Urbania

Sundance Film Festival (Competition), Jan 24, 2000–Unquestionably one of the boldest and most provocative entries in this year's Sundance dramatic competition, Urbania, Jon Shear's impressive feature directorial debut, is a darkly intriguing drama that probes the very nature of love and the lasting effects of loss.

Based on Daniel Reitz's play, Urban Folk Tales, this densely layered, deeply felt film dissects the meaning of sexual orientation for a small group of individuals as they struggle to live a decent yet rich life in metropolitan America. Though several of the major characters are gay, which makes pic is a likely candidate for gay patrons and the global gay festival circuit, Urbania's scope and ambition are broad enough to appeal to any contempo urban dwellers.

At a time when most gay movies have gotten softer, trying to apply and often just imitate established Hollywood formulas (particularly screwball and romantic comedy), Urbania is an unabashedly political film that recalls the cycle of queer cinema in the early 1990s, evident in the films of Todd Haynes (Poison), Gregg Araki (The Living End), and Tom Kalin (Swoon). The goal of queer cinema is to bring established sexual/gender categories to a crisis point by exposing their limitations as accurate descriptive terms. Urbania earns its label of queer cinema due to the progressive and radical political position it takes on gender, desire and sexuality.

The lines separating past and present, factual and fictional, love and hate, and above all gay and straight, are all blurred in Urbania, an intricately plotted narrative that not only requires attention from viewers but also force them to take a stance about their sexual orientation and the very way they live. Story unfolds as a puzzle in which bits and pieces of info are slowly revealed, building to an extremely harrowing denouement.

Charlie (Dan Futterman) is an attractive young man who has lost control over his life. Restless, anxious, and always on the edge, he wonders around downtown Manhattan like a ghost seeking action, entertainment–and peace of mind. Through flashbacks, it's revealed that Charlie has lost his longtime companion Chris (Matt Keeslar) in a violent incident that has left traumatic effects on him.

Alone in his apartment, he listens to the sounds of lovemaking of his upstairs neighbors (Bill Sage and Megan Dodds), an act that proves both irritating and sexually stimulating. A later encounter with this straight couple in the local bar, where many scenes are set, begins peacefully but ends violently when the trio engage in a discussion over the permissible behavior of gays and straights in public places.

Early on, Charlie notices a mysterious, tattooed stranger (Samuel Ball) at a distance and the two exchange looks. From then on, story assumes the structure of a nightmarish journey, as Charlie travels the city in a desperate effort to remeet his chance encounter. Whether consciously or not, pic's shape recalls Scorsese's After Hours, with Charlie crossing paths with a dozen bizarre creatures, each trying to demonstrate their connection to him via their eerie stories.

It's a tribute to co-scripters Shear and Reitz that they enrich the material by adding to the central thread a darkly humorous layer which explores the nature of storytelling and a more existential layer that has to do with the universal need to regain control over one's life. First layer is expressed in the recurrent motto, “hear any good stories lately” Hence German actress Barbara Sukowa has a terrific cameo in which she recounts a noirish tale about a bizarre sexual interlude in a bar's restroom.

During the course of an endless, painful night, Charlie encounters Brett (Alan Cummings), a friend who has a crush on him, a stuttering homeless (Lothaire Bluteau), a woman who seems to appear out of Hitchcock's Rear Window, overlyanxious about her poodle getting sick in the rain. Though each raconteur insists, “I've got a story and this one really happened,” we are never sure where fantasy ends and reality begins.

The drama's more philosophical dimensions, which take centerstage in the last reel and prove the film's most disturbing chapter, depict Charlie's efforts to regain power and execute justice through revenge against those responsible for his misery. Incidents of gay-bashing and gay counter-attacks have popped in several recent films, but never have these issue been so well integrated into the narrative and so crucial to the characters' transformation.

Helmer Shear does a commendable job in offering absorbing transitions from one locale to another and in variegating the shifting mood. Shot in Super 16 by Shane Kelly, Urbania boasts the kind of color saturation and heightened grainy structure that fit its surreal nature. Randolph K. Bricker's editing (of more than 1500 shots) and March Anthony Thompson's score contribute immeasurably to the film's macabre atmosphere.

Ultimately, the film's impact depends on Futterman, whose strong performance provides the necessary bridge among the disparate characters in a deliberately fractured narrative that nonetheless assumes coherence. Assisted by a terrific ensemble, Futterman illustrates the frightening, transcendent, and hallucinatory nature of the loss of love and control in a concrete and powerful manner seldom seen onscreen.

End note

Actor Dan Futterman wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed biopicture, “Capote” (2005), which garnered the Best Actor Oscar on Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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