Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Appreciation: Nick Gomez

In 1992, I was perusing the video store shelves when I came across a VHS copy of a film titled "Laws of Gravity". I had heard about the film through a mutual friend who lived in L.A. and had seen this no-budget indie and raved about it. I gave it a shot. Not only did "Laws of Gravity" become the best film I saw that year, but it's remained one of my very favorite films, period. Starring a young and then unknown Edie Falco and Paul Schulze (both of whom would later explode into the public consciousness on "The Sopranos", and a show in which Gomez would helm a few episodes) as well as an electrifying starring turn by Peter Greene (Zed in "Pulp Fiction"), "Laws of Gravity" was one of the very first indie films to position itself as a 'day in the life' of New York City denizens- a genre that would eventually fall into overblown narcissism and excess in films such as "The Boondock Saints" and "Gravesend". Yet "Laws of Gravity" is an entity all to itself... a film full of gritty realism. It's a film that analyzes the ebb and flow of relationships (both sexual and fraternal) and effortlessly captures a milieu of the down-and-out in Brooklyn... the sect who hustle for every penny. The plot is simple- Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Johnny (Adam Trese) are layabouts. They break into cars for portable stereos to sell for quick cash, meet up with newly released con Frankie (Schulze) and get involved with a sack of stolen guns and carouse and get into arguments with their girlfriends (Falco and Arabella Field). Local shop owner and neighborhood patriarch Sal (Saul Stein) tries to look out for Jimmy, constantly attempting to steer him clear of the more dangerous elements in the borough. Though their circumstances are bleak, the conversations they have and the genuine concern that Jimmy and Jon show for each other pushes "Laws of Gravity" across as one of the most assured Cassavetes-knock off since Cassavetes himself passed away. The conversations and playful teasing as the foursome drink and hang out feel authentic (as does the sweaty, cramped setting). The interaction between the various hoods on the street and in front of local bars is never forced. "Laws of Gravity" is a film that oozes truthfulness... maybe because director Gomez knew the life so well. And that ending... wow. I know older online buddies recognize my supreme awe for this film's denouement, and it can't be overstated.

While "Laws of Gravity" was Gomez's debut, he had worked as an editor and sound recordists on two early 90's Hal Hartley movies before finding minimal backing for "Laws of Gravity". Nominated as one of the five candidates for the Debut Feature Independent Spirit award that year (which it lost to Neil Jiminez's "The Waterdance"), "Laws of Gravity" reached a small yet successful core audience. Ultimately, Gomez received funding for two more films in the mid 90's- "New Jersey Drive" and "illtown" (none of these 3 are available on DVD). Changing only the locale, "New Jersey Drive" focused on a small group of friends and their bad habits of stealing cars. Like "Laws of Gravity", this film was also written by Gomez and represented an underclass of youth that had been studied and reproduced on film for years. But as with "Laws of Gravity", there was something real about his characters and their eternal struggle to live a life of breaking the law while remaining somewhat decent and likable people beneath the hard surface. If anything, that seemed to be Gomez's trademark. You could easily see yourself in the shoes of these young men if one or two things hadn't gone your way in life.

In 1996, Gomez released what has been his most difficult film to date. "illtown", starring Michael Rappaport and Lili Taylor as drug dealers battling other drug dealers in a lazy seaside Florida town. Hallucinatory and dreamy, the entire film feels like it was shot by a man on heroin, which was probably Gomez's intent. While not completely successful, it is the most lethargic and odd slice of 'drug dealing life' one will ever see. And when Tony Danza turns up as an openly gay drug kingpin, "illtown" feels almost like a parody of the genre. Still, Gomez lights and edits this film with an absorbing presence that lulls you into the same type of hazy world inhabited by Rappaport and Taylor. Bringing back alot of the same cast members from "Laws of Gravity" including Adam Trese, Saul Stein and Paul Schulze, it's been years since I've seen this film upon initial release. I wonder if it looks better or worse today.

In 2000, Gomez directed his last feature film- a black comedy called "Drowning Mona". Starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler, "Drowning Mona" seems like a job-for-hire by Gomez. Written by someone else and featuring an illustrious name cast, the film charts the suspicion of an entire town after the aforementioned Mona drives her car into a lake. Funny at times, "Drowning Mona" was a middling effort.

After that feature, Gomez immersed himself in television work, adding his vision to seminal TV works such as "Oz", "The Shield" (in which he directs the episode where Captain Acaveda gets raped by a drug dealer... and anyone who watches "The Shield" will understand the brutality of this episode), "Crossing Jordan", "Veronica Mars", "Keen Eddie", "Sleeper Cell" and most recently several episodes of Alan Ball's HBO vampire series "True Blood". Not completely lost in the wilderness of television- which, with the quality of so many groundbreaking series, is never a terrible thing- Gomez is currently in production on a film called "The Passenger" which details the early music career of Iggy Pop. While it's nice to see Gomez has found steady work on the small screen, I'll still be waiting for the glorious temperament that brought us "Laws of Gravity" on the big screen. It's been too long.

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