Thursday, December 14, 2006

 

One of my kids was in the school play this past month, a performance of Reckless by Craig Lucas, but – and this says pretty much everything there is to say about life out here in Chester County – it was one of the other parents, herself a Conestoga grad, not the drama department director, who recognized that Lucas was likewise a graduate (class of ’69) of Conestoga High. Which is how my son ended up performing a couple of weeks back with the actual author in attendance. Later, Lucas spoke to anyone who wanted to stay, not just about the play and his subsequent career in the theater and film, but also about the isolation he had felt as a kid growing up gay, liberal, Jewish & adopted in Chester County in the 1960s. He and some friends had protested the war in Vietnam, for example, and been suspended from school. And he was not voted most likely to succeed.

But after Lucas performed in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim pushed him toward writing & Reckless did well enough as a play to end up as a film starring Mia Farrow (and with Scott Glenn & Mary-Louise Parker in the cast) back in 1995. Even before that, Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss had both been successful, both on the stage & on film, in each case with Lucas adapting his own play for the screen, Prelude securing a Tony nomination & running for over 400 performances. More recently, Lucas adapted Jane Smiley’s novel for the film, The Secret Lives of Dentists, a film I liked just fine when I saw it at the multiplex.

The Dying Gaul, Lucas’ first effort as director, played locally in theaters a year ago, getting fairly decent reviews, but audiences more along the lines what you would expect for an art house indie with a gay theme. It’s out on DVD & worth watching, but it raises for me troubling questions about the movies as a narrative genre.

I should note that I’ve always thought that narrative in poetry ceased to be necessary with the rise of the novel, particularly in the 19th century, but that narrative in the novel itself became problematic not only once the late realists & early modernists (especially Joyce) demonstrated that realism was just an effect, the predictable consequence of a series of devices, but also because cinema proved an even more effective narrative medium. So if, in fact, we find ourselves in an era in which the psychological dimensions of the “Oprah novel” have returned with a vengeance, when memoirs are a hotter genre among the trade presses than fiction itself, and when a poet like Alice Notley thinks to return narrative to poetry, it is – among many other things – a big red flag suggesting that something’s amiss at the movies.

The Dying Gaul is in fact three films in sequential order, albeit presented as if it were a single tale. The first is a psychological portrait of a film producer, played by Campbell Scott (who starred in both Longtime Companion and The Secret Lives of Dentists, and who co-produced Gaul), his wife portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, a terrific actress, and a young gay screenwriter, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard’s character has written a screenplay which the producer wants him to develop further, on the single condition that he convert its characters from gay to straight. But at the same time, both the producer and his wife are seriously coming on to the young playwright, who only a couple of months earlier lost his longtime lover to AIDS. This is by far the deepest, and most serious of the three plays in the picture. It’s a terrific relief to see three three-dimensional people in a motion picture, not a single thunderbolt or superhero costume in the crowd. It makes me long for the rebirth of Truffaut (who is even invoked by name) – we could imagine a long, lush gender-twisting variation of Jules & Jim and it would be a tremendous film.

But at this point one of the characters – I won’t say which – begins to play with the mind of one of the others by falsifying a chat-room identity. Why this occurs is never very clear – the ostensible reason in the script seems not that logical and its explanation so quickly passed over in the film that the three of us watching had to verbally check out that, yes, that was a discussion, all ten seconds of it, about using a private detective to check the background of one of the other characters, a detail never again mentioned. This part of the film is a psychological thriller, as the three characters find themselves increasingly deep in a mystery. Narratively, it moves the story forward, but it feels much thinner & less well conceived than the characters themselves. As a viewer, you begin to sort through the obvious plot options: A will do X to B, B will to do Y to C, etc.

There’s a twist of course, tho it’s been foreshadowed as heavily as a pistol on the mantelpiece, and it sets in motion the third, again very different movie, in which the stories come to their violent, lethal conclusion. Perhaps because character motivation in the second film seems so unclear, the third whirls past far quicker, as if the story had spun largely out of control. The conclusion ends the film or at least the sense of narrative motion, but hardly addresses the story.

One moment early in the film – when the writer is asked by the producer why the script is named for the famous sculpture – haunts me the morning after seeing the flick. The writer’s response is basically incoherent, although it seems clear enough that his screenplay is autobiographical, that the trip to Europe with the lover dying of AIDS did take place, and that the sculpture in some ways embodies all of his emotions of grief, despair & love. By the time we get to this film’s conclusion, one of the three characters will in fact “unwittingly” echo the posture you see in the image above, everything is narratively neat & tidy.

Which is precisely the opposite of life. And what is ultimately wrong with this film. The incoherent in situ response of the character who can’t get enough distance from his own life to understand its arc is a far truer picture than the chess-move-perfect closure of the final frame. Why is it that even an independent feature about how Hollywood changes scripts to pull away from reality must echo the very process it damns? Right now the triangle between film, narrative and life, at least from the perspective of Hollywood – and it would be hard not to think of Hollywood, or at least Malibu, in The Dying Gaul where 90 percent of the action takes place in this breath-taking pomo mansion, where the “infinity” swimming pool’s edge perpetually disappears against the Pacific horizon, much of the rest “at the studio” – feels positively toxic. This is hardly Craig Lucas’ problem alone &, indeed, his one real failure here is that his attempt to counter the system of plotwise irreality at the heart of the Dream Machine falls short, succumbing to the very disease it diagnoses.

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