Finding Steve Buscemi: The Perfect Understatement

I’m not good at being a fan. If I like a celebrity, I can’t tell you when his birthday is, or who he’s married to, or what his first movie or album was, or if he has kids (and what their names are). I’m just not tailored to these facts; they don’t stay with me. I tend to think of celebrities and pop-culture figures as acquaintances, rather than friends — I know them by sight and see them around occasionally, but I don’t keep tabs on them or call to catch up.

And yet, when they die, I get upset. Not sobbing and pulling my hair out upset, but a kind of intense, quiet sadness, often accompanied by tears. As if I had known them, and we were great friends, and now they’re gone. As if their passing will affect my everyday life, which, most likely, it won’t. What is about our culture that makes us feel like we know celebrities, like we’re entitled to them somehow?

* * *

Take Steve Buscemi, for instance. I love Steve Buscemi. I don’t just like him, and I don’t just love his work, I kind of love him. Now of course I don’t know him, and if I really did love him, romantically speaking, I’m sure that would be weird and creepy and too similar to the plot of Ghost World. But suffice it to say that my appreciation for Buscemi somehow goes beyond his work as an actor, though that’s from where it all comes obviously. Of course I don’t actually know him in any capacity beyond as an actor — I realize this — I’m not entirely crazy.

I think it must have all started with The Big Lebowski (as it must for so many people). In that movie, Buscemi plays Donny, a naïve, sincere, simple-hearted foil to John Goodman’s loud, obnoxious, near-psychotic Walter. Donny is so memorable for being so normal in a movie filled with crazies. His death, from a heart attack, because Walter has just bit off the ear of a nihilist, is so understandable. He is the perfect understatement.

Now, it wasn’t just Buscemi’s performance that made me love that movie. I remember watching it in my parents’ basement — I have no idea how old I was (probably in high school sometime in 2000 or 2001), and I have no clue who was watching it with me — but when the movie was over, I remember not really liking it, partly because I had already been told by my brother and sister about its genius, partly because I didn’t get it either. As the youngest child, I’ve always had an immediate dislike for anything that my siblings laughed at without me, but a few years later, I watched The Big Lebwoski again and quickly realize the genius behind its content, because there’s both everything and nothing to get about this flick.

That said, that movie wasn’t what made me fall in love with Buscemi either, but it was definitely the start of a long relationship, throughout which I’ve always felt like my stars were aligned with Steve’s (can I call him Steve?). I’ve never really sought out movies because he acted in them, but he always just appears in the movies I happen seek out. I like to think we have similar taste.

* * *

Part of that — a sizable part, no doubt — is due to the Coen brothers, because every time they make a good movie and cast Buscemi, I swoon a little lower. Take Fargo for instance, a movie which I watched with my first boyfriend in college. Neither of us had a television in our rooms, so we would spend many nights in the basement of the church where he volunteered. (Luckily, he had a set of keys.) Like a little apartment down there, furnished with couches, a television, and a mini-kitchen, he would cook, and we would cuddle afterwards.

One night we watched Fargo, and it just blew me away. I don’t think, at that point, I knew how deliciously dark the Coen brothers (or Buscemi, for that matter) could really be. When I thought of the Coen brothers, I thought of The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. When I thought of Buscemi, again Lebowski and another movie I had seen two years earlier, a non-Coen brothers endeavor called Ghost World came to mind. (I had not yet seen the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink at that point, both of which would further reveal the brothers’ dark side and Buscemi’s place within their vision.)

While Ghost World definitely didn’t show Buscemi as a criminal — only as a sometimes strange, sometimes pathetic, sometimes totally lovable guy — it did demonstrate for me how well he could hold down a leading role. In fact, I saw Ghost World when it came out in theaters, two years before I saw Fargo. Its impact on me was less immediate — the experience when you have a vague appreciation of how awesome something is, but it doesn’t fully sink in right away — but I was thrilled with the movie nonetheless. I like to think of that film as a kind of foreshadowing of (or perhaps an introduction to) the love of independent comics and graphic novels I would eventually develop a few years later.

That said, I guess that there are two parts to my relationship with Buscemi: the ex-post-facto part, which involves me playing catch-up and traveling back in time to see what I missed. Mystery Train, for example, the classic Jim Jarmusch film about Memphis, in which Buscemi plays Charlie the barber, the average guy (and brother-in-law, sort of) to Joe Strummer’s edgy Johnny.

Mystery Train came out in 1989 (I was only five), but I only saw the movie two years ago. And though I’m horribly ashamed to admit this, I still have yet to catch up and see Reservoir Dogs, which I hear carries a prime role for Buscemi.

But then there’s the part of me that delights in moves where Buscemi pops up in unexpected places, playing unexpected roles: The Wedding Singer, Armageddon, Big Fish, Paris Je T’aime, and 30 Rock. Even when the results are terrible (i.e., Mr. Deeds), I’m still happy we’re both there to enjoy the moment.

Meeting Buscemi in Brooklyn

One place I definitely didn’t expect to see him was at the bar Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the fall of 2007. I was there for a Found magazine show, and so was he, the Indie King himself, Steve Buscemi.

For those unfamiliar with Found magazine, it’s a yearly compilation of found items — notes, papers, photographs, etc. — that people discover and turn in to Davy Rothbart, the magazine’s creator. Rothbart lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where I attended college. He and his fellow Found-ers often take their discoveries on the road in order to read and show pictures of the best, funniest, and strangest finds around the United States.

On this particular night, at Union Hall, I had just gone to the bathroom after the end of the show. When I re-entered the room, I scanned it for my friend Amanda, who had interned for Found when we were in college together. She was in a circle of people talking to Rothbart, so I casually sauntered up. The moment I reached the group, I realized Steve Buscemi was in this circle, talking to Rothbart, Amanda, and whoever else was around.

I felt my heart start racing, and my hands started to shake a little. I tried to join the conversation — he was talking about how much he loved Found and said something about seeing a set of keys in the park and wanting to send them (or at least a picture of them) to Rothbart at the magazine. I joked that he should have taken the whole set and mailed them in to Davy. He chuckled. I just couldn’t believe I was talking to Steve Buscemi. He was maybe a foot away from me, chuckling at my bad jokes.

I know, I know, that most likely he was just being polite with his little laugh, but it made my night nonetheless. I sent a mass text message to countless hordes of friends and family explaining how I had met Steve Buscemi and how he had laughed at something I said! I spent the rest of the time trying very hard (and quite unsuccessfully) not to stare at him. Admittedly, I had to restrain my every impulse to gush to him about how much I loved him. Still, he was acting so normal — so unlike a celebrity — that I didn’t have the heart to ruin his night by forcing that status upon him.

* * *

This brief encounter doesn’t really mean much beyond the fact that I got to meet one of the few celebrities I wanted to meet in my lifetime. Plus, I have a great story to tell now. However, this happenstance meeting won’t really affect my reaction to the news that will come one day (and hopefully not any time soon) that Steve Buscemi has died. Truth be told, barring some fluke accident or small miracle, I won’t ever become his friend or even his regular acquaintance; but the amazing thing about celebrities is that it just doesn’t matter — we grieve for them anyway.

I was having trouble figuring out why everyone grieves for celebrities until Michael Jackson died. When I first read the news (reported on tmz.com, of all places), I didn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. Disreputable gossip site, I thought. Even when the New York Times finally wrote about the tragedy, the story still had an indefinable quality of unreality. Which, frankly, is a pretty standard reaction for me when people die: I don’t believe it at first, it takes a little while to sink in.

Once I was finally able to stop thinking and saying, “I can’t believe it,” I went through a personal, and yet very public, grieving process. I cried a little; I talked about the death with everyone I knew; I posted comments about it on Facebook; I put a chunk of his music on my iPod; and I spent the night of his death outside the Apollo theater, dancing and singing to MJ songs with a crowd of people seeking similar solace.

But some people I knew just didn’t seem that affected by the news, which was hard for me to understand. This was Michael Jackson we were talking about — he wasn’t just a musician; he was an icon and a legend. That, however, is just the thing. For many people, he was simply an icon and a legend, a status his death has not changed. You can still watch his videos on YouTube, and if you weren’t planning to see him in concert, his untimely end need not make much of a difference to you.

It’s only when you internalize pop culture, when Michael Jackson’s songs or Steve Buscemi’s movies become a part of your life in an extremely personal, emotional way, that you feel a sense of loss when the purveyor of that pop culture dies. In a strange way, Jackson’s death felt like the symbolic death of my memories from college, precious ones that involve his music — although really it’s the death of the possibility of making new memories (with new material). As if someone suddenly pulled the rug out from under your feet, and the world is changed, different, without any warning.

When Steve Buscemi dies, I know it will be just as sad for me, if not more so. How will I face Coen brothers movies after that, or Daniel Clowes’s comics, or Jim Jarmusch movies, or ones with Adam Sandler? The feeling will be different, knowing Buscemi isn’t acting in them because he’s gone, not because he wasn’t cast. Maybe I will I have a Steve Buscemi movie marathon, or post about it on the blog I’ll have founded by then, or write another piece about him for PopMatters, like this one, only less hypothetical. Whatever my public acts of grieving may be, his loss will no doubt be a personal affair for me as well, because though I may not know him, I don’t love him any less for that.

Jillian Steinhauer is assistant editor at artinfo.com, where she writes (predictably) about art. She has written for other publications such as The Brooklyn Rail, the Village Voice, and NY Arts magazine; and she also writes about comics at the blog The Daily Cross Hatch. Some of her other pastimes include speaking Italian with anyone who will speak the language with her, attending dance class, rummaging through the racks at thrift stores, and making guacamole.
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