At the beach with Rob Lowe and The Passenger

At the beach with Rob Lowe and The Passenger

Over the last five days, I’ve been working on one of the only active sets currently sweating it out in production-deprived Toronto: Stir of Echoes 2: The Dead Speak. “Stir of Echoes?,” you’re likely asking. “Wasn’t that that heinous horror flick with what’s-his-name? Emilio Estevez or something?” Actually, the film in question starred Kevin Bacon. And it was quite good. But yes, the fact that a (likely) straight-to-DVD non-sequel to a little-seen Kevin Bacon vehicle is the big show in town is a sad thing indeed. Montreal, Halifax and Vancouver all have trailer-packed streets, but Toronto’s summer shooting schedule has been meagre, to say the least.

Stir of Echoes 2: The Dead Speak actually has very little to do with the original. Bacon and director David Koepp are gone, as are all the original characters. The only real tie between the two films are the involvement of Lions Gate Films and a tenuous thematic relation. Whether or not Lions Gate wanted a sequel to the moderately successful original is unclear. Either way, they felt that the script by Ernie Barbaresh (who co-produced American Psycho and directed Cube Zero, the second of cult film Cube’s successors), about a recently returned Iraq War vet who is haunted by visions of the dead, would sell better under the Stir of Echoes banner.

Working under the gun (and a tight budget), Stir has been flying around town like a juggernaut: from College and Brunswick to the Humber Regional Hospital to the Toronto Windsurfing Club’s grounds on Cherry Beach. As of today, they’re recreating the Battle of Fallujah in an old quarry in Stouffville.

The only reason that I mention the film is that working on it made me re-evaluate the acting work of its leading man: a rarely discussed and appreciated bright light of modern American cinema—Rob Lowe. If you think I’m joking, guess again. Just watch him rock that kimono in Thank You for Smoking, or order Chinese food in his “babe lair” in Wayne’s World. Lowe is the master of Patrick Bateman-style ironic detachment.

There was a time when it was unclear exactly what path Rob Lowe’s career would take. After filling the role of Sodapop Curtis in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 bratpackosaurus, The Outsiders, playing a classic American abroad in 1984’s Oxford Blue and officially reaching pin-up apotheosis in Youngblood (1986) and St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Lowe was set to be a premier ’90s leading man. Then, one night in 1988, he had sex with a minor in an Atlanta hotel room during the Democratic National Convention. After that, things would never be the same. Lowe went into therapy for sex and alcohol addiction, and came out needing a significant image make-over.

What he’s done to resuscitate his career is actually quite amazing. By actually celebrating his lecherous reputation, Lowe created a new niche for himself: he’s the smooth-talking golden boy without a conscience, the very extreme example of how appearance and inner reality can become wholly divorced (imagine him playing Iago, for example).

His role on The West Wing looked like it might be a significant turning point. The character of Sam Seaborn was well-drawn, and in the company of such a talented cast, Lowe had the opportunity to prove his chops. Unfortunately, Seaborn never became the major character show creator Aaron Sorkin had initially envisioned (and besides, wasn’t his oily Ivy League-educated, political speechwriter just a more erudite version of Wayne’s World’s Benjamin Kane anyway?).

For two nights, I sat from 10pm to 4am on Cherry Beach, watching Lowe battle a demonic dumpster. I watched him fight it until he (or his stunt double) ultimately succumbed to the flames. Whenever he was on set, I couldn’t help but stare at him—not because he’s shorter than I imagined (he is), or because he’s particularly handsome (he makes me feel hideous in comparison)—but because he’s Rob Lowe. Even when he’s joshing with the members of the crew (and yes, the word “joshing” does apply in this case), Lowe is very much the Rob Lowe I know from the screen. How, I kept asking myself, was he ever going to successfully pull off a horror film? (Especially one where he played a Middle American GI.) How is he ever going to convince us that he’s not the cold-blooded ironist we’ve come to know, despise and love?

* * * * * * *

If you missed the limited release of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) at the Carlton last winter, then you’ve got one more chance to see it on the big screen tonight at Cinematheque Ontario. Most of the excitement earlier in the year was due to the fact that star Jack Nicholson had hoarded the film in his vault since its initial release—wary of what, no one really knows. When Sony finally bought the film back, people were curious to see if the Palme D’Or-nominated picture would live up to their memories of it. The answer was yes—quite well, in fact.

Antonioni affects the way that you perceive the world more than any other filmmaker I know. It’s not that he unleashes sublime surreal visions. Indeed, he does just the opposite. He forces you to look at reality. For a really, really long time.

This isn’t easy when you’re someone like me and you hate any shot that lasts for more than two-and-a-half seconds. But watching a film like The Passenger makes you realise what MTV aesthetics have done to our relationship with our surroundings.

David Locke (Nicholson) is an American journalist in an unnamed African desert. He’s searching for rebels, but he keeps getting lost or mislead. After his Range Rover breaks down in the middle of nowhere, it becomes clear to Locke that his life is remarkably empty and that he yearns to escape it (it’s what intellectuals used to call an existential crisis, kids; you know, back before filmmakers stopped reading books). As luck would have it, the guy Locke is sharing his hotel room with dies overnight. When it occurs to Locke to steal the man’s personality, he never would have guessed the dude was an arms dealer. Nor could he have imagined he would end up having to speak to his own wife as the other man (“Robertson”), the lone witness to his own death.

What does it all mean? That can be debated till the cows come home. Ultimately, it’s a meditation on what this sad little existence is all about; about choice and responsibility, the way in which we are simultaneously both free and bound.

If you’re looking for the antithesis to Pirates of the Caribbean, this is your film.

The Passenger screens at 8:30pm tonight, August 2, at Cinematheque Ontario.