Patton Oswalt's Night Café and the Script that Changed Joss Whedon Forever

In Patton Oswalt's 2015 memoir Silver Screen Fiend, the stand-up comedian and actor describes a movie addiction that lasted from May 1995 to May 1999. He uses this framing device to explore other tangents of his life, and then weaves them together in a deconstruction of the purpose of art and its role. This is brought to life with a treatise on Vincent van Gogh and The Night Café, something he gives great symbolic meaning to and then applies to his own life. He defines a "Night Café" as a "room you enter," either literally or figuratively, "then leave having been forever changed." With that in mind I can't help but look for Night Cafés in my own life. Oswalt has six total, but my starting point has to be Alien: Resurrection, the ground zero for my engagement as a cinephile with movie development, coverage, and discourse in the Internet age. Ironically, Joss Whedon's writing of Alien: Resurrection also served as his own Night Café.

Before The Night Café, as Oswalt describes it, van Gogh only painted what he could see. As a fanatical priest, he believed his talent for painting "was demonic, and something to be ashamed and frightened of." A friend, however, convinced him to try a different method, to paint from memory, and he decided the Café de la Gare, a seedy spot in Arles, France, would be his inspiration. The results were immediate. The Night Café was unlike anything van Gogh had done before, veering away from realism into a swirling, amorphous vision that would be so familiar in his later works such as The Starry Night. It had a new and unnerving style with red walls "like the color of butchered meat," screaming lines and crouching pool tables ready to pounce. Within a year van Gogh had been driven insane by his divergence, cutting off his own ear and sending it to a prostitute. Eventually he was institutionalized and took his own life. The Night Café was a literal room and metaphorical catalyst that left him changed forever.

Night Cafe: a "room you enter," either literally or figuratively, "then leave having been forever changed."

Oswalt has his own Night Cafés, the most important being his arrival at the New Beverly Cinema in May 1995. Lured to Los Angeles by a writing gig on MADtv, this was the start of an enslavement to film that culminated and fizzled with the premier of Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in May 1999. It also changed gears for him as a cinephile, revealing a greater need to absorb so much he would consequently become a director and "make Art and Commerce dance together." That equation isn't the most plausible, however, something he admits freely by the end of the book: although he's written screenplays, he still has not directed a feature film.

For my Night Café, we have to dive back down to the primordial ooze of the Internet. Those days of Netscape and AOL Instant Messenger seem so long ago, nearly 20 years now. The dialing up of a 14.4k modem was both an irritation and a comfort. The result was surfing the web in front of the blinding glow of a 50-pound box at a pace that would be mind numbing by today's standards. The first movie trailer I ever downloaded was for Spawn, of all things, saved as an AVI to my Dell's desktop. It was little more than 20 seconds long, depicting quick cuts of the titular character racing across rooftops, and it took more than an hour to download. In fact, I can't find this teaser on YouTube today, so it all may have been a fever dream. That movie came out in August 1997 but just a few months later Alien: Resurrection would cement my Internet fandom.

Resurrection was released in November 1997, not the most intuitive release date for an attempted revitalization of the blockbuster franchise that had never managed consistency. The film was written by Whedon, known today for guiding Marvel's Cinematic Universe, who had already made a name for himself in Hollywood with a few script polishes (Waterworld, Toy Story) and an original script called Buffy the Vampire Slayer that introduced him to the meat grinder that is the Hollywood studio system. Although his salvaging of the movie into a television show proved fruitful, that couldn't have prepared him for what would be done to his Resurrection script, his own Night Café. After talks with Danny Boyle, Trainspotting already under his belt, fell through, the auteur tradition was continued with Jean-Pierre Jeunet being hired to direct. The visionary behind Delicatessen and The City of the Lost Children seemed like just the man to pull a Lazarus, but unfortunately his sensibilities conflicted with Whedon's.

Little did the screenwriter know he would spend the next 18 years trying to outrun this script. What's readily available online is labeled as "second revised draft", and it is huge, with a vast cast of characters and set pieces that didn't make it to the silver screen, including a car chase through a giant cannabis garden. Whereas Whedon had a more pulp take in mind, in the vein of Aliens with an injection of comic book spectacle, the French director (who couldn't speak English on set) brought more of an irreverent sense of humor and camp with a dash of surreal. The tonal conflict, along with obvious budget restrictions (an ending battle set on Earth was cut) and odd stunt casting of Winona Ryder, make for a lurching, incoherent beast of a movie, even if Sigourney Weaver and Brad Dourif give it their all, the costumes are unique and provocative, and Ron Perlman is hilarious. A character sorely missed as well, St. Just (pronounced San-Jhoost), is conflated in the final product with Gary Dourdan's Christie, but would live on as my user name online for years. Described in the script as "slim, Asian – and the epitome of cool," he was destined for Chow Yun-Fat, and the seed was planted for my branching out into foreign films with John Woo's two-fisted Hong Kong actioners The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled. The seal broken, I would also seek out Jeunet's earlier work, and eventually his 2001 classic Amélie, and and much more.

The infidelity to his script would lead to Whedon recreating aspects of it in his later works. Whedon's fascination with bringing back irrefutably dead characters, such as Angel in the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Colossus in his Astonishing X-Men run, or Phil Coulson on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D television series, started here. The mercenary crew of the Betty are obvious prototypes for Firefly/Serenity, with Perlman's Johner as an Ur-Jayne and Ripley's mental instability and violence manifesting in River Tam, also the product of government experimentation. The United Systems Military's totalitarian practices have shades in the fourth season of Buffy's antagonists the Initiative as well as the underground facility in the Whedon co-written The Cabin in the Woods (2012), with both caging and cataloguing monsters. Scenes are ported over wholesale, such as when the xenomorphs first escape and Ripley in her cell, hearing a roar, looks up and smiles. This, stopped just before the smile in the theatrical cut of Resurrection, is recreated identically in The Avengers (2012), except with the Hulk and Loki. Even the aforementioned name St. Just recurred in Whedon's 2002 graphic novel Tales of the Slayers, except that time with a more traditional pronunciation.

A movie has to be engaged for what it is, not what we expect it to be ahead of time.

This was a distant future, however, in the months leading up to the premier. My 13-year-old self followed the production incessantly on such early movie sites as Corona's Coming Attractions, Dark Horizons, and of course Ain't It Cool News. I watched the teaser, silent except for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and the subsequent propulsive score, and the later full trailers maybe 100 times each. I learned of message boards (and even role-playing games) and found kindred spirits. Sure there was already the sucks/badass dichotomy that would frame online rhetoric in perpetuity, but there were also those that wanted to analyze and parse out the themes and deeper meaning of the series, and together we hoped for the best.

Reading the Resurrection script also introduced me to the concept of spoilers, as I anticipated scenes and lines of dialogue and was only surprised when what was on screen deviated from the page. This would lead to a short-lived devouring of movie scripts, including William Gibson's Alien 3, which is not the holy grail people make it out to be, but did lead me to Neuromancer and cyberpunk, and for that I am forever grateful.

Expectations impossibly raised, the day finally arrived. Walking into that movie theater in North Palm Beach, Florida I was prepared to have my mind blown. I had actually seen Alien 3 in theaters back in 1992 with my mom (what was she thinking?), but it would be years before I came around to appreciating that one, mostly due to the mystique that built up over the elusive Assembly Cut that was finally released on DVD in 2003. Resurrection, however, I went into with young naiveté, hoping it would somehow recapture the James Cameron energy that so permeated my childhood. Those excited for Neil Blomkamp's hypothetical Alien 5 should keep that mind.

The movie, however, turned out to be a hot mess, and this was the first time I discovered I could be disappointed by a sure thing. Even Batman & Robin earlier that year had outed itself in the marketing as a neon nightmare. But Aliens had been my obsession for years, and the anticipation of every scoop, set photo and clip hid Resurrection's uneven attitude, clunky action and bizarre choices. In retrospect I can appreciate the movie for its parts: the bombastic score, Heavy Metal-esque set design and a few scenes like Dourif studying his sticky subjects under glass, or the swim through the kitchen. But it's been years since I've watched it from start to finish, and I look back on it as more curiosity than movie now.

Still, I'll always remember it fondly for the impact it had on me as a film fan. It introduced me to production coverage, online interaction and the process of filmmaking as a (not always successful) collaboration. It eased me into foreign films, both Hong Kong and French and later many others. It brought William Gibson and cyberpunk to my attention. But mostly it taught me that a movie has to be engaged for what it is, not what we expect it to be ahead of time. Alien: Resurrection was a Night Café for both myself and Joss Whedon, and afterwards we were both never the same.

Bart Bishop

Column by Bart Bishop

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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Comments

Ryan Zirk's picture
Ryan Zirk September 23, 2015 - 6:00pm

Van Gogh was never a "fanatical priest" but rather worked hard at following in his father's footsteps as an evangelical "preacher" and his "talent for painting" was never considered demonic. Get your facts straight. It was Gauguin that told him he should paint from memory. And the night cafe was very much an actual place that "one could lose one's mind in". And it was very much like the works he was doing at the time, stark complimentary colors and the swirling effects came from the oil in the lamplights. Much like the cafe terrace on place du forum, the portrait of Eugene boch, and  the starry night series, the works are at once serene and seething, marked by the turmoil he was enveloped in with his living conditions in Arles and his relationship with Gauguin. Not to mention all the absinthe Gauguin had him drinking.

Bart Bishop's picture
Bart Bishop from Cincinnati, OH September 24, 2015 - 2:24am

Thanks for chiming in! No disrespect is intended toward van Gogh, so perhaps "fanatical" was the wrong choice of words.

But along with my quoting and paraphrasing Mr. Oswalt directly from Silver Screen Fiend, a quick google search shows that as early as 1879 van Gogh's 'choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood"'. Returning home to live with his parents, his father made inquiries about having van Gogh committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.

So van Gogh was a troubled individual, and that's all I meant. Meanwhile, just looking at his work there's no denying a shift in art style in 1888 from, say, "The Langlois Bridge at Arleswith" series of paintings to "The Night Café" and subsequent others. Van Gogh himself said of "The Night Café": "I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime."

And I mentioned Gauguin in the article, not by name but as "a friend". 

Again, no disrespect, van Gogh is amazing, but I think Mr. Oswalt had his facts straight.