Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Elegy: Dying Animal" recreates memories of my own days in NYC, with a moral twist


I suppose Ben Kingsley could actually play me (how presumptuous!) and I certainly felt akin to the sixtyish literature professor in Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s play-like film “Elegy,” based on Philip Roth’s novel (“The Dying Animal”) and adapted-screenwritten by Nicholas Meyer. The film was produced by Lakeshore and is distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films (connected to MGM and United Artists and ultimately to Sony; the film obviously could have easily come from Sony Pictures Classics).

The film as shot in Vancouver, indoors, or with a few outdoor rainy scenes in front of coffee shops, although it is supposed to take place in New York City. OK, there was a photo of Columbia. There is just a bit of this glistening Kubrick quality (recall that “Eyes Wide Shut” had been filmed in London). There is great impressionism, beaches that look almost black-and-white in their natural color (“the sea meets the sky”), and a lot of piano music (and a little cello), mostly Bach, Satie, and a couple of Spanish composers. Kingsley’s character, David Kepesh, plays the Bach on a slightly out of tune piano, and the music sounds quite modern, almost right for a Dumbarton concert. He can’t even keep time with the metronome.

Well, we know the story. Kepesh is careful not to date his students, and wait for the right moment to start a serial relationship with Conseula Castillo (Penelope Cruz), thirty years his junior. For the first two-thirds of the film we see the other elements of his life, including a mistress his own age, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), his thoughtful physician son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard) and best friend (and possibly interim gay partner, maybe) George (Dennis Hopper). So we see a Manhattan life (and lifestyle – this film should have been “Made in NY” and wasn’t), moving from one scenario to another, in a series of emotional confrontations, many of which seem internal and a bit schizoid.

My last year in New York City, 1978, was a bit like this, from a gay perspective, and presented a “moral test” for me a bit comparable to that experienced by David in the movie. If I made a movie “1978” (how conceited an idea), it might look like and feel this (and be made in New York). David is definitely psychologically feminine, and has to let Consuela call the pace (there is a long, search-filled hiatus in the relationship, as there was in one of mine). It is Consuela who asks “what do I mean to you?” and who calls the power plays. This is, after all, a film filled with polarities (although it isn’t really consciously about the polarities). And the older mistress is very demanding of loyalty.

Kingsley (head shaved) even looks like me, although better seasoned (even if still gray in places). The visitor can use some imagination here. The film opens where Kingsley's character gives a television interview and explains how our country got started as a Puritanical society by an accident of history; there was a loose colony 30 miles away that died. Later, he says (as a narrator) that it surprises him how suddenly old age comes on. I recall a friend, in that pivotal year of 1978, once saying, to my surprise, how important mere survival could become. So it is here.

The film can be rented on YouTube for $2.99.  

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