Image B Sound B Extras A-
starring Dan Futterman, Alan Cumming, Matt Keeslar, Samuel Ball
screenplay by Daniel Reitz and Jon Shear
directed by Jon Shear
by Walter Chaw We are each of us an anthology of disparate tales, rumors, poems, and melodramatic novellas. Clive Barker once wryly observed that we are books of blood, "wherever we're opened, we're red," and for as intentionally grotesque as that sounds, Barker has a metaphysical point. It is the same point that Jon Shear's directorial debut Urbania makes again and again (and, unfortunately, again): that the stories we tell others become our reality through their manipulated perceptions. If we are what others see us as, then what we cause others to see us as becomes what we are--each of us is very literally an author of our own identity through the abuse of others' faith in our stories. There are two areas that this kind of reality crafting/testing holds a specific currency: sexual identity, and urban legend--"don't ask, don't tell," and "this really happened to a friend of mine," invocations to a post-modernist muse and a deconstructed vocal tradition.
Urbania emerges from this confusion of signifier and sign as a frequently cunning amalgam of After Hours, Memento, and Angels in America--it is, in other words, nightmarish, disjointed, invested in reality-testing, and ultimately too theatrical. The performances are superb if almost reptilian in their chill, and the meticulously composed Super16 cinematography (digitally transcribed to 35mm) manages to evoke an almost ineffable sense of vaguely grainy neo-noir/Buñuel-ian surrealistic grit. It is a frightfully complicated film that evolves from an unfocused horror-reenactment of a few popular urban legends (the one-night stand devolving into a kidney theft, etc...) into a detective story with an uncertain MacGuffin and a muted gumshoe, into a gay-themed bit of sometimes disturbing eroticism, and, finally, into a supernaturally-tinged J. O'Barr vengeance intrigue. It all doesn't work together very well, to be frank, although the editing (by Randolph Bricker and Ed Marx) is expert and occasionally dazzling (there are an unusual number of cuts in Urbania). The film's failure can be traced not to the acting nor to the direction, but to an exhaustion of its beleaguered central trope.
Urbania is a good fifteen minutes overlong--what might have been truly effective at 90 minutes overstays its welcome badly at 105. If taken as four separate short films, even short films linked by a commonality of character and scene, Urbania potentially gains in resonance. I suspect that Daniel Reitz's stage play (Reitz and Shear collaborated on the screenplay) was segmented into distinct Act breaks that the linear demands of the film medium do not successfully disguise. What results is not so much a poignancy emerging from the morass, but a sometimes intriguing opacity that eventually puts one off with its archness and self-satisfied cleverness. Even its frustrating smugness would have been forgiven, however, with a more modest repetition of theme; alas, Urbania would rather speak with individually powerful moments replicated ad nauseum in increasingly unpleasant and symbolically transparent gradations.
Charlie (Dan Futterman, The Birdcage) is frustrated, listless, and angry in the manner of a John Osborne protagonist wandering the Chelsea area of New York. He is a creature of black-pooled shadows and the warm bathetic glow of tenement windows, and it's not clear until twenty minutes into the film, in a scene that unfolds at a bar called "Karma," that Charlie is, in fact, a gay man. Urbania is about reality and parallax, the crafting of stories from confusing experiences that become stories, and then mythologies, and then truth. More particularly, it is an examination of what the homosexual culture believes about the heterosexual culture, and vice versa; some of the myths and legends are benign howlers, others far less so.
The cleverest (and most thought-provoking) trap that you can fall into while watching the labyrinth of Urbania is not realizing that some of its portrayals of gays (or straights), rather than reflect reality, depict sexual urban legends that depend, of course, upon the set of mythologies the individual brings with him to a screening. If the film is about the relationship between spoken legend and the possible causalities in the troublesome lore spurring violence and intolerance, though, the question immediately arises as to why Urbania includes myths entirely unrelated to sexual dynamics if not for the throwaway masturbatory diversion.
Futterman is fantastic, Alan Cumming as a stricken friend is typically terrific, and relative newcomer Samuel Ball contributes an exceptionally menacing turn as a sublimated gay-basher. Factoring individual scenes of tenderness and surprising frankness in regards to sexuality and hate crime, Urbania is so brave and interesting in so many ways that it's a bitter shame its reliance on its own imploding ingeniousness ultimately distracts from and mutes the courageous examination of bigotry, misunderstanding, and grief that rages at its clarion core.
Urbania is a visual evocation of a fever dream, doubled and redoubled with the appearance of doppelgängers and multiple roles for almost all of the actors. It is a giant metaphor and an allegory--a cautionary tale and an urban folk mythology--a story told as organically as possible from the perspective of a protagonist that is entirely unreliable. Unsettling and wilfully obscure, Urbania is worth a look for a great many good reasons (a complex "gay" movie that is neither farce nor exploitation, an experimental piece interested in expanding the time conventions of theatre and film), though it ends up being a good deal less than what it might have been because of its scenario's self-satisfaction. The problem with smart people is that they sometimes outsmart themselves--what Urbania needed more than anything else was a dumb person, during an umpteenth reiteration of thesis, to cry "uncle."
The Trimark DVD release of Urbania is presented in a very nice if unspectacular non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that lacks a certain clarity born of its super-16 source rather than any sloppiness in the authoring. The colours are super-saturated and slightly bled, as expected with the shooting format of choice. That grainy, decadent quality lends itself particularly well to the surreal/noir feeling of the film. A 5.1 Dolby Digital track is somewhat underutilized and a little quiet, but there is also a lack of any real need for bombastic five-channel audio pyrotechnics in the film; all that you need know is the dialogue sounds clear and the indie soundtrack is appropriately evocative of the Chelsea underground nightlife.
The disc is packed with welcome extras ranging from an information-packed fifteen-minute featurette with director Shear concerning the transfer process from Super16 to digital to 35mm, to an occasionally interesting interview with Jan Brunvald, the sociologist/author of several volumes on urban legends (of which The Mexican Pet is my favorite). Seven deleted scenes (complete with optional commentary) display Shear's desire to improve the flow of the film and his own realization that Urbania may suffer from a sort of atonal disjointedness that undermines the point of the picture instead of underscoring it. A feature-length commentary includes Shear, Futterman, Cumming, and writer Reitz and is ebullient with enthusiasm and intelligence, if not a surplus of edifying material. It's certainly not a wasted exercise, but neither is it indispensable for full enjoyment of the film.
All in all, an admirable DVD for one of the most lauded independent films of 2000--so-praised, I suspect, more for its uncomfortable inscrutability and boldness than for the satisfactory accomplishment of its apparent (and noble) ends. Originally published: July 10, 2001.