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Weekly Alibi Culture Clash

By Angie Drobnic

JUNE 8, 1998:  Obsession dominates film. Whether it's obsessive love, anger, vengeance or sadness, you can find it all in the movies. The camera's all-seeing eye has the power to make the most meaningful moments lengthen and almost stop, to make the small detail assume enormous proportion, to make characters with the most overt compulsions heroic in nature. Yet so easily, obsession in the movies can become rote, trite and predictable. The classic romantic-obsession film, a la The English Patient, has been completely overdone to the point of tedium. Fortunately, Love and Death in Long Island takes obsessive love for a new ride, melding high and low culture, the ridiculous and the sublime, for a filmlover's treat.

The movie begins in London, where our hero, the reclusive author Giles De'Ath is going about his normal business of ignoring 20th century technology and culture. But one day, he decides to wander into a cinema, hoping to see a dramatization of an E.M. Forster novel. By some trick of fate, though, he ends up in an American Porky's-style teen flick with the dubious name of Hotpants College 2. Giles gets up to leave, but as he does, he glimpses the form of hunky teen idol Ronnie Bostock. Giles is instantly smitten.

As Giles follows the dictates of his obsession, he ends up turning his well-ordered, antique lifestyle upside down. He buys teen magazines to find out more about his new idol, and he goes through the process of renting Bostock video tapes (and in a hilarious scene, buying a VCR). Finally, his obsession brings him to America and to Long Island, to meet the object of his affection in person. Part of the brilliance of this quirky premise comes from the film's perfect casting. The Oscar-nominated actor John Hurt (Midnight Express, The Elephant Man) plays the aging Giles to perfection, every ounce the British gentleman. And our Teen Beat poster boy is played by none other than "Beverly Hills 90210" alumnus Jason Priestly.

Aside from the ostensible love story, Love and Death in Long Island is also a loving homage to low-brow culture. Not only are we treated to clips of Hotpants College 2, we also get to see parts of Bostock films like Tex Mex and Skid Marks. The effort that director and writer Richard Kwietniowski puts into this fictitious pabulum is a tribute to some of schlockiest kinds of movies ever made. And Priestley's performance in them are masterful, leading to a double bind: Is Priestley himself a heretofore unacknowledged smart actor, able to play inane roles to perfection? Or is he simply a doofus, and a very good doofus at that? Regardless, Priestley pulls more than his fair share of the movie, interacting with the mannered Hurt with just the right nuance.

Love and Death in Long Island is based on a cult novel of the same name, without sticking strictly to the book's premises. That book, in turn, is supposedly modeled loosely after Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. It's appropriate for the film to have such different cultural influences, because the film itself focuses on different cultural icons, both high and low, that can interact in our day and age. That's where Giles' obsession with Ronnie Bostock transcends clichéd predecessors: It could only happen today, and only in the way it does.

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