Thursday, June 21, 2007

Choose Your Own City, and Bridge and More, in Chuck Palahniuk's "Rant"

Did you read any of those "Choose Your Own Adventure "books, when you were a kid? I remember one year, somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, when I plowed through a ton of the things. In case they somehow passed you by, they tended to be mystery or adventure stories, set in exotic, if not terribly realistic, locales, and every few pages, there'd be some sort of cliff hanger, requiring you to make a choice about what the main character ought to do next, and to turn to one page or another, depending on the choice you'd made. The stories themselves weren't always all that interesting, but it was the openness of their narratives, limited as it was, that I loved about those books. Until the day came when I understood the limits they imposed, understood that I could exhaust the choices offered by any "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in a single afternoon, and moved on to better books entirely. Books that made me look a little harder to find the places where they opened up whole worlds of choices, not just into their own narratives, but into my life, if I simply took the trouble to look for them. Books in which the possibilities were limitless. But limited as they were, it was those "Choose Your Own Adventure," books that first taught me that a narrative doesn't have to follow one straight line.

I hadn't thought about those books for years and years, until I came across this passage, in Chuck Palahniuk's latest book, "Rant", "picture time travel as nothing more than knocking your half-read book to the floor and losing your place. You pick up the book and open the page to a scene too early or too late, but never exactly where you'd been reading." While those lines didn't prompt me to start tossing my books across the floor in an effort to get back to, maybe, the spring of 2000, so I could try to explain to all of those foolish Nader voters exactly how much of a difference there really was between Gore and Bush, it did, by reminding me of those long ago page turning choices, serve to help me figure out at least a part of just what it was I liked so very much about the reading of "Rant."

If there's a working writer more subversive than Palahniuk right now, who's managing to get his or her books published, and on to those sought after Barnes and Noble shelves, I can't think who it is. In the world of "Rant," Palahniuk steadfastly refuses to give us any of the things we take for granted in a novel. Just about the only point of stability is the story's, and it's erstwhile protagonist's, point of origin, the rural town of Middleton, everything else is up for grabs. And by everything, I really do mean everything. All the things that matter most to us, both in our lives and in our reading, from time, place, identity, the nature of reality, possession of truth, to the sources and uses of power, that's a big one, wherever you turn, isn't it?

"Rant" carries the subtitle, "An Oral Biography of Buster Casey," so we aren't dealing with a consistent, coherent narrative voice. Instead, we've got a plethora of voices, not a chorus, blending easily together into a harmonious whole, but a disparate bunch of storytellers, each with his or her own version of events, his or her own interests to protect, secrets to reveal or to keep, reputations to construct or to maintain. Buster Casey, also known as Rant, is, of course, the silence at the center of this vocal storm. He may or may not be dead, at this particular point in time. But wherever he is, whatever he's doing, the one thing he's not doing is talking, that much is certain.

Everyone else is though. From his childhood years in Middleton, we hear the voices of his mother and father, early friends and enemies. Then his city years bring in the voices of his girlfriend Echo, other friends and acquaintances, plus the government officials, and epidemiologists, thrown in for good measure. Everyone who ever met Rant, and more than a few who didn't, has something to say about him, now that he himself is nowhere to be found.

Predictably enough, out of all these voices, emerges not one story of Rant's life, but three, at least, depending on which threads you pull together, where you find coherence, whose truth compels, whose bores, whose leaves you disbelieving. Rant could have been the superspreader of a new strain of rabies, so virulent it's lead to something like martial law, in this dystopian near future, and threatens to wipe out approximately half of the population. Or, Rant could have been a time traveling near super hero, who's discovered just how his destiny's been manipulated, and is determined to do some mysterious sort of something about it. Or, he could just be a dumb, good looking, half crazy, country boy, who came to the city, went all the way crazy once he got there, and committed a spectacular suicide. Or he could be all four at once, or someone else altogether. I love a book that asks me work this hard, leaves so many blanks for me to fill in, so many connections for me to make myself, or not.

And that is part of the brilliance of "Rant," the work it requires of the reader. By virtue of it's structural conceit, the oral history form, it is exceedingly light on physical detail. A we know about what Rant looked like, for instance, is that he had green eyes, stained black teeth, and that he was covered up in scars from childhood animal bites. His girlfriend, Echo, we know has an undersized right arm and leg, courtesy of a mysterious childhood car accident, which killed both her parents. People who are more or less average looking, without deformities or disfigurements, go essentially undescribed, leaving us free to imagine them however we see fit, without limits. The descriptions of Rant and Echo, when they come, function most decidedly as reminders of the author's right to impose limitations when he chooses, coming as they do after both characters have been hanging around in our minds for quite awhile. We've been hearing about Rant's green eyed good looks, his popularity with the girls of Middleton, and picturing him thusly, long before we hear a peep about his blackened teeth. Similarly, we've heard Echo described as a sex worker, heard her talking about having all kinds of sex with rant, been influenced by her pretty name, well before learning of her "withered arm," or facial tics. Palahniuk really doesn't want us getting too comfortable inside his story. Not here, not there, not anywhere. The world he's created is a slippery slidey kind of a place, but it's his creation, and we're well advised to remember that fact.

In the midst of all this slipperiness, Rant inevitably leaves the relative solidity of Middleton, for "The City." That's all it's ever called. Not Chicago or Los Angeles or Seattle or Miami or New York, just, "The City." Allowing us to fill in that blank with the cities of our choice. So for me, that of course meant he'd headed for the city of New York, as all sensible people leaving small towns in search of something ill defined and other will do. Even though much of the story hinged on cars, for me "The City," was this city, and that was that. Any time a gas station was mentioned, I pictured that BP at the corner of East Houston and Broadway. And as for the pivotal scene when a hipster type drives his car right off a bridge and into some nameless river? Well, that would be the Williamsburg Bridge of course, no problem there.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Paris Hilton Jailed for... Driving? That's what you get for moving to LA!

Walking around the West Village on any ordinary old day, lingering over coffee in the Grey Dog cafe, when I should be writing, or hanging out with my dogs in Washington Square Park, when I really should be writing, if I notice someone who looks vaguely familiar, she's much more likely to be Drew Barrymore, or Sarah Jessica Parker, perhaps, than anyone I've ever actually met. I've gotten so used to this fact of downtown life, that, I must confess, it takes me completely by surprise when it occasionally happens that whoever I've been stealing those furtive glances at, trying to place, to remember exactly which movie, what HBO series I know her from, comes up and says hello, isn't Chloe Sevigny after all, but is instead that girl I used to work with, the one I'd forgotten all about.

Things don't really work that way in most places, you know. For one thing, if you go around furtively glancing at strangers in most cities, people will think you're a little creepy. I know this, because I've been spending more time outside of New York lately, specifically in Alabama, where I grew up. When I'm down there, if someone looks familiar, I've learned it is extraordinarily unlikely to be because she is an Olson twin, or Parker Posey, and very likely indeed to be because she's someone I went to high school with, or elementary school even. But the fact of familiarity never ceases to bring its own brand of disorientation, all the same.

I'll probably be down there next weekend, in fact, when the Gay Pride march hits Manhattan. So I'll miss, among other things, all those ersatz celebrities making their way down to Christopher St., those gorgeous drag queens, with their meticulous attention to detail, their impossible perfection, and the different sort of vertigo their presence always induces. And in the midst of all that beauty, those Madonnas, Anna Nicoles, Marilyns, and all the rest, I feel pretty safe in guessing there'll be bound to be a Paris Hilton or two somewhere, having the time of her life, while the real thing is languishing away, in the LA county jail.

Paris has become the embodiment of all things LA to such an extent, that it's easy to forget that she did in fact start out right here in Manhattan, was born here, no less. But think back, if you will, to those halcyon, turn of the century days, when Paris and her pals dominated the Post's Page 6, with their underage drinking, table top dancing, club hopping ways. Remember those days? Fun times, all around! Then, of course, she hit it big with "The Simple Life," and headed off to Hollywood, hoping, we were told, to further her imaginary acting career.

That hasn't really worked out so well, as far as I can tell. If you've seen so much as a second of Paris's film debut, "The House of Wax," which she once mysteriously described as being the thing of which she was the very most proud of ever having done, you have a pretty good idea as to why. Paris has been wildly successful, though, as we all know, at turning herself into a brand. She's pulled the silliness of "The Simple Life," through into it's impending fifth season, signed seemingly endless licensing deals, and reputedly gets oodles of cash just for showing up at other people's parties. And perhaps most impressively, she's successfully convinced the entire world of her own attractiveness. This one's always stumped me most, as I find her singularly strange looking, and not in any sort of exotic, jolie laide, kind of way. It's more that she's always looked to me as though she'd had way too much work done, before she'd ever turned eighteen, unlikely though that is. But as they say, there's no accounting for tastes, and a good publicist can work wonders for any girl.

These days, Paris's looks have taken such an LA turn, it's hard to imagine her anywhere in Manhattan, if you think about it. That blond, blond hair, the glossy lips, all of that mascara, and of course the permatan. Not to mention the colorful wardrobe, and the constant tiny dogs with whom she chooses to accessorize. She'd fit right in with the other tourists in Time Square, I suppose, or possibly on the Upper East Side, but I really can't see her happily partying with the Olson twins downtown, for instance, not without a serious style overhaul, can you?

And that's kind of a shame, because watching all of Paris's legal woes unfold this last week or so, one thoughts been running through my mind. I can't help thinking that, if only Paris had stayed here at home, in New York, she'd never have gotten into all of this trouble in the first place. If only for the simple fact that here, nobody drives, not even the celebrities.

Paris's problems all began with an LA DUI, last September, after which her license was suspended. For some reason though, she just couldn't bring herself to stop driving, was, predictably, pulled over twice more, and wound up with the jail sentence she's now serving, in the "special needs" section of the LA County jail, whatever that means, exactly.

LA's celebrities do seem to have these endless legal problems, don't they? As I write this, Paris, of course, is doing her time, while her off and on best friend, Nicole Richie, awaits sentencing for a DUI arrest last December, and her sometimes rival, Lindsay Lohan, is in rehab, with a DUI charge, at the very least, stemming from a car crash last month, hanging over her expertly styled head. And if we look back, just a little, we have to remember Mel Gibson's DUI arrest, with those bonus PR points he earned for his bizarre anti-Semitic ranting and raving, just last summer. And who could forget Robert Downey Jr.'s epic legal battles, culminating, as they did, with his year long imprisonment? His problems, like Paris's, began when he was pulled over for speeding by the LAPD, and happened to have a surprising smorgasbord of drugs, from heroin to crack, and an unloaded gun, in his car at the time.

I'm not suggesting that New York's celebrities never get into any trouble with the law. Of course they do, they're only human, after all. But when they do, it's usually for something more interesting than a mere DUI, which I personally appreciate. Naomi Campbell throwing cell phones, or whatever object happens to be handy, at her assistants, or Russell Crowe having tantrums at the Mercer Hotel,, if nothing else our celebrities are never boring. And then of course, 50 Cent had to go driving around in midtown last fall, almost inevitably leading to his arrest, because really, celebrities just shouldn't get behind the wheel, whichever coast they're on. No good ever seems to come from it.

Nor would I want to imply that there's less celebrity intoxication happening in our fair city than in any other. Sadly, I don't get invited to those parties, so I haven't got a clue. I'm just saying that, when celebrities here engage in whatever overindulging they may or may not be prone to, the opportunity does not arise for them to drive, and place themselves in any further legal jeopardy, not to mention danger.

So Paris, in the unlikely event that you might be reading this, once you've paid your debt to society, you really might want to consider moving back home. Here, we have these great things called cabs. They can make a starlet's life ever so much easier!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Small Towns and Big Surprises; Adrienne Shelley's "Waitress"

Most of the writing about director Adrienne Shelley's latest, and last, film, "Waitress," has been at least as much about her murder last fall in her West Village office shortly after its completion, as about the work itself. Given that Shelley went to all the trouble of writing, directing, and even acting in "Waitress," it's seemed to me pretty grotesquely unfair that her death has not only deprived her, and her audience, of another thirty or forty years of productive life, but is also going a long way towards preventing us from viewing her last film through clear eyes. So I wanted to wait a little while to see "Waitress," to give myself a better chance to see it on its own terms, in the context of Shelley's quirky and distinguished body of work, rather than through the long shadow cast by her death.

Shelley began her film career in the early nineties, starring in a pair of indie favorites, written and directed by Hal Hartley, "Trust," and "The Unbelievable Truth." Even in these, his first two films, Hartley was already working with what would become his signature, off kilter style. His tales of people on the edge always feel as though they're occurring within a slightly alternate universe. One very like our own, but just a little chillier, and operating under its own unique rules of logic. Characters in Hal Hartley's movies don't act quite like you or I would, they act like, well, characters in Hal Hartley movies, there's really just no other way of putting it. They talk a lot, and think a lot, and are forever on the brink of something undefined, and are prone to self destructive, sudden decisions, that rarely have quite the consequences they would here, in this reality you and I inhabit. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. When Shelley was onscreen though, Hartley was able to rely on her slight, but commanding presence, the warmth she brought to her performances, and her frizzy haired, otherworldly looks, to pull his pieces together into something tightly bound. As Maria, the pregnant cheerleader at the heart of Trust, for instance, Shelley provided the center of gravity through whom the audience could enter the film's cracked world, and around whom the other characters could all twist and turn. In her absence, Hartley's emphasis on style over substance has often been more glaring, and his tendency towards the cerebral over the soulful more apparent.

By the late nineties, Shelley had shifted her focus from acting to writing and directing films of her own. Her first two features, 1997's, "Sudden Manhattan," and 1999's, "I'll Take You There," both have the feeling of a filmmaker in search of her own voice. "Sudden Manhattan" is the story of Donna, who is trying to be a writer in the West Village, and may or may not be losing her mind, but is unquestionably surrounded by a pack of lunatics. It is very funny, and very loopy, and very much one of those movies people either love or just can't stand. As is "I'll Take You There," in which Ally Sheedy's Lucy has most definitely lost at least a bit of her mind, but gets enough of it back by the end to charm her captive love interest into sticking around, even once he figures out that her gun isn't the slightest bit loaded. These films show an confidence uncommon in a beginning writer and director, as well as Hartley's influence, in their willingness to challenge the audience to take them on their own terms, to join them in their unlikely, temporary, worlds.

"Waitress" undoubtedly benefited from having a higher budget than either of its predecessors. The sets look better, the editing is smoother, the lighting is prettier, all of that certainly helps. But more than that, it's clearly the work of a more practiced writer, and a director whose gained clarity of vision. Watching either "Sudden Manhattan," and "I'll Take You There," felt like being caught up in a whirlwind of sorts. They picked you up, tossed you around, then dropped you off when they were done with you. Watching "Waitress," is a different kind of experience altogether. Slower, sweeter, and much more of a sense that someone is actually in control of everything that's going on.

Unlike Shelley's first two films, no part of "Waitress," takes place anywhere near Manhattan. Instead, it is set in the kind of small town that is nowhere and everywhere all at once. It feels vaguely southern, but really, could be found off just about any exit ramp off any highway. Or rather, it's the kind of small town we'd like to think is waiting for us out there, if we could ever get past all the Wal-Mart's, and the Cost-Cos. It's a fairy tale kind of place, sleepy and pretty, with lots of trees, and a pie diner, where Keri Russell's title character, Jenna works.

Jenna is, of course, a waitress. But more than that, she makes pies. Amazing concoctions of pies, with names like, "Earl Kills Me Because I'm Having An Affair," pie, or "I Don't Want Earl's Baby," pie. The scenes of Jenna alone in the diner's grubby kitchen, making her pies, are gorgeous. She's absorbed in the moment, doing what she loves, spooning out the filling for, perhaps, her "Chocolate Mousse Falling in Love Pie." I had no idea Keri Russell, of "Felicity" fame, could be such a good actress.

Jenna's husband, Earl, is horrible. In every way imaginable, just horrible. Yet, she finds herself pregnant, and not especially happy about it. As she says she, recognizes "this baby's right to thrive," but isn't feeling any motherly love towards it. On the contrary, as her pregnancy progresses, the baby seems more and more like part of the trap that will keep her stuck in her life, with the horrible Earl, forever.

Not that there aren't any bright spots at all in Jenna's life. She's got her two fellow waitresses, played by Cheryl Hines & Adrienne Shelley. Hines and Shelley each gets a good subplot of her own, and the rapport the three women share feels real, in a way that is rarely captured onscreen. They work and play together, bump up against each other's soft spots, and do the best they can for one another, in the end. Friends like that can take a girl a long way, if she's paying attention to what she's got there.

And then there's Jenna's doctor. Dr. Pomatter. He's new in town, and married, and somehow or other, becomes Jenna's boyfriend, horrible, jealous husband, notwithstanding. As Jenna says, in a long letter to her unborn, unwanted baby, who she often addresses as, "Damn Baby," their affair is all about the sex in the beginning, but then shifts into something else, when she starts really talking to him, and finds herself "addicted to saying things and having them matter."

There's old Joe too, played by Andy Griffith, the cranky owner of the diner where Jenna works. Nobody likes old Joe but Jenna, and, in this fairy tale of a film, he turns out to be a most unlikely fairy godfather of sorts.

It won't come as much of a surprise to anyone to hear that, as much as Jenna dislikes her baby throughout her pregnancy, referring to it as an alien, a parasite, and, of course, "Damn Baby," the minute the baby is born, and in her arms, she falls head over heels in love with her. Is, in fact, completely undone by how much she loves the little parasite, once she's looking at her. The biggest surprise to me about Waitress was just how good Keri Russell is in it. I couldn't bear "Felicity," and didn't expect to like her in anything ever. But I have to admit, she's great here. Her Jenna grounds the film's whimsy, serves up suffering and elation in equal measure, and gives Shelley's fairy tale world just the dash of realism it needs to work.

Of course, now that I've seen "Waitress," and know just how much I like it, I can't help thinking about the fact that it's the last film we'll have from Adrienne Shelley. She has left me wanting much, much, more, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Waiting Game in Union Square: Al Gore Comes to Town

In case you haven't heard, Al Gore came through New York last week. His first stop was on Thursday, at the 92nd st. Y, for and interview with Charlie Rose. Those $50 tickets had sold out before I even knew they'd gone on sale. And, honestly, 92nd st. is just so far uptown it feels to me like another planet altogether. So it's entirely possible that it might never have occurred to me to go to that event, even had there been an infinite supply of tickets. I'm not even sure what train I'd need to take to get all the way up there.

The next day though, last Friday, he hit the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, for a short talk about his new book, "The Assault on Reason," and a signing. Much more conveniently located, not to mention free, and altogether impossible to resist, at least for the overpoliticizied likes of me.

And apparently for plenty of other people too. The event was held on the fourth floor, and the place was packed. In keeping with the biggest surprise of the day, which was how unprepared the Barnes & Noble staffers seemed to be for the size of crowd, attendance estimates have varied wildly, from 400 all the way to 750 people. Whatever the number was exactly, there were a lot of us, all there to see what the former Vice President had to say, and willing to wait, and wait, and wait some more, in a very orderly fashion, in our lines, that snaked all the way through the fiction, memoir, and, if I'm recalling correctly, even eastern religion sections, as the day went on.

Ordinarily, I am terrible at waiting in line. Horrible. Patience is not one of my virtues, not by a long shot. This one though, was not so bad. I'd even go so far as to say that it was kind of fun, in a strange sort of way. Not just because we were all united in our wait, and in our frustration with the confusing, contradictory instructions given by the Barnes & Noble staffers as we waited, and not just because we'd all read, or were all in the process of reading, the same book, though all of that certainly helped. But mostly, because everyone there, at least everyone who I passed by, had one question on their minds, one I've been asking for months and months now, one the media dances around here and there, now and then, but never gets too far with. You know the one, don't you? The is he or isn't he, will he or won't he? Will Al Gore be running for president in 2008, or not?

Granted, it's just one question, but, fortunately, given the length of that fourth floor line, it's the kind of question people can go back and forth and back again about for hours. There's the fact of the book itself, of course, and its timing. It does seem to have become almost a requirement, doesn't it? To write a book when launching one's presidential campaign? And Gore's endless iterations within that book of his own personal religious faith. Again, a bizarre requirement for those with aspirations to the oval office, in twenty first century America, but not really the kind of thing people go around blathering about much otherwise. And then, the book tour, offers such a perfect opportunity to test the presidential waters, which, given Gore's reception in Union Square, and the speed with which his book shot up to number one on both Amazon the New York Times bestseller lists, would seem to be looking pretty welcoming indeed. So there's all that.

And did I mention how much everyone in line wanted him to run? Very, very much, that's how much. There was definitely something comforting, after all these months of hearing that my choices had boiled down to Hillary or Obama, and I'd better make up my mind, between those two, lickety split, that I was not the only one holding out, waiting to see if Gore might not come through after all. It's not that there's anything wrong with Hillary or Obama. Not at all. In another year, I think I'd be delighted by either one of them. But somehow, this year, the two of them feel like children playing presidential candidates, and Gore feels like the grown up, who knows how to do it properly. That's the best description I can come up with, for the trouble I have with the two of them, and the reason I'm still playing this waiting game with Gore.

Because in spite of all the reasons to think he's going to run, there is that one little glitch in the works. He won't say he's running. But then, he also won't say he's definitely, absolutely, positively, not running. This, we all agreed as we waited in our lines, was enough to drive a person mad. He's not running until he's running. Or he's running until he's not running. He's the world's biggest tease, is what it comes down to.

This is around about where we were, in line, in our conversation, when Gore showed up, to begin his talk. He was, I must add, surprisingly prompt, and very much the new Gore he's been for the last year or so. Smart and funny, comfortable in his own skin, and most importantly, saying the things no one else on the political scene seems to be saying. He hit the high points of the new book, talking about what exactly it is that's gone wrong in our political discourse, how it has happened that we know more about Paris Hilton's life than we do about what's really going on in Iraq.

Then he went on to talk more specifically about the Bush administration. Talking about the feeling he has, which we in the audience shared, that something has gone terribly wrong in America. One of the biggest applause lines was a near direct quote from the book's introduction, about it's being too easy to place the blame for what's gone wrong on one political party or one president, because we are all equally responsible for what happens in this country, and for what is done by this country around the world.

As much as I had personally responded to that line when I'd read it, I was surprised to find the rest of the audience reacting in the same way. After all, it's not really what you usually think of as a crowd pleaser, to be asked to take personal responsibility for horrible mistakes. But please the crowd it did.

More than that, though, as we applauded his speech, and prepared to move into the next phase of our waiting, to get our books signed, it reminded us of why exactly it was that we were there. Why we were willing to do all this waiting for him, in and out of that line. Because he has become the person who tells us things we might not want to hear, but have in fact been longing for. Because he has stopped playing the endless games of political calculus that keep Hillary and Obama and all the rest of them so careful of each and every utterance. Tell me something clear and true, even if it's hard, and I'll wait around, to hear what else you have to say.

I'm still waiting to hear what Gore's planning to do about the 2008 elections, but I did get my two copies of his book signed. At least that's something.