Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jesus, New York City, did you lose a war or something?

Thank you, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, for helping me kill two hours.

"Now I'm back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance!"
-Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), Rhoda

"Wow. That's a pretty big JCPenney. Not the biggest I've ever seen, but still... pretty big."

Those were among my thoughts, friends, when I got my first glimpse at the Big Apple in over a decade. I am here now, and the voyage was largely a nonevent, even a little dull. I chickened out at the last minute and decided to take a cab from my apartment to O'Hare rather than drive there and leave my car in overnight parking. This meant getting up at 4:30 a.m., but I must say I handled it like a champ. I arrived 90 minutes early, like you're supposed to do, but getting through security only took about four minutes for me. Hey, that's what your life is like when you're a part of the least-discriminated-against demographic in America.

So I waited at the Delta terminal in Chicago for a while before boarding. The airport was a lot like a very tidy, orderly shopping mall at that hour of the day. Everything is grey. Grey walls, grey carpet, grey-haired businessmen. It's just a functional, impersonal kind of place. I boarded the plane with no problem whatsoever, and the flight was equally uneventful.

This was my first voyage by airplane in a decade (at least), and it felt like a big nothing. It seemed like it was over before it even started. It takes much less time to travel from Chicago to New York by plane (one-third of the country) than it does to travel from Chicago to Indiana by train (one state over). One young lady behind me had a brief panic attack when we took off, and the flight crew had to give her an oxygen mask and assure her that everything was going to be juuuuuuuust fine. By the time we got to LaGuardia, which looked exactly like O'Hare, she was giddily taking pictures out the window of the plane and trying to spot the Statue of Liberty. Quick healer, that gal.

Click here for an article (on another website) about my previous trip to NYC. It was another cinema nerd pilgrimage. Back then, I headed East to see some of John Waters' rare movies and his art. Am I predictable or am I predictable, huh? For more about John's art career, visit this site.

Once I got to LaGuardia, it was surprisingly easy to get a cab. The cab ride, though, seemed to take a small eternity. Traffic was pretty darned heavy. I saw the same previews for Jeopardy!, Jimmy Kimmel, and something called Selfie (a new sitcom starring either Harold or Kumar) many times over on the little monitor in the back seat, along with a public service announcement urging us all to bump fists rather than shake hands because of the spread of germs and communicable diseases.

Once we finally got to the hotel, I realized I was staying in a pretty dumpy-looking neighborhood. Not post-apocalyptic or anything but nothing photogenic or memorable either. I mean, there are some gentrified-looking folks here with skinny pants and overpriced headphones. But there are also some lost souls wandering around outside: bedraggled folks who look like God just shat in their mouths.

When I got to the Comfort Inn on Ludlow, I was a little disappointed to see only two employees, a maintenance guy and a desk clerk, on duty in the cramped and dimly-lit lobby. Both looked supremely uninterested in whatever was going on around them, up to and including my arrival. I know that "good customer service" requires a level of completely counterfeit enthusiasm, but that fake cheeriness is kind of reassuring. The dead-eyed young lady behind the front desk, on the other hand, seemed to be doing a spot-on Kristen Stewart impression and just told me in an affectless voice to come back in a few hours. I tried asking her about the location of the Anthology Film Archives, but this was a total flop. After three unsuccessful attempts at spelling the word A-N-T-H-O-L-O-G-Y to her, we both agreed it was futile and gave up.

Starring Jessica Chastain's hair!
But what the hell was I going to do until the room became available? Here is where my inexperience as a traveler comes into play. I'm in (allegedly) one of the greatest cities in the world, and I have no idea what to do here. I just wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood (lower Manhattan), trying to get the lay of the land. In a way, this was comforting to a person who almost never travels.

You know what New York City has? The same exact stuff every place else has. People. Cars. Restaurants. Stores. Sidewalks. Hotels. More people, some on bikes. That's it. It just has a bunch of that stuff piled up in one place. That's all. In my travels today, I crossed at least two thoroughfares whose names I recognized from popular culture: Delancey and Bowery. And you know what these are? They're streets. Cars drive up and down 'em, and there are buildings on either side. Same as anywhere. Same as where you probably are now. "Oh, look, it's a different CVS! And a different Whole Foods!" Meh. Travel, I can take or leave. I don't genuinely feel like I'm "missing out" on much.

Anyway, to pass the time until my room became available, I did what any good movie geek would do. I went to the movies. The one theater within easy walking distance was a place called Sunshine Cinema. I decided to see whatever was playing closest to the time I showed up at the theater. That turned out to be something called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a miserable married couple who spend two hours pouting and sulking, both separately and together. It's one of those "bad things happening to pretty people" movies, complete with wishy-washy ethereal music on the soundtrack and cinematography that makes everything look like a high-end mail-order catalog. Boilerplate indie stuff. (Highlight the next sentence for spoiler alert about the plot: After the couple's infant son dies, the wife attempts suicide and leaves her husband without further explanation. The movie is mostly about the aftermath of those events.)

William Hurt is in it, if that helps. He has a beard this time and squints a lot. Nobody actually sings "Eleanor Rigby," but that song does come up in conversation a few times. There are apparently two more movies' worth of this material: a Him version and a Her version. Neither sounds too tempting, since both of these folks are kind of petulant, entitled twerps; but given a choice, I'd take Him, because James McAvoy's half of the movie has Bill Hader in it.

On the other hand, Her would have even more of Jessica Chastain's incredible red hair. With such fiery locks and such pale, pale skin, you might think she was in danger of looking like Ronald McDonald. But she pulls it off. So majestic is the Chastain mane that there's a poster for this movie that literally features nothing but her hair. Not even her eerily perfect face. Just her eerily perfect, shampoo ad hair.

In fairness, I suppose I should say that the movie is well-made or at least well-constructed. It certainly looks attractive, and the actors seem to be truly committed to the material, especially Chastain. But the entire affair felt stagy and scripted to me, as if the characters knew darned well that we were listening in on their conversations. That's a downside for what's supposed to be a slice-of-life drama.

And a lot of the characters, well-acted, though they may be, seemed cliched, e.g. Viola Davis as Chastain's "sassy black friend." Davis plays an accomplished and worldly college professor in this movie, but her relationship with Chastain is still a distant echo of the Vivian Leigh/Hattie McDaniel dynamic from 1939's Gone with the Wind. You know what this picture needed? Guidance from the ghost of Ingmar Bergman. Ingmar could have made something special out of these ingredients..

Okay, time to get serious. Tonight's the night -- the event I flew 800 miles for. Wednesday is Rudolph Grey's once-in-a-lifetime presentation of rare Ed Wood movies. If only I could find the darned place.


  1. Thanks for the review. I now know another indy to avoid should it arrive at a local theater (most unlikely in Wyoming) or eventually appear on Sundance or IFC. I am somewhat familiar with McAvoy, primarily for his work on the British series "Shameless," in which he portrayed a professional car thief but otherwise was the only normally functioning character in this house full of delightfully dysfunctional residents. Am not familiar with Jessica Chastain's hair, however.

  2. Look at the poster. It tells you all you need to know about Jessica Chastain's hair. It's Oscar-worthy hair.

  3. I hope to never be in the same room as Jessica Chastain, because there's no way I could stop myself from just gently stroking those locks. The whole time I'd be apologizing, of course. I'm sure she's used to it.

    1. Yeah. I'd imagine she's comfortable with it and just gets it out of the way at the very beginning. "Let me guess. You want to touch my hair." SPOILER ALERT: She chops most of her hair off in this movie. But it doesn't come close to diminishing the power of those follicles.