Christina Ricci’s Primal Scream

by Thomas Beller

06/04/2006

59 Grand St, NY, NY 10013

Neighborhood: West Village

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"He tried to soundproof the basement, but he forgot about the air vents," she says. "And I had an air vent that went from the basement right into my bedroom."

Christina describes Terry Richardson's strategy for getting this picture: "He kept saying 'Flirt with the teacher! Flirt with the teacher!'" She said. "It was really annoying."

It is lunchtime at Lucky Strike. We are seated at the back, underneath the skylight, and it's a day of rain and clouds, so the light is very pale and white. For a moment her forehead seems like the white swath of a nun's habit. A half-eaten steak au poivre sits before her, a cigarette smolders in her small hand, and an unearthly glow filters in from the skylight above, giving her a ghostly, unreal quality. Her steak is bloody red. Her angelic, innocent face is bordered by fine black hair combed back from her forehead. Her black eyebrows have moved a little closer, giving her expression an ironic scowl, as though to say: Can you believe it?

"My teachers would always say, 'Why do you look so tired?' It was because every night I'd do my homework and go up to get in bed and I'd like, get in bed--this was about 8:30 because I was only eight years old--and by 9 o'clock the shrieking would begin and kept going until like 10:30," she says.

"Primal scream is supposed to be for people who don't allow themselves to have emotion. These people had a lot of pent-up emotion. My father would ask them, 'How do you really feel?' And they would scream: 'I'm angry!' He worked with a lot of couples, so I heard a lot of, 'You fucking bastard! I've always hated you!'

"And at the time I didn't really think it was that strange. I used to do imitations of screaming people for my mom. She really liked it.

"My Dad never knew I could hear. He was so paranoid about doctor-patient confidentiality that if you mentioned you heard it he would, like, flip out. We weren't supposed to be hearing what they were saying. And also, at the time, all that screaming seemed normal.

"And now I really enjoy screaming."

**

There is a velvet rope outside the nightclub, another one inside in front of some stairs, and yet another velvet rope upstairs, behind which a churning mob of people do the following: drink, talk, exchange business cards, grope old friends, grope people they have never met before, look terrified, smile while wondering why their souls have lit like tissue paper and all that is left is a very light filament of ash, and generally behave as people do at movie premieres.

Christina stands at the center of a jostling crowd, surrounded by friends and strangers and photographers and journalists with saccharin smiles pointing little micro-tape recorders towards her as though they were cattle prods. Her wide pale face surfaces only now and then from amidst the throng, a brief vision of wide eyes, gold-glitter mascara, and that petulant, expressive mouth.

Her expression to the cameras and to the strangers who shake her hand seems very much like that of a young woman who has just starred in the high school play, and is sincerely amazed at how much people clapped when it was time to take her bow. It's not childish, exactly, but it is innocent. She is wearing a black dress and sneakers. Her nails are painted red, but the red has chipped.

Michael Stipe stands at the edge of the pack, wearing a wool cap and looking like an ex-convict who has done something to violate his parole.

Across the room sits Danny Buchatinski, the talented actor and director. When Christina visits Los Angeles she stays with Danny.

"I drive her everywhere," he says. "She has a license, but I hate the idea of her driving. She's like my little sister. We have this game where she gets in the car and I wait to see how long it will be before she puts on her seat belt. She's also very sophisticated," he continues. "The thing about Christina that is so great is that she doesn't give a shit about being a star. She's refreshingly uncensored. She isn't one of those actor kids who dragged their parents to Broadway musicals and dreamt of being in the footlights. She's not like: 'I have a calling; the world needs to hear my gift.' None of that bullshit. Her attitude is: 'As long is it's fun, I'll do it. But I'm not desperate for it.' And that's what the phenomenon is. If you're not desperate, the world comes to you."

She has six movies either just out or on their way, including Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Don Roos' The Opposite of Sex, John Water's Pecker, Reesa Garcia's 200 Cigarettes, and, perhaps most notably, Buffalo 66, which was written, directed, and stars Vincent Gallo, an immensely talented egomaniac who is so abrasive, both on screen and off, that Quentin Tarantino is like a baby-wipe in comparison.

Watching her in these roles, one feels she has captured a certain moment, and that she is providing a scarce commodity that people are hungry for. There is something real, honest, fucked-up, AND strong about her that feels unusually authentic.

C&C

In a way she reminds me of Courtney Love, or rather, she seems like the exact opposite of Courtney Love today.

"Both Christina and Courtney are willing to be dangerous," Reesa Garcia, who directed both of them in 200 Cigarettes, though they shared no scenes. "Like rock and roll, Christina is willing to dance on the edge of what's safe, to be dangerous and take risks."

"I loved her before," says Christina about rock's leading lady. "She would just get naked on stage, and you could tell with her body, she didn't give a fuck. It was so hot! She was just like, damn!"

"But now it's quite a drastic change. People just applaud it. They're like, 'Yes, she finally got some really attractive clothes, and she is doing her hair.' "And I'm like: 'What are you talking about?' It's so sad!"

In Which We Go Car Shopping

She does not look like someone in the market for a Porsche.

We ask to get in a Porsche. The salesman stands next to the door and talks for a while, looking us over. Eventually, the salesman offers us a seat in the Porsche.

"Well honey, let's get in!" I say desperately. We get in. She's in the passenger seat. The doors close and suddenly it is very quiet.

"I'm so very sorry," I say. I thought it would be a stupid funny thing to do, but it seemed only a stupid thing to do because it was exhausting deceiving the salesman. I suppose that's part of what makes acting exhausting.

"I don't think he believed us," she says.

"It's a disaster," I say.

Just outside the driver's side window are the legs of the salesman, standing there.

Her hands follow the contours of the interior, the sleek black dashboard, the black leather seats. It's like a black plastic womb inside the Porsche.

"Nice," she says. Everything inside the Porsche is black, except for the knob of the stick shift, which is silver. She runs her hand over that.

"I didn't intend to victimize us," I say. "It's all right," she says. "I approve of being a victim."

In Which Food is Consumed

It's a dark and rainy night. At the very back of the restaurant sit two young women, cigarettes in hand, menus before them, wearing black and talking about their day.

"I can not eat a thing," says Gabbie Hoffman. "I ate a Cookie Puss today and I'm stuffed."

"Alone?" says Christina Ricci.

"No," say Gabbie. "I was with Bridget, the come-in-my-mouth girl."

I ask about the come-in-my-mouth girl.

"We're in this movie together," says Gabbie. "It's called Coming Soon," knowing glances are exchanged, "and my friend who's in it has just one line: 'He came in my mouth!' So anyway, we got a Cookie Puss together and now I'm stuffed."

She consults the menu. I mention that Cookie Puss was the name of the Beastie Boy's first record.

Gabbie looks at me with a perplexed expression. "I thought Paul's Boutique was their first record," she says. "I love that record."

"Have you ever had a Cookie Puss?" says Christina, in a helpful tone of voice. "From Carvel? It's so good."

When Christina says things like this, she sounds about eleven. Or maybe she sounds like a really content housewife who is having people over for hors d'ouevres which she has made by hand. She seems soft and fawn-like.

Then she takes a long drag on her Parliament, and her expression changes. It's not the thin plume of smoke that effects the transition. It's something in her eyes. A tide of sophistication, sexual knowledge, cruel irony, and fury comes and goes all the time with her, and her eyes are the only measure of what the levels are She keeps cross-fading between a young girl pretending to be a grownup, and a grownup pretending to be a young girl.

Gabbie is discussing that day's shoot for Coming Soon. "Well, first I was supposed to have sex in an elevator, but in the end it was on a piano," she said.

"That's still good," says Christina. "They're both from movies." I ask which movies. In unison, they say: "Fatal Attraction and Pretty Woman," and then look at each other with amazed eyes and laugh. They've been friends for years.

"I've got a stomachache," says Christina. "I don't think I'm going to eat."

"I've got some Pepto Bismol tablets in my bag," says Gabbie. "And some Midol. And some Advil." She turns to me. "I'm always getting stomach aches."

It's the night before Mother's Day.

"I'm going to buy my mother some more jewelry she doesn't need," says Christina.

"I don't know," says Gabbie. "Every time you order flowers they end up dead and ugly."

"Not if you use this special place," says Christina.

"I just use 1-800-FLOWERS," say Gabbie.

"I'll give you the number of my special place," says Christina. "The flowers don't die."

"Damn, it's got asparagus," says Gabbie when her salad arrives. "It'll make my pee smell bad."

"Who cares?" says Christina. "Who's going to smell your pee?"

We eat.

"Can I sleep at your house tomorrow?" says Christina. "Can I bring the kitten?"

"What about the parrot?" says Gabbie.

I inquire about the parrot.

"It's going through puberty," says Gabbie. "It's rebelling against its mother. It gets vicious."

"I remind it of its mother," says Christina. "It wants to kill my kitten."

"My kitten and I sleep together. And it claws me at night. And I start dreaming that I'm being tortured."

The restaurant is dim, and behind Christina is a garden, empty and dark, and against the black she looks like an apparition, disembodied. "I'm not going to eat any more of this chicken," says Christina. "You can have it."

"Really?"

Christina gives Gabbie a serious, inquisitive look as Gabbie eagerly cuts a piece and puts it in her mouth. It's like she's thinking about her relationship with her friend. She's got this reflective, thoughtful look. Her eyes, when they focus like that, seem haunted, as though they know what's going to happen for the next twenty years but are keeping it a secret. At that moment Gabbie is a girl and Christina a woman. Then Christina burps really loudly.

They both light cigarettes.

"My mother thinks I have polyps on my throat because I smoke," says Christina.

"My mother would rather I snort coke every day than smoke," says Gabbie.

In Which we Go to New Jersey

It's Saturday evening. Christina and I are driving west over the George Washington Bridge, straight into the sun. It's the kind of sunset for which New Jersey is famous--toxic, fiery, and beautiful.

The sun shines in her face, making the glitter sprinkled around her eyes sparkle. She's wearing gold open-toed shoes that she bought that day at Miu Miu, with three-inch high heels. We are arguing about her dress.

"Those are flowers," I say.

"They are not flowers," she protests. "They're dead leaves."

I give her a look.

"Really! Look at it, they're really sad flowerless branches with leaves on them, like it's all about to wither."

One man's flowers are Christina Ricci's withering branches. I reach over to lower the visor on her side, so the sun won't get in her eyes, but before my hand even gets there she says, "Don't bother. I'm too short," and sure enough when I pull down the visor it casts a protective patch of shade six inches above her head.

She complains about the previous day's photo shoot with Terry Richardson (a detail of whose photo I have shamelessly stolen). "Whenever there is a photo shoot that doesn't have a concept thought up in advance, they end up putting me in something that makes me look like a prostitute.»

"So of course I get there and this guy dresses me up to look like a whore. But they wanted me to act like a little girl. And that's just disgusting.

"It's the exact same thing that I hate when I see other people doing it. It's boring and repetitive. It's just bad. So I got a little upset."

"They sat me in a school desk and the photographer said, 'OK, you're really upset, you've just been yelled at by the teacher, and I want you to look sad. I want you to think of something sad.' And I was like: 'Fuck you!' I can look sad, but I'm not going to think of something sad for you."

I love this distinction. She's an actress, so she will take direction on how to act. But no one will tell her how to feel.

In Which We Go West

"It's been three years since I've been back," she says on the George Washington Bridge. New Jersey lies before us. "Fuck," she says, softly. Her parents split up several years ago, and she no longer talks to her father.

"I'm not mad at him," she explains. "You know how with some people, you don't hate them and you're not mad at them, but they just make you feel so awful you can't be around them? Like, it's not good for me to be around him."

"He's also really manipulative. He's really smart. When he meets you he can tell within a half an hour all of your buttons, and knows how to make you feel horrible in a second. And he knows how to make you feel good in a second. He'll make you feel horrible so that he's the only one who can make you feel better. My mother doesn't talk to him either."

It's about a twenty-minute drive, further and further into the lush early summer suburbs. That smooth, round tabula rasa of a face registers a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

"You don't have to do this if you don't want to," I say.

"No," she says. "This is good. I want to do this now." When we enter Montclair her face takes on an intense, contained, and focused quality, and also becomes exceedingly calm. Her expressions are so fluid, containing such a range from childish vulnerability to adult certainty and confidence, and what's particularly weird is that in her life, as in her movie roles, this happens with so little actually changing on the surface.

I ask her what she was like when she lived there.

"I would get so hyper when I was twelve, and I would do crazy things. I would be the one climbing out the window to stand on the ledge while everyone screams: 'No, No! You're going to fall.'"

"Or I would go to Victoria's Secret with all my friends. We would try on these lacy bodysuits, push-up bras, garter belt things, but they would all stay in the dressing room area. I was the only one would walk out into the store and come up to some random person and say, 'What do you think?'"

"People were always telling me that they found me annoying. I heard that I was annoying over and over again, so I decided I better break myself of all that kind of crazy behavior, and I just stopped. I stopped being the loud jokey one, flirting with seniors when I was in the eighth grade. Stuff like that, I just stopped. It's hard to explain. I was just annoying. I was one of those girls who wanted attention all the time, and I would do crazy things for attention all the time."

"With boys I was a tease. I would act really flirty and stuff, but then ultimately I would get really sick that night and have to go home early."

"What changed that was, when I was fourteen and just turning fifteen, I got really sick. I got really depressed and stopped eating. I was punishing myself enough that it took something out of me, you know? Maybe my self-confidence. So I can't do that anymore. I'm way too afraid. I can't sing in front of people and I can't dance in front of people and I can't speak to people I don't know. I used to be able to all those things. But it's better. People like me more than I used to."

She pauses for a moment and then adds: "My sister says I'm less obnoxious."

We cruise the streets of Montclair with the windows down. Christina smokes.

"The last time I was here I saw one person I knew but we didn't say hi to each other. It's that kind of town. You don't say hi to people unless they say hi to you first.

"So who's going to say hi between the two of you?" I say.

"Exactly," she snaps.

As we drive through the streets of Montclair she points out the sights, remarks on what's changed, what's stayed the same. Her tone of voice flits between nostalgia and contempt. She mutters little instructions at the last minute, turn left, turn right. I ask if we are going straight to her house. She says there is something she wants to show me first, and soon we are parked across the street from Glenfield Middle School.

Christina has a blank, baleful look on her face. It's an expression of sadness and horror and fascination.

"Some weird shit happened here," she says.

"Like what?" I ask.

"Once, while we were getting out of our busses and hanging out getting ready to go into the school, a secretary was shot in the head by her old boyfriend, who then shot himself in the head in front of all the teachers in the faculty lounge.

"Then our principal came to talk to all the home rooms to calm us down. He had been trying to talk the guy out of it, and he had blood all over his suit because he was four feet away. "I was eleven. We were sad, because we liked her. But when you're that little you don't take anything that seriously. We all thought it was really sad, because we liked her. But it wasn't scary. It was never scary. Nothing was scary, I guess."

"Something must have been," I say. "Like sex, or parents, or something."

"No," she pauses to think. "The dark. I was really afraid of the dark."

We drive through the dusk. The air is soft. Christina is excited but trying to contain it. She offers a running commentary as we drive.

"That's the ice skating place... turn left on Willow... Montclair tailoring and tuxedo rental... turn right... " An undertone of anxiety creeps into her voice, making her lower, softer, more grave.

"Turn on Clark Street... That's the Moriarty funeral home. We're related to them, on my mom's side... this is the high school... they must be having a show tonight. Or maybe it's the senior awards... Oh! That was an old friend of mine's mother sitting on her porch... I knew a kid who lived that old yellow house, Paul. I had a crush on him when I was thirteen. But he didn't like me, because I was annoying. He told me. He said, 'you're so annoying.' He was sort of obnoxious. I guess that's why I liked him.

"That's my CVS. This is movie rental place where I always went. Oh my God! That was the coolest old candy store! And now they've turned it into a fucking juice bar!

"And Dunkin' Donuts, oh my God--that's new."

"And then one day we got a Gap. One day. All of a sudden."

"And Murph's sports shop. That was one of the oldest stores here."

"King's, that's the really nice supermarket but it's more expensive than the other one. We didn't go there, except for every once in a while."

The sky is darkening, the leaves rustle in the breeze. The houses are huge, the lawns well-kept.

We drive along this quiet street for a while and finally come to a cul-de-sac at the end of which is a neat two-story house with a gray Volvo station wagon parked in the driveway.

"Oh!" she gasps. "No!" Her mouth hangs open, like she's seen a ghost. "That's so weird. That's our old house. And my father always had a gray Volvo station wagon. That's really freaky."

She gets out, and we stand there in the dusk staring up at the house, each of us drinking a beer. There's just a tiny bit of light left in the sky. The house is lit from within. Whoever lives there now is home, living a life. She points out her bedroom window upstairs, where she lay in bed in the dark listening to the primal screamers getting their emotions out. She paces back and forth, stares, sips her beer, smokes.

"They must have taken up the carpet on the stairs," she says. "It was the first house I had ever seen that had carpet, when we moved here, and I was obsessed with the carpet. I just loved the carpet. I would lie on it and roll around."

We stand there for a while in silence.

"From the outside these houses are so innocent," she says. "That's what's depressing. Because you just always imagine what's going on inside."

"What do you imagine?"

"Horrible things. Like, lonely people. Unhappy children. Dysfunctional families. It just seemed like everyone I knew when I was little was unhappy. All the families, everyone. Everything looked really beautiful from the outside, and the houses were beautiful, but they were all so unhappy."

Then the most bizarre thing happened. Some screams emanated from inside the house. Her eyes widen. "Did you hear that?" she says, her wide eyes especially wide now, her left hand holding a bottle of beer and her right outstretched in the direction of the house.

"Was that a kid?" I ask.

"No!" she says, exasperated. "That's people yelling. That was a woman yelling."

Somewhere inside the house a man raises his voice, and then a woman yells back.

"What the hell was that?" I ask. "That was screaming," she says, and starts pacing back and forth. For a second I can picture what she must be like when she's really mad, when she's on a tirade. It's a weird sight. She's normally so still, so sweet. But now there are storm clouds gathering.

"Oh yeah," her eyes widen, incredulous but also with an 'I told you so' vibe. "They're fighting in there. That was the mother screaming."

Her eyes, her forehead, her little hands holding a cigarette packet in one hand and a beer in the other, all become forcefields of emotion.

"It's just a breeding ground for unhappiness, all these little suburban towns. It's too perfect. People feel like they have to live up to being perfect, or have a perfect life, or be perfectly happy, and then it just makes them more unhappy. It's really crazy."

"All the neighbors thought we were crazy. The kids in this area thought I was crazy. The fact that I was in movies just made me seem weirder to them."

There is something about Christina's sensibility, and her whole ambiance that is reminiscent of David Lynch's baroque vision of the nasty underside of America's sweet surface. But there is something formalized, artsy, about Lynch's vision compared to Christina's, which is intuitive and, somehow, more psychological. In Lynch's movies there is always the vague sense that aliens have entered the bodies of his apparently wholesome protagonists. Christina has a more nihilistic and also more human vision: We're just fucked up. Innately. There is nothing strange about it. Weirdness is the normal natural condition and any attempt to cover that up is fake.

"Being here makes me feel like I don't actually live in the city. Like I still live here." The house looms in the darkness. "Like I never left. Like I haven't changed at all. But it also feels like somebody planted the memories of this place into my head. But I never actually experienced it."

But she has left and soon I'm driving back across the George Washington Bridge. The radio is on. She sings along to Sublime, "This is who you are"; Foo Fighters, "There goes my hero"; Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"; Joan Jett, "I love Rock and Roll."

I think of Reesa Garcia's remark: "She has to be careful. There's an eighteen-year-old girl there with incredible presence and sexuality. It could blossom, it could explode, it could implode. She's going to have to be very strong and careful so it doesn't get fucked-up."

Steve Miller's "Space Cowboy" comes on. We start singing together. It's really nice, racing down the West Side Highway in the night, the Hudson glistening in the dark. "I'm a lover and I'm a sinner. I play my music in the sun. I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker... I get my lovin' on the run."

She stops for a moment turns to me, and says, "I went through the things that you go through when you're growing up. Except my family was crazy, so it was a little more extreme than normal. Except I'm not as crazy as they are."

Then she goes back to singing: "You're the cutest thing that I ever did see. I really love you peaches, want to shake your tree. Lovee lovee duvee all the time... Oooeee baby, I'll sure show you a good time..."

May, 1998

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