Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening (starting over?)


It does seem that filmmakers (and I suppose fiction writers – read on) are more in tune with the “deeper” moral questions and willing to present them, but perhaps in public only after years of mulling. So is the case here with the quiet film “Starting Out in the Evening” from Roadside Attractions and Indigent Films, directed by Andrew Wagner, written by him and Fred Parnes, from a novel by Brian Morton.

Frank Langella plays aging novelist Leonard Schiller, living comfortably as a widower in a doorman New York City apartment building. Lili Taylor is his still unattached daughter, turning 40, and Lauren Ambrose is Heather Wolfe, a graduate student who has decided to write her master’s thesis on the novelist, or his novels, or both. At issue is that his earlier novels have gone out of print, and he has worked ten years on his latest one, which might never be finished as his health fails. Artistically, his history sounds like that of composer Richard Strauss (or maybe even Jan Sibelius), most of whose works were published and performed early in life.

First, yes, the scenario offers a somewhat untidy, or perhaps enticing scenario, depending on the moviegoer sees things, and the movie goes into that territory only a little. It is a quiet (and quaint) film; it could have been a local play; it calls to mind conversation films like “My Dinner with Andre.” There is a subplot of whether his daughter will ever become a mother, and that doesn’t go a lot of places.

The central issue is, of course, is his writing. Lauren keeps visiting him and prodding him, as to why his style changed and his writing became less autobiographical. A central point comes out when Leonard says that one learns that there can be more important things in life that following one’s own purposes. At some point, one must give up the childish things and be a man, perhaps. That jives with scenes late in the movie where Leonard suddenly has rather intimate needs of the eldercare variety, that are suddenly imposed on an “outsider,” a man unprepared to have his own children.

Loenard makes interesting comments about how he writes. He says he doesn’t have a complete story in mind when he starts a novel. He starts with characters and lets them take him places. One novel starts when a character is ejected for defacing an item in a museum. That contradicts what literary agents tell you (or at least me), where “preparing a plot” is all the rage. And we all know how screenwriting teachers talk about the “beginning, middle and end” – to the point that high school English teachers now present it, at least to AP English kids. It’s true that characters make the plot worth it (we’ll find that when I talk about “Bugcrush” soon). During the past ten years, his characters haven’t done anything interesting, which is why he can’t finish the book.

Leonard (through Langella’s performance) always speaks with great precision and clarity. He sounds like Paul Rosenfels uttering final truths and trying to tear down psychological defenses. There is a bit of self-indulgence in his character, as if “I said it, and therefore it is true.”

Toward the end, there are some health crises that almost end things. He has said that the only way he could get another novel “published” (or write one worth publishing – they never mention self-publishing) is to start over, and not just “start out.” (The film could have been titled slightly differently -- if you believe that life begins at 70.)

There is an interesting contrast in how people write here. Leonard still uses an old typewriter, and after his stroke has to hunt and peck. Lauren, of course, uses a laptop, and can lean over it, as if to spill lattes.

The film mentions other movies. In fact, one of Leonard’s novels is called “Lost City” (there is a movie from Magnolia called this about Havana). At one point a couple of characters go to a theater playing “The Battle of Algiers” and “The Girls of Rochefort,” and they part ways. (I wondered if the theater was the Waverly. This movie has a very “Made in New York” feel.)

There have been other movies about creative writers. I like particularly “Barton Fink,” “Finding Forrester” and “Antwone Fisher,” not to omit “Freedom Writers.”

I do have some unpublished novel manuscripts (I wouldn’t give them to Lauren), but three of them are the same story or set of events (spanning from about 1980 to the present day, leading to an “end of days” denouement), each one told from the point of view of a different character. One is like me, one is another old man who had been a military officer and FBI agent, and one is from the viewpoint of two younger men, one married with kids and one gay and finishing college, who come to terms with the events through interacting with the older characters, and then come together, finally on a road trip (actually two trips with a false climax like in “Vertigo”) leading to a final showdown. It’s the last approach that seems the most promising. But the story is mapped out. But, yet, the characters do what they will.

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