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[whitespace] 'Haiku Tunnel'
Temporary Insanity: A good office worker (Josh Kornbluth) must always show deference and humility to his boss (Helen Shumaker).

Permanent Vacation

Will the real Josh Kornbluth please stand up?

By Peter Crimmins

ACTORS OFTEN CREATE lasting personalities through their screen characters (think of Woody Allen, Marilyn Monroe, Spalding Gray), but what happens when those projected personalities prove to be just that: constructed characters designed as charming, expressive and dramatic?

What of Josh Kornbluth? Is the pudgy, balding actor/monologuist as endearingly nebbish as the character named, strangely enough, "Josh Kornbluth"?

Endearing and nebbish he may be, but the Josh Kornbluth famous throughout the Bay Area for his comic monologues insists he is not the "Josh Kornbluth" of the new film Haiku Tunnel.

This is Kornbluth's first feature film, and it began 10 years ago onstage at San Francisco's Marsh Theater as a one-man show he put together about the vexations of a modern office worker. The screen adaptation--co-written and co-directed with Jacob Kornbluth, his brother--begins with a monologue, of course; Josh is speaking to the camera (we've surprised him while he's editing a film) and introducing us to "Josh Kornbluth," the character whose story we are about to see, set in a mythical town called "San Franclisco" where "Josh Kornbluth" works for a lawyer named "Bob Shelby," who the real Josh Kornbluth assures us is nothing at all like the lawyer for whom he used to work.

The disclaimer has the opposite effect of its intention, and therein lies the joke. We fully expect the following story to be the gospel truth hiding behind thin alterations. Sitting in a production office at the bottom of Potrero Hill, Josh and Jacob try to spin their way out of the identification snafu.

"Just because the character is named Josh Kornbluth," said Jacob, "and the guy who's telling you that the character's name is Josh Kornbluth is also named Josh Kornbluth ... that should not lead you to believe that that is actually true in any way."

JOSH HAS BEEN performing in the Bay Area for over a decade. A son of Communist parents, he has published a collection of his admittedly autobiographical performances, Red Diaper Baby. Jacob, his younger brother by 13 years, began partnering with Josh in directing theater pieces after working various factory and temporary jobs.

"Josh Kornbluth," the character, is a temp. And he's happy as a temp. He is the antithesis of the generation of young workers thwarted from their career path by corporations hiring legions of temporary workers on the cheap.

Josh and Jacob have punched the temp clock enough to know the vaguely subversive freedom of being a lowly, expendable out-hire. No commitments and no take-home worries free up creative energies that "Josh" uses to tap out a novel that may never get finished. But he's no slouch 9 to 5. In fact, he's a great temp who is good at his job because he likes it.

"It's gratifying on its own level to be given a task and completing that task," said Josh (the real Josh), "especially if you're the kind of person who sets tasks for himself that he almost never completes. Like write a novel, or have a relationship or get out of bed. So to be given a task and do it well is something that is its own pleasure."

"It really hit me just before my girlfriend broke up with me and somewhat spurred on this film project," Jacob responded. "She said--because I was always saying how I didn't want to work and I'd rather be at home writing--'You're a lot more fun to be around when you're working than you are when you're doing what you want to do.'"

And Josh clarified: "I mean, who would want to be around a writer? Really, who would want to be around a writer?"

Haiku Tunnel shows temp employment as a kind of Zen state, with free-floating workers outside looking in, impervious to the blows of the professional world. Perhaps "Josh" is too old for this state of suspended animation or maybe he sees the futility; the film picks up when he realizes he can no longer suffer "the unbearable lightness of temping" and is enticed to go perm. The kicker comes when the law firm he has been temping for offers to cover his therapy bills.

AS AN INCOMING TEMP, there is little difference between the other secretaries' sneers of suspicion that he's going to steal the stapler and the eccentricities of the Xerox machine and Mr. Coffee. They are all objects to be navigated in a strange new world with eerily similar furniture. But when "Josh" goes perm the secretaries immediately buzz around him as one of their own and the office equipment emerges out of the anonymous background as additional supporting cast.

A late-night fight with an aloof copier, a frustrating tête-à-tête with a stubborn envelope moistener, an intimate relationship with a voicemail system and--the coup de grâce--a pile of 17 unmailed letters sitting like a cursed talisman on the edge of the desk: "Josh" faces these secretarial nightmares as part of his daily--and now permanent--responsibilities.

"There are billions of dramas--not to get Carl Sagan on your ass, but there are billions of these little dramas going on all around the buildings downtown on Montgomery Street," said Josh, getting all Sagan on my ass.

Josh plays with the comedy of obsession, and his "Josh" is an intelligent guy foiled by his own instinct, learning the other side of secretarial work through mistakes. It's one thing to master the phone-transfer system and type 60 wpm; it's something else to know when to head into the coffee room, how to decide what to order for lunch with creativity and conviction, and how best to compliment an attractive secretary without leering.

"To me, those escapes--or an escape into fantasy, or a crush that you might have on some woman who's working down the aisle--those escapes are as essential as coming up for air is when you're swimming underwater. Have a moment when you're actually yourself and you're not an insignificant fringe tangential person in an enormous, heartless-seeming environment," Josh said. "But maybe that's just me."

"Maybe," I said, "but it was nicely articulated."

"Well, that's what we're going for."

Haiku Tunnel (R; 90 min.), written and directed by Jacob Kornbluth and Josh Kornbluth, starring Josh Kornbluth, Warren Keith, Helen Shumaker and Amy Resnick, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the September 20-26, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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