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Renegade write Daniel Evan Weiss on self pleasuring, cinematic morality, and the Michelle Pfeiffer's face

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

We will eventually talk about masturbation.

But first we have to escape the theater.

"I gotta tell you," says Daniel Evan Weiss, rushing for the door, "Michelle Pfeiffer has one of the most beautiful faces I've ever seen in my life. She's the modern equivalent of Helen of Troy. 'The face that launched a thousand ships.' She's that beautiful."

He turns left at the corridor, and makes a bee-line for the exit sign.

"And when Michelle Pfeiffer gives the camera that 'love look,'" he goes on, "it's just absolutely staggering."

We've made it. We're outside. Gulping great lungs-full of psychic fresh air, we stand in the sunshine as Weiss finished his point. "But in this movie," he says, referring to the Story of Us , starring Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis, "instead of 'Helen of Troy,' she's 'Helen-going-for-double-coupons.' She's Helen of Oh-So-Ordinary, the queen of domestic schlock! What an astonishing waste of that face."

Daniel Evan Weiss sounds a bit worked up, but be assured--he's not.

This, according to numerous reports, is Weiss's normal state of being: a kind of ongoing, electrified, conversational outspokenness, with a tendency toward offbeat, stream-of-consciousness observations mingled with wildly confessional outbursts.

He's also one of the best kept secrets in American literature.

A certified cultural phenomenon in France, where his books are routinely bestsellers, the New York author is virtually unknown in his own country, where his books don't fit neatly onto the neatly-categorized shelves of your standard bookstore.

Now in the midst of a self-financed reading tour--promoting his newest work, the mind-boggling Honk if You Love Aphrodite (Serpent's Tail; 1999). An audaciously crafted epic poem, of sorts, it's about the love, passion, and the son of Aphrodite.

To a core group of cult-like devotees, Daniel Evan Weiss is a literary savior, the creator of outrageously one-of-a-kind novels that used to be called Literary Fiction and are now referred to as . . . well, that's the problem. His books defy categorization. Newsday, in reviewing The Swine's Wedding, dubbed Weiss, "the Evel Knievel of novelists." The Observer tends to call him Madman Weiss, and the German magazine Diesel proclaimed that, in The Roaches Have No King ( a tale narrated by an army of cockroaches), he'd created "the single most ingenious murder in the history of literature."

It was Weiss who chose The Story of Us for our afternoon at the movies. The reason is now obvious.

"I'd see Michelle Pfeiffer in anything," he says without blushing.

Unfortunately, the movie--the tale of a modern marriage coming unglued--is burdened with a script in which all the principals are shallow and annoying, speaking dialogue that sounds like fortune cookie pronouncements written by Borscht-belt comedians.

"What was the problem between them anyway?" Weiss asks, over lunch. "What was the source of these people's marital difficulty? That he 'painted outside the line,' and she 'painted in it?' This is grounds for divorce? Jesus, their differences were so trivial you just wanted to take them out and smack them."

On the other hand, suggests Weiss, "We never saw any evidence that they really needed each other, either, that there was some unifying element in their marriage, something they both craved from one another in their lives. It never appeared."

We now discuss the scene in which Willis, supposedly yearning for a reconciliation, somehow finds himself being haltingly seduced by Pfeiffer. So what does he do? Instead of kissing her so ignite some passion, he flings himself on the bed and says something stupid about bicycle riding.

Sex, needless to say, does not occur.

"This was a P.C. movie," Weiss explains, "so he couldn't strike pussy until he had seen himself through her eyes. It wouldn't have been right. Only after having an emotional epiphany can he earn the right to return to the honey pot.

"Also, she was not morally allowed to offer him the pot until she had acquired a moral clarity as to what her marriage was supposed to be. She had to eat her own words in the final act, just as he had to eat his."

I see. Another standout moment in the film was the lunch-time conversation--between Willis and his pals Rob Reiner (the director) and Paul Reiser--on the subject of masturbation. (See, I promised we'd get to masturbation).

"I've been part of many profound masturbation conversations in my life," Weiss says. "And it never sounded anything like the stuff in this movie."

I ask him to elaborate.

"I can't remember my own masturbation talks clearly enough to elaborate," he replies. "What about you?"

"Well, I was part of a masturbation summit once," I confess.

"A what?"

"A masturbation summit," I repeat. "A long time ago. A group of youth Bible study leaders met with the leaders of our church to try to get a final scripture-based decision on whether or not masturbation was a sin."

"What did you come up with?"

"All the unmarried, teenage guys decided that there was no proof that masturbation was a sin, but the married guys, the ones in charge, decided that the sin was only in the sexual fantasizing that usually takes place during masturbation."

"So if you could masturbate without thinking of sex . . ."

"Then it wasn't a sin. Right."

Weiss just stares for several seconds, pondering this information.

"You know, one of the things I've always admired about Judaism," he finally says, "is that there's sexual awareness built right into the religion. From the Ten Commandments on, they knew what people were really like, they were building prescriptions for life that were based on actual human behavior.

"The biggest difference between Judaism and Christianity," he observes, "is that in Judaism, God punishes you for what you do, but in Christianity God also nails you for what you think."

Somehow, our thoughts return to The Story of Us, in which the unhappy couple each experience a well-timed emotional breakthrough--changes of mind that may even lead to actual marital unity.

"It was ridiculously symetrical, wasn't it?" Weiss says. "They each had a little matching epiphany. Like bookends. Every fits together in the end."

"What, life isn't like that?" I say.

"Well," Weiss shrugs, "maybe my life has been particularly bad."

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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