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A prophet for the 'New Age'

TELLURIDE, Colo.--Michael Tolkin once sold office supplies over the phone. He called up people and told them they were finalists for valuable prizes, and some of them got so excited they bought rollerballs and staplers and manila folders. In Tolkin's new film, "The New Age," his hero begins as a high-paid ad man, and eventually finds himself on the phone, selling office supplies.

"I don't like making fun of jobs unless I've done them," Tolkin was telling me. "And that's a degrading job; it's a con man's job. I went in knowing it was a scam, but when it became clear that it was thievery, when I discovered that they were never going to get the free TV set or win the big trip, I quit. It wasn't about office supplies. It was about getting credit cards from Mom and Pop America."

The hero of "The New Age" turns out to be better at the job than Tolkin was, or at least more adaptable. He's a man named Peter Witner, played by Peter Weller as the kind of realist who says, very sincerely, "What I fear most is having to work to make money."

At the beginning of the film, he is being paid a huge salary, which supports an opulent Beverly Hills lifestyle, and he arrogantly walks out on his job because he thinks he's too good for the agency. The movie follows the downward spiral as he and his wife Katherine (Judy Davis) find that they were great at being rich but not very good at being poor, and absolutely terrible at earning a living. He's sort of surprised to find out he's talented at conning people over the phone - but after all, the movie suggests, isn't that what he was doing all along?

Tolkin is a smart, edgy man, and his work reflects his personality. His first film was "The Rapture" (1991), starring Mimi Rogers as a woman with a swinger's lifestyle who undergoes a religious conversion and follows her new beliefs as far as they will take her - which, in her case, is literally into the next world. A year later, Tolkin's best-selling novel The Player was adapted and directed by Robert Altman into a caustic film about the Hollywood power game. Then came the novel Among the Dead, about a man who misses a plane that crashes, and finds himself "dead" and therefore free to re-evaluate his life. And now here is "The New Age," with its desperate Southern Californians clinging to the wreckage of affluence and looking for quick fixes. In pursuit of money

Although the title and Tolkin's track record with "The Rapture" might make you think "The New Age" is about a spiritual quest, the movie is essentially about how - after a certain point - everything in the lives of his characters comes down to money. "We were born when the economy was expanding," one of the Witners says, and now it's contracting, without them.

But they're not pathetic victims. They're sharp and articulate and sardonic, and some of the movie's best scenes simply have them talking about their dilemma. "I tend to make my dialogue out of everybody trying to express what's in them," Tolkin said, "but they're blocked by all sorts of forces, so they keep circling what they're trying to say." Around and around: witty, caustic, circular. A responsive audience

This was at the Telluride Film Festival, where "The Rapture" was first shown, and where "The New Age" must have struck close to home for some of the audience members, whose ability to attend festivals in fashionable resorts depends on not losing jobs like the characters lost. Tolkin sat in a rented condo and drank tea and said he was wondering what to do next.

"I will never film Among the Dead," he said sharply, "because some of the reviews accused me of writing a film scenario and publishing it as a novel, and that was never my intention, so now I'm going to prove that."

He thought. "I've been thinking hard," he said, "about writing soliloquies, getting the interior monologue out and putting it on film. It's an old technique, you know. They used to do it the theater all the time. People talk to themselves in real life; I find myself talking to myself all the time. We all mutter a little bit; we coach ourselves. It would be interesting to try that in a film. Of course, if somebody steals the idea, I'll look like I'm copying myself."

So your characters would talk to themselves.

"Yeah, or just while driving, you know. Part of the problem with the movies now, I think, is that because the audience wants everything spelled out - because they really resent ambiguity - the genre film has taken over by default as the excellently made film. The best independent films of the last half-dozen years have all been deeply flawed, whereas the best genre films have all been flawless.

"A movie like 'Speed' is basically flawless, whereas with any of the better films that have come out of the festivals, or won prizes, or that the smartest critics have encouraged their readers to go see - you go to those movies, and there's always a languor or a dry section or something in the ending that doesn't work. The original film is really in a bind right now because the world is in a mess and movies that reflect it are, by default, messy. Not tidy like a perfect genre film."

You said "original film," I said. That could be a new label. We have "genre films" and now we have "original films." We oughta popularize that term.

"Hmmm. They've been using the word 'independent film' for a while, but that was really the marketers' way of getting away from the term `art film' which was degraded by . . ."


"Sex. Yeah. 'Art film' meant 'dirty movie.' And then the term was degraded by anti-cinema snobs, who sneeringly referred to the `art film' as difficult, because of course it's going to be difficult. I can't pretend that my movies aren't difficult."

He paused. "You know, we had original films up until around 1978, almost everything was original. Even the genre films of the '70s were original. They were experiments by film students and film lovers in trying to bring a modern consciousness to old forms and have fun with them. Then when people made billions of dollars off them, that steered some really talented people away from doing more original work." A turning point

The turning point was probably "Jaws," I said.

"And 'Star Wars,' too. Maybe 'Star Wars' more than 'Jaws' because 'Star Wars,' when you look at it, is a kind of art film. But the fact that it was an unexpected success meant that Lucas and everybody in that circle became provoked into becoming multimillionaires."

If they made a movie about the new age, it would have great special effects and lovable supernatural forces arrayed against the powers of evil.

"What I was trying to do was more complicated. I felt that if I made a film satirizing crystals and channeling and all that stuff, the targets would be too easy. Since I'm more sympathetic toward fundamentalism than I am to the vagueness of the new age movement, I wanted to treat new age stuff the way I see people using it. Which is: There are these metaphysical concepts, which are residue of magnificently complex religious traditions, and they get reduced to a few formulas.

"Those formulas might be interesting precepts to live your life by, but any religion requires discipline and a commitment. And it's almost as though in the new age movement, attitude counts for achievement. You see so many people drifting because new age beliefs don't really supply anything except a set of rationalizations or excuses."

It's the official religion of people who are embarrassed to go to organized churches.

"It's also the official religion of people who are scared and look into the void and grab onto a couple of phrases and ideas to keep from falling off the cliff." Multiple perspectives

You can see their point of view.

"Some people come out of this movie and think I'm a new ager, and others think I'm condemning it. If both sides think I represent the other side, then I guess I did the right thing."

Is this the kind of movie that's going to play better in Southern California than in Peoria?

"It's not about the spiritual stuff so much as about people who are clutching at straws and facing financial disaster. The wife states that they have 30 days left in the bank, and then they're broke. I don't think there's a person in the country who doesn't know what that is. They've got a big house and some art. They start selling the art. If they'd been different people, they'd be selling the motorcycle or the gun collection.

"When I started working on this story, I thought about it as a story of a woman who's destroyed by a man's weakness. But then what I saw was that money becomes a fantastic cushion against reality. And that reality's very cold. And that a marriage or a relationship or friendship can sustain itself as long as there's an equal balance or a certain level of money. Once the money is gone, you may find out your life is not at all like you thought it was. What you thought was your life was really your money."

Tolkin spread his hands apart and then fitted them together carefully.

"I think a lot of people can identify with that."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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