Film

Finding Steve Buscemi: The Perfect Understatement

Jillian Steinhauer

It’s only when you internalize Steve Buscemi’s movies [they] become a part of your life in an extremely personal, emotional way.

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.

Next Page


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.