Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (1996) ** to *** depending on viewer.

Directed by Dan Ireland. Written by Michael Scott Myers from the memoir "One Who Walked Alone" by Novalyne Price Ellis. Photography, Claudio Rocha. Editing, Luis Colina. Production design, John Frick. Music, Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. Cast: Vincent D'Onofrio (Robert E. Howard), Renee Zellweger (Novalyne Price) Ann Wedgeworth (Mrs. Howard), et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. 105 min. PG.
While The Whole Wide World may or may not fascinate all audiences, it will certainly intrigue those devotees of pulp fiction who revere writer Robert E. Howard (1906-1936).

Texas-born Howard began to write at age 15. From the late 1920s to his demise he was a hugely popular author of fantasy and sci-fi stories (he called them yarns), mostly in the fanzine Weird Tales. He created some thirty lead characters who appeared in tale after tale. Conan, the most famous of them, was in a record number of some 45 yarns.

In the 1970s pulp fiction became an object of study in American universities for reasons that included breaks with and expansions of established literary values, an interest in popular cultures, and in some cases trend-seeking scholarly opportunism. Two Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, Conan the Barbarian (significantly baptized Conard le Barbare in French) and Conan the Destroyer also contributed to a revival of popular interest in Howard.

Novalyne Price, later Price Ellis, was from Cross Plains, in rural West Texas, where Howard, his mother and his father (a respected M. D. ) also lived. Novalyne alternated between graduate studies and teaching to which she was most dedicated. An aspiring writer, she was happy to meet Bob Howard in 1934, when she was in her mid-20s. A curious relationship ensued. It lasted under various permutations until Howard's end in 1936. She continued college teaching, married William Ellis in 1947, was widowed in 1994 after 47 years of marriage.

The resurgence of interest in fantasy and science fiction caused Novalyne to become indignant at the scholarly studies about Robert Howard and to set out righting the wrongs with her memoir One Who Walked Alone (1985). Her version is the basis of the movie which was made by a first-time director and a first-time scriptwriter.

The non-affair between Novalyne and Bob begins in a refreshingly un-cute fashion which intimates that both people were originals. Soon however, maverick Bob is revealed to be an authentic weirdo. While not a hermit, he avoids the outside world in favor of shutting himself in his room to write away. Material necessity does not explain this, since, even at half-cent a word, Howard stretches out his texts, is prolific, financially well off and lives very simply. The significant reason must be that Bob tends to escape the real world and to sublimate his fantasies by working them into his yarns. In a stentorian voice he reads his own fabulations and acts out his creatures' parts.

He is exaggeratedly dedicated to his mother, a possessive, overly protective woman with a life-threatening ailment. The relationship is merely sketched out but clearly Oedipal, a tad incestuous and certainly unhealthy. The father, out of the picture, is sad at his exclusion.

Novalyne and Bob have a slow-motion rapport that goes through a number of minor adjustments that would take pages to relate. Its apex is when, many months after their first date, they have their rather chaste first kiss. Matters go no further. It is as if Bob's descriptions of his characters, loaded with sexual references and often lurid, are all the sex he needs.

The virginal protagonists are well cast and played. Both have ordinary faces and a sort of physical anonymity that makes Mr. D'Onofrio and Ms. Zellwegger credible. They are people, not actors, and they are a duo rather than a couple.

My key to this odd relationship is "amitie amoureuse," (loving friendship), an ambiguous, tricky concept that's quite common. Seen from another angle, Bob is a mini-Pygmalion to the young woman. Surprisingly -- on the face of it -- he gives her a book by the erotic writer Pierre Louys whose famous The Woman and the Puppet (1898) was filmed as The Devil is a Woman, starring Marlene Dietrich. It would seem that Bob, in his spare time, is trying to emancipate the lady.

Yet, for a progressive thinker, Bob often sounds sexist to the ears of the 1990s. I cannot remember a single instance of his calling his friend by her first name, one that echoes futuristic fiction or medical products. He always addresses her as "girl. " "Listen, girl, "look here, girl, hey, girl. " This mode of address may grate today but was a Southern term of endearment for generations.

The depiction of Bob as neurotic, dysfunctional and a little mad occupies center stage. To my ears, Brooklynite D'Onofrio's Texas twang sounded authentic. Yet, setting aside the nasty cliche of some Southern accents denoting hicks, the way Bob is written and performed does make him into something of a bumpkin. This may not endear him to us but at least it shatters preconceptions about what writers are like.

By mid-1936, the Bob and Novalyne had parted but without severing all connections. The bad health of Bob's beloved mother had reached a point of no return. When he heard that her end was near, he shot himself through the head. He was 30. Mother died 30 hours later.

Save for some awkward transitions, the film is a well-produced small slice of Americana. It must be one of the lowest low-budget A pictures ever made given the tiny number of actors, locations, sets and props. Its rural nature must have made it even cheaper than recent independent films set in urban areas where "dressing" streets and controlling traffic add to costs. I have the impression that the biggest expense in WWW went to recreating a theater's marquee and renting some period automobiles.

To what extent the persona of Bob is genuine, or filtered by Novalyne's memory (she was about 88 during the filming, living alone in Lafayette, Louisiana), or fiddled with by the filmmakers, I cannot tell. The movie may answer few questions about Robert Howard, yet it does present to us the interesting case history of a one-of-a-kind individual.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel