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Nashville Scene Flying Off the Page

"The Wings of the Dove" soars.

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  There are three ways to screw up a literary adaptation: use the original text as a jumping-off point for self-indulgent weirdness, as in Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady; exploit the novel's plot for its frothier elements, as in Doug McGrath's Emma; or dryly film the book with little regard for point of view or relevance, as in 80 percent of Merchant-Ivory productions. A great literary adaptation--such as Little Women, Persuasion, or the other 20 percent of Merchant-Ivory productions--risks falling into all three traps, but it ultimately plots a course through a great book while filtering the book's spirit through a unique sensibility.

By these standards, the new version of Henry James' The Wings of the Dove--directed by Iain Softley, from a script by Hossein Amini--is a great literary adaptation. The story centers around Kate (Helena Bonham Carter), a poor but well-connected young woman who is living with a wealthy aunt and waiting to be matched with a prominent bachelor. Unfortunately, she's in love with Merton (Linus Roache), an underpaid journalist of whom her aunt doesn't approve. An opportunity to resolve both her problems arrives in the form of Millie (Alison Elliott), a dying American heiress who is taken with Merton. Kate schemes to bring her lover and her new friend together in Venice, where Merton can seduce the young woman before her death and work his way into her will.

The filmmakers are quite taken with the fun of this threesome frolicking in Venice, and much of the movie consists of enjoyable outings to restaurants, festivals, and museums. This is a different direction than the book takes, and it's not the only change. The time of the novel has been pushed up eight years, from 1902 to 1910. By only slightly updating a typically Jamesian tale of intermingling cultures and classes, Softley and Amini find a painfully tragic romance--one that speaks volumes about societal changes in Europe just prior to World War I.

The date change has more implications than allowing horse-drawn carriages to share the streets with motorcars, and topcoats to alternate with sweaters. This particular period of British history--just removed from the Victorian era, with its strict codes of social behavior--was full of the timid decadence that would hit America a decade later. Placing Kate at this place and time has the effect of framing her actions more harshly: As a brazen young woman who thinks nothing of browsing stacks of penny dreadfuls at the book shop, and who isn't bound by tradition to heed her aunt's wishes, the only reason left for her cruel plan is sheer greed.


Floating triangle
Alison Elliott, Linus Roache, and Helena Bonham Carter, doing Venice in The Wings of the Dove

The Wings of the Dove has some of the same swooningly romantic spirit of last year's The English Patient. In a stingy frame of mind, the viewer may find it sentimental claptrap; approach it openly, however, and you'll be salting your popcorn with tears. The key to the film's success is fine acting. Roache makes a suitably witty and skeptical Merton, and Carter is a revelation as the callous, self-serving Kate. The heart of the film, though, belongs to Elliott, who has the thankless task of playing a saint. Her Millie is part rapacious enthusiast, part giggly schoolgirl. Her immediate attraction to the cliquish, earthy Kate and Merton makes perfect sense, and it gives the film its ultimate resonance.

The movie culminates in a nicely underplayed scene in a cold London flat, where Kate and Merton step out of the novel's plot for a moment of desperate, explicit passion. Carter's bold final nude scene--so beautiful, so bare--conveys every ounce of her character's isolation, as well as the raw sexuality at the core of the story. It's this kind of daring moment--beyond the scope of the source material, yet squarely in context--that sets The Wings of the Dove apart from all the dusty, bookish films on the shelf.--Noel Murray


Benighted

I don't know what attracted Clint Eastwood to John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and when the movie was over, I couldn't remember why I'd liked the book either. Berendt's account of a murder in upper-crust Savannah is a slight concoction: The author is only as good as his eccentrics, and he uses up his best ones before he reaches page 200. But the book's first half does have an irresistible macabre charm, as well as a delight in the unfolding of sultry and sinister digressions.

All of that is missing from Eastwood's film--along with a sense of purpose, urgency, mystery, and, good God, brevity. At a butt-numbing 155 minutes, sitting through Eastwood's version of Berendt's bestseller is like watching someone feed the whole book into a shredder one damned page at a time.

Part Southern Gothic, part warped travel memoir, Berendt's book (credited here as a novel) centers on a flamboyant Savannah antiques dealer, Jim Williams, accused of killing his volatile roughneck lover. Visiting Savannah, Berendt found himself swept along in the wake of the ensuing trial. The trial is by far the least interesting part. Instead, the fun comes from watching the author sidetracked at every turn by glamorous oddballs--piano-pounding squatters, voodoo priestesses, pistol-packing Southern belles, and, most memorably, the lip-synching transvestite prima donna The Lady Chablis.

The unexpected success of Berendt's book boosted Savannah's tourist trade by tens of millions of dollars, and readers flocked to see his subjects in the flesh. (Visiting Savannah these days is like attending a museum of curiosities run by the curiosities.) However good this kind of popularity is for promotion, though, it's hell on the adapter, who faces a chorus of outrage if he omits an incident or a character. That makes it hard to do the chopping and rethinking needed to translate a literary work to film. Adapting Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is doubly tough: The best parts of the book are asides and chance encounters, and the central story--the trial--is woefully short on surprises.

Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock make two critical mistakes that basically dumb down the material. The first is turning the worldly Berendt of the book into "John Kelso" (John Cusack), a naive, youthful writer lulled into the confidence of suave, sardonic Williams (Kevin Spacey). Berendt, of course, is an active participant in the book's events, but the movie has him playing detective and assisting the defense! The guy's a novelist, not Nancy Drew.

The other problem is that the filmmakers have no idea whose story they're telling--Kelso's, Williams', or Savannah's. To compensate, they've attempted to film everything in the book without any particular point of view, which weakens one of its chief strengths: its depiction of the connecting tissues of Savannah society. The scene of The Lady Chablis invading a black cotillion with Berendt, so hilarious in the book, falls flat here without explanation or context. At the same time, the movie tries to wedge in all the book's incidental characters, which stretches the movie to agonizing overlength. The movie doesn't proceed by anecdote so much as by syllabus.

On the plus side are Kevin Spacey's shrewd, devilish Williams, Jack Thompson as Williams' jocular attorney, The Lady Chablis as herself, and some gorgeous Johnny Mercer tunes. Savannah looks great too: Through Jack N. Green's lens, the sunlight is always just a little too bright, and shadows drape the streets like cobwebs. There's a great opening shot, and if you last through the movie, there's a great closing shot.

But after the first 20 minutes, which saunter along breezily, Clint Eastwood's direction is mostly uninspired to the point of catatonia--which isn't exactly a new development, critical hosannas to the contrary. One Joel Cox keeps getting listed as Eastwood's editor, but Eastwood hasn't delivered a movie under two hours since 1990, and he's in dire need of a ruthless scissor man. Scene after scene here creaks on past its punch line, exacerbated by camera set-ups so monotonous they'd make Jack Webb fidget. In just a couple of years, Clint Eastwood has turned two of the biggest publishing sensations of the decade--The Bridges of Madison County and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--into seemingly endless movies. God help us if he gets his hands on Angela's Ashes.--Jim Ridley


Five feet high and rising

The Sinking Creek Film & Video Festival had one main item on its agenda Nov. 13-16, and it was simple enough: to prove that after 28 years, the venerable festival of independent and experimental film still had not only a pulse but a future as well. That it did. After last year's rock-bottom attendance and dreary presentation, it was a shock to see screening after screening of obscure films filled to near-capacity at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema. Relentless advance publicity no doubt helped. But that didn't explain the broad mix of film students, arts supporters, and scenesters in the audience, or the impassioned discussions about movies in the lobby. Whatever the reason, in just four days, the 28th annual edition of Sinking Creek nearly equaled the attendance of the week-long 1995 and '96 festivals combined, drawing more than 2,000 moviegoers despite the usual Vanderbilt parking headaches.

Sinking Creek is rumored to be shifting its focus to indie features, but that wasn't evident this year. Without exception, the festival's highlights were short subjects, documentaries, and animated films. Besides Richard Condie's dazzling "La Salla," which won the Oscar this year for best animated short subject, Friday night's animation program contained a handful of gems, including Vuk Jevremovic's "The Wind Subsides," a bewitching swirl of morphing chalk-like forms that quoted liberally from classic paintings and myths. My favorite was Christy Karacas' "Space War," a riotous rampage of bug-eyed monsters, lobster men, and dueling aliens rendered in endearingly childlike line drawings. It was short, direct, and blessedly unpretentious--which couldn't be said for Craig Welch's stylish but interminable "How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels."

Indeed, if the majority of the films shared a flaw, it was a tendency to stretch a decent five- or 10-minute idea to twice its length--Josh Barnett's feline thriller "Cat," for instance, abandoned its concise opening for a long and unnecessarily gruesome detour. (It also demonstrated another unfortunate mini-trend in this year's crop of films: protracted violence against women.) That wasn't true, however, of two perfectly calibrated short narratives. James Morrison's "Parking" distilled half an hour of parking-lot rage into a fist-pumping five-minute rant, and John Morning's sweet, sharply observed drama "Truckstop" built to a resolution so disarmingly humane that it brought some of the weekend's loudest applause. Of the many fine documentaries, the best was "Riding the Rails," a moving and superbly illustrated account of the thousands of teens who hopped trains in a quest for work and adventure during the Depression.

Ironically enough, Sinking Creek's one consistent letdown was its feature-length films. I saw only three, and they ranged from sluggish (the finely detailed but cinematically inert A Midwife's Tale) to wretched (the well-acted but excruciating thriller Reindeer Games, which managed to be both boring and sadistic). The festival's prize winner, the one-man, one-note Hitler meditation The Empty Mirror, was both sluggish and wretched, despite outstanding cinematography by Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) that recalled the stylistic wizardry of Zentropa.

Perhaps Sinking Creek should've aggressively pursued some of the better-known unreleased features kicking around the festival circuit, like Nick Gomez' Illtown, Trey Parker's Orgazmo, or Christopher Munch's The Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day. I wouldn't even have minded the festival bringing in an unreleased foreign film of notable merit. Spotlighting something of the caliber of Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels or Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry would only broaden Sinking Creek's scope and enhance its overall quality.

On the other hand, the presentation of Sinking Creek's evening programs was vastly improved from last year. Sinking Creek's executive director, Michael Catalano, opened most of the events with a brief welcome that explained the festival's purpose, and a panel discussion with Emmylou Harris and the makers of her Building the Wrecking Ball documentary was briskly moderated by Magnatone's Betty Rosen. Best of all was the idea of recruiting civic leaders and personalities to introduce pertinent features, a simple but ingenious bit of community outreach. Rabbi Ken Kanter's opening remarks on The Empty Mirror were more eloquent and challenging than any of the movie's ham-fisted monologues--and he drew a crowd.

All this is encouraging, because Sinking Creek is about to face the most critical year in its nearly three-decade history. In June, the festival will move from Vanderbilt to its new home at the Watkins Belcourt in Hillsboro Village, thus giving it a badly needed extra screen (not to mention proximity to coffeehouses and bars for those crucial post-film discussions). And its name will change to the Nashville Independent Film Festival--an announcement that was greeted with ambiguous response at Friday night's animation program. This year's turnout and enthusiasm proved that support exists for a first-rate local film festival. By next summer, if it can attract consistently better features and more visiting filmmakers, Sinking Creek may well overflow its bounds.--Jim Ridley


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