The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
This is the koan that begins the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu.
This is the fat guy who scores all the hot chicks?
This is the koan that begins an encounter with The Tao of Steve screenwriter Duncan North.
North, however, is more than just the movie's screenwriter; he's its inspiration. Proof is found in the closing credits of The Tao of Steve, this year's Sundance fave. It's found, in fact, in the following epigram:
"Based on a story by Duncan North. Based on an idea by Duncan North. Based on Duncan North."
The story The Tao of Steve tells is the tale of a generously proportioned guy who has an irresistible way with women. And the half-baked--or, considering his fondness for marijuana, the completely baked--philosophy that guides him in his romantic conquests is known as The Tao of Steve. It's part Zen, part Heidegger, but mostly it's the epitome of coolness that is silver-screen legend Steve McQueen. The Tao of Steve is thus:
Rule 1: Eliminate your desires. If you're out with a girl and you are thinking about getting laid, you're finished. A woman can smell an agenda.
Rule 2: You have to do something excellent in her presence, therefore proving your sexual worthiness.
Rule 3: After you've eliminated your desire, and after you've proven your excellence, you must retreat. In the words of the philosopher, we pursue that which retreats from us.
So go ahead and scoff when you think of these words and then imagine the portly image of North pulling the Great Escape. As Lao-Tzu teaches, "When the foolish man hears of the Tao, he laughs." But when you talk to him at length, and you see his air of wry and, yes, wise tranquility, the paradox starts to make more sense, as if you were getting a personal audience with the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama liked to smoke out and bed hotties.
Donal Logue, who plays Dex, the film's fictional version of Duncan North, and who won the Special Jury Award for dramatic acting at Sundance, says, "If it wasn't for the film calling attention to the weight, I don't think anyone would ever think of Duncan in terms of, 'Yeah, I guess for a heavy guy he's all right.' But I know when I first met him--and you only know about him from the movie stuff--I expected to meet someone who propped themselves up."
As if cued, Logue does just that, arching himself up, raising an eyebrow a few inches, and lowering his voice a few octaves. "Hi, I pull chicks."
Logue drops out of character, turns to the man being discussed, and says, "But he's not like that. Once you know him, you just see a good-looking guy who's very smart and very funny. Of course chicks dig him. It makes complete sense. Oh, yeah, and Duncan really can pull chicks."
North has been quiet through this entire character evaluation, perhaps lost in the words of Lao-Tzu: The sage knows himself but he makes no show; he has self-respect but he is not arrogant. As Logue finishes, North stoically nods. Then, unable to fight off a smile any longer, he states, "Excellent."
But, excellent or not, a question remains: Isn't being publicly presented as the fat guy who scores hot chicks bothersome?
"Well," North says, "The problem is that I think I have the opposite of the more common anorexia. I look in the mirror and see a skinny person. So all of this fat talk is really starting to mess with my delusional denial thing. So I guess I should say, 'Gee, thanks.'"
The Tao of Bionics
Steve McQueen is a Steve. Steve McGarrett is a Steve. Steve Austin is a Steve. But Steve isn't just a name. It's a state of mind. It's a way of living. James Bond is a Steve. Spider-Man is a Steve.
These are the teachings of Dex, as played by Donal Logue, who is based on Duncan North.
Steve Austin, as in the Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin, is a man to identify with when trying to score with the ladies? It's true, says North, who gives a long explanation involving reluctant heroism and bionics.
When his audience doesn't seem moved, he gasps, "Hey, what do you want from me? When you're 16, you're not a very critical, rigorous thinker."
Yes, as experts tell us, the formative years can have a huge impact on our adult lives.
"I went through a period in high school where I definitely wasn't the popular guy," North readily admits. "There was this guy going out with the head cheerleader. Wow. She was named Nadine. I totally wanted to be this guy. And he got all the girls, not just Nadine. And one day, in college, I realized I was that guy."
That epiphany that would mark the full realization of The Tao of Steve came together in one night. Though Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, no one's bandying about the word genius here. "It's sort of like gravity when the apple hit Newton on the head," North explains. "And Newton's like: 'Well, I'll be damned. Things fall down.'"
Up until that point, Steve had just been a nickname he and his brother used to mean 'cool.' "Hey, nice one, Steve." Or, "Good going, Steve."
"To be completely honest," Duncan says, "When my brother and I were picking up girls in bars, we used the name Steve. We felt it was a good name, a cool name girls would like."
But one night Duncan was in a bar. "There were six of us, me and five other guys who were taller, thinner, and better looking than me. This beautiful woman comes in. They all start hitting on her, so I know I don't have a chance. And that's when it all happened for me. I completely gave up. Then she says something about politics that I completely disagree with. I get into an argument with her about politics, which is something I know a little bit about. And then I went outside to smoke a cigarette. A few minutes later she came out to give me her phone number."
Now, North is on a roll, pepping up, showing a little excitement under the laid-back exterior. "I was like, uh...what the hell just happened? So, when faced with something like that, something that makes no sense, there's only one thing to do. You've got to deconstruct."
The dissection revealed: "I was desireless. I was excellent. I was gone."
The only thing left to do was put his hypothesis into practice--which he did immediately. To his amazement, he really had discovered one of the great secrets of the universe.
"Of course once I realized you don't have to really do anything, naturally I lost all my motivation, became a stoner, gained a lot of weight, and ballooned into Marlon Brando, all by the age of 19."
The Tao of Carrots
Women are pretty cool and they expect great things from you and that's all fine. But let's face it, if you are good-looking enough you really don't have to try that hard. But as soon as you're not, well ... you got to have a plan, something to draw them in. You know, a carrot.
This is what Duncan North says in front of two women--and somehow he doesn't get strung up by his short hairs like any other guy would.
In fact, the women just laugh, and the looks they give him glow with affection. Maybe he doesn't get strung up because these women have known him for a long, long time. These women are, after all, Jenniphr Goodman, the director, and Greer Goodman, her sister and the co-star and co-writer of this film based on him. Or maybe they are proof that there's something to the Tao of Steve, as both a philosophy and a movie. Everyone needs that carrot.
Greer explains, "Now neither of us were dating Duncan when we heard about his Tao of Steve philosophy, but as women we weren't offended by it. We thought it was funny. It wasn't misogynistic or sexist. It was clever. And it was an interesting perspective on human nature."
Jenniphr picks up on her sister's thoughts, trying to offer further insight: "He has a sincere but irreverent relationship with God. And yes, he was overweight, but he was the most successful dater of women that I had ever seen. Eventually, I realized if I don't make a movie about Duncan, I've wasted years of my life."
For Greer Goodman, getting involved in the production was much simpler. "My carrot was that I was an actress who needed work. Jenniphr and Duncan were talking about doing a one-man show or a documentary. I didn't see much work for me there. So I suggested that we turn it into a feature film. And now that we're done, we end up with a character like Duncan as a romantic leading man."
And it's this aspect that may be what draws audiences to The Tao of Steve--the film, the philosophy, and if Fox comes through, maybe even a TV show. No Nora Ephron version of love here. This isn't Hugh Grant pursuing someone who looks like Meg Ryan. It's a romantic comedy with a beer gut.
"Obviously, I'm not the first person that people think of for a leading man role," Logue says, and a look at his 40-something screen appearances, five coming this year including a part as the lone racist in Patriot Games, backs him up. "I felt this movie was a sort of make-or-break thing for me too. I wasn't trying to get my career off the ground like these guys, but I found myself becoming more desperate to just be a working actor. I don't give a shit if it's Reindeer Games. I'll stand in the background. Just send me the check so I can sit at home, read books, and raise my kid. But if you only do that, you'll never really know what kind of actor you can be. So it was really fortuitous. I really needed to have this test and see if I have what it takes to carry a film.
"Sure, there's more money in playing subservient roles as characters that don't have a lot of depth. But, shit, there's nothing else I was doing. Was a poster going to be out in front of the Angelica with me on it and Gary Sinese way in the background with the tagline: 'The most compelling thing about this movie is Pug?'"
And what about North himself? Why put yourself up for the public to deconstruct?
"It's really like a million dollars worth of therapy," North says, straight-faced. "When we first started, it was just Jenniphr recording what I'm saying. Then it goes from me just talking to a script, and I'm like, hmm...this guy has some real weird behaviors. Then we're shooting a movie. And Donal is wearing my clothes and driving my truck. Then Donal's making out with Greer, my ex-girlfriend. Ugh. That's creepy. But because of 99 percent of what goes on during production doesn't really end up in a film, it was even weirder watching it with an audience of 400 strangers. It's like astronaut perspective, floating around the earth looking down at something foreign. Look at this guy, he's a compulsive womanizer and sexaholic. Somebody get him some help quick. It's sort of like at the end of Braveheart where they cut him open and he looks down and they are pulling his intestines out. It's a lot like that. Very painful."
Logue interjects. "Except that guy dies, and you go get laid at the afterparty."
Duncan North considers this for a second, then smiles. "So the experience has been good."