' ' Cinema Romantico: When A Movie Becomes Real Life

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When A Movie Becomes Real Life

Seeing yourself on the movie screen is a rare and wonderful event. I don't mean 'see yourself' see yourself, but you see a character that for a brief window of time represents precisely what you are and how you feel and how you would act in a given situation. They don't happen often but every once in awhile they pop up and, boy, are they umistakable.

A moment for me would be Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous" telling William, "I'd stay up all night, just writing and writing. Like, twenty pages of dribble. You know, just to f---ing write."

Or the moment near the end of "The Royal Tenenbaums" when the father (Gene Hackman) is watching his daughter's (Gwyneth Paltrow) latest play and a character onstage says, "This is my adopted daughter, Eileen Levinson" which is a reference to the way her father always used to introduce her and no one gets it but the father so he's the only audience member laughing. I'm always the only audience member laughing at things during movies and, in fact, the scene used earlier in "The Royal Tenenbaums" to set up the one I just mentioned was a scene at which no one in the whole theater but me (and my friend Caleb, admittedly) was laughing. That blows my mind.

But there is one scene that stands above the rest, one moment when I think somehow for a quick flash I was reincarnated as the character in the movie.

I recently purchased the Criterion Collection DVD of screenwriter Noah Baumbach's directorial debut, "Kicking and Screaming". Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale", "Margot at the Wedding", and Wes Anderson's co-writer on "The Life Aquatic") is without a doubt one of my favorite writers. And his flare for verbal wit is on full display in his very first opus. It concerns several males in their early 20's who have just graduated college and are, of course, now confused what to do with their lives.

There is wannabe' novelist Grover (Josh Hamilton) whose girlfriend Jane (Olivia D'Abo) has just gone away to graduate school in Prague. ("I haven't 'been to Prague' been to Prague, but I know that thing - that, 'Stop shaving your armpits, read 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', now I know how bad American coffee is thing.") There is surly Max (Chris Eigeman), a guy who "does nothing" and often finds himself "nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday." There is bartender and 10th year student Chet (Eric Stoltz). And, oh yes, there is neurotic Otis (Carlos Jacott - who you may also remember as infamous Ramon the Pool Guy, desperately leeching onto Jerry in an episode of "Seinfeld"). Otis is the sort of guy who starts a two person book club and then doesn't read the book. Otis is the sort of person with only two moods - "testy and antsy."

But, most importantly, there comes a moment when Otis and Grover are seated together at a bar table and the waitress brings them each a glass of beer. "Thanks," Otis says as she sets a glass in front of him. "Thank you," he says as she serves Grover. "Thanks very much," he offers as she takes their empty glasses. She plods away and Otis then realizes his glass of beer has food in it - "a piece of a chicken wing....a cheese fry." Grover advises he should return it but Otis doesn't want to. He fears the waitress is having a bad day and this "might set her off". And so rather than risk the wrath of the waitress, he drinks the beer with food in it. ("I like this better anyway.")

The first time I saw this I laughed so hard and so long I had to pause the movie. And re-watching it a few days ago caused laughter that brought tears to my eyes. That is EXACTLY, in every conceivable way, what I would do in that situation. I would say "thanks" over and over to a waitress who appeared to be in a foul mood and if my beer had food in it, there is no WAY I'd return it.

Yes, I like to think I relate to Ewan McCregor in "A Life Less Ordinary" when he awakes to find Cameron Diaz on the edge of his bed, smiling and in her underwear, and advising him "You were great" to which he replies, puzzled, "I was?" But, come on, that would imply that 1.) I could somehow "get" Cameron Diaz and 2.) I would be good. Not a chance.

In truth, I'm a neurotic, antsy idiot who would rather cough up a cheese fry that wasn't mine then risk human contact by returning my drink.


Wretched Genius said...

I could also see you as the guy to whom Cameron Diaz pours out her heart, only to have you crush her dreams by telling her that you did not, in fact, write that poem.

Nick Prigge said...

Well, of course. It wouldn't be right to take credit for someone else's eloquent poetry.

"Desert me, wretched loneliness
and bring me back my love
for she and I have parted
and the sky is up above."