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'Time' Waits for No Man: Sanaa Lathan and Denzel Washington chide J. Robert Lennon for missing their film.

Telling Time

Author J. Robert Lennon runs 'Out of Time'--but doesn't really miss it

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

It's ironic. After accepting my invitation to see the film Out of Time, starring Denzel Washington as a wronged cop, New York novelist J. Robert Lennon (The Funnies) has ended up having to miss out on Out of Time because . . . uh, we've run out of time. Actually, the screening was moved at the last minute to a different time, and with Lennon's tightly packed touring schedule, there's no other time to see it.

Of course, it isn't the first time a moviegoing experience has gone bad for Lennon, but at least this time the guy's shoes didn't get wet (more on that later). But hey, having missed out on Out of Time, we now have plenty of time for lunch.

"I didn't know much about the movie," Lennon admits, sliding his sandwich plate onto a sunny cafe table and taking a seat, "but I was kind of looking forward to talking about Denzel Washington, 'cause I was having a conversation the other day with a friend in Portland, and we were comparing Denzel Washington with George Clooney. I don't remember why. I guess because they're both handsome and they're both powerful, but comparing the two, I like Clooney better, because Clooney can do self mockery. Denzel can't do self mockery. Denzel is never going to play an alcoholic birthday-party clown. Clooney, though, often plays lovable losers, and he's willing to be cast in a humiliating light, which I think is a good quality in an actor."

Lennon is currently touring to promote his latest novel, Mailman, which stands among the best books of 2003. Mailman tells the story of a middle-aged postal worker with a bad habit of reading other people's mail. And he thinks a lot about movies.

"I agree with something Mailman thinks about in the book," Lennon says. "[He observes] that time passes in a movie, sometimes years pass in a movie. Sometimes when you come out of a movie theater, you actually feel several years older, even if you've only been there for two hours. That suspension of disbelief is enormously satisfying, and I definitely feel cheated when a bad movie doesn't take me there."

That said, Lennon observes that sometimes it's the experience of a movie that is most memorable, beyond the movie itself.

"When I went to see the second Alien movie," he recalls, "it was pouring rain that night, raining so hard you could hear it pounding outside the theater, despite the soundproofed walls and the noise of exploding spaceships and screaming people. There was a fire exit down the lower right-hand corner of the theater, with a stairway that went up to the street-level parking lot. It was raining, right? Well, it turns out the drain at the bottom of the stairwell had become covered with newspapers, and the entire stairwell had filled with water. That's a lot of water.

"At one point in the theater, the aliens were just about to start coming back to life and killing everyone, and everyone in the theater was just waiting, breathlessly, for that to happen. Suddenly, the door--this big steel door--started bending inward, and water began to sort of spurt out on the sides. There was this amazing moment of anticipation where everyone could see this happening, and the aliens were about to attack onscreen, and we were all just caught in that moment, waiting to see what would happen.

"And suddenly, the door just flew open and the entire theater was flooded by this wave of water. People were screaming and running out of the theater. Everyone in the front row was up to their chests in water. I was in the 17th row, and my shoes were under water. It was great!"

"Too bad it wasn't a submarine movie," I observe.

"That would have been even better," he enthusiastically agrees. "On the other hand, it could have been Terms of Endearment, which wouldn't have nearly as much fun."

Well, we're almost out of time.

"Here's what I like about movies," J. Robert Lennon says, wrapping up, "and I do like movies. I love them. I don't know what I'd do without them, because I think that completely giving yourself over to invention is really exciting. A movie's fakeness is so absolute that it becomes a whole other reality that I'm completely willing to accept--and that just about everybody is willing to accept--as reality.

"For a little while, anyway."

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From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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