New York Diary: And I'll cry if I want to...

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The Independent Culture
IN CHOOSING their Christmas film this year, New Yorkers went for a new kind of escapism. HurlyBurly, released on Christmas Day, garnered big box-office receipts in Manhattan. It stood out amid holiday films about kindly doctors, snowmen and good stepmothers: a bleary-eyed Meg Ryan, an exotic dancer, screeches. Sean Penn, playing a casting director, sobs, screams and undresses, chain-smokes, and snorts obscene amounts of cocaine. Garry Shandling shuffles around, eyebrows wavering, pimping young girls to his friends.

Mark Ordesky, president of HurlyBurly's distributor, Fine Line, called the Christmas release of HurlyBurly "counter programming" against more traditional Christmas movie fare, following the success of last year's Christmas release, Jackie Brown. New Yorkers seemed glad to lose themselves in these characters who crawl on the floor like it was still the early Eighties, accusing each other of projecting.

This was the audience's fantasy, the not-so-American life they had chosen, psychologised and corny and obsessed with power, a life where one might spend Christmas with hundreds of people - without going to Midnight Mass. (On this year's Christmas Eve, you could catch a show entitled Hasidic New Wave and eat some fake duck.)

HurlyBurly's action is as drug-induced, superficial and unhappy as any fashionable New Year's party. For weeks before the New Year, Manhattanites competed over invitations, then feigned indifference at the events themselves.

With its glimpse into yesterday's debauchery, HurlyBurly echoes both Manhattan's invitation-only pre-fete frenzy and the blase ennui at the actual party. Sean Penn exemplifies both these modes. The object of Hollywood's desire kvetched in The New York Times Magazine profile, calling Hollywood stars mere "performers" and hanging around them to be sometimes "just excruciating". In the article, Penn is made into Hollywood's Christ- figure. He threatens to quit acting, while Jack Nicholson and a host of other Hollywood hotshots toast "genius" Penn, who is suffering for the sins of Tinseltown's money-mad performers.

The $4m ensemble piece, along with Pleasantville and The Truman Show, makes the mistake of confusing show- business unhappiness in particular with human unhappiness in general. It's part of 1998's larger filmic trend - Deep Hollywood. With DH films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, stars can't say enough how the particular director or actor had so much taciturn "aura".

This year, American entertainment magazines ran stories of film ad campaigns, box office, and studio firings and hirings, instead of the mags' breathless fans notes of yore. While HurlyBurly's makers claim that it is not a movie about Hollywood per se, Ordesky says: "HurlyBurly is about what Hollywood can do to the human mind, the soul, and the personality".

If you were part of New York's Elect you wouldn't have to go to the movies to watch the return of 1980s-style decadent parties. You would be at writer Bret Easton Ellis's party, waiting for him to leave his own do, watching his teenage guests cavort and women in short Santa skirts serve drinks. And then, like Sean Penn, after trying to be invited to the party, you would rant against it.