Sunday, November 11, 2007

Live For The Question

It could be said that the best year for films in the 90s was 1994 and the best month for films during that year was October. Among the films released included PULP FICTION, ED WOOD, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION…and the sadly little-seen Michael Tolkin satire THE NEW AGE. I was lucky enough to see it during its brief run and all these years later it remains one of my favorite films about Los Angeles, as well as one of the scariest. The characters in the film aren’t really people I know but the sense of living in this town and fearing that you’re just inches away from it all slipping away from you is certainly something I can understand. There are plenty of people moving to Los Angeles who should be given a DVD of THE NEW AGE when they arrive in town. Unfortunately, it’s not available on DVD and I’m guessing those people have long since gotten rid of their VCRs.

Married couple Peter and Katherine Witner (Peter Weller and Judy Davis, teaming up again after NAKED LUNCH) are high-maintenance Los Angeles residents whose high-paying jobs both slip away from them on the same day. Uncertain what to do next, they decide to throw a party. This results in several unforeseen collisions of different parts of their lives and their marriage becomes shaky as a result. Even as they contemplate separating, they decide on their next step with the help of their spiritual advisors: choosing to go into business for themselves, they settle on a high-end clothing boutique named Hipocracy. In spite of a lavish opening and a tiny spurt of business at the start, the store almost immediately begins to fail as their lives spiral fully out of control.

One thing that writer-director Michael Tolkin does is to never take a stance on the focus on the spirituality the characters are exploring. Are they fools to do so, are the “new age” methods they employ shams? I was surprised how some of the language used by their advisors resembles stuff that has gone out more into the mainstream in the guise of things like feng shui and The Secret. My personal experience with such things is that I can see the value in it as long as you don’t let them overwhelm you. As the immortal Egg Shen in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA says, “We take what we like, and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.” The problem with Peter and Katherine isn’t that they listen to these beliefs too much but as human beings they really are empty shells, with no inner lives to figure out how to correctly implement what enters their heads. They’re smart, but not particularly bright. They’re witty but not particularly clever. They love each other, but cheat on each other. They want to split up, but can’t bear to be apart. They spit out pithy dialogue like “Let’s cut to the chase” with self-loathing but don’t know what actual words they should say instead. If either person ever took up a hobby as dull as stamp collecting, it would automatically become the most interesting thing about them. They don’t know what they want and they don’t even know how to describe what they’re thinking and feeling. Things which are genuine are alien concepts to them. And yet, they remain fascinating to watch in their downfall…if, indeed, it is a downfall.

“No one ever taught you to be a man,” Peter Witner is told early on. It’s true and after meeting his father (played, in a very funny piece of casting, by Adam West) we can see why. Both men use the same pick-up line, “How are your morals?” to different women, which is very telling. The Los Angeles that THE NEW AGE is set in seems very genuine in the sense that much of it seems phony. While watching TV at one point, Peter muses how laser discs (remember, it’s 1994) look better than cassettes, but albums sound better than CDs, concluding, “Digital is weird.” It’s all one big mélange of unreality to him, even down to his seduction technique on his wife that includes describing the fictional place they are making love, even if it’s the exact place they currently are. His soul seems empty just as what he sells is empty. Even when he takes something he has learned which may be of value, it's in the service of a goal which is ultimately empty. At various points, character call out to him, saying “Peter!” As someone who shares this name, it always gets my attention and makes me jump a little. I can’t think of another film with a character named Peter where this is the case. Which just unnerves me…did anyone ever teach me to be a man?

Peter Weller, who has appeared in several favorites of mine, never had a better part than he has here and he truly delivers. Judy Davis, brilliant, was possibly never more vampirically sexy than she is in this film. There are also very good supporting performances throughout from familiar faces such as my one-time crush Paula Marshall as the William Morris agent that Weller is having an affair with and, surprisingly, a pre-RAYMOND Patricia Heaton as one of Davis’s friends who has a few of the most memorable scenes to play—one, involving the price of a belt, is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how money and friendship should never be mixed. Another, where Heaton’s character delivers a brutal social blow to Davis, is possibly the nastiest moment in a film filled with them. There are also lesser-known faces throughout and I find myself continually fascinated by many of them. Embarrassing confession: character actor Patrick Bauchau plays one of the Witner’s spiritual advisors and some key moments are centered around him. He’s appeared in many other things but I have to admit that several years ago when I happened to flip past a TV show and noticed that he was appearing on it, I felt a small tinge of disappointment that he wasn’t really the person he portrays here. Not my best moment, but a good indication of how this film has stayed with me through the years. And the eleventh-hour appearance by Samuel L. Jackson truly drives the movie home and makes it clear why he was becoming a superstar in PULP FICTION at the very same time.

Michael Tolkin’s name has appeared on the screenwriting credits of several films since this film was released but except for an episode of MASTER OF SCIENCE FICTION earlier this year, he hasn’t directed anything else. It’s our loss. The issues of reality, unreality and just how we’re supposed to exist in our time feel like they could use a comment from him, now that the world he presents here has graduated past dot-com, iPhones and blackberries. The themes of THE NEW AGE remain relevant and are like a mystery that I’m still trying to unravel. Just as I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing in this town. I don’t always know the answer but as THE NEW AGE reminds me, I should always live for the question.


Anonymous said...

The New Age is definitely one from the vaults. I haven't seen or even thought of this one since I watched it on VHS in 1995. I can't recall a single solitary thing about it except for Samuel L. Jackson's cameo as a telemarketer at the end, but your review has me interested, Mr. Peel.

Great article.

Luc Besson's The Professional was also released in October 1994.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much. I hope you check it out again. That you remember Jackson in it isn't surprising--of course, it's Samuel L. Jackson, but in the context of the film it's pretty powerful.

And I forgot the best fall 1994 release...THE SPECIALIST! Okay, maybe not.

Arbogast said...

I saw The New Age in a sneak preview a decade ago and thought it was a sly little comedy with some decent drama in it, too. You're right, it was a perfect fit for Peter Weller and Adam West was a quiet riot as his father. (The film also made excellent use of the often neglected John Diehl, in a surprisingly tender turn.) I've used the phrase "live with the question" (and who better to deliver that than Patrick Bauchau?) many times to halt an escalating argument. Love to see this again.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Considering how the film has pretty much fallen off the radar of the world, it's nice that some of it has stuck with some people. I hope you get to take another look at it one of these days. Thanks for checking in!