TALKING PICTURES:  TELLING TIME Image

It’s ironic. After accepting my invitation to see the film Out of Time, starring Denzel Washington as a wronged cop, New York novelist J. Robert Lennon (The Funnies) has ended up having to miss out on Out of Time because . . . uh, we’ve run out of time. Actually, the screening was moved, at the last minute, to a different time, and with Lennon’s tightly packed touring schedule, there’s no other time to see it. Of course, it isn’t the first time a moviegoing experience has gone bad for Lennon, but at least this time the guy’s shoes didn’t get wet (More on that later). But hey, having missed out on Out of Time, we now have plenty of time for lunch.

“I didn’t know much about the movie,” Lennon admits, sliding his sandwich plate onto a sunny cafe table and taking a seat, “but I was kind of looking forward to talking about Denzel Washington, ‘cause I was having a conversation the other day with a friend in Portland, and we were comparing Denzel Washington with George Clooney. I don’t remember why. I guess because they’re both handsome and they’re both powerful, but comparing the two, I like Clooney better, because Clooney can do self-mockery. Denzel can’t do self-mockery. Denzel is never going to play an alcoholic birthday party clown. Clooney though, often plays lovable losers, and he’s willing to be cast in a humiliating light, which I think is a good quality in an actor.”

Lennon, it seems, is intrigued by humiliation, and as a novelist, he’s very good at it. A growing critical favorite who has yet to hit big with readers, Lennon is currently touring to promote his latest and most ambitious novel, Mailman (W.W. Norton). Not only is this the best book of Lennon’s career, it stands among the best books of 2003, a comical tragedy with screwball plotting, hilarious characterizations, an inspired, twisted anti-hero, and lots of sex and death. “My mother was pretty appalled when she read it,” Lennon admits, “which is a good thing. The less Mom likes a book, the better it must be.” Albert, otherwise known as Mailman, is a middle-aged postal worker with a failed life, a bad habit of reading other people’s mail, and a big problem when one of his customers commits suicide, possibly because he never got a certain “don’t kill yourself” letter from a close friend; it seems that Mailman, in attempting to repair damage done to the letter while secretly opening it, ended up delivering the thing one day too late. One has to wonder if Mailman is based on anyone Lennon has known.

“There was this pretty eccentric mailman I used to have,” Lennon nods. “He used to bang on my mailbox and swear, and he drank a lot of espresso which I made for him at the coffee shop down the street. He’d ask me a lot of pointed question about my mail, like, ‘So, have you heard back from the Kenyan Review?’ This guy, though, the mailman in my book, is entirely made up.”

There are, it turns out, a lot of “movie moments” in the book, starting with Albert’s childhood memory of a teacher who’s almost eaten alive by a malfunctioning school projector. Mailman grows up to love the movies, and is angry when others treat them with less respect than they deserve. Lennon admits that many of his character’s observations mirror his own.

“I agree, especially, with something (Mailman) thinks about,” he says. “I’m not gullible enough to really swallow most forms of dramatic art, so it’s hard for me to go to a play, for instance, and not be thinking, ‘These people are in the same room with me, and they’re acting funny.’ The fourth wall is very strong for me, and I can’t suspend my disbelief, but movie theaters are different. In movie theaters, your entire field of vision, if you sit in the right place, is completely consumed by the movie, so even your peripheral vision has got the movie on it. Also, time passes in a movie, sometimes years pass in a movie, and sometimes when I come out of a movie theater I actually feel several years older, even if I’ve only been there for two hours, because that compressed movie time feels like aging to me. I can really become swallowed by a movie, and I think that’s true for almost everybody. That’s something I really like. That suspension of disbelief is enormously satisfied, and I definitely feel cheated when a movie doesn’t take me there.” While he despises a lot of Hollywood product, Lennon confesses a fondness for low-budget bad movies. “Some films are amiable junk,” he says, “in which its very badness is itself a form of entertainment. I like good bad movies, but I don’t like bad bad movies.”

Asked to name the worst “bad movie” he’s ever seen, Lennon mentions “Boxing Helena,” the infamous 1993 amputee-doctor love story that was made, he says, “by people who knew what movies were, who’d acted in movies before, and yet there was nothing to recommend it at all. I walked out before the end, and it’s very rare that I do that.”

“So you missed the controversial ending?” I ask.

“Yeah. But I figured,” he laughs, “that if they kept hacking off limbs, something big and bad would have to happen at the end.”

“She wakes up,” I report. “It’s all a dream.”

“It’s all a dream!” Lennon exclaims. “Wow! It was even worse than I thought! See, now I’m even happier that I missed the end.”

Beyond the quality of a film itself, Lennon observes that sometimes it’s the experience of a movie that is most memorable. “Like when I was younger, sitting next to girls at the movies but being afraid to touch them,” he says. “I have a lot of those memories, but I can’t even remember any of the films.”

One moviegoing experience stands above them all.

“When I went to see the second ‘Alien’ movie,” he recalls, “it was pouring rain that night, raining so hard you could hear it pounding outside the theater, despite the soundproofed walls and the noise of exploding spaceships and screaming people. I was enjoying the movie, a lot, and then, about two thirds of the way through, something weird happened.

“This was a big multiplex in Pennsylvania,” Lennon continues, “and we later realized that there was a fire exit down the lower right-hand corner of the theater, with a stairway that went up to the street level parking lot. It was raining, right? Well, it turns out the drain at the bottom of the stairwell had become covered with newspapers, and the entire stairwell had filled with water. That’s a lot of water. So, at one point in the theater, the movie was going along and things were pretty intense, the aliens were just about to start coming back to life and killing everyone, and everyone in the theater was just waiting, breathlessly, for that to happen. Suddenly, there was this clanking sound from the corner of the theater, and it became clear that it wasn’t part of the movie. The door, this big steel door, was bending inward, and water had begun to sort of spurt out on the sides. There was this amazing moment of . . . of . . . anticipation, where everyone could see this happening, and the aliens were about to attack on screen, and we were all just caught in that moment, waiting to see what would happen. And suddenly, the door just flew open and the entire theater was flooded by this wave of water. People were screaming and running out of the theater. Everyone in the front row were up to their chests in water. I was in the 17th row, and my shoes were under water. It was really hilarious, though the people up front were pretty terrified. It’s a weird thing when real world dangers insert themselves into a moment when you are locked in fantasy land.

“It was great!”

“Too bad it wasn’t a submarine movie,” I observe.

“That would have been even better,” he enthusiastically agrees. “On the other hand, it could have been “Terms of Endearment,” which wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.”

Well, were almost out of time.

“Here’s what I like about movies,” J. Robert Lennon says, wrapping up his thought as he stands to go. “And I do like movies. Like a lot of Americans, I love them, I don’t know what I’d do without them, because I think that completely giving yourself over to invention is really exciting. A movie’s fakeness is so absolute that it becomes a whole other reality that I’m completely willing to accept, and that just about everybody is willing to accept as reality.

“For a little while, anyway.”

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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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