LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND (Canada-UK, 1997) *** 1/3
The source novel by talented British writer and film critic Gilbert Adair was a rather parodistic reworking of the Thomas Mann novella "Death in Venice" told in the first person. Writer-director Kwietniowski (London-born in 1957) reworked that reworking intelligently, sympathetically, with a strong sense of visuals, editing and benevolent irony.
Before this, he had made about six gay-themed short films shown in several festals. "LDLI," his first feature, at the 1997 Cannes Fesival, received a nomination for a Golden Camera and a special mention, as did John Hurt, from the International Critics Association.
John Hurt is present in just about every scene. The thespian has a marvelous track record, mostly in roles as different from one another as they are from deja vu. Among them, in "A Man For All Seasons,"" Midnight Express, ""The Elephant Man" (title role),"1984,""The Hit,""White Mischief,"" Scandal,"" Rob Roy." He looks like no one else and can act like nobody's business. Now in his late 50s, he has the age of Giles De'Ath in "Love and Death on Long Island."
British writer De'Ath lives in contemporary London but not in this century. A widower (significantly, his wife was older than he, and they had no children), he inhabits a world of books in a posh, old-fashioned apartment where his housekeeper follows the man's clockwork routines without intruding into his reclusive habits.
He gives no interviews, but when he is finally talked into an appearance on BBC-Radio, it is hilarious. Giles is befuddled by the questions, the interviewer by the replies. De'Ath is truly out of the 20th century in every way. "Do you use a word processor?" "I am a writer" he snaps," I write words, I do not process them." Not that he has the foggiest about what a processor is. Or even a typewriter.
A notation in the BBC ledger shows us just two words about the man: "fogey" and "cult." This nagged me throughout the movie. If Giles has not a clue about life-at-large, we don't have any about the kind of writing he does; or why he is a figure in the literary Establishment; or what kind of cult surrounds him, and why. Nonetheless, Giles is a hoot.
The radio interviewer had pointed out to Giles, who had not been to the pictures in ages, that films have been made of the novels by E.M.Forster. Later, locked out of his apartment and caught in the rain, Giles notices such a film on a movie-house marquee and goes in. But unaware that there are such innovations as multiplexes, he wanders into an American teen flick, "Hotpants College 2." With comic slowness it dawns on him that "this is not Forster." He stands up to leave, but sees on the screen a young performer (Jason Priestley) and is entranced by him. Giles gets a "coup de foudre," his first ever love-at-first-sight and undoubtedly his first love ever, at any sight. The heart is a mysterious thing.
A major fixation is born. The besotted writer sees the picture again, acting at the box-office like the traditonal, funny kid who wants to buy condoms in a drugstore. Tracking down the name of the actor (it is Ronnie Bostock) in comically awkward ways, he loads up on teen magazines which he buys and disposes of as though they were pornography. He reads and memorizes all about Ronnie, starts a cut-and-paste "Bostockiana" album. Giles further enters pop culture by renting (more comedy here) all the Bostock videos possible. He purchases a video-player, after first mistaking microwave ovens for such machines, has it delivered by a stupefied young man who explains to Giles' surprise that a TV set is required to watch the tapes.
Passion escalates. After more research, howlers and howl-making episodes, Giles takes off for the USA, to the Long Island village where Ronnie and his supermodel girlfriend Audrey live by the sea. Giles, the innocent at home, becomes the innocent abroad. But by now, the comic tone of the first part acquires a lining of pathos, though without losing various funny delights.
The second, American (though shot in Canada) half, has Giles take a room in a motel where mostly couples meet furtively; be obsessed by his wanting to meet Ronnie; resort to a series of investigations and stalkings that involve everything, from Ronnie's dog, his Porsche ragtop to Giles' becoming a regular at the greasy spoonish establishment owned by Irv. It is called "Chez d'Irv," which somehow sounds like "chef d'oeuvre" (French for "masterpiece") --a most unlikely bilingual pun, given Irv's simple-mindedness
Love is the mother of inventions. The hitherto very low-key Giles goes energetically through loops and hoops, contrives a supermarket "accident" to meet Audrey, turns on the charm, makes friends with her while waiting for Ronnie to return from California. Finally, he meets him.
De'Ath's task is vastly aided by the small community --including the young couple-- being one of naive people with little or no culture.No denizen had ever heard of De'Ath, perhaps even of literature. But all are hugely impressed by having an English author in their midst. Dull, duller, dullest Giles becomes an exotic creature. It reminds me a bit of the newly rich vulgarians who mistake Bob Hope for an Earl in "Fancy Pants."
Hurt's performance is probably his best, along with his Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant." In speech, expressivity, body language, timing, he is impeccably in character, ludicrous and absurd yet believable, quasi farcical yet touching. Wide-eyed Priestley, sporting Elvis sideburns that make him look even dimmer, performs with restraint a persona that's partly an un-blatant send-off of his "Beverly Hills 90210" heartthrob, partly that of a young actor who confusedly feels that there are things to do higher than his teen-junk movie roles. The ground is fertile for Giles to lay on with a trowel compliments, bold and bald statements about Ronnie's talents and potential, the imaginary film script Giles is writing for him. All this, of course, leads to implanting the idea that things can go better, not with Coke but with De'Ath as a mentor. To what extent Giles believes what he says remains an open question.
Ronnie's is a supporting role to Giles' and Audrey's (well played by a relative newcomer) is one level below this. The balance of the cast are sub-supporters to the top trio, yet all appearances, down to the tiniest, are sharply sketched out. Throughout the film, Kwietniowski also fleshes out ambiances through light, economical, amusing touches in the peripherals, from TV watching to weather predictions, not to mention telephone answering machines or faxes.
November's attraction to May is something common. So is the mismatched attraction of persons widely separated by social class, taste, intellect, culture. Examples abound in movies, from Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage" (the good version was filmed with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis) to "Citizen Kane" and beyond.
In the case of " Love and Death" all this acquires new twists and an outcome that I cannot disclose. But I can reveal that there is no sex, there are no caricatures. Instead, we get heartfelt sentiment and much humor at the expense of the nadirs of pop culture, teen adulation, as well as of stuffy "high art."
No closure in its fullest sense comes at the end. Certain things are left in the air, with an upbeat last-moment hint about Giles.There is audience manipulation here, since the title's "Death" is a red herring. The name De'Ath (pronounced Deh as in Irish or Italian names) does really exist, but used without the apostrophe, it suggests to the unprepared public dire events rather than a verbal joke.I'll grant you though that it is a good mnemonic device.