By David Templeton | January 13, 2004

“Look at World history,” suggests Johnny Steele, nearly bouncing out of this coffeeshop booth. “Just read any history book,” he is saying, “and you’ll see that whenever in history life has become worthless, whenever and wherever life has lost its meaning, it always happens because people are starved. They’re either starved for food or shelter or freedom or for love; it’s when people’s hearts are always being broken. That’s when life becomes worthless. So I’m not surprised that in this movie, “Cold Mountain,” we saw all these people marauding around, killing their own people, raping and maiming, just being mean for meanness sake.

“What surprised me was that we didn’t see more of that.”

“Cold Mountain,” running just over two-and-a-half hours—featuring massive battles and an arduous journey covering thousands of miles—is very much, as the movie-poster people like to say, “an epic motion picture.” Johnny Steele, standing about six-foot-four and possessed of a barely-controlled energy force and a dagger sharp-edged wit, packing dozens of separate ideas and zillions of words into a short ten minute walk from theater to restaurant, is the standup comedy club version of an epic. In other words, Johnny Steele gives roughly twice as much as anyone expects. Well-read, politically-charged, and wildly philosophical, Steele describes his own on-stage comedy style as “verbose, loquacious rambling,” adding that it’s “not the Steinbeckian economy of verbiage that’s required if you’re gonna get 36 punchlines into a single set on David Letterman.” That description is a good example of Steele’s conversational approach: he’ll use 24 words to say, “I use a lot of words.” This mile-a-minute intensity has taken him to comedy clubs around the world. A resident of Berkeley, he won first place in the 1992 San

Francisco International Comedy Competition, has hosted his own radio and television talk shows, and is currently working on a one-man show about his hometown of Pittsburgh. He is especially popular, it seems, in Amsterdam. He is a self-proclaimed cynic, who doesn’t see the glass as being half-full or half-empty; it’s empty and broken, and everyone is cutting themselves.

When it comes to movies, Steele is typically hard to please. The best praise he can give to “Cold Mountain,” starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellwegger, is to say that it didn’t disappoint him as much as he’d expected it to. Based on the best-selling book by Charles Frazier and directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), it’s the story of Inman (Law), a Civil War era Odysseus, who deserts his regiment in order to make his way home to Cold Mountain, and to his sweetheart Ada (Kidman), a pampered Southern Belle who survives wartime poverty and ruthless raiders with the help of a hardworking, chicken-slaughtering, comic-relief mountain woman (Zellwegger).

“Nicole Kidman was occasionally plausible,” Steele says. “Sometimes I thought she was from Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and other times I thought she was from Cold Mountain Dew. She was too 21st century to pull this off.” Renee Zellwegger, he observes, is perhaps a bit on the tiny-side to suggest the kind of physical force her character is supposedly blessed with. “Yep, Renee Zellwegger,” Steele says, “93 pounds of tough, tough mountain woman. When she was showing Nicole Kidman how to shovel the hay, or whatever they were shoveling in that barn, it was hilarious that Nicole Kidman couldn’t physically do it. It was just too darn hard. And I was thinking, ‘Wait. The 93-pound woman can do this stuff, but the 91-pound woman isn’t strong enough?’

This was credible? I understand that different people are made of different fiber, but that was just unbelievable. Maybe if the mountain woman had been played by Kathy Bates I’d believe that she could shovel a load that Nicole Kidman couldn’t, but here we had two scrawny little women and one was supposed to be able to smack the other with brute force. What the hell is that?”

He admits he’s quibbling.

“Well, that’s what I do,” he laughs. “But, these scenes people put in these movies, they insult my intelligence. Remember in “The Perfect Storm,” at the end when Marky Mark is bobbing on the surface, 2,000 miles off the coast, riding these eighty-foot waves, and he’s mentally speaking to his girlfriend who’s standing on shore thousands of miles away—and she’s hearing him? I know, I know—’They can hear each other because they love each other,’ so how come I’m a block away and I can’t hear my girlfriend on the cell phone?

“There’s one thing I do like about “Cold Mountain,” though,” he goes on. “This movie showed a bit of the truth about who we are. Americans tend to have a really skewed perception of themselves, and it’s a perception that—I’m here to tell you—no one else in the world has. I’ve always questioned this. ‘America, we’re a peace loving society!’ Really? We are? Uh, our history doesn’t really show that.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to compare people from the Civil War time to the people of present-day America, but look at this movie . . .there were not a lot of good folks in this. One or two good guys, maybe half-a-dozen, and all the rest are marching off to slaughter each other, boys and kids marching off to wholesale slaughter! And back at home everyone is killing everyone else, and raping and stealing. Everybody you pass on the road has a gun and an agenda. I’m impressed that they were willing to show us some realistic human beings . . . not just human beings, but realistic Americans, as people who aren’t always so kind, and they also that kindness isn’t always victorious.”

Steele, when all is said and done (though with Johnny Steele that rarely ever happens), believes that the character of Inman is a great symbolic role model for modern times. This is spite of the fact that he’s a deserter and a traitor. Actually, Steele feels he’s a good role model because of those things.

“Inman had a goal,” states Steele. “He was going to risk everything he had on this ideal. First of all, he decides not to stay in lockstep with the status quo. That’s something a lot of Americans can’t imagine. Here’s Inman, he wakes up and sees that the war is crazy, it’s carnage, it’s meanness, he’s probably going to die—and for what? So he walks, literally. He takes a walk, traveling hundreds of miles to get back to this woman who is his ideal. That’s a great statement.

‘Get out of line! Get the f**k out of the line. What’s wrong with you?’ There was some poll that concluded that Americans’ number one and number two fears are being called up to speak in front of people, and being accused of stepping out of line. Inman stepped out of line, and that was very cool.

“Granted, it was for love,” he adds. “He didn’t step out of line to save animals or to stop the destruction of the environment or the Native Americans. Face it. Inman steps out of line to go home and get laid, but it was still very cool.”

So then would Johnny Steele go so far as to actually recommend “Cold Mountain”? When asked, he grows silent for the first time since the movie ended. He is considering the question.

“Okay,” he finally says. “On a scale from one to ten, with one being the world’s sappiest, most artificial movie—a Capra film or a Spielberg thing, the kind of film they show to the herds at the Dork-a-plex 12 every Friday night—and ten being, you know, a Johnny Steele film festival including ‘Ironweed,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ and ‘The Pawnbroker,’ I’d put ‘Cold Mountain’ somewhere in the middle. Maybe a little higher than middle, because the ending is what it is, it’s down and depressing and yet it’s still hopeful.

“So, yeah, I’d recommend it. And if you’re the kind of guy who likes a lot of explodin’ and a few rounds of screwin,’ I’d definitely recommend it, because there’s plenty of that.”


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

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