New Getting On with James Urbaniak

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James Urbaniak has a new podcast up, written by me, titled “Old Girlfriends” available at your local internet machine. It is a must.

“Urbaniak’s Last Cast”













The actor James Urbaniak, who readers of this blog will know as the voice of Dr. Venture, or as the polygraph guy on Homeland, has been one of my closest friends since I met him on this very date (well, yesterday on this very date) in 1989 at a shoebox theater in lower Manhattan during a blizzard.  True story.

Lately, he’s been doing these podcasts, Getting On with James Urbaniak.  He emailed me and asked me to contribute a piece, and of course I was happy to do so, and you can hear it here.  It turned out pretty awesome.

The assignment was very specific: not a monologue or a rant or a routine, but a monodrama: that is, a drama, with a plot, and conflict, and events occurring, premise, development, crisis, denouement, all that, starring one actor, James, playing a character named “James Urbaniak.”  I’m a huge Samuel Beckett fan from way back, and the only thing that popped into my head as a suitable monodrama was an adaptation of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, where an elderly man, a failed writer, reviews tapes he made of himself when he was younger and wonders about what happened to himself.

So that’s what I did, except I made the elderly writer James.  His performance is more than I could have hoped for.

All the events James talks about in the podcast are true stories.  James really did audition for the part of Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, he really did do a hit show off-Broadway where he really was too busy to meet Paul Newman, he really did walk the red carpet at Cannes, he really so forth.  The only one of the stories that isn’t true at all is the first one, where he auditions for the part of Eugene in The Miracle Worker in high school but loses the part to the school quarterback.  That didn’t happen to him, that happened to me, exactly as set down.

He didn’t really do an impression of Mackensie Crook at his audition for the role of Dwight Schrute.  Rainn Wilson, to my knowledge, does not have a three-story mansion in Santa Barbara, and James does not live in a crappy bungalow in Eagle Rock.

The cassette recorder referred to in the text was one my family owned in the late 1960s, one very much like these:











Finally, a “frustum” is a truncated pyramid.

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Ride With the Devil

Forget everything you think you know about Men With Beards. James

  is entrancing in his riveting portrayal of a Man With a Beard in this Civil War drama of honor, sex and violent retribution. The action centers around a poker game where Urbaniak plays against Some Other Men With Beards. Urbaniak, with great nuance, depth, and attention to detail, recites his two lines of dialogue (one expository, one a blazing shocker with the impact of a punch to the gut) with the kind of brilliance that would have made David Garrick weep hot tears of envy. Less is more, less is more.

I interviewed Mr. Urbaniak about his pivotal role in this feature and was shocked to learn that, when he shot it he did not actually have a beard, which makes his performance all the more revolutionary.

Alas, it is all over too soon, and the bulk of the movie is taken up with a subplot about a Missouri farmboy who learns that love makes you happy, hate limits your spiritual growth, babies are good, an economy based on slavery may not be worth fighting for, and Negroes are people too.

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Across the Universe

The stars of Across the Universe. Not pictured: James Urbaniak.

Since no one else seems to be saying it, I just want to get this out there:

Indie vet James

  is a revelation as a lizard-like 60s rock-promoter Svengali in Julie Taymor’s mind-blowing head-trip freakout Across the Universe! He slyly takes everything you thought you knew about lizard-like 60s rock-promoter Svengalis and explodes it into a million tiny pieces, then stuffs the pieces into a psychedelic pipe made of strawberries and blood, lights it afire with the flame of self-knowledge and puffs out multi-colored clouds of your brain!!

Seriously, my friend Mr. Urbaniak is in this new movie and you should go see it for that reason.

Not a single review has mentioned his performance, but then it’s a very big, very long movie with a whole lot of wonderful performers in it. Mr. Urbaniak shares his anonymity with, to name a few, Joe Cocker, Harry J. Lennix and a strangely uncredited Dylan Baker.

Time and current level of energy do not permit me at this moment to get across what this movie is, but let me just say two things: none of the reviews I’ve read of it have captured what it tries to do, and the show I was at last night (at the Arclight) was sold out. Which, for a movie this deeply weird, is pretty freaking impressive.

I will say this: not everything in the movie works (I’m looking at you, Eddie-Izzard-talking-his-way-through-“Mr.-Kite”), but even when concepts fall on their faces, they never do it in quite the way you expect them to and it turns out that, to continue the metaphor, when they fall on their faces there’s always something interesting on their backsides as well. It’s a big, ambitious, difficult-to-dismiss movie and the first movie in a long, long time that actually kept my wife and I talking about it for the entire drive back to Santa Monica.

I will say another thing: it shocks me, shocks me, that, at this late date, I can happen upon a movie that actually makes me hear Beatles songs in a new light. I’ve heard these songs literally thousands of times, in both the original recordings and dozens of cover versions, and time after time during Across the Universe I found myself thinking “Hey, that song’s a lot better than I thought it was” or “Wow, this song works on a whole different level than I thought it was going to,” or even “You know, I thought I knew this song, but Julie Taymor somehow just made me hear it again for the first time.” Which strikes me as something of a miracle just by itself.

The movie leaps and pounces wildly from idea to idea. Some of the ideas are kind of jaw-droppingly brilliant and inspired, and others make you want to jump up onto the screen and punch the director in the face. Sometimes both at once. I kind of mean this as a compliment.

The story, let me just say, is, erm, quite simple. But I would argue that Taymor wishes it so, the better to get at her real subject. What is her real subject? Well that’s the part I can’t quite put my finger on. She gives equal time to Vietnam, the protest movement, the Detroit riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King on the one hand, and on the other wishes to tell a love story and the tale of struggling artists dealing with issues of commercial success (with the incandescent James Urbaniak as the terminus of 60s commercialism — the “bad guy” of the piece, come to think of it). The movie, it seems to me, takes place in the weird area where the artistic shapes the personal and the personal shapes the political, which is something I haven’t seen presented in a movie in quite this explosive, unpredictable a way before.

I’m told that this movie has been butchered by craven, cruel, Mammon-worshipping demon studio executives, and while I’m curious to see how the original cut went, the movie is also quite long (2 1/2 hours) and doesn’t feel “cut down” at all — quite the opposite, ideas and motifs are given plenty of room to simmer and develop and murmur, submerging in one place and then bobbing up again in another.


 tells me that this is, indeed, Ms. Taymor’s cut.  Bully for her!

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Sweet and Lowdown

Emmett Ray and Rusty Venture compare notes.  Pun intended.

If The Venture Bros were a musical biopic, it would be Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.

Emmett Ray (Sean Penn) is a brilliant guitar player, but he lives in the shadow of greatness, namely Django Reinhart.  Living in this shadow has apparently cast a pall over Emmett’s entire life.  (urbaniak fans know that Rusty Venture himself is in the movie, in a very Rusty kind of role, The Guy With Few Lines Sitting Next To The Star.  So Emmett spends the movie in the shadow of Django, and “Harry” [urbaniak‘s character] spends the movie in the shadow of Emmett.)

Emmett’s problem, it seems, is that he keeps his feelings under tight control, and that has crippled his artistic muse.

(Robert Fripp tells a story where a critic takes him aside one day to inform him that he (Fripp) and Jimi Hendrix were the two greatest guitar players of their day, the difference between them being that Fripp had all the technique in the world but nothing to say, and Hendrix had no technique and everything in the world to say.  Fripp, being who he is, and English besides, could only agree with the critic’s assessment.)

(And I own one CD by Hendrix and 85 by Fripp, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my aesthetic tastes.)

What does Emmett Ray want?  Well, like Charles Foster Kane, he wants to be loved, but only on his own terms.  A hugely talented artist with one of the most impoverished souls ever brought to the screen, he’s bought his own line; he routinely introduces himself as “Emmett Ray, the greatest guitar player in the world” (and occasionally adds, in shame, “except for this gypsy in France, Django Reinhart.”)  Women, for Emmett, are an audience, so when he starts up (“falls in love with” is too generous a phrase) with mute  Hattie (Samantha Morton) it seems like he’s found his perfect mate. 

His life with Hattie brings his soul to the brink of awakening, and brings with it a certain amount of artistic and financial success.  (Allen can’t quite bring himself to equate the two; instead, he brings success to Emmett Ray by having him, literally, fall into a pile of money.) Being the egotistical boor he is, Emmett assumes that he’s achieved the success all on his own and promptly leaves Hattie for Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is Hattie’s polar opposite.  Hattie is poor, simple and mute, Blanche is society-born, pseudo-intellectual and won’t shut up.

Blanche is attracted to Emmett because he’s a lowlife and that makes him “real.”  So it’s only a matter of time before she drops him for someone even more “real,” namely button-man Anthony LaPaglia.  (The equation/comparison of artist and killer is explored more fully in the superior [and funnier] Bullets Over Broadway.)

What makes Emmett “real,” in spite of his shortcomings?  He has three consuming passions in the movie: playing guitar, watching trains and shooting rats at the dump.  Blanche tries to plumb the depths of these bizarre pastimes on an intellectual level, but neither Allen nor Emmett seem interested in them on that level.  Emmett is simple enough to do what he does and not think about it, but he’s not simple enough (or generous enough) to entirely lose himself.  He’s always got to show off, he’s always got to announce himself.  He needs an audience or else nothing is worthwhile.  The movie never shows him merely practicing, or doing anything by himself really.  It seems he couldn’t imagine playing guitar for the sake of playing; it would have to be in front of people.  There’s a climactic scene where  a heartbroken Emmett (see below) tries to conjure up some choice licks to seduce Gretchen Mol, a dimwitted dance-hall girl, in a train yard; when he realizes she’s not listening, he disintegrates emotionally and destroys his guitar.

The tone of the movie occasionally veers from warm, detailed, straightforward behavioralism into broad silliness, which strikes me as odd and unnecessary.  It seems as though Allen doesn’t trust his material enough to write Emmett’s story entirely seriously, or doesn’t trust his audience’s willingness to consider a subject as ethereal and complex as the artistic muse.

Another way of addressing this problem is  to ask, Why is Emmett the way he is?  The script doesn’t really say — it suggests that maybe Emmett had a bad childhood, grew up poor and without proper parenting, but that’s true of hundreds of artists more generous of spirit than Emmett — why is Emmett so stunted and unavailable?  The movie leaves the question unanswered.  He is the way he is.  (Allen has never been shy of making plentiful use of the lazy screenwriter’s friend, narration, and uses it to connect the dots and fill in the blanks here as well, both in the witty “real life” narrators like Nat Hentoff and Allen himself and in Uma Thurman’s Blanche, all of whom attempt to allow the audience under Emmett’s skin, to no avail.)

The acting in general is very good, but Sean Penn is extraordinary here.  There are a number of scenes where he is called upon to be a genuine human being and we can see the war in his eyes between his desire to feel and his inability to do so.  He’s not just a jerk, he’s a jerk who has salvation easily within his reach at every turn and yet chooses to shun it.

There’s a scene toward the end where Emmett goes back home to find Hattie and ask her forgiveness.  In the movie’s best moment in both the acting and screenwriting departments, Sean Penn grudgingly asks Hattie if she wants to come back to him and she, unable to speak, hands him a note.  He reads it, and after a pause, asks “…Happily?”

Strangely, given the subject matter (an artist unwilling to engage with his feelings, and thus failing), this was Woody Allen’s last really good movie for a long, long time.
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