November 5, 2007

Choking Man Breathes at Last

Magical-realist indie odyssey lands mainstream director in Queens cauldron

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Octavio Gómez Berrios in Choking Man, opening this week in New York (Photo: Ghost Robot)

You could almost call it an icon: The choking man, that crudely illustrated, slumped rendering of near-dead desperation branded on posters in every diner and restaurant in the city. He's more conspicuous some places than others, but everyone knows him and knows he's there. It's the counsel accompanying his likeness -- a faceless silhouette administering a rescue -- that we overlook, perhaps at our own risk but rarely, if ever, with a second thought.

Which got Steve Barron thinking. "It's probably the most unappetizing thing you could possibly put up in a diner," said the British filmmaker, a music video and Hollywood feature veteran whose writing-directing debut Choking Man opens Friday at Cinema Village. "Yet to New Yorkers, probably because of the 20 years it's been up on the walls in the diners, it felt anonymous and invisible. The [idea] sort of branched out to the invisibility of kitchen staff and illegal immigrants and how they seem to slip into anonymity themselves -- they seem to not have a presence. I just got really interested in that and decided that's what I wanted to explore."

Thus was born Barron's own Choking Man, which premiered a year-and-a-half ago at Tribeca before nabbing the 2006 Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. The film is an outsider's adventurous glimpse at shy Ecuadoran dishwasher Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berrios) and the volatile multi-ethnic orbit surrounding him in Jamaica, Queens. Not "volatile" in the sense of Spike Lee throwing a trash can through Danny Aiello's pizzeria window on the hottest day of the year (in fact, Choking Man is as midwinter as it gets without a full-on blizzard), but rather in the sense of surrogate families that New Yorkers develop within the frameworks of their communities: Greek diner proprietor Rick (Mandy Patinkin) brings on Chinese waitress Amy (Eugenia Yuan) to help out for the season; she reaches out to Jorge while withstanding the wisacre seductions of misanthropic ex-con Jerry (Aaron Paul) and commiserating with middle-aged server Teri (Kate Buddeke). If Jamaica is indeed a prime representation of the cauldron that is New York, then Barron's aggressively self-aware diversity -- 140 languages are spoken in the neighborhood, an awestruck Rick points out early on -- romanticizes coexistence more readily than it highlights fissures.

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Again, despite admitted New York indie influences like Raising Victor Vargas, social realism is less Barron's bag than magical realism: An apparition haunting Jorge's flat exhorts him to pursue Amy even as it evokes his own slow suffocation (is he Jorge's own rescuer, as depicted in the public service poster?); a cold, man-child crawlspace in the bleak brush behind the diner offers his only sanctuary. Local merchants trade in redemption and wonder, and diners -- for all the stress behind the scenes -- focus the cosmos like a church.

"That comes naturally to me, I think," Barron told me. "A little magic can always be on every street corner, and when I was looking and researching, my natural draw is to see what's around their lives in the thrift shop or the rug store or the strange objects that might help you fly away from it -- or represent hope that is there. Those sorts of things are everywhere. The film came out of a gritty truth of minimum-wage living, and it's a pretty depressing living in terms of being caught in a place where they don't belong, but they've left their country as well. They don't belong there either. So they're in a limbo that is a little bit scary. Searching for that piece of magic or a little hope becomes very important."

And even if the basics aren't particularly authentic -- middle-class German immigrant businessmen, for example, aren't frequenting Jamaica eateries and pouring rainbow sprinkles on their diner food as doting American waitresses look on, and minimum-wage Latino dishwashers don't commute round-trip from East Harlem hovels to jobs on Van Wyck Boulevard -- Barron doesn't quite condescend. His liberties don't overtake his sincerity; to some degree, the German even suffers for the silliness of his rainbow sprinkle metaphor. He fuses animated interludes (based on the choking man poster, natch) to Jorge's internalized fantasia of rabbits, subways and salvation. Nico Muhly's delicate score capitalizes on the phenomenon of "strangulation euphoria," a phrase Jerry casually drops while harassing Jorge but which epitomizes Choking Man's style -- aestheticizing the instinct, not the necessity, to breathe, and the role the world plays in our capacity to do so.

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