The Special Shelf: Urbania
When it first came out in theatres in 2000, which seems like a lifetime ago, Jon Shear’s Urbaniawas just one of many independent films showing in mainstream-ish places. It opened locally in Green Hills and hanged around for two weeks, which is wild, because one of the central issues with loving and recommending the film then was how to get people to experience this unique and moving example of fully-realized cinema without pandering to the people who are left quaking in their boots by the thought of two men kissing onscreen. This was an issue, even back when the community could be relied upon to support queer art.
Charlie (Academy Award-winner Dan Futterman, whom you may remember as the incarnation of ignorant heterosexual contempt in The Birdcage before he found his Oscar for writing Capote) is stuck in a rut following the death of his boyfriend. But that rut seems to have altered the elasticity of the real, and weird things are happening all around—a lot of them reminiscent of urban legends that we’ve all often heard some variation of. So there’s some thematic resonance with horror classics (like Candyman) and horror non-classics (like the Urban Legend trilogy), but the horror in this film is more rooted in finding your own experience becoming a story whispered on street corners to terrify young twinks.
At the time, Urbania sat amongst similar Y2K films about the human grief process like One True Thing and The Idiots, and there’s even some Eyes Wide Shut in the mix, as well. Despite its more fanciful plot elements, this is one of those films that digs down into your synapses and soul, and those weirder choices help keep things from feeling like a chore. This is one of those movies that is interested in the way you respond to what you see, and as such is willing to play some digressive or sneaky narrative games along the way.
Futterman is like Tom Hanks in Joe Vs. The Volcano or Holly Hunter in anything—delivering quiet, unshowy work that merits inclusion among the truly great screen performances of our time. In opening up Daniel Reitz’ play Urban Folk Tales, director Shear (working with Reitz) presents us with a story that has to be told cinematically. As a play, there is no way that this experience could have had the same cumulative effect on the viewer as it does in its fully realized form as a film.
Shear’s gifts as a director should lead to a very promising future for the former actor (he was Winona Ryder’s friend at the school newspaper in Heathers), as his realization of the script (with ace cinematographer Shane Kelly) is coupled with the understanding that technology is a great boon when it is used in the creation of a good and unique story. The film’s press notes stated that it was only the second film to be finished completely in the digital realm. The first one: Star Wars, Episode I.
Deep down at its hardened but benevolent core, Urbania is a tale of frustration, desire, loss, redemption, lust, and peace. It manages to be powerful, sad, darkly funny, randy, laden with regret, and filled with every sort of palpable emotion. It dishes out a lot of sex (the good, transgressive kind) and violence (the horrifying kind, where you feel every punch and slap and cut), and it’s the kind of experimental queer artwork that doesn’t even make it to theatres anymore.
To find this film, you’ve got to do some searching—it’s not streaming anywhere, and the DVD from Lionsgate is out of print. But I’ll tell you a secret: it’s worth it. And if you make that journey, this film yields big emotional dividends.