If I were to write to you in the style that director and co-screenwriter Jon Shear chose for his film Urbania, you wouldn’t know if I were writing to you or your Aunt Tilly; you wouldn’t know if I were living in the past or the present; you wouldn’t know if I was drunk or just inarticulate; if my friends were alive or dead; and, ultimately, if I took too long to clear things up, I don’t think you’d care much either way.
The disorienting Urbania is kind of a gay man’s After Hours, only without the tight, disciplined dialogue that characterized Joseph Minion’s mini-classic cult film from the mid-’80s. This film follows a guy named Charlie into bars and bedrooms and bathrooms as he seeks a nameless man for an unspecified reason. Charlie is a moderately handsome gay man with a haunted, threadbare sensibility, acted as well as possible under the circumstances by Dan Futterman. Both women and men throw themselves at him, but he has eyes only for a certain man, who the director lets us see in quick glances out windows and within flashbacks (ones impossible to date in any kind of a timeline). By the end of the film we learn the name of this man, Dean (played by Samuel Ball) and the reason Charlie wants to track him down: Dean viciously and sadistically killed Charlie’s lover, Chris (Matt Keeslar), after forcing the lover to give him a blowjob. But by the time this is clarified, it’s too late to salvage any sense of why the viewer has been kept waiting senselessly for lucidity for the past hour and a half. I also find it a particularly disappointing resolution yet another gay film that needs to depend on acts of violence to atone for its homosexual content (see review of Aimée and Jaguar). Even worse, the form of the violence in this particular film added what seemed to me a dollop of prurience to an already profoundly disturbing scene.
Rather than elevating the film beyond the familiar, its self-conscious artiness frequently works against it. Particularly grating are the lines repeated throughout the film and entrusted with the film’s symbolism. The first one is, “You hear so many horror stories about what’s going on out there.” Or, “Just when you thought you were safe wrong place, wrong time.”
Images meant to give weight to these statements, and to justify the film title’s reference to the symbolic power of the urban legend, flow in and out of the story without a clear sense of any chronology. Seeking Dean, Charlie lurks in a bar that is a known hangout of Dean’s, and that becomes a sort of perverted Cheers backdrop for most of Charlie’s salient encounters. Charlie strikes up a relationship with the bartender Matt (Josh Hamilton), who makes Ted Danson seem downright introspective. Matt says of the woman who left him her fortune after he showed her his penis: “She was in her early forties, beautiful, man; a lover of jazz and bourbon sours.” Anyway, apparently this gal liked what she saw so much that she named Matt the beneficiary of her life insurance policy and then promptly got on a plane which blew up.
Bartender Matt is a heterosexual man with a serviceable and vicarious understanding of queerness. He watches out for Charlie by keeping one eye out for Dean while encouraging Charlie to go home with another patron of the bar, a soap opera star. The two men tangle once in bed; they’re both tops, and angry at having been misled. Violence between them is narrowly averted.
Another confrontational contretemps occurs in the bar when Charlie muscles in on a heterosexual twosome who are out on a date. At first, I thought the man in the couple was Dean (of course, at that point, I still didn’t know his name), but it turned out that these two were Charlie’s upstairs neighbors.
Charlie is angry and disenfranchised throughout the film, and in this encounter he displays that by hinting to the woman in the couple that he has had his way with the man in a previous encounter and has masturbated to the sound of their upstairs love-making, but the woman, a blond who is ditsy beyond even the reach of the most vulgar cliché, slaps his face and the two leave. The woman’s irritating laughter and lack of intelligence make a caricature of her, and the director treats the two other women who appear briefly in the film with equal disregard.
Yet I am glad for the existence in this jagged narrative of those upstairs neighbors, since the moans of their nocturnal sex became the music to which Charlie treats viewers to the movie’s sexiest moment. At home in his apartment, with a horror movie audibly grinding along on his TV, Charlie hears them fucking. The bed is creaking, the woman is screaming, the man is moaning. With the soundtrack of the horror movie added into this mix, Charlie, supine on his bed, slides his hand along his belly and down into his shorts. His hand closes around his cock as though it were the only thing in this blind world he could find by seeking, and he begins to stroke himself in long, consoling gestures. This is a truly artistic and arousing moment, a moment when all the things the film tries to be successfully coalesce without explanation, a moment when the Photographer wins out over the Writer, a moment when the film puts itself fully and literally into the hands of the passion that inspired it.
The filmmaker achieves similar depth in his extended shots of Charlie with his lover, Chris. When the two men kiss, the viewer senses the presence of something sacred, the loss of which is worth avenging. One simple scene finds the two lovers by the kitchen sink, surprising themselves with simple statements of love, of commitment, of romance.
The movie’s strengths lie in these individual moments, not in the arc of its narrative. The climax of the film comes when Charlie finally finds Dean, goes out gay-bashing with him, gets him drunk and takes him out to a field. Wretching and helpless, Dean is at Charlie’s mercy. Although the movie avoids the vengeful violence Lethal Weapon-trained audiences might expect, the alternative direction it takes is executed so flimsily that it’s hardly fresh, much less redemptive.
In a final scene of the film, Charlie says goodnight to a beggar who has already appeared several times before, a character who is, in my opinion, begging more for richer characterization in the film than for money for a sandwich. The beggar keeps repeating his line, “Don’t forget to set your clock back.”
This advice had best been dispensed to the director of this daring independent film, whose temporal confusion serves only to obfuscate the film’s narrative, rather than lend it some guiding metaphor. As a viewer, I was as lost in Urbania as Charlie. Given the cruel landscape he was given to traverse, maybe it was better that way.
Deb Margolin and Nerve.com, Inc.