery, or some little doggy in some little window. History is fine and good, but celebrating a thing or defending it before its loss would make for good reading as well. The relentless past tense chafes. The sentimental ennobling of one's own experience aches. On that count, Chicago must be grateful for Barfly, badly written, hardly edited, ugly as sin, but a boozing, bruising present-tense chronicle of our day.

Best presumptuous CTA design
"Cannot Add Value"
Whether stranded in summer's savanna swelter or winter's hoarse slap, each rider has their own customer-tailored litany of complaint about our gosh-darn transit system. The little things are niggling, too. Let us not consider the Chicago tribune's recycling boxes, a "public service" advertising the newspaper while discouraging the communal practice of picking up a paper left behind that the Tribune won't get their four bits for. Nor the Pepsi placards that score the walls of many stations, advertising the official drink of the CTA captive. Nor the magnetic fare cards that often encourage us to gamble or to have a breath mint. Let's look at the weekly cards: twenty bucks for unlimited rides. Not a bad deal if you have to get around. Put it in your wallet and a thin line atop the card will stare at you each time you stare at it--"Cannot Add Value." Jeez, that's what we've been thinking about the CTA for decades.

Best automated CTA announcement
"This is GRAND!"
It's not even a Chicago voice that booms from overhead throughout subway cars, and we don't know if we prefer it to the mumbles and sing-songs and braggadocio of the now-discontinued conductors. It's more personable than the electronic directory assistance "voices," yet after a dozen repetitions of the same inflections, stop announcements become stuck in your head like bad jingles for food you'd never eat. You find yourself taking on the inflections after one ride too many: "This is Grand! This is GRAND!" The voice announcing the Blue Line stop at Milwaukee, Halsted and Grand becomes a druggy, deluded thing in the head, like kids muttering in the face of imminent calamity: "It's all good." Just keep saying it, be happy: "This is GRAND!"

Best invented Chicago
The world of "Stir of Echoes"
While a Madison, Wisconsin native, David Koepp's spring spook story made a convincing fictional topography, filled with a convincing damp and a brooding mood. It's not one of those movies where the house is right next to the El, yet it's a fabrication. Koepp's attention to his made-up Chicago is impressive: an autumnal pastiche of parts of Wicker Park, Polish Village, Brighton Park and Joliet, it has the feel of a real city where real people work, live, fight, and have more nightmares than sweet dreams.

Best street apparition
Young Sam Elliott
There was a day a couple summers back where Young Sam Elliott showed up in two neighborhoods the same day, down by the Art Institute early that morning, up near Irving Park Road come dusk. The man [ITAL]walks[ENDITAL]. Usually dressed in a threadbare 1970s-style leisure suit, he's a lanky rasher of a man, rail-thin, with a full head of hair and an uncommon resemblance to the Sam Elliott of that era: a consumptive cowboy looking like a ghost in cream polyester. He pitches forward as if into the wind, speed-walking, looking straight ahead, occasionally tugging at the long, thick mustache that completes the picture: this man decided what other man he wanted to be three decades ago, and he is that man still, and he walks, and he does not stop walking.

Best lost signage
Cosmopolitan Drugs
There is a shell at Chicago and Clark, awaiting some kind of shiny build-out for some shiny store, but we'll miss the pharmacy and cig store that stood there, with the sign out front with the wigged-out dancing lady caricature: "I get all my drugs at Cosmo's." Walking past or looking out the bus window, it was reassuring: yes, this is where I can get all my drugs.

Best sign gentrification has triumphed in Wicker Park
When the cow comes down
In the chatty gloom of Mas, you can survey faces and dishes and attitude and the drink menu and feel you are in any gentrifying part of our nation, keep to the faces, forget the street outside. Division Street has undergone any number of modifications of late, but there is one symbol that, once snuffed, will likely signal the final blow against the neighborhood that once boasted the battlers and strivers of Nelson Algren's much-noted notes on the area. It doesn't even matter if the reconditioned battery story on the northwest corner of Division and Paulina stays in business; what matters is if the cow comes down. Proud, goofy, made of seasons-stained papier-mache, this steer says: I am camp, but I do not know it; I am a visual blight, but I do not know it; my meaninglessness is an eyesore to newcomers, and I must be going.

Best bus line to make you wish you'd brought your pistol
Chicago 66
The 666, as we're fond of calling it, may be just the same as any other bus line at rush hour, with its own brand of crazies and noise and multilingual, multicultural jabber and gibberish, yet the stop-and-start traffic that lines the stretch from Western Avenue all the way to Michigan Avenue, with ungainly short blocks nearer the lake and double-parking in front of the stores of West Town leads inevitably to the five or six packed buses in a row syndrome, full of good people made irritable and snappish by the unpleasant lurching from stop to stop and the foreknowledge that the only thing that will make it better is getting off.

Best place to commit suicide
We don't know the stats. It probably comes down to slit wrists in a tepid tub after a tawdry TV dinner, a bottle of cheap, gargle-unworthy Merlot, a few pills in pudding, self-pitying thoughts, and an Aldi bag over the head. But we're romantics. Forget the bravura, gonzo, take-'em-all-out schemes: what is the most lyrical way to leave this city and this earth? In olden days, a swell swan dive off a building or bridge would have been worthy of a fine tabloid headline, but nowadays, you'd get a nod from the half-dozen faces watching CLTV and two mentions on WBBM Newsradio. Doesn't seem to be one, so the Dorothy Parker approach seems best in the modern city: "Gas stinks, nooses give/You might as well live."

Best way to keep yuppies out of your bar
Change the music
It was middle of the drinking man's night a few months back, and the local sudseria boldly asserted its contempt for a sudden assemblage of partying strangers, a knot of baseball caps and their perky gals, celebrating some key event in their major, major lives, but choosing to do it outside of where they're known. The loud fuckers had blowsed their way through some Tortoise-like post-pop noodling and now were burping and slapping and snorting their way over a bit of Miles Davis. Oh you should have seen their faces when the fourth movement of Glenn Branca's "Symphony # 6" came on: a little bit of multi-layered, strangely-tuned guitar noise, a dozen or more guitarists nearly levitating, almost as if with the sound of bees massing at the gate of hell. "What is this shit?" demanded the lead baseball cap. "Another Genuine Draft?" the bartender asked, eyes smiling, mouth firm. Five minutes later, they were gone, and the Miles was back.

Best chocolate airborne smell event
Blommer's chocolate, the skies of River North
Check the yellow-brown-gray crinkled pages of any defunct publication with "Chicago" in the title, there will be at least a couple awestruck references to the ongoing airborne smell event that we must note still: the powdery, oily, heart-seeking scent of cocoa that dusts its way from Kinzie Avenue near the old railway yards and across River North and points south. It finds you especially in sub-zero weather: the blistering cold crusting your nose, the air mentholatum to your lungs and now the sudden physiological whiff of chocolate aborning, searing into your bloodstream and darkening it.


*Best diner moment
A late summer afternoon, Leo's Lunchroom on Division. Crickets and construction sound in the distance, voices from the patio. Older woman nurses a coffee at the counter near the open door, dressed in fringe leather and other hippie accouterments that mark the favorite era of her life. Man at the front window, beside the neon sign of a coffee cup, nursing his mobile, soothing it as if for sleep. "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yes. Of course. Mmm. Yeah." It is as steady as rain on a roof. The woman watches. "Hey," she says after a while. "Can you get the Cubs score on that thing for me?"

Best tavern moment
It is an ordinary evening in this bar we know: fashioned like a holding pen for looking and being seen, a kind of horseshoe bar undulating amid the faces and forms, the tavern is host to the usual suspects, some fresh meat, the occasional angry stare. The front door bursts open a little after midnight, the smoker-harsh voice louder than the bar's hard music. Look this way: the gentleman has spiked blonde tendrils of hair, thinning; spiked, drugged eyes; a yellow t-shirt above dingy cargo pants. He moves as against the moon's gravity. One hand clamps a cell phone to his ear, which is not so uncommon, even as he shouts a friend's name into the device repeatedly, like an incantation. No, what is special is the hand that holds the yellow shirt aloft, leaving visible to all his compulsive nipple-twiddling, twiddle, turn, as if this existence were a distant radio signal he could not quite tune into.
Best impromptu music venue
Odum6
2120 W. Chicago
Although air conditioning somehow found its way into the low-ceiling all-purpose-room ecosphere of Odum6 late this summer, surely the noise and semi-noise bands and internecine conspiracies and alliances in the audience will not shift in this low-, flat south of Ukrainian Village space with all the atmosphere of an unimproved party in an unimproved loft amid strangers who might shortly become friends.

Best airport bar
Where there's booze
It's not location, truly, it's mood, and let us restrict ourselves to O'Hare instead of the despondent-making irreality of Midway, where any MGD makes MDW more tolerable. here is the best airport bar: the one where the game is turned down, if not off; there is no line; no lonely-looking middle-aged woman is crying into the beer next to hers; where business deals are not being tacked to the all in person or on cell phones and where the plastic cup is topped to the rim and the smell of the tubesteaks swilling nearby is wafting toward K6 and not your person.

Best multiplex movie theater
City North 14
N. Western Avenue
Stadium seating is a sweet thing coming out of somebody else's overextended corporate pocket, and within the city limits, the City North 14, despite eight to ten screens showing stuff we shouldn't admit to seeing except at a drive-in, offers a layout in the arrival and departure areas that are coherent, sound and pjection that are competent, and but for the unwarrantedly warm glow of the Exit signs near the screens, seats that allow you to fall into the near West side's dreamiest public darkness.

Best restaurant death corridor
Milwaukee Avenue, south of North Avenue
Make a shit sandwich out of two slices of shit with some shit in the middle and you might get some idea of the cold, cruel landscape the wind whistle through on Milwaukee Avenue south of North. Soul Kitchen thrives, Souk persists, but do tell why, in what is supposedly the longest post-war economic boom in a thoroughly gentrifucked neighborhood, there are so many fly-specked, whitewash-windowed storefronts vacant along that stretch of commercial real estate? Must Burger King hold such seniority? More restaurants have fallen of late--That Fish Place! is now minus the ! and tenant, as well.


Best hotel bar moment
The man's hand has been between the woman's legs for at least one round of drinks. (Ours, not theirs.) There is no view here of skyline or city, only plush darkness that is teak or mahogany or money. Her eyes do not leave his. His are more jittery, checking the room for something--cops, creditors, or cronies? The pair are healthy, fiftyish. Game or affair, can't tell. The bartender signals, another? "Double Stoli, straight up," she says. He waves "no" with his other, cigaretted hand. Their voices are low, conspiratorial. She stares. His eyes circuit the room. A sound rips their murmur. She says something. His voice is a little boy's plaint, caught out, suddenly hard, "I did not fart!"

Best O'Hare moment
The woman is weeping. She is old and dear. Surely a beautiful child, she is more beautiful now. It's the United terminal, with its crazy gassy scrawly neon sculptures, like rice noodles dried in an auto body shop and the spazzed electronic iterations and reiterations of "Rhapsody in Blue" and the canned warning, the moving walkway is now ending, please look up. Our elder friend is parked scooch in the middle between the two walkways. A couple bags stand beside her. She stares directly, confidently, toward you as you pass. There is the Babel of arrival and departure all about. her fingers, if you look down the walking is ending, please look down, trickle across a blank plain of cream paper--she is finding her way in this visual din in the tactile, near-invisible alphabet of Braille.

Best restaurant bar moment
She says her name has a color in it, but it would make you sad to remember it. The smell of ingredients thrown one by one into the sizzle of the line rises from behind her young, round, almost blank face. A train rumbles nearby. The subject is Montana. The conversation is strained. A cell phone rings. Several people jump to attention--do Chicago humans intuitively all select the same ring? But it is hers. She looks at the caller I.D. Her eyes shoot to the man behind the bar, who is also on the phone. She takes it the call. Looks his way, this. Folds the phone, looks this way. She leans forward, a hoarse whisper. "The bartender? My roommate? He says you're trouble."

21 August 2000

Winona Wept

JOAN CHEN'S VISION OF MANHATTAN SPLINTERS GORGEOUSLY, a brilliant diamond of romantic decor and shameless swoon.

Autumn in New York seems lost in time, a sketch-simple exemplar of an anachronistic genre--the shameless, extravagant melodrama, or "woman's picture." Drawing on what may seem archaically extravagant plot turns, Chen does well by a style of melodrama practiced best by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, with movies such as Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. Movies simplify and exaggerate, or they captivate through mystery and ambiguity. The doomed lovers swan through a gorgeously concrete city, in a story of striking simplicity.

Glass and reflection refract the moods of two unlikely lovers, and New York is shown a place of stone, cut glass and jangled hearts. Manhattan is Chen's visual aphorism for the May-October romance enacted by Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. While the script is studded with telling lines and a believable dance of flirting banter, confessions of need and shortcoming, it is also so simple in its contours as to seem inconsequential to the unromantic eye.

That is, most men. Autumn in New York may have benefited by MGM's choice to withhold the film from the reviews of middle-aged, white male critics, if one may judge by the trained budgie who sighed audibly every seven minutes of the film to demonstrate his superiority to the material on screen. The critics around me seemed filled with dreams of marching to the office to maul Chen's film with their own pale shadow of Oscar Wilde's "It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell."

Restaurateur Will Keane meets young girl, Charlotte Fielding, on her twenty-first birthday in his eatery. Ever the womanizer, he pulls a romantic stunt to awe her. They fall in bed. The next morning, he tells her there's no future in their pairing: she says she knows; she's dying. Ah! Love Story! But to paraphrase that film's famous phrase, melodrama means never having to say you're sorry, unless it is to prostrate yourself and beg for mercy for your endless litany of flaws and abuses. (Will, who behaves badly, gets a couple of those scenes.)

Yet Autumn in New York is precisely what it should be: a simple, even blunt, luxe and luscious romantic melodrama. In Italian, with subtitles, it would be embraced, making arthouse millions for Miramax. As a fervent non-resident idolater of New York City, I can only say there is hardly a frame that does not confect a dreamy-dream Manhattan. Even in the invented decors, like the hardly-glimpsed restaurant or Will's Greenwich Village penthouse, everything is precise and telling. Mark Friedberg's production design is nourishing, never grandiloquent, yet bursting with detail, matching Gu Changwei's in-close camera style. You could live in this life, or at least freeze-frame an evening away.

And on the street of this lapidary, thriving, fairy-book Manhattan, there is Gu's smoky, honeyed light, and glimpses of reflected light, or a scrap of muslin tickling out a window into breeze. His light, at dusky sunset, holds a silvery solidity. But that is the mood. The movie also actually gets down a whisper or two of the tickle and tease and giggle that bridges the gulf of a May-October romance. Take, for instance, Charlotte's awed, giggly moues and gawks to herself as she responds to Will on the phone, while the entire time, he's making an omelet we are shown only at scene's end, a plate-perfect presentation for only himself. There's a crisp, forthright character to the banter that sparks their mutual seduction. There is Charlotte's line that is the simple essence of flirtation or romance or the exchange of eyelines between two people who like that the other is looking at them: "What should we do, Will, with this moment that we're in?" Then there are the voices of reason, the Greek chorus, as such stories must have: "I'm looking at you, and I'm telling you, it's fucked, there ain't a right angle in it," as Will's partner (Anthony LaPaglia) neatly puts it. But Charlotte is taken by Will's efforts: "You did all of that so you could get hold of me and muss me up?"

This portrait of Richard, gray, acknowledges the ticking-clock gulf between the pair and the plot forces it repeatedly. He can play at Cary Grant as she tickles at Audrey Hepburn, yet the joy of the movie comes from the sheer presence of city and swoon. A scene: They walk through Central Park. There is only the sound of an enchanted glade, not that of an urban oasis bounded by aural insult.

Autumn in New York is wistful about second chances and second-second chances and the willingness to make oneself naked and available to them. But I found the performances graceful and eager, watching the "nowness" of an instant between them. The contrivances of bold melodrama allow us a way into romance's instants, when every moment counts.

Call it mush and I'll deck you.

[Newcity, 21 August 2000]

24 March 2000

16 questions for Leelee Sobieski at 17

TALK ABOUT BEING IN THE RIGHT PLACE at the right time: Leelee Sobieski was having lunch in her school cafeteria when she was spotted by a casting agent for Interview With The Vampire. Although acting wasn't part of her grand plan (she had hoped to become a writer or painter), the 11-year-old agreed to audition for the role of Claudia. Despite losing the part to Kirsten Dunst, Sobieski was hooked. After a few cereal commercials and TV movies, she got called up to the majors, scoring parts in Jungle2Jungle, Deep Impact, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Joan of Arc, and Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

And although there have been times when she was referred to as "that kid who looks like a younger Helen Hunt," Sobieski has become her own woman. She currently stars as a sensitive 17-year-old in Here On Earth, a weighty melodrama about the hopes and fears of teenage romance. She'll be seen next in My First Mister, playing a young woman whom Albert Brooks becomes smitten with. The considerable intelligence she radiates on screen showed through in the intense reflection with which she answers questions.

drDrew.com: What's your favorite thing to do when no one else is around?

Leelee Sobieski: Pick my nose!

drDrew.com: Name a guilty pleasure.

LS: Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream! Ice cream is something I love. It doesn't matter if other people are there, but I actually prefer eating ice cream by myself. My favorites are Hdagen-Dazs' Dulce De Leche and Coffee.

drDrew.com: What's your greatest fear?

LS: Being stupid.

drDrew.com: Name your favorite body part.

LS: My breasts! [Laughs]

drDrew.com: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

LS: I would have, like, all knowledge like a computer chip. I would know everything.

drDrew.com: What was your worst day job?

LS: I'm only 17 and have been working as an actor since I was 11, so I don't know. I guess my two hardest film experiences were Joan of Arc and My First Mister.

drDrew.com: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

LS: Warmth.

drDrew.com: What's something you're good at that's totally useless?

LS: I like to program radios. Like car radios. I have a keychain collection, maybe that's easier.

drDrew.com: Name your favorite fictional character.

LS: I think Joan of Arc was incredible.

drDrew.com: What song best represents the soundtrack of your life?

LS: There's not one single song, but I like Massive Attack's "Lately." It has nothing to do with my life, but I just love it, it's like porno music with a beautiful voice.

drDrew.com: When you were a kid growing up, who did you imitate when you stood in front of the mirror?

LS: Scuttle the seagull from The Little Mermaid.

drDrew.com: What is your motto?

LS: It's not my motto, but I like the Cicero quote, "No one dances well soberly unless they've lost their senses."

drDrew.com: Name a book you've read recently and liked
.
LS: I just finished reading "Anna Karenina" and now I'm reading "Catch-22." I like both of them a lot.

drDrew.com: Name a film you've seen recently and liked.

LS: I think the last film I was really impassioned by was either All About My Mother or Boys Don't Cry.

drDrew.com: Name an album you've heard recently and liked.

LS: I've been buying a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Nina Simone.

drDrew.com: What will you remember most about the '90s?

LS: I think when I'm older I'll remember having the strangest time. So many things happened. It was just a roller coaster.

[from drDrew.com, 24 March 2000]

28 February 2000

John Frankenheimer on Reindeer Games

DROP A DEAD SANTA TO THE SNOW IN A POOL OF HIS OWN BLOOD, ATTENTION WILL BE PAID.

While written by 28-year-old Ehren Kruger ("Arlington Road," "Scream 3"), the movie is John Frankenheimer's. The 70-year-old director's 35th major feature, "Reindeer Games" sounds like a little boy's version of a 1950s Phil Karlson robbery caper like "Five Against the House." But it's Frankenheimer's remarkable camerawork and cutting that elevates this often absurd, twist-riddled heist caper. (It's a long road from live television to Miramax's Dimension Films.) What would have easily been a genre bungle in lesser hands is, instead, a steely, nasty, twisty thing under the firm guidance of the fifty-year veteran (whose last feature was the extravagant existential posturing of "Ronin").

It's even easy to take Ben Affleck as the ex-con who makes the mistake of taking on a dead cellmate's identity for a weekend of hot sex with Charlize Theron. Affleck's latte-and-cookies presence telegraphs the naiveté of a character who's an ex-con yet still can get shilled into the robbery of an Indian-run casino.

The many turns and reversals at times threaten to make the story unhinged, if not delirious, but the robust Frankenheimer says firmly, "The subtext was so important. You can't really write about this stuff without tipping the movie, but we had to be sure what everybody knew in every scene and never allow yourself to be dishonest with the audience. Everything had to make sense in the end. I hope we anticipated and answered any questions anyone might have."

Is it a commentary on action thrillers, a put-on? "I didn't try to send anything up because I'm not good at that. But I do think that there is some humor in this movie. To me, it's not an action movie. I would describe it as a character-driven thriller. That's what I set out to make. 'Ronin' had so much more action in it that this. This is..." He thinks for a second, his eyes light up. "A suspense thriller. That's what it is."

Frankenheimer's exquisitely composed shots, lit in a desaturated, almost black-and-white range of colors, suggest that like the kind of person who would read a film script and see it play out in images as the words spill past. "My best movies, it's kind of like before I even start them, I can roughly seem them projected on this screen in my mind. Not shot for shot, but kind of a general idea of it. This was one of those movies. This is a medium of images. As you're reading certain scenes, even for the first time, certain images do -- at least to me -- come to mind. I try and plan a great deal before I get to the set. I pretty well know after rehearsal and working with my storyboard artist what this movie is going to look like. We pre-block a lot of scenes in rehearsal and I have a pretty darn good idea of how I'm going to photograph those."

While more about character than "Ronin," there are still remarkable images of his actors being flung across the wide screen here. Does he have a theory as to why violence is so much fun to watch? "I think the nature of the human being is to be challenged, to be pushed to the limits. I think that sometimes it's better to look at this vicariously than to have to do it! You'll get more satisfaction watching someone else do it, going back to the gladiators, when you could watch and not fight the lions yourself. And it truly works when you're connected to the character, emotionally invested. In 'Ronin,' you care about who's in the car. Then, when you're directing, you have to make that as realistic as you can."

Is there any kind of daily fear left after fifty years? "Well, Stanley Kubrick said it best, he said the hardest thing in the world in the morning is to get out of the car. What you say to the crew to get it going. I don't have that feeling of panic I had when I was younger. I know, quite honestly, that no matter how bad the situation is, or what kind of problem there is, I'm going to find a way to get out of it. It may not be perfect, but we're gonna get out. We're gonna come to the end of it. That doesn't make me overconfident, but it does take away a lot of the fear factor. There's anxiety, there's apprehension about whether it's being done the right way. There are hundreds of decisions a director has to make every day and it takes a kind of self-confidence to be able to make those decisions and to make them with some kind of equanimity. It's still difficult." With three pictures left on his Miramax contract, he adds, "I hope it always will be."

10 February 2000

Even Herzog started small: Harmony Korine

I'M FASCINATED BY WORK THAT STIRS UP OTHER ARTISTS. Work that somehow floats atop the white noise of critical disdain. Not so much novels that no one reads from "writers' writers," but work that somehow strikes a chord with all the right people. We like people whose lists of things are like our lists. Watch how many writers divine the soul of a party host by scanning the bookshelves around the room. (Understand why most video collections are kept in closets and cupboards, tender fixations held away from unmerciful eyes.) And what inspires artists can be the commonest trash—which will later be held up as great "pop."

A way around to explaining what I adore about both the public image and on-screen effect of the films of Harmony Korine. Some cast him as a crass provocateur, sucking up the moldering carcasses of the careers of 60s and 70s icons like Herzog, Fassbinder, Godard and others. While the 25-year-old Whitney Biennalist is often dismissed as a bratty poseur, deep strains of personal concerns filter through his work. Salon wrote recently about Korine's father, Sol, who was a documentary producer in Georgia for PBS in the 70s and had a September showing of his work at New York's Anthology Film Archives. Surprise: the fascination in Gummo (1997) with the South and its eccentrics is there in his father's work, prefiguring motifs and fixations in the young Korine's enterprises. With julien donkey-boy (1999), Korine attempted to work through his life-long relationship with his schizophrenic uncle Eddie. Our bearings are lost to Ewen Bremner's stammering attempt to capture his earnest soul and the camera's equal unhingedness. In effect, Korine attempts to embrace not only familial madness—but the family's cool gaze onto other hard realities.

It ADDS up. I have a clutch of friends in their early 20s who pour my coffee at the local shop and tell the best cracked-up stories, a crew of variously talented, wondrously wild-eyed, wild-haired musicians, skateboarders, video enthusiasts, hairdressers, painters, etc. They beg for Harmony gossip and long for Harmony limited edition collectibles. Talk to them: they see what's going on; he's not just chi-chi for a post-MTV generation. They speak knowingly of Korine's grabbed images in league with contemporary photographers like Nick Waplington, Juergen Teller, and Terry Richardson.

But all too many critics, the notably unctuous David Denby among them, sound like bosom buddies of David Letterman when they speak of Korine, cranky oldsters fearing the manic energy of youth. Yet there is something else I'm shocked they miss. I also esteem Korine for his avoidance of the low craft that passes for rock-video-dazed imagemaking, never truly ever referencing the lingo that's been manufactured for his demographic. When he does indulge in pop effects—even making a sublime video for New York downtown hipsters Sonic Youth's "Sunday"—they're often compellingly experimental, refusing to make jokey reference to video games, drugs, or television that confirms and comforts; yes, I, too, am a friend of "Friends." What truly calculating type would make the penultimate shot of their first feature an image of a frail, angelic, girlish, rail-thin, bare-chested boy in bunny ears rushing through gray rain to the camera with a dead cat in his hands while Roy Orbison wails "Crying"? Is this kid a careerist?

Take the earliest glimpse of Gummo. The mischief starts before the first image appears. As the Fine Line Features logo unfurls, a child chants, "Peanut butter, peanut butter..." and as the Time-Warner name burns in, the chant continues: "Motherfucker!" A nice opening for a largely visual, overtly experimental narrative on a megacorporation's release slate. It's a precis the articulate autodidact relishes. "I love it. That to me is the future. The most subversive thing you can do with this kind of work, the most radical kind of work, is to place it in the most commercial venue. When Godard did Breathless, the reason it became influential and changed the cinematic vernacular is that it came out in a commercial context. I only think things change when they're put out to the masses, regardless if somebody dislikes them."

Korine sees his goal as a mix of realism and absurdism, captured by whatever means—"Mistake-ism" is a word he's coined for himself—try every damned thing as if you'll never have a chance to again. Yet Gummo tumbles along to its own blissed-out rhythm, never pretending to the alleged ethnographic veracity of the Korine-penned Kids. Korine, mistaken for a skateboarding New York clubber, in fact spent his formative years near Nashville, where Gummo was shot. Gummo is a Southern piece through and through, particular in its embrace of a dark and freakish mood. "Oh, it's totally, one-hundred percent Southern," Korine agreed the first opportunity I had to speak with him. "I'm a Southern boy so how would it not be? I'd say Gummo is an American film; it's Southern, but it's strange. But it's a genre-fuck. I love the South, love it. I didn't leave until I was 18. I had to move out to understand it."

Gummo takes the form of peculiar vignettes, a form Korine admires in American joke-telling as well. His eclectic teenage white-trash fantasia, which is composed mostly of vaudeville-like routines, vignettes that incorporate an albino woman who adores Patrick Swayze and mentally challenged performers, and unlikely actors such as a grown-up, tap-dancing Linda Manz, the once-young girl from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, as a silly if loving mom. Teenage beauty is lovingly portrayed, unlike Larry Clark's prurient approach, and Korine is knowing in his depiction of teenage fear of "the other." His teenagers, like Malick's, are innocents who make it up as they go along. And Gummo boasts as many bare boy-chests as a season's worth of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts fashion layouts. Many scenes are knowing about the dynamic between teenage homosexual panic and homoeroticism, but Korine would only grin when I tried to get him to talk about this aspect. "What do you want me to say?"

As photographed by the great cinematograper Jean-Yves Escoffier, Gummo alternates gorgeous, sometimes dreamlike imagery, with poker-faced scenes that can be intensely distasteful. There's glue-sniffing, cat-torture and the mercy-killing of an invalid grandmother. Yet Korine's use of music and sound is rich and inventive, and his sometimes startling use of mixed media, including Super 8, video, and Polaroids, marks Gummo as bold work. At its brightest luminous moments, Gummo suggests the go-for-broke immediacy of 90s Asian filmmaking.

As does julien donkey-boy, easily one of the most striking films on release in 1999, steeped in the subjectivity of the lead character's confusion and a closing half hour that strains for the transcendent and may even have attained it. The slim thread of plot in the second Harmonic vaudeville tosses off longeurs along the way, but you will not be able to reconcile the depth of emotions it churns up by the final reels.

Those subscribing to conventional wisdom expect only jagged sarcasm and sub-Even Dwarves Started Small obscurantism from Korine. But julien is a nagging artifact. For instance, Julien finds an epiphany at a Pentecostal church service late in the film, the voices raised to heaven like his own gibbering incantations. It's a headlong turn, yet there are other strains of spirituality in Korine's vision: the images, strikingly transferred from video, at times resemble the aged, candle-smoked enamel layers of religious icons, suiting the pitch in the film's final turn toward a muzzy, muted religiosity.

Korine expresses disappointment that more journalists have not been rude to him. I asked how he would react to Gummo getting labeled "self-indulgent." As if anticipating howls of hatred to come, Korine says, "How can an artist be expected not to be self-indulgent? That's the whole thing that's wrong with filmmaking today. Ninety-nine percent of the films you see do not qualify as works of art. To me, art is one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person. Self-indulgent to me means it's one man's obsession. That's what great artists bring to the table. When fucking critics or whatever say, 'he's self-indulgent,' I don't know what that means. The reason I stopped watching films is because so many people lack any kind of self-indulgence. We can talk about aesthetics and influence but in the end when I go to see anything all I want is to be entertained in a different way. I don't want to be bored by the bland and generic. Film is a dead art because of people not taking chances."

I honour Harmony just for the adrenaline he's shot through the spry young shoots I know: someone their age who flails gainfully against the boundaries of art he only half-understands but is willing to die trying (or try dying, in the case of Fight, a project aborted after much personal injury.) I can't knock the kid.

[Originally published in a slightly different form in Cinema Scope's Best of the Nineties issue, February 2000.]