No, I have not read the book. One of my mother’s friends bought me a different Michael Chabon novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, years ago. Since when did I get presents from my mother’s friends? Paralyzed by this question, I never read it. Still sitting on my shelf, it was really the brash cover with its graphic novel references that put me off. I didn’t feel like being told about my youth.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the movie, is about Art Bechstein’s (played by Jon Foster) summer after graduation. He immediately meets two people, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jane (Sienna Miller) who act as the reckless cab drivers of the next three months of his life. Together they build a nicely screwed up love triangle. Also, I should mention, Art’s father is an infamous organized crime boss. Shove your grandiose visualizations aside, this all happens in Pittsburgh.
If you’ve seen Scotland, PA, (Macbeth set around a fast food restaurant) you’ve got a good start. Now instead of Macbeth, substitute Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 classic about what it’s like to be young and energetic but feel malaise for the world. What business does a 60s French threesome have in Pittsburgh, you ask? I have no idea. What are you talking about, you ask? Good, we’re doing well.
Mixing dramatic adventures and banal locations (lova ya Pittsburgh!) is nothing novel. It has its uses: to make a nice contrast or remind us of the psychoses in forgotten places. The mysteries of Pittsburgh, however, are neither unique to Pittsburgh nor very mysterious.
An early scene with a voice-over narrative of the main character walking into a hotel elevator only to then wake up from his dream should be an explanation of the movie’s relationship with place. Instead it’s just a passing allusion to The Dreamers, which itself is an overtly conscious homage to Band of Outsiders. In both of these films, there’s a play between high and low art, politics and place. Here, in what feels very much like an ordinary indie film, all of that is lost.
This is a movie that, if it’s about anything, is about post-graduate anxiety. Everyone who’s gone through it, and most people have, knows it’s not characterized by running away from the police to have a threesome with Sienna Miller. For everyone who hasn’t gone through it, i.e. everyone still in high school, maybe it is. As long as that episode of life is still suspended in disbelief, you can treat it however you want. For the rest of us, it’s just fancy.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh starts at Embarcadero Center Cinema Friday, April 10. Director Rawson Thurber will be in person Sunday, April 12 at 7:20 & 9:40pm.