The road to Palookaville

...is paved with good intentions, as anyone who watches Alan Taylor's debut feature will discover. Nick Hasted meets a film-maker whose main ambition is to oust Tarantino by putting the all-American loser back in the picture
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The Independent Culture
Palookaville is the place where the losers go. It's the place Marlon Brando bought a one-way ticket to when he stopped being a contender in On the Waterfront, the place you wash up in when you've nowhere left to run. In Alan Taylor's debut film, it's an oddly gentle place. Palookaville follows three unemployed working-class friends, Russ (Vincent Gallo), Sid (William Forsythe), and Jerry (Adam Trese) as they convince themselves that crime will buy them back their place in the American Dream. The film begins with a sweat-soaked break-in at a bank. But the trio have broken into a bakery by mistake. Jerry is almost caught red-handed, dreamily gorging on cookies, all thoughts of crime forgotten. In post-Tarantino US cinema, it's the sort of scene that makes Palookaville stand out. In Taylor's words, "it's not about a heist that just goes wrong, it's about a heist that dissolves".

Palookaville takes place on the ground-level of the American Dream, where only its inhabitants' sweet optimism stops them waking up. If it's a film at odds with its times, that may have something to do with its unusual sources, both suggested by its Italian producer: short stories by Italo Calvino from the 1940s and Big Deal on Madonna Street, an Italian neo- realist film from the 1950s. To this alien brew Taylor, a 36-year-old whose La Dolce Vita-inspired film school short That Burning Feeling got him the job, added the dream-like feel of his own early 1970s youth. As Taylor acknowledges, it's this unique combination that gives Palookaville its curious feel.

"Calvino supplied a world-view which is a mainstay of Italian literature and films," he explains. "It stays within the realm of realism, but in an otherwise desolate landscape, it poses tiny moments of humane, transcendent hope. I have a world-view which resonates with his. It's a kind of inside- out David Lynch point of view. I see things as quite shitty and scary on the surface... but if you dig down there is cause for hope. I think the evil is all too apparent to everyone. What surprises me again and again is how often we don't do the worst that we can to each other. The three guys in Palookaville represent that. I don't think they're fantasy figures. It's how I believe people are."

It's an attitude that puts Taylor at odds with the influence of a director with whom he otherwise has much in common. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs is, in its own way, just as interested in the past as Palookaville, looking to early 1970s cinema as a sort of golden age. It even has an obscure 1950s source, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Taylor differs in his notions of what's right. "I think Tarantino has done a great job of reinvigorating dialogue," he says. "What I don't like is the wave of imitations, the temptation to fetishise blowing somebody away, and think that there's something interesting there, when really it's just... blank. It's the kind of thing that a 14-year-old boy responds to. That's becoming the dominant voice in American culture," he laughs resignedly. When a heist goes wrong in Tarantino, Harvey Keitel comes out both guns blazing. When it goes wrong in Palookaville, Vincent Gallo just has to shoot one bullet to put things straight. But he doesn't have it in him. "I believe that those who can't pull the trigger are more interesting than those who can," Taylor comments. "We live in a time where people seem to think that those who can kill have an extra capacity, are special or heightened. Whereas, in fact, I know I can kill. I think anybody can. What's interesting is what extra feature you have that pulls you back from that. There's nothing dumber or more obvious than pulling a trigger."

Gallo's inability to do so sums up the special quality of Palookaville's characters. They wish they had it in them to be mean. Faced with economic and emotional desperation of every kind, they're living in times that almost beg them to blast their way out. But they don't. "They hate themselves for the best thing in themselves," Taylor agrees. "They wish they could be the guys they see on TV, the guys they see in the movies. They really think that the American Dream is a reality, and that they've screwed up. They're thinking if they just pull one job, they'll be back where they belong. The thing that keeps subverting their will to jump back into the thick of things is that they can't step across a certain line. Their first impulse when they see a security guard having a heart-attack is to save him, not to take the money. Each of them denies it to varying degrees, but each of them is basically humane. American society has been corrupt in the same way for a long time, and these are three guys who stand outside of that, and, as a result, they aren't functioning very well. But I feel like they've all been rewarded by the end, in the categories they weren't paying attention to - the categories that really matter."

Taylor's sympathy with characters who don't fit in, and his penchant for making films which don't either, is deeply rooted. Though his grandparents were wealthy, his parents lost it all. Never sure if he was middle-class or working-class, Taylor grew up aware that he fitted into neither camp. Even his geographical roots were ripped up, time and time again. When he was seven, he went with his mother to Italy after his parents divorced, at the height of the country's anti-Americanism. Then he was moved to Canada, living in a family that loathed the Vietnam War, but in a country that blamed him for it anyway. "The last time I remember feeling comfortable and unquestioning was when I was very, very young, in the States," he says. "All the way through my childhood, I felt like somebody who'd been put in one category, but had a feeling he was in another. I've always felt outside looking in."

Taylor's introduction to cinema was equally displaced. His heroes as a child weren't the auteurs who filled the lives of Scorsese and co. Instead, he worshipped EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, and Gramsci, the writer who humanised Marxism - made it "hopeful and embracing". He studied history before he ever studied film, "for the same reason I was drawn to Palookaville, the small stories that give you an insight into the way people feel and think, that go against official representations." It was only a wish to reach more people than he would in the confines of academia that made him enter film school, and even then he didn't fit, didn't seem able to find a voice that anyone wanted to hear. It was the short That Burning Feeling, made at the end of his twenties, that convinced him to continue. It also brought him to the attention of Hollywood where, unsurprisingly, he hit further obstacles. After half a decade, all he's made to date, other than Palookaville, are four episodes of Homicide... a show he admires. "The intention behind its dialogue is to look at grand events like murder and try to find the tiny human moments in between, where people are talking about what cigarettes they like," he notes. "In many ways, it's like Palookaville, in that the intention is always to avoid the gun, to be about the cold-coffee moment that comes after the violence, not the violence itself."

Taylor claims that he'd love to do a mainstream movie, that he'd be wiling to make the compromises. He worries, though, that his instincts may never be commercial enough to let him. Like the characters in Palookaville, he may not have it in him. And really, he's much happier where he is, preparing a version of a Dennis Potter script, White Clouds, which he believes in, and writing one of his own, a film, once again, about a small action's implications. "One thing I learned from Palookaville was that making movies is too hard, getting up at five in the rain is no fun. To make that worthwhile, you have to care about the scene you're going to shoot. With this script, I care about every scene, I would do it for free if I had to."

Taylor obviously has every reason to feel sympathy with his Palookaville characters, their struggles and losers' dreams. Does he think that Palookaville exists ? "Yes, it does. It's a place where losers wind up. It's a place where you stand back from the struggle. We keep hearing murmurings here about Americans opting out of the rat race, remembering what made them happy and doing that instead. My sister at the moment is struggling with whether she should stay in New York, or go where she can be happy." He laughs. "Maybe we should name that Palookaville when she gets there"

`Palookaville' goes on release on 25 July

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