Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening: the literary movie, its splendour, and its limits

There’s no mistaking Starting Out in the Evening for anything but a very literary-minded film. There is, rather refreshingly, no sense of apology whatsoever for this from its director Andrew Wagner. The film opens and closes with its protagonist, septuagenarian novelist Leonard Schiller (the marvelous Frank Langella), seated with stony concentration before a typewriter, one thick hand closed around the other, patiently waiting for the conditions, at once familiar and mysterious, to arrange themselves in his mind and body, for that crisp moment that allows him to start his daily work. It is a moment recognizable to any writer, but it also plays with surprising clarity on the screen to a general audience. In these visual bookends is the implication that it is only with Leonard’s intake of breath and the pounding of text onto paper that this particular film can begin and end.

Based on the novel by Brian Morton, and adapted by Wagner and his co-scripter Fred Parnes, Starting Out in the Evening is elegiac, frequently elegant, and, by its very literariness, perhaps a bit cloistered in a world apart from most movies. It is a film in which two of the three central characters, all of them New Yorkers, all of them very comfortable, live their lives passionately for books. Indeed, they converse about everything, even their most conflicted feelings, with a certain formality, a declaratory, almost didactic bookishness. You might say they speak like characters in a Woody Allen movie, except they’re not very funny. For all that, they do feel real. They’re feelings feel real. Their stories are very adult. And, despite a few stumbles here and there, the whole thing is not only intellectually stimulating but also quite moving. Yet, sadly, is it any wonder such a film barely made the rounds in today’s climate of movie distribution? Hopefully, Starting Out in the Evening will find a new life on DVD.

Leonard is visited by one Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a young, gifted female student looking for his participation in the development of her doctoral thesis on his work. She petite but strikingly sexy. She has a mane of red hair that frames a round face and large eyes that fix on Leonard like he’s the only person in whatever room. She’s clearly in love of a sort, but also very tough and uncompromising in her attack on his small oeuvre—his first novel changed her life, while the subsequent ones she finds increasingly soft.

Leonard, a long-time widower living in a large but fragile body, is a man whose spent decades carefully nurturing a lifestyle that courts no surprises and is devoted to work. Heather seems set to revive something in him long forgotten, something perhaps connected to some missing vitality in his work. But don’t let the set-up fool you. Both characters go far beyond facile April-December archetypes, things do not wrap up so neatly, there is no wish fulfillment waiting to be enacted, lives are stirred and shifted to be sure, but sweeping changes do not come easy to these people, while betrayal and adoration prove to be close neighbours. Most importantly, Starting Out in the Evening defies the tired notion that art can be reduced by the values of a single age group, a single critical perspective, or of a single era.

There is another woman in Leonard’s life to help thicken the plot. Ariel (Lili Taylor) is Leonard’s daughter, not a literary type but a yoga instructor and once a dancer. She’s pushing 40, wants a baby something fierce, but has serious problems with long-term relationships. After failing at tricking a current boyfriend into unknowing paternity, she goes back to a precarious lover from her past, one disapproved of by Leonard. As terrific and utterly unique an actor as Taylor is, Ariel’s subplot does expose some of the more blatantly artificial mechanics at work in the film, her emotional ups and downs and healing process with her ex are approached rather preciously by Wagner, and they often seem to weigh down Leonard’s story unnecessarily, which is itself more than rich enough for one movie. In short, the breadth of Ariel’s presence in the film does in fact feel like a device more in keeping with a novel than a film.

Starting Out in the Evening works best when most immediate, when words are merely implied or are simply insufficient for even these articulate characters to express themselves, when talking ceases and body language takes over: a brush of fingers on lips, a little wave across a crowded room, a hovering hand over a prone, fully clothed body. In such scenes Langella exhibits a titanic presence, embodying so much while doing so little. Thus it is finally the moments of silent or near-silent connection, as well of those where connections suddenly snap harshly, are the ones that make this film worth watching. They also make Wagner a filmmaker to watch, and make you wonder if Langella, in the “evening” of his acting career, might not just be reaching his heights of grace.

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