TALKING PICTURES: EXTREME NORMAL

The Grove—an eccentric little coffee house in the Marina district of San Francisco—is known for its quirky food, its java served in outrageously oversized cups, the hot tea delivered in square-shaped, teakettles made of iron, the big round tables in the center of the room that are just perfect for socializing with total strangers, and the chalkboard menu that, in a note off to the side, invites patrons to borrow from the cafés stash of etch-a-sketches.

“Warren Schmidt wouldn’t understand this restaurant,” observes author Jan Friedman, author of the sensation-sparking travel guide Eccentric America (Bradt, 2002, $18.95). Notes Friedman, carrying her steaming, iron coffeepot to a cozy table in the corner, ”Schmidt wouldn’t have a clue what this place was about or why it’s so wonderful. Too bad for Schmidt.”

Schmidt is the title character in Alexander Payne’s amazing new film About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson as a recently-retired widower from Omaha, Nebraska, who may be the least eccentric person in the whole Central States. In the film—which Friedman and I had just seen at the Presidio Theater right down the street—Schmidt sets off on an uncharacteristic road trip, driving his RV across Nebraska to attend his daughter’s wedding in Denver, Colorado. It is a truly unremarkable journey, but Schmidt is so unremarkable a man that he sees it all as being adventurous and momentous and slightly overwhelming.

“Schmidt,” I suggest, “is obviously not the adventurous type.”

“The very fact that he was setting out at all was such a huge departure for him,” says Friedman, who knows a thing or two about departures from the norm, having spent two years scouring the 50 states in search of eccentric environments, obsessed people, and odd tourist attractions. A longtime resident of Northern California, Friedman never considered herself to be all that eccentric until she began collecting information for the guidebook, which has sparked such national interest it is now being developed into a television series. “I’m suddenly an obsessive collector of eccentrics,” Friedman laughs. “And I suppose I’m actually becoming an eccentric myself.”

One could say that. All afternoon, Friedman has been scanning the scene for signs of eccentricity. At one point, she pounces on a stray newspaper featuring a story about people who sell “religious sex toys.” Whoever those people are, they may end up in the next edition of Eccentric America.

Warren Schmidt, one assumes—were he ever to bump into Friedman along his way—would be nothing short of mystified. It’s no surprise that he lives in Omaha, a state so lacking in eccentricity—aside, perhaps, from Stonehenge, a replica of Britain’s famous monument, here made entirely of old cars—that Friedman had to search long and hard for something that was strange enough to put in the book. Nebraska, evidently, is very much a Warren Schmidt kind of place. “For Schmidt,” Friedman says, “that boring little trip from Omaha to Denver, those few days with those trashy people, that was probably the most extreme thing he was ever going to experience.

“And those in-laws were fairly middle-of-the-road eccentrics, as eccentrics go,” she adds. “But they were plenty eccentric, compared to Schmidt. Eccentricity can only be judged in terms of what it is contrasted with. My uncle from Chicago thought it was incredibly eccentric that we had a hot tub after I moved to California. To him, having a hot tub was an extreme act.”

“Schmidt was less taken aback by Kathy Bates owning a hot tub,” I remark, “then he was by her willingness to strip naked and hop into the tub alongside him.” I’m referring to one of the movie’s more memorable scenes: Kathy Bates, buck naked in a hot tub, coming onto Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt, who is terrified out of his wits.

“To Schmidt, that was as bizarre as if a Martian had landed beside him and taken him in for a physical exam,” Friedman laughs. “Eccentricity is completely relative to what your own experience is.”

According to statistics Friedman quotes in the book, one out of every ten thousand people is a genuine eccentric, with eccentricity being defined as simply “behavior that varies widely from the norm.” While there are eccentrics in all cultures, it’s only in Western cultures, generally, that we feel the freedom to express that eccentricity. “You’re not going to find any guidebooks to Eccentric Saudi Arabia,” Friedman points out. “But that doesn’t mean that one out of every ten-thousand Saudis isn’t eccentric. They are—they just don’t express it because of the cultural and societal norms.”

That said, Friedman adds, “Different places spawn different kinds of weirdos. The eccentrics of Southern California are very different from the eccentrics of Northern California, where we take our eccentricities very seriously, as if it’s our civic duty to be eccentric.” Friedman opens her book to an inside page with a map outlining the number of eccentric manifestations she’s recorded in each state. “You’ll notice that Washington is a lot more eccentric than Oregon—much to my surprise. If you’re looking at ‘Eccentric Environments’—things like the Watt’s Towers in California or Totem Pole Park in Oklahoma—then Wisconsin, based statistically on population and area, is actually the most eccentric state in the Union. Who’d have guessed?”

“One thing about Schmidt’s in-laws,” I point out, as a nose-ringed gentlemen in a business suit walks past our table with a glass of milk and an etch-a-sketch, “eccentric or not, trashy or not, those people were a hell of a lot happier than Schmidt was.”

“Eccentrics are essentially happy doing whatever they do,” she replies. “That’s one unusual characteristic of 99 percent of the eccentrics in my book are happy people. They don’t need drugs. They are not neurotic. They are not alcoholics or drug abusers. Eccentrics see doctors far less often than non-eccentrics. Being eccentric is good for you.”

“Maybe what Schmidt needed,” I say, “was to become a bit of an eccentric himself.”

“What he needed was antidepressants,” Friedman counters, smiling. “Poor, sad Schmidt could never embrace a truly eccentric lifestyle. He just doesn’t have it in him.”
Visit Jan at the Eccentric America website.

____________________________________________________________

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




Posted on January 14, 2003 in Features by

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