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Love and Death on Long Island.

Even though his very name is De'Ath--accent on the second syllable--he is incapable of violence. Or rather, he is capable of it, but only to the point of ramming someone's shopping cart with his own. Giles De'Ath (John Hurt), most donnish of London's literary figures--club man, contented, widower, professor of uninterest in the modem world--this same Giles De'Ath has become a stranger to himself. He eats pizza. He drinks Coke. He buys a television set and rents a video; and when the delivery man explains why nothing happened, Giles buys a videocassette player, too.

What youthful spirit has possessed this man? Were he to gaze into a mirror, Giles would see the blasted-heath hair and eroded skull of a Beckett, softened only by an accretion of Audenesque wrinkles and bags. But love has taken hold of De'Ath. He now wants to look upon no one but Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), an actor with melting eyes, whose most notable success was achieved through a just-barely-featured performance in Hotpants College II. Although Sight and Sound sneered at the film, Giles doesn't care. He has come upon a more congenial commentary right on the grocer's shelf, in a teen magazine called Sugar.

Such is the infinitely droll, infinitely touching premise of Love and Death on Long Island. Richard Kwietniowski wrote and directed the film, basing it on a novel by Gilbert Adair, which in turn was slyly built upon Death in Venice; so you might suppose this to be one of those works in which art chases doglike after its own tail, and "real life" amounts to a frustrated snapping of teeth. Fortunately, no. Although Giles does fall in love with the image of Ronnie, glimpsed by chance when he wanders into the wrong movie theater, the old man of letters retains his integrity, even in the midst of infatuation. He insists on knowing something more than his own desire. First he becomes a scholar of Ronnie, at no small cost to his dignity. (Try, if you're a Giles De'Ath, to spit out "Hotpants College II" before a box-office cashier.) Then, having learned as much as he can through mere pictures and words, he resolves to meet his ideal.

Giles knows (thanks to Sugar) where Ronnie lives. He knows that Ronnie romps on the shore with a dog named Strider and for fun hangs out with the guys. ("What does that mean?" Giles muses. "I wonder.") Soon he acts upon his information, traveling to Chesterton, Long Island, and checking into its very best motel. It's located right off the highway and has a mirror over every bed, so Giles can only assume the locals hold such amenities in high regard. From these lodgings, he must hike to the better section of Chesterton, the use of automobiles being alien to him, despite his new skill with the VCR. Dressed for a London October at the height of the beach season, puffing and limping from unwonted exertion, Giles presses on and is rewarded with a reality that thrillingly matches his expectations, almost. There is the house. There is the dog called Strider. And there, to his bafflement, is a beautiful young woman named Audrey (Fiona Loewi).

How easy it would be to spoil this story; how remarkable that Kwietniowski, making his first feature, got every nuance right. Love and Death on Long Island is a film that lives or dies by the tone it sets, catching the giddiness and fragility of an extended moment of discovery--"the discovery of beauty where one had never expected it," and through that beauty the discovery of an entire world, made up of pizzas and Cokes and sporty convertibles and sunglasses, which Giles has abruptly noticed and found to be good. More: This suspended, expanding moment also encompasses the encounter of two forms of innocence, since Giles (for all his guile) is even more fresh to the world than Ronnie. And still more: Innocence, as we know, must end.

Putting all of this on film is roughly as hard as carrying a soap bubble through the streets for ninety-three minutes. Kwietniowski not only performs the feat but seems to do so while window-shopping, absent-mindedly whistling a tune. Although he plays little games--brightening the screen with a montage of Ronnie's smiles, or twisting the film's structure into a circle--he seems happiest when achieving apparent simplicity, making the camera serve his actors.

Jason Priestley thrives under this benevolence. The character he's Playing is (let's face it) dim, though with a dimness void of malice or pretense. What a temptation it must have been for Priestley to wink at the audience, signaling that such amiable blandness is Ronnie's and not his. But he never yields; and as a reward, Priestley gets to achieve a moment of true pathos, when Ronnie is at last challenged to understand something and rises to the occasion.

As for John Hurt: How many other actors could make you believe that Giles not only lusts for Ronnie but aches for him, feeling that he, too, must be wounded by the vulgarity of Hotpants College II? That Hurt can mimic intelligence proves nothing about the actor's mind; many performers have pulled off that trick without ever having read a book. But the way Hurt shows the limits of intelligence--the way it splashes with delight on unknown shores, or crumples against the world's innumerable brick walls--makes me think the man is a genius. Watch the emotions flicker through him when he comes to crash that shopping cart. The scene is the supermarket in Chesterton; the victim is Audrey. His act is a cunning stratagem, a desperate improvisation, a release of anger, a harmless ploy--all of these things at once, and on top of them a mystery, since Giles can scarcely recognize the man who shoved the cart. In only a second, Hurt flashes the whole series before your eyes. Then he's into the next second. The bubble hasn't burst.

As Ronnie Bostock is to Giles De'Ath, so is Blues Brothers 2000 to your reviewer. I will not hide my passion. Never mind that the movie lacks refinement, delicacy, nuance and sex. Blues Brothers 2000 is beyond praise. Blues Brothers 2000 is what makes America great.

My colleagues complain that the picture has no shape. Nonsense. The structure is rigorous: musical number, car chase, musical number, car chase. I also hear grousing about the screenplay, concocted by Dan Aykroyd (who returns as Elwood Blues) and John Landis (who returns as director). Again, nonsense. The script gives Aykroyd many opportunities to speak his South Chicago (or, properly, Calumet City) version of English, in which each vowel is mercilessly throttled till it gives up the ghost with a squawk. I don't know what more should be expected of a screenplay; but Elwood also delivers an extended sociological analysis of post-Communist Russia, discussed at a much higher level than anything you'd hear on Nightline, so I'd say the script is more than adequate.

"More than" is the film's guiding principle. You might think it would be enough to replace John Belushi with another funny, hefty performer, John Goodman. (I will speak heresy: He's better than Belushi.) But why stop at two Blues Brothers? Elwood also acquires the fraternal assistance of Joe Morton (who adds a nice little bit of tongue action to his rendition of "Love Light") and the ridiculously young J. Evan Bonifant, who is funky despite whiteness and pre-pubescence. In the same way, you might think it enough for the film to feature Aretha in a new recording of "Respect," plus a fresh round of "Please, Please, Please" from James Brown. But there must be more: And so, when the inevitable allstar band appears at the end, it is absurdly all-star. Look closely, and for all I know you'll see Jack DeJohnette banging his tomtoms with the bones of Robert Johnson.

We live in a continent-spanning country. We trust in abundance. Our cinematic car crashes go on for five minutes at a stretch, and our choreographers work without restraint or shame. Black and white, we are bound by the music of the soul. God bless America.
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Author:Klawans, Stuart
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Mar 16, 1998
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