Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Evening, in which Mamie Gummer becomes Meryl Streep, Glen Close becomes their blood relative and Natasha Richardson plays Vanessa Redgrave's Daughter

The movie's called Evening, and if there's only one film that people who think too much and feel quite a lot and like to be slightly but deeply scared should see this summer, this is it. AL invited me to the Walter Reade Theater preview, where Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham showed up after the screening to discuss their experience in co-writing the screenplay adapted from the book with Kent Jones, the man with a light touch

from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Throughout the screening, I wondered about the marvelous filter effects on the dream sequences-- how they came on so wonderfully strong and obvious, then tapered off so gradually through the course of the story. Were they in the lens or a part of the editing? Faces were so closely imaged at the start of the story, and with so much particularity, that their natural asymmetry led the eye beyond conven- tional
judgments about beauty, although every actor was stunning by any measure. One had to look afresh at already famous faces, that then grew familiar very quickly in these new forms. The casting is as superb as the cast. Of course, but of course, Glenn Close was Meryl Streep's mother in another life! Speaking of measurements, Vanessa Redgrave's acting must be measured by the frame, not by seconds. That's how close up the view becomes in this unsentimental yet touching study of two deaths in played out counterpoint. While Redgrave certainly carries it, all the others absolutely rise to the occasion. Having seen and heard my own grandmother apparently having good time at a fair number of parties on her near-deathbed, I found that this tale resonated with me, and the telling of it, its production, seemed to create a convincing experience of the swing between over-
whelming wooziness and diamond hard clarity in the course of that personal time travel and that
wandering out of body that heralds a slow death.

Drawing away, the big picture of the society that provides the setting for this surprising story is delivered au point as well. While the circumstances of the wealthy family seems casually depicted, there is an uncanny conveyance of how things are proportioned for the rich. The wedding is generously informal and correct, not ostentatious, and the bride's dress is not overly grand. This is how it has to be, in a summer setting among people who enjoy extreme cleanliness,
rely on slightly stodgy design, established standards of comfort, consuming both hand made and manu- factured goods of quality, and who take proper care of inherited objects as a matter of course. Yet there is also a clear sense of the perilous crowding and living cheek by jowl that imprisons the rich or aristocratic or patrician. Their circles must always be suffocatingly small, the more so the richer or better-established they are, and marriage and even preferred forms of adultery must occur within that small closed circle. The comedy of homosexuality in these narrow straits raises its suggestive head several times in the film. Sometimes it happens mistakenly, as when the mother of the bride
happens upon her daughter sharing her wedding morning jitters with her college friend and bridesmaid who has crept under the covers. Pshaw! Sometimes it arises unawares, but for real, as when that same bride's mother snatches away her son from his partner during a playful jitterbug for a masterfully bone-chilling rhumba, purposefully extinguishing any possibility of his attachment to another woman. Ouch! These people are not incorrectly depicted as being stifled or inhibited, though. There is nothing in recent film to compare with Glen Close's raw howl over Buddy's sudden young death.

There is faerie magic in the woods, but also there are different ways of seeing and treating a small cliff or those same woods, either as the border area between manicured grounds and Vast, Unknown, Dangerous Nature, or simply as perfectly familiar bits of the family's property. Playing off the difference in perspectives in a practical joke provides a bit of class-conflict that erupts into rage.

Alcohol always plays a leading role in Susan Minot's books. In making Buddy a far more central figure in the film than he is in the book, Michael Cunningham ties this story closer to the rest of Susan Minot's work. The two writers, live four blocks apart in NYC but quite naturally met at a wedding in Nairobi soon after SM had recovered the rights to her book after an earlier attempt to turn it into a movie. Despite their close collaboration (SM said the collaborative process with MC had been like a master class in screenwriting), they differed on several points. For instance, MC believes a book is always a work in progress, the print capturing only a moment in the process, whereas SM says a printed volume in your hand is a clear indication of completion and enables the writer to let it go. MC said that film cannot capture an inner life as well a a book, but SM pointed out that one's inner life occurs in images, not words.

But then, they spoke of shared delights in the making of the film, like watching Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave on a monitor outside the house, and being amazed to see them step into character and switch it on,, discarding their natural selves in a flash. They talked about filming at a
Newport house of that genre known as a "cottage" that belongs to the Cushing family, rather than in Maine, as in the book, which would have proven overwhelmingly expensive to produce. They concurred on the problem of turning an entire book into a movie, where films are really short stories, and the more sympathetic form for adapting a novel into image format is a television series. MC spoke fondly of squabbling with cinematographer and director Lajos Koltai over lines about which he had second thoughts, but that Koltai wanted to keep. SM spoke about about Eileen Atkins having trouble with the cadence of the lines until SM explained that the nurse was Irish. They both spoke of Hugh Dancy's out of period long hair, and that Lajos Koltai had predicted that critics would be all about his hair. We shall see.

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