Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Man's Face

Where can I really begin when it comes to Love and Death on Long Island? Nothing's struck me this way in a long time. A bolt of lightning, not out of the blue, but out of the dark. Better than Death in Venice -- that goes without saying. John Hurt is better than Dirk Bograde (and anyway, it wasn't really Bograde who played Aschenbach, it was Visconti), Jason Priestley is better than Björn Andrésen, and Richard Kwietniowski knows himself better than the Count of Lonate Pozzolo ever could. The wealthy have trouble seeing wealth, but the middle and working classes are constantly reminded of their limitations. They're attuned to the limits of others.

Hurt, Giles DeAth, serious man with a silly name, an old coot, a creature of habit, a man in a three-piece suit and tie with a regular brand of smokes and a regular brand of milk and a whole life built out of regularity who finds himself gently slipping into the comfortingly irregular the way you'd slowly sit down into a hot bath. It's too hot at first, it burns your feet, but then the steam starts rising towards your body and you begin descending faster and faster because the boiling water is more pleasant than the cold bathroom air. Maybe we're drawn to heat and fire; maybe we like to get burned. The first hour moves at a steady clip. You could turn down the sound and put on something with a motorik beat, maybe "Hallogallo," and it would sync up -- if not with the editing, than at least with John Hurt's facial expressions. Sourpuss Giles wants no part of modern living, but soon he finds himself going to the movies, buying a VCR, magazines, an answering machine, going to a friend's house to catch a sitcom on her TV. Deeper and deeper into the modern, all because of a face and what he imagines about it. An actor's face. This is a video-romance, more video than Videodrome, a magnificent obsession made possible by the pause and slow motion buttons on a VCR remote. The face belongs to Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), a second-tier actor Giles spots in Hot Pants College II, a movie he wanders into by accident after getting locked out of his house.

He cuts the face out from magazines and hides the clippings in a drawer. He finds excuses, reasons, explanations, and after a while he's on a plane and then in a cab and finally in Long Island, where Ronnie lives with his girlfriend, and where Hurt can figure out the rhythms of his subject's life ("Bostockiana," he labels a scrapbook) so that he might, inevitably, befriend him. All of this happens, but not too quickly. But this isn't a movie you'd call "languid;" it doesn't linger. It moves, scene to scene, joke to joke (many of them very funny, especially the films-within-the-film, the Ronnie Bostock movies Giles finds himself slowing down, pausing, sketching, buildings his life around), observation to observation, image to image. So there's the way the front seat of Ronnie's Porsche is a sort of front row, that connection between driving and viewing, and Hurt's face as it pulls towards a television screen as though magnetized.

I don't think there's been a film like this since Avanti! -- and before Avanti!, I think there was only The Spirit of St. Louis. Somewhere, maybe when Hurt gently holds Priestley's towel against his cheek, prefacing it with a comic "Dear God, this is ridiculous," before slowly diving into that ridiculousness, the hearts slows down in the chest, breath shortens, and the movie becomes inseparable from the experience of watching it. It becomes uncomfortable, a personal embarrassment. Present tense. An ache. A sublime humiliation.

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