By Sherrie Li
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By Amanda Lewis
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By Sherrie Li
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.
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.“
In this, as it happens, Avary is echoing his source. Bret Easton Ellis declared in a recent interview with The Onion that he is ”really shocked when critics get morally outraged at my fiction because they think I’m condoning what‘s going on. I’m actually writing from a very heartfelt position about these poor souls . . . My impulses as a writer stem from being a satirist, and they stem from looking around and seeing what disgusts me in [the] culture and creating a novel out of that.“ One thing‘s for certain: The re-regurgitation effect leaves very little in doubt about the kind of experience we’re in for, a film that combines a zestful commitment to ”cinema“ for its own sake with a blunt-force approach to getting narrative points across.
”I tend not to be overly concerned with subtleties,“ Avary grants. ”The one thing the MPAA [Jack Valenti‘s Motion Picture Association of America, which initially slapped an NC-17 on Rules of Attraction, then backed up to an R when Avary agreed to some cuts] doesn’t understand about me is that I go extreme with things for a reason. At the end of Killing Zoe, a character gets shot up during a bank robbery, and that image was originally twice as long. It went on forever. It was physically impossible. It went so far into the beyond that it became parody. And the more you cut it down, the more realistic it becomes. The shorter version is actually more brutal because it stops before the event becomes ridiculous.“ Avary says the uncut ”European version“ of Rules will be available on DVD next year, and notes in a posting on his Web site, avary.com, that ”The MPAA didn‘t gouge us too badly. The benefit of fighting with them, and going back again and again, is that they eventually give in where it counts.“
As an extension of his war of nerves with the MPAA, Avary took his campaign to the press, and if you read his pugnacious statements, it was hard to resist the suspicion that the director would be profoundly disappointed if he ever made a movie that the a MPAA didn’t hate. Anthony Lane put his finger on it in his New Yorker review of Killing Zoe: ”Like Tarantino, Avary isn‘t just crowd-challenging, he’s crowd-threatening. The implication is that if we turn aside, or find it all too much, we‘re not cool enough to watch his work in the first place.“ What, then, could be more uncool than being okay to the MPAA?
”I will be very pleased,“ Avary says, ”if half the people who walk out of this movie hate it and despise it, because I tend to polarize people anyway. A real movie begins when the people leave the theater.“
The cinematic meeting of minds between a novelist and a filmmaker who have been denounced for both their content and their tone has been in the works for something like 15 years. Avary had loved Ellis’ 1985 debut novel, Less Than Zero, and as an undergraduate at Menlo College, near San Francisco, he devoured the writer‘s sophomore effort, The Rules of Attraction. ”I certainly didn’t come from that kind of affluent background,“ Avary recalls, ”and I didn‘t know the East Coast scene at all. But I was seeing things around me at school that were just like the stuff in the book. I was more of an observer, a little too introverted to ever be one of these people, but I loved watching them. Later on, I channeled a lot of the things I saw into the movie.“
He also responded to the narrative challenge thrown down by the novel. The complex storyline is sort of anti--La Ronde, a daisy chain of inappropriate ”attractions“ in which the yearning parties never match: Paul loves Sean, who thinks he loves Lauren, who is carrying a torch for an oblivious globetrotting climber named Victor. They seem to embrace meaningless gratification out of despair at ever finding something genuine. ”This book is entirely about the most intense aspect of sexuality,“ Avary says, ”not the fulfillment but the unrequited desire. In any love story the anticipation of connecting is the most delicious moment, and you never feel it more than when you’re that age. Everything is so big in those moments that it can be really dangerous. That‘s when you do things like putting your fist through a wall, or killing yourself, because you love someone.
“There’s only one time in life when you are taken out of the nest and are suddenly in a place where anything is possible. You are too naive to really understand the world, and yet you‘re exploding on the inside and transforming into something else, undergoing a metamorphosis. There’s a rush of excitement and also a very real terror that a you‘re going to travel down the wrong path and not succeed in fulfilling your dreams -- and that if you make the wrong move, then all those doors will close forever.”
Ellis’ novel is an intense undergraduate hell, but it is also just one volume in the writer‘s millennial Comedie Humaine, an ongoing series of deadpan assaults upon the overprivileged Bright Young Things of the Eastern WASP elite. As in Balzac, characters carry over from book to book: The title character of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, is the elder brother of Rules’ Sean Bateman, played here with clenched intensity by James Van Der Beek. And Lauren‘s horrendously misjudged love object, Victor Ward, graduates from supporting-player status to the leading role in Ellis’ most recent novel, Glamorama, in which he is shadowed across Europe by bomb-planting terrorist supermodels. (Avary is already at work on a Glamorama screenplay; he plans to film the story next year, with Rules actor Kip Pardue returning as Victor.)
Avary actually extends the reach of Ellis‘ satire by injecting deliberate anachronisms into the novelist’s impeccably detailed period tapestry: In what appear to be the Reagan ‘80s, characters have DV cameras, pop Viagra and log on to the Internet. “When I first wrote the script,” he says, “I was worried that this Bret Easton Ellis 1980s nihilism was peculiar to that time period. I was worried that post-AIDS and everything else, maybe things had changed. But what I discovered is that things are even more extreme than when I was in college. There’s much less restraint. Kids use this expression ‘hooking up’ now. It‘s no big deal to ’hook up‘ with somebody at a party. It’s not even related to primarily in sexual terms.”
Avary refuses to let his audience off the hook by implying that these are phenomena unique to the 1980s: “My movies tend to be spatially and temporally non-specific. You can look at Rules and say, ‘That doesn’t look like a college in New Hampshire.‘ [The film was actually shot at the University of Redlands in California.] But that isn’t important to me. Most of Killing Zoe takes place in a bank in Paris, but it doesn‘t look like any bank I’ve ever seen in Paris. It‘s more a bubble reality designed to enclose someone inside his own psychology. That sounds pretentious, but it’s really what I like to think that I do.
”In a sense, I tried to make the whole movie as if you were inside those people‘s heads. With most films you sit back and watch the action, you’re separated from it, and that somehow makes it easier to watch something that by its nature is difficult to watch. When you crawl inside of the situation and you‘re looking at it from inside the psychology of the character, that’s when people can‘t handle it, because all of a sudden you’re forcing them to see through someone else‘s eyes. And that, to me, is what makes cinema such a fabulous art form, that you really do get to look through someone else’s eyes, almost as if you‘re watching a dream. Or a nightmare.“
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