eard any good stories lately? I got a good one, and this one really happened, I swear.” Urban legends are those stories just creepy enough to seem unreal, but close enough to reality that you can imagine they happened, to someone, you know, that friend of a cousin of an acquaintance of an in-law. They typically involve some profoundly unsettling violence or violation, suggesting that the smooth surface of your life is ever on the verge of destruction.
Charlie (Dan Futterman) looks like an average Joe, maybe a little more beset than most, disheveled, pale and slight. He’s not getting much sleep lately, feeling besieged by his environment, unable to settle into a rhythm or sense of security. He lives in New York, where the streets are ever filled with possibilities, good and bad. As you watch him walking these streets as if he’s afraid but also resentful that he feels that way, it’s not long before you get the idea that he walks this way because he’s had a particularly unnerving or traumatic experience. For all his manifest tentativeness, Charlie also exudes warmth and curiosity, like he’s looking for something, something new or unknown, maybe even trouble. Whether he’s making nice with a homeless guy outside his building (Lothaire Bluteau), or contemplating a sexual offer made by a high-powered-looking woman he sees on the street, Charlie carries himself as if he’s expecting even looking forward to the worst.
Technically, Charlie lives inside the film Urbania, Jon Shear’s debut feature, but metaphorically, he lives inside the City, as idea, as legendary place where bad things happen randomly, without logic or meaning. Based on Daniel Reitz’s play, Urban Folk Tales, the film follows Charlie’s struggle to make a narrative out of this chaos, shifting back and forth between his immediate and remembered experiences, interspersed with a series of “urban legends,” related to Charlie as stories that really happened. These stories provide a notoriously baleful notion of human interactions, ranging from the one about the lady who microwaves her poor little damp dog to the one where the poor schlub wakes the morning after a hot night of anonymous and unprotected sex, to find that his date has left a lipsticked message on his mirror: “Welcome to the World of AIDS.” Each of these stories speaks to some frightening aspect of living in the City, where dark alleys intimate certain disaster and strangers on the corner are harbingers of doom.
The film doesn’t actually come together as a chronology of Charlie’s recent past until its final frames, when the actual cause and effect of his own trauma which could be yours are revealed (though hardly resolved). Until then, the pieces of his disintegrating mosaic-self come at you with a kind of spastic stop-and-start speed, colliding, missing connections, and overlapping. It appears that Charlie is feeling acutely lonely, and that he’s recalling his boyfriend Chris (Matt Keeslar). Literally, he’s calling Chris’ answering machine from pay phones on the street in order to hear his voice and leave rambling, pleading messages. Charlie is also longing for a moment from his own life that is forever gone, but somehow keeps feeling immediate and urgent, undeniable. He trawls the city, looking for experiences and affiliations, however brief, apparently tracking a guy he saw once, a guy with a snake-twisted-around-a-heart tattoo on his arm, a guy who looks like rough trade or worse.
Urbania is all about stories, how they’re told and how they are received, who shares and who withholds, or what anyone might mean by telling a story. At a bar where he imagines this snake-tattoo guy will show up, Charlie has a chat with the friendly, nonjudgmental bartender (Josh Hamilton), who tells him a story by way, ostensibly to illustrate that he “hold[s] no objections to human needs.” This tale is one of those annoying ego-massaging urban legends, in which a woman “in her forties” (i.e., feeling needy and unloved) pays an unbelievable amount of money for just one look at our bartender’s dick. After making a weak joke that he’d pay to see that very special penis (an offer that troubles our assertively straight bartender, no matter his previous declaration of “no objections”), Charlie moves on into the night. He stops by his friend Brett’s (Alan Cumming) place, and into a scene from the past that approximates conventional “gayness,” the kind depicted in party scenes in movies like Philadelphia and Broken Hearts Club. Charlie can only negotiate this world from a distance, via bone-dry sarcasm: it’s too much for him to revisit this happy past, too much self-reflection and nostalgia. Brett can’t see Charlie’s resistance, but you can. Though Charlie is far gone, the movie unapologetically follows him to where he is, doesn’t try to recover him so that he’s more easily understandable, more easily consumable.
Still, you glean enough of Charlie’s story the central through-line of his story to know that his moments of intimacy are limited as means to survival. Even with Brett, with whom he obviously shares a history and community, Charlie maintains a brittle distance. By the time Charlie does hook up with Ron (Gabriel Olds), a pretty and self-absorbed soap opera actor, for a night of something that will definitely not be intimate, you’re not so surprised to see Charlie act out aggressively. It’s as if he’s looking for a fight, a way to gamble with his own increasingly weird urban legend of a life. Leaning back on Ron’s bed after Ron’s told him to get out, Charlie dares his host to follow through, jutting his chin and behaving as if he’s not afraid. But he is.
As strange and compelling as any of these moments (and others) might be on their own, Urbania‘s real strength lies less in its narrative or more properly, narratives than in its formal turbulence, mimicking a journey into and out of someone’s mind, a journey during which the disparities between past and present, fact and fiction become increasingly jarring. Charlie is afraid in the way that anyone might be afraid after being subjected to a particularly harsh violence, and yet he’s also positioning himself to reclaim his faith in himself, to refashion himself as a man, a virile, angry, and brutal figure of masculine strength and resolve. At last, Charlie tracks down the object of what has seemed to be his desire throughout the film, that snake-tattoo guy whose name is Dean (Samuel Ball). But even then, it’s hard to tell how the film, or Charlie, or your understanding of Charlie, will come together. It’s hard to know even whether you want him to come togther, since that process involves violence and ugliness and becoming part of the City that so intrigues and repels him. Charlie and Dean spend an evening skulking about in a gay-cruising area, Charlie watching as Dean baits men and pulls out his blade so that it’s only visible to Charlie (and you). The urban legend in which Charlie is lost, the one he can’t stop and can’t control, that’s exactly the one that the movie won’t quite nail down for you. The other stories are ghastly and strange, and briefly alarming for that. But they’re also familiar, whether they really happened or not. This story that’s coming together and apart in front of you, the one that Charlie might be making up as he goes along that’s the one that’s really scary.