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Pulp Friction 

Roger Avary hooks up with Bret Easton Ellis

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002
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Certain movies seem calculated to divide audiences, as if the filmmakers relished the prospect of fistfights erupting in the lobby. Roger Avary‘s The Rules of Attraction, which opens this week, ups the ante by threatening to divide people against themselves. Alternately ravishing and repellent, and sometimes both at once, it leaves you wondering whether to laud Avary or slug him. My guess, as we begin the interview, is that he will understand exactly how I feel, and that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

”Most people see the reverse-vomiting shot and just go ‘Eeew,’“ Avary allows, in reference to the most eye-catching (and potentially gag-inducing) cinematic flourish in Rules of Attraction, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis‘ 1987 novel about the undergraduate lifestyles of the rich and puerile. The shot occurs during an early party-hearty sequence, in which one of the movie’s three central characters, Lauren Hynde (played by A Knight‘s Tale’s Shannyn Sossamon), rises to consciousness out of a drunken blackout to discover that she is losing her virginity, doggy style, to a complete stranger -- a grinding humiliation that is soon trumped when, in the words of Avary‘s screenplay, ”The townie heaves up a mouthful of barf, spraying it onto Lauren’s back with a satisfying SPLASH.“

The suck-it-up instant-rewind effect that follows is typical of the way the movie operates, and of the contradictory responses it provokes. The shot is something brand-new in the annals of gross-out cinema, an achievement of sorts. It is also an act of pure directorial bravado, kicking off a showy device of winding entire sequences back to their starting points, in order to take off again from the POV of a different character -- a direct attempt, it turns out, to duplicate a key effect in the novel.

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When Avary read the book as an undergraduate, he saw it as ”a comedy of disconnection and misidentification.“ He was struck, he says, ”by how this was used to generate parallel but contradictory views of singular events -- which is something that has always fascinated me, how different people can see the world in totally different ways. But instead of just showing you the various versions in separate scenes [a familiar ploy in movies at least since Rashomon, in 1950], I wanted to try to link the different accounts by rewinding back to the point at which they diverge. The idea is to give you a visceral understanding that while you are still connected to one time and place, you are seeing things from different angles. It became a device to elaborate on what Brett was doing.“

According to his press bio, ”Roger Avary has a digestive tract that is 17 meters long and is a strict vegetarian.“ He is also the Oscar-winning co-writer of Pulp Fiction (a prize he shared with former video-store colleague, and ex-friend, Quentin Tarantino, whose Reservoir Dogs Avary also co-scripted), the executive producer of the sci-fi TV pilot Mr. Stitch and of the independent end-of-the-world fable The Last Man, and the writer-director of the 1994 thriller Killing Zoe, in which Eric Stoltz, as a hapless safecracker visiting a pal in Paris, is drawn into the doomed schemes of a group of drugged-out bank robbers led by Jean-Hughes Anglade. If anything, Avary‘s film-nerd brain-riffs are even more dizzying than Tarantino’s, in part because they are more wide-ranging. He can segue smoothly from a passionate defense of an underappreciated ”B“ favorite like George A. Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead (”one of the great social satires in the history of American cinema“) to an exegesis on the physiology of film reception. (Video can never emulate the exhilaration of movies because its continuously refreshed scanned images induce a druggy alpha state in the viewer.)

We adjourn from a noisy Mexican restaurant in downtown Manhattan Beach to Avary’s nearby office, upstairs in the guest quarters behind his home -- a writer‘s hidey-hole that looks like the workspace of an artisan, a cobbler or a carpenter. One whole bookcase is filled with tomes about Salvador Dali, research material for a biographical dream project about the painter’s embattled private life. A heavy wooden worktable is dominated by the flat-screen Power Mac G4 on which Rules of Attraction was written and home-edited, using an off-the-shelf copy of Final Cut Pro and a pair of 240GB hard drives. At the same time, I‘m struck by the wood-paneled, almost old-fashioned ambiance.

”I’m often misinterpreted as a filmmaker,“ he says. ”I‘m a fairly conservative, right-wing person, believe it or not. I’m not a leftist in any sense of the word. I have a family, I have kids. I don‘t like guns. It’s not like I want to spin the world into anarchy! But that doesn‘t mean that I should be making films that are conservative in style or content in order to get my point across. Sometimes it’s better to explore extremity in order to find your own center. I would suggest that everything I do is highly moral, that I am actually a moralist. Most people think that I am amoral, but they aren‘t looking deep enough.“

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