In his new film, "Happy Here and Now," Michael Almereyda looks into the future and sees computer chat rooms where participants can project fictitious identities, or "avatars," into cyberspace to do their talking for them. Set in the backwaters of New Orleans, the story involves a woman who disappears after embarking on a virtual relationship with a shadowy philosophical cowboy named Eddie Mars. Shalom Harlow plays the woman and Karl Geary is Eddie; the cast also includes David Arquette, Liane Balaban, Ernie K-Doe, Gloria Reuben, Ally Sheedy and Clarence Williams III.
When The New York Times invited Mr. Almereyda to discuss his film, which will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater this week as part of Lincoln Center's Film Comment Selects series, he chose to do so in an interview with the avatar Eddie Mars.
EDDIE MARS What made you think of planting a semifuturistic, cyber-oriented story in New Orleans — a city where, when you have to fix anything electronic, you take it to Texas?
MICHAEL ALMEREYDA A distant starting point was a benefit concert in the French Quarter, where I first saw Ernie K-Doe. He was introduced as "the Emperor of the Universe" and "the prettiest man I know." He was wearing a yellow suit with rhinestone appliques. He came up to the mike and said: "I'd like to introduce my wife, Antoinette. She's the best I can do, and the best I want to do! My wife, Antoinette!"
MARS You're not answering my question.
ALMEREYDA I'm working on it. At this concert, a man — who goes by the name of Frenchie, I later learned — set up a big blank canvas on an easel near the bar. He was wearing shorts and one of those steel caps with a flashlight fixed onto it, like a coal miner's helmet, and as the concert unrolled, he filled in his canvas, painting every musician that showed up. He was dancing as he worked, bobbing and weaving to the music, and when the concert was over, he'd slashed together a record of the event. This movie may not be quite so dashed-off, but at its best we were going for a similar spirit, working fast, improvising, trying to catch the reality at hand.
MARS The question was: Why New Orleans?
ALMEREYDA Right. Well, it might've been natural to set this story in a cold futuristic city where technology is visibly walling people off from one another, but it seemed more interesting to veer in the opposite direction — to show a place offering a contrast, even an antidote, to that sort of loneliness. Even or especially if you take away all the postcard imagery common to New Orleans movies: Mardi Gras floats, Cajun stuff, vampires and voodoo — take that away and you're left looking at a radiantly lived-in old city, and a bunch of people with an incredible appetite for life.
MARS Except maybe the contemporary equivalent of voodoo, now that you mention it, is the Internet, a vast popular cult allowing people to reach past or through reality.
ALMEREYDA Well, I don't know. You could say the same about movies, except they're not quite so interactive. This particular movie happens to be a story within a story. A certain dream logic holds sway.
MARS Dream logic! You have a sort of thriller plot — a woman goes looking for her missing sister — and you toss in all these references to people like Blaise Pascal, Nicola Tesla, Emily Dickinson, William Blake. Prophetic, premodern loners who created elaborate worlds in their heads and who, in so doing, affected the lives of people living beyond their own time. Is there some irony in dwelling on these types in a movie called "Happy Here and Now?"
ALMEREYDA You're way ahead of me on that, Eddie. It's all I can do to conduct a conversation with a fictional character.
MARS But so much of the talk in the film — and it is awfully talky — is caught up with the big undergraduate questions: "Who am I? Why am I me and not you? Where does love figure into the deal?" All the while, in scene after scene, we see people plugged into machines, trapped in their skulls. What are you trying to say about contemporary society?
ALMEREYDA Maybe you just said it. But the movie is pretty lush, you know, arguing against any idea of flat-out bleakness, and there's a lot of music in it, including a second line parade featuring the Rebirth Brass Band and the Revolution Social and Pleasure Club. Sometimes names say it all.
MARS Perhaps you should explain, for readers up north, what a second line parade is.
ALMEREYDA Part of the jazz funeral tradition. Maybe we can lean on Prof. Louis Armstrong for the technical lowdown: "Once the band starts, everybody starts swaying from one side of the street to the other, especially those who drop in and follow the ones who have been to the funeral. These people are known as `the second line' and they may be anyone passing along the street who wants to hear the music. The spirit hits them and they follow." The spirit also hits in this movie, I think, when you see Ernie K-Doe in his Mother-in-Law Lounge singing "Children of the World."
MARS I suppose you're supposed to say "the late, legendary Ernie K-Doe."
ALMEREYDA Yeah, sad but true, Ernie passed into legend six months after we wrapped. I went to the funeral — a sprawling two-day celebration.
MARS I watched it on TV. The hearse pulled by white stallions. Dancing in the streets. I'm always impressed by how well people around here can dance without spilling from their "to go" cups.
ALMEREYDA Anyway, you can still visit the Mother-in-Law Lounge and see a kind of caped mannequin-statue of Ernie that "sings" his songs if you select them on the jukebox.
MARS Speaking of death, maybe we should talk a little about the current condition of independent cinema.
ALMEREYDA I'd really rather not.
MARS A friend of mine said that the studios are now making summer movies all year round, the Sundance Film Festival is basically a suburb of Hollywood, and, just as right-wing politics have crowded the so-called left into the middle of the road, independent filmmakers have been heading more and more into a condition of conformity, gutlessness and trivial convention. The big fat triumph of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" marks a threshold of sorts, the ascendance of a stampeding but complacent herd mentality that fills theaters while the audience for truly independent work stands back or goes blind.
ALMEREYDA Well, that's not quite how I see it, Eddie.
MARS Why not?
ALMEREYDA Extraordinary movies are, by definition, rare. Independent or otherwise, big budget or small. So I tend to allow myself a degree of stupid optimism. Being (not quite willingly) a "marginal" filmmaker, I take it for granted that part of my job involves finding ways to adjust the margins. There's a grand and grubby tradition for that, and it can feel unkillable. Related, in my head at least, to that guy painting in the bar. Keep your eyes open, work fast, enjoy the music.
Michael Almereyda's films include "Nadja" (1994) and "Hamlet" (2000). His documentary about Sam Shepard, "This So-Called Disaster," had its premiere this month at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.