Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Comma

A man said Why, why does traveling
in cars and in trains make him feel sad,
a beautiful sadness.
I’ve felt this before.
It’s the people in the cities you’ll never know,
it is everything you pass by,
wondering will you ever return.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd annual Juniper Creek Writers Conference in Carson City with Chris Bernard, comrade and co-editor at Caveat Lector. More on the actual conference in future entries -- it deserves to be spread out over a few posts. Today, on a more personal note, I'm preoccupied with traveling, chance meetings, destinations modest yet surprising.

I'm a better person when I travel -- of that I have no doubt. Annoyances that set my blood boiling on an everyday basis -- traffic jams, erratic weather, finding myself lost on unknown, crowded avenues -- gain romance and significance when I'm away from home. The phrase "with a full heart" is oft-overused, but it seems entirely appropos when I'm on the road, as I attain a state of hyper-awareness, receptive and happy to accept everything. The unexpected pleasure of stumbling upon a location or a moment, the sunlight captured just so, or a snatch of random music from a passing car or reverberating from within a bar, exchanged talk among passersby, whether it's a familiar or foreign tongue -- it's during these collisions of happenstance that I feel most alive, down to the atom. And yet, these moments always have a bittersweet quality for me -- I know that soon I will depart, unknown date of return, and within a day or so, I'll be back to my usual addled existence here in San Francisco, oblivious to the same little joys I hoard during my travels. Am I spoiled? Lazy? Immature? Maybe.

I have an obsession for settings -- in my writing, in my life. Some have accused me, with good reason, of being more interested in places than people. People vacillate, promise something one moment and flake the next, or they simply outgrow you, and vice versa. But places are more glacial and constant. Some of the most moving moments I've experienced have come when I revisit an old vista, or note the disappearance of a familiar landmark or building. While we humans bustle and dissipate and scatter energy into the ether, the streets and cafes, the hotel rooms with their particular scents, the hills that roll away into mist and smog, all do their best to anchor us, fight the good fight against entropy.

Sometimes a synchronicity occurs, where all the senses plus memory plus the present seem to merge, a specific spot, something overheard, a smell, it all comes together, with the presence of an actual human to top it off. Such is what happened to me in Carson City.

Carson City shows signs of the suburbanization that threatens to calcify our nation -- you have your malls, the Safeways and gas stations, the vast aisles of car dealerships -- but the downtown preserves the charm of some of the old architecture, mostly in the government structures (as I thought as I ambled past the Nevada State Attorney's office: "That must be the easiest job in the country").

And then there is Comma Coffee on South Carson Street, near the corner of West 3rd Street. The blurb on their site sums it up best: "IF LIFE WERE A SENTENCE, Comma Coffee would be the comma... the pause... the breath... the break between two thoughts." Chris and I stopped there early Saturday morning for our breakfast at 7:30 -- entirely too early to be doing anything, but we had a panel to attend at 9:00, so no choice. The interior wouldn't raise the eyebrows of any big-city denizen, but compared to the rest of Carson City, it was a hive of idiosyncrasy -- honeycombed bookshelves, couches and chairs artfully arranged like someone's homey little living room, the menu scribbled neatly above and behind the front counter, an adjoining outdoor courtyard for Third World music performances. New, razor-creased copies of the Nevada Appeal sat on a nearby shelf. Despite the superficial resemblance to your standard San Francisco coffee joint, this was a different animal: no hoards of in-a-hurry professionals, no aged hipsters holding court, hardly anyone at all. Just a few quiet customers, enjoying a coffee or muffin, everyone quietly minding their own business, no ostentation, nothing but the bare essentials of a pleasant Saturday morning.

So I went up to the counter and ordered some scrambled eggs and toast (known as the "(simple~eggs~planation)"), and iced tea, and for the first time, I noticed the woman behind the counter. She had been sweeping by the front door when we arrived, and greeted us with a laid-back "How are you guys doing?" but now that she was facing me, I was struck by her. Compared to any number of women who I had already seen on the trip, there was nothing especially striking about her. She had blond, stringy hair, sleepy eyes, and some of my friends who would have a field day debating semantics over her "healthy" or "heavy" appearance. But there was something genuine about her manner, her smile, that caught me.

She reminded me of a girl named Kris Koch that I knew back in Cortland, New York, when I was 18 and spending two weeks at music camp (for those dirty minds in the audience, no, no "band camp" stories to report -- the closest it got was when a 12-year old girl from NYC named Melanie got an unhealthy (unrequited) crush on me, and apparently set the girl's bathroom on fire shortly after I left the camp). Kris was a year younger than me, from the local area, and I would learn that to make ends meet she had to waitress in a skimpy outfit at some down-and-grungy bar. She played saxophone and flute, and she seemed to walk everywhere in bare feet. We were all sequestered at the SUNY Cortland campus, which was basically a single isolated street of classroom buildings and a cafeteria, and forbidden to access the outside world. This particularly gnawed at me since I was older than all of the camp counselors by at least two years (I should have looked more closely at the photos of all the 10 and 12-year olds when I signed up for the camp).

If you asked me to recount a particular conversation or moment with Kris during the two weeks I was at that camp, I couldn't tell you, but I remember the bare feet, the way she slumped a bit as she walked, her big eyes and nose, and yes, the genuine manner and smile. My last vision of her is when I departed from camp (she stayed on for another two weeks), and she stood on the curb to watch me depart. In the rear view mirror, I could see the clouds breaking gray above the curb, the wistful look on her face.

There's a postscript to the Kris story that I'll save for another time, but the woman at Comma Coffee conjured up a similar emotion. Was it a longing for a particular kind of person, or a time, or maybe even a life? I grew up in Albany, the lap of suburbia, but have always had an affection for rural environments, or maybe more specifically, the people from those environments. I might not see eye-to-eye with them on interests or politics, but I appreciate their solidity, their small kindnesses, their willingness not to judge, or at least keep it politely to themselves. A while back, my friend Kerwin So and I were talking about this very subject, and he mentioned that he could see these same traits in the Goo Goo Dolls, one of upstate New York's proudest exports. He had a point: Yeah, maybe the Goo Goo Dolls are hair-gelled sellouts, but there's still a kernel of sincerity, of naivete in the midst of their calculation. I still respond to it when I see it in others.

And so there I was, smack dab in the Nevada desert, a bit tired, ultrasensitive to the environment after an abbreviated night of sleep, but this woman at the counter affected me. 70s soft rock was playing on the sound system, I made the pretense of reading the newspaper and checking out local real estate prices (as is my habit no matter where I travel -- some people collect keychains or postcards, but I collect real estate catalogs), and I couldn't help glancing at her behind that counter, her head now resting at an angle on her folded arms, recalling the bored storekeepers of childhood stories. If I were a different person, I'd sidle up to her, engage her in conversation, maybe even risk giving her my business card. Or if I were really different, I could have tried the line: I'm an indie filmmaker, would you be interested in being in a movie? Or further: a date to meet later that day, after the conference? Nothing but honorable intentions, a dinner, maybe walking down those streets, so beaten and bright during the day but soothing and intimate at night, with those cool breezes, the sounds of the street bands piping in like birdcalls. Conversation, sharing histories, dreams, even commonalities, if I could be so bold to believe. And what would come of it all? Maybe a connection, maybe an agreement to meet again someday, here in Carson City or over in San Francisco, and then --

But as it often does, something between resignation and cynicism took hold: No point, she lives here, you live there, and even if what you're imagining is fact, and she's not merely being nice just to be nice (as Vernon Silver, one-time executive editor of the Brown Daily Herald, said to me once, "Just because someone is nice doesn't mean that they're actually nice"), then what? Different worlds.

All this crossed my mind in a manner of seconds, and the remaining time in the cafe was a big feedback loop, deliberations colliding with temperance, fantasies splashed on with cold water. As Annie Savoy once said, the world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness. The time came to leave, and as Chris and I walked out, she called out to us, "Thanks a lot guys, have a great day." I turned as I said thanks, just half-turned, looking at her through the corner of my eye, and I could have sworn she was looking at Chris, or maybe she smiling at something just beyond both of us, outside the door, out there in the city. It was a look that shouldn't have had anything of import assigned to it, but somehow it made my heart ache. If I had the wherewithal or foresight, I would have had my camera with me, and taken a few shots of the cafe, of her. But instead I sit here in this blessedly cool San Francisco evening, reflecting on something that didn't happen, the memory already fading into the netherworld between reality and augmented fantasy, and no doubt many would say I'm taking the easy way out, making hay of pain and failure, but this is my therapy, and it's cheap. So here's to you, the women of Comma Coffee. May all your days be as redolent of dreams and alternative lives, and bittersweet as that Saturday morning was for me.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Scene of the Crime: "New Police Story"

New Police Story (2004, Dir. Benny Chan)

Bless Jackie Chan. Three decades of bone-crunching acrobatics, mugging for the cameras, and good-natured hijinks, and he's still at it. Never mind that he pulled off his one neat trick -- updating the goofy martial arts template he perfected in period pieces like Drunken Master for the modern world in the original Police Story -- 20 years ago. Since then, he's indulged in all-star Hong Kong productions, B-star Hollywood schlock, and even tried his hand at producing (check out the underrated 1988 film Rouge). While Hong Kong cinema was being co-opted by Hollywood, and undergoing its own convulsions (Wong Kar-Wai and Wong Jing, anyone?), Jackie stuck to his quaintly old-fashioned virtues: kung fu as dance number, lumbering connect-the-dots plots, appallingly broad/bad acting, masochistic pratfalls interjected as show stoppers. And now, over 50 years old and faced with his own irrelevance (does anyone really want to see Rush Hour 3?), he has returned to Hong Kong, and the series that cemented his international fame.

As with any formulaic genre venture that has earned a place in our hearts (look no further, Mr. Bond), we approach a Jackie Chan film with different criteria. Given the desultory lows of his recent American output, expectations were no doubt running high, but what were these expectations, exactly? Fight scenes lasting for 10 minutes? The usual indifference towards plot and character? Yet another death-defying stunt? How much is enough?

New Police Story, as the title suggests, doesn't quite go home again -- instead, it cannily updates the tried-and-true formula with what's hot in Hong Kong, circa 2004. Thus, we have an invasion of Generation Y actors, everyone from cutesy Charlene Choi, one half of the "Twins Effect" (don't ask), to fine-boned Nicholas Tse (Time and Tide), to the current paragon of scene-chewing rebellion, Daniel Wu (One Nite in Mongkok). The plot reflects this youth movement as well, self-consciously pitting Jackie as the old-guard, grizzled police inspector against Wu's self-absorbed, nihilistic posse of vid-game obsessed killers.

The story (which is unrelated to previous Police Story entries) finds Jackie disgraced and alcoholic after leading a sortie against Wu's gang, a mission that concludes tragically with all of Jackie's men killed (including his girlfriend's brother). Literally in the gutter, he is rescued by the chipper "Inspector 1667" (Tse), who vows to help Jackie regain his edge and track down Wu's boyz. Aiding him in his quest are a peppy computer expert at the local precinct (Choi) and Jackie's estranged ex-girlfriend (Charlie Yeung (Fallen Angels), making a long-awaited comeback to the big screen). Overall, it's a mite more serious than your typical Chan flick, but the film nonetheless follows the usual template, as Chan is the everyman wracked with fears and guilt, needing to prove himself like any self-respecting martial artist of yore.

Some have hailed Jackie's performance in this film as some kind of dramatic breakthrough, but he's merely throwing himself into "serious acting" with the same play-to-the-rafters brio that would typically be reserved for his fight scenes. So we get to watch him manfully act out his grief, his well-weathered face clenched with despair, or puking in impressive torrents. It's all respectable without being especially gripping. Fortunately, Tse provides much-needed comic relief, sauntering along like a confidence trickster, content to slip in a few sly jokes and mischievous grins. Compared to Jackie's lumbering George Foreman, he's like Muhammad Ali, only more laid back, and much more likeable than he is in his typical moody James Dean mode.

It also helps that Jackie has wisely enlisted director Benny Chan (who helmed his last great Hong Kong feature, Who Am I?) . Chan gives the film a glossy, professional look, and a veneer (you wouldn't want more than a veneer) of respectability. The plot doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, but Chan does yeoman's work in maintaining a sure pace, and playing off the ultra-sincere, determined Jackie against the scruffy youngsters around him. Not that there's no veterans in the crowd: Wu Bai shows up in a cameo, Yu Rong-Guang plays a skeptical fellow inspector and Charlie Yeung, while stuck in the thankless role of "devoted girlfriend in peril," manages to stamp a bit of her natural impishness on the part.

Surprisingly enough, Daniel Wu turns out to be a formidable antagonist, giving the film much of its buzz. His character isn't complicated, but he's given a bit more backstory than a villain usually receives, his hatred of cops explained in a few deft strokes. Chan movies aren't distinguished by their bad guys -- usually they're more misguided than anything else, or just plain pin-up stereotypes -- but Wu revels in every sneer and hot-dog manuever, showboating and all but sticking a finger in Chan's eye during their brief encounters. The palpable tension between them validates the film's strategy to go old versus young.

So how about the action? As a concession to Chan's age, the big setpieces are downplayed a bit, although there are some corkers in there, including a slip-slide down the face of a skyscraper, a runaway bus routine that harkens affectionately back to the original Police Story, a knock-down fight in a Lego toy shop (Jackie was never one to skimp on the product placement), and a climax atop the Hong Kong Convention Center. There isn't a single moment to suck the audience's breath away compared to some of Jackie's previous exploits, but he brings an old pro's grace to his tumbles and kicks. Perhaps the film's most charming moment occurs during the de rigeur "outtakes" that grace the film's end, in which Jackie leaps from a balcony, grabs hold of a flaming rope, and slides down it, extinguishing it with his hands. The wire that connects him safely to the ceiling during this manuever is plainly visible, a touching admission that it ain't the old days any more -- and you could never imagine the younger, egotistical Jackie willing to reveal such mortality -- but you still gasp at the hands-flaming rope bit. Some things don't change, thankfully.

New Police Story isn't groundbreaking and it won't change anyone's life, but as an introduction to a more modest, autumnal Jackie Chan, it's a solid entertainment, and proof that while you can't necessarily teach an old dog new tricks, you can still give him some fresh bones to gnaw on.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Zero-Sum Game: "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005, Dir. Doug Liman)

"I never said all actors are cattle ... what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle."

-- Alfred Hitchcock

How ironic, 25 years after his passing, and more than a half century since he directed an inconsequential little ditty called Mr. and Mrs. Smith, that the Master's pronouncement has been proven true by a Hollywood blockbuster action comedy titled Mr. and Mrs. Smith -- starring Brad and Angelina, no less.

The 2005 version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the critics are quick to tell us, has nothing to do with Hitch's 1941 screwball comedy with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery. As usual, the critics don't have it exactly right. One can read Doug Liman's film as the sunny-side down version of the earlier piece: where Lombard and Montgomery were two witty fools in love, their congenial marriage tested by manufactured, easily surmountable plot twists, Brad and Angelina's loveless union is given spice by the revelation of their secret agent identities and a host of familiar spy tropes, including the ultimate spook turn-on: erase him (or her) before she (or he) erases you.

Somewhere in Simon Kinberg's script lies a promising nugget -- how the antiseptic charms of the suburban life barely restrain the all-American preoccupations with danger, adventure, and bloody mayhem. It's a theme that Hitchcock flirted with many a time, punctuated with his bone-dry sense of humor. The difference is that Hitch never lost sight of the social niceties that gave satiric bite to his tales of counteragents and murder plots -- how many of his evildoers delighted in revealing themselves over a polite cup of tea? -- while the contemporary vision of this conundrum, as expressed in James Cameron's True Lies and 2005's Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is all about the collateral damage, as when our troubled lovers bash the bejeezus out of their tasteful designer curtains as well as each other. Sadly, that's about as close as this film gets to profundity or comedy, and that's particularly disappointing given that Liman has always paid attention to the quirks in his characters, even in big-budget thrillers like The Bourne Identity. Perhaps the combined star wattage of Brad and Angelina blinded the filmmakers to anything beyond placing them in Ken and Barbie poses (if you can imagine Ken and Barbie with automatic weaponry). The film is almost pornographic in its appreciation of our heroes, even as it skimps on anything that might define them as actual characters. Motivation and background are abstracted to the breaking point; hell, we never even learn if either of them work for the good guys. No, it's not the motion (or emotion) that matters here but the meat: how Angelina has the prettiest cut on her face from her bout of violence and lovemaking with Brad, or how Brad looks goofy but oh-so-sexy in his white shirt, bare legs, and ski boots. Cattle, indeed.

What to make of Angelina? I must admit, I've never quite understood her charms. Those bee-stung lips would certainly arrest anyone's attention, and her body -- voluptuous yet angular -- is its own special effect. However, for a superstar, there is something detached and incomplete about her performances. Usually she comes under fire for her vogue-like pouts -- nearly every shot of her in this movie seems like it was set up with an album cover in mind -- but I find those less troubling than her unconvincing stabs at method acting (at one point, I felt like chastising the makeup people for not importing enough fake tears). Brad just gives up entirely, underplaying his role to near invisibility, marble-mouthing his lines. He functions best when a film lays siege to his macho virility, as in David Fincher's Se7en and Fight Club, or he gets to go loopy, as the addled pothead in True Romance or the mental patient in 12 Monkeys. Here, he is too recessive a presence to register, and that proves deadly when it comes to striking any sparks with Angelina -- they certainly seem comfy together, but as an on-screen couple, they're too prickly and internalized to generate any real heat. The only character who escapes with his comic dignity intact is Vince Vaughn as Brad's agitated handler. Living with his mom and brandishing shotguns at the first sign of trouble, he seems to have sneaked in from a wilder, more interesting movie, and like a lonely signpost, he is the only remnant of the Liman style.

To compensate for the lack of plot and inspired comedy, Liman falls back on some half-hearted references from Prizzi's Honor and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and punches up the action quotient. So we get assaults on high-tech skyscrapers, another car chase down a wrong-way freeway, houses blasted to smithereens, kitchens scorched by gunfire. It's all well executed, and Liman has a thing for witty throwaway gags in the midst of the carnage -- one funny bit has Brad tsk-tsking to his wife, "We have to talk," from the back seat of a car, just as said car swan-dives into the river -- but in the end, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is really about marriage therapy, paid for with the corpses of hundreds of faceless agents. In short, Hollywood business as usual. I'll take murder with tea and crumpets, thank you very much.