NEW YORK'S FULL of implausible stories, related in bars and on park benches to listeners bored, drunk, indifferent, and incredulous. How do you know which to believe? Does it even matter if you believe any of them? Sometimes their sheer outrageousness is enough to hold your interest—even when they sound suspiciously familiar.
directed by Jon Shear with Dan Futterman, Matt Keeslar, and Alan Cumming opens September 22 at Broadway Market
Urban folklore was the basis for the original 1995 Daniel Reitz play on which Urbania is loosely based, and here each unlikely tale—like the myths, legends, and fairy tales of yore—provides a means of containing and explaining our fears and desires. No matter how powerless we are, these fictions give us a reassuring sense of control over the world.
So it is with Charlie (Dan Futterman), the initially unnamed protagonist of this grainy, low-budget feature. He seems a kind, sympathetic listener, with patience for the far-fetched stories he hears throughout the film—all of which are illustrated for us. We intermittently glimpse a sexually voracious woman who preys on naive men, vacation photos from a spoiled trip, a damp poodle in need of drying, and a faded old barfly (Barbara Sukowa of Rosa Luxemburg) searching for a brief thrill. All these stories sound familiar, to Charlie as well as us, but the distinction between them and his own real life is blurred by Urbania's intentionally disorienting, jump-cut style. Meanwhile, Charlie strikes up a friendship with a damaged street person on his stoop (Lothaire Bluteau of Jesus of Montreal), whose tales of woe seem more genuine.
As Charlie's own story gradually emerges between these overlapping narratives, the inventive Urbania consistently unbalances and surprises the viewer; yet its unpredictable conclusion is still rooted in commonplace outrage and stereotypical villainy. Charlie's called "a mystery man," but he's also a volatile detective whose investigations take on a nasty edge. "Good things happen to the people that deserve them," a dumb blonde tells him, and Urbania strains at Significance in overturning her moral certainty. But c'mon—are undeserved suffering and injustice so surprising in this cynical world? "Your life can change in a second," Charlie says in portentous voice-over, as he authors his own progressively darker urban folktale.
Urbania's all-star indie cast acquits itself well (although Titus' Alan Cumming gets stuck with the most hackneyed of characters), befitting a small, smart, focused production. Futterman deservedly earned acting honors at SIFF this June and the film has picked up several festival awards. Urbania never escapes its stage origins and conceits, but it also pushes them about as far as they can be stretched.
IN SEATTLE RECENTLY, director John Shear explained how "we tend to make archetypes about each other" in our daily lives, which corresponds to our initial perception of Charlie. "We make assumptions about him. He is constantly making us reevaluate how we size people up," says the Harvard-educated director. The audience's own growing understanding of Charlie corresponds to his investigation of a mysterious stranger. "We are to Charlie as he is to that man," notes Shear—both doing detective work.
He adds that Urbania's plot is accordingly "built upon a series of revelations" that shouldn't be divulged in advance to filmgoers. It's a relationship analogous to what he calls "the compact" of relating hoary urban folktales themselves. "[The movie] is very much about the telling of them and the hearing of them," Shear elaborates. Their point "is not to scare you, [but] to convince you that this really happened." He continues, "They're not so much about the bogeyman. These tales tend not to be about the horrible person; they tend to be about the victim."
Finally, Shear notes, the traditional function of folklore and horror stories is to harness our unruly unconscious impulses into an acceptable structure. "The repressed and the transgression of boundaries . . . are as much about sexuality as they are about narrative."