Starting Out in the Evening
|Frank Langella||Leonard Schiller|
|Lauren Ambrose||Heather Wolfe|
|Adrien Lester||Casey Davis|
|Directed by||Andrew Wagner|
There is nothing cinematic about the writer’s process. The things you see writers doing in movies -- pacing, crumpling up papers and tossing them in the general vicinity of a waste basket, heaving typewriters out of windows -- that’s not writing, that’s calisthenics. They’re self-dramatizing exercises, like the flexing of elbow and forearm muscles to hoist a shot glass from bar to lip.
In the writing process, there is action, there is sex, there is a teeming world of complex carryings-on. But it takes place in a confined, hidden place where only one person can observe it: inside the writer’s skull. And there it remains, trapped, until, in a lucky moment of inspiration, the writer coaxes out the words to begin to unlock it, and lets it drip, or pour, or tumble, letter by letter, phrase by phrase, out through the fingertips and onto the page.
In the opening image of Andrew Wagner’s marvelous film Starting Out in the Evening (adapted from the novel by Brian Morton), the aging New York novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) sits in trance-like concentration, hands folded prayerfully in front of his face, almost as immobile as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s paralyzed Jean-Dominique Bauby. And then the eyes focus, the hands move, the fingers begin tentatively, then more surely, to tap at the keyboard of his old manual typewriter.
Schiller has been working on this novel for ten years. Manuscript lengths vary, but a reasonable estimate puts that at about 35 words a day. You’d use more than that ordering coffee at Starbucks. It’s not an easy way to make a living.
Into Schiller’s life comes Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a Brown University graduate student. She is writing her thesis on his body of work, four novels which have long been out of print. She would like to do a series of interviews. Schiller politely but firmly declines to cooperate. He has recently survived a heart attack, which, he observes wryly, “does tend to concentrate the mind.” He needs all his energy and focus to complete his current novel, with the dank draft of mortality blowing at his neck.
Heather is not easily deterred. Using flattery, youth, sex appeal, and that most powerful of sexual organs, the brain, she breaches his resolve. They begin the interviews, and she becomes a part of his life.
Another important part of Schiller’s life is his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor, who with Ms. Ambrose is an alumna of Six Feet Under). Ariel looks after her father, dropping regularly by his Upper West Side apartment (the neighborhood, a vanishing bastion of art and intellect, is a vital character here.) She adores her father, fixes him meals and makes sure he’s okay. By her own admission Ariel is “not much of a reader – more of an action person.” She’s a former dancer, now a Pilates instructor, rounding into 40 unmarried, dallying in one unsatisfactory relationship and drifting back into another.
Starting Out in the Evening is very much about relationships. Schiller’s first two novels, which made a huge impact on Heather, were deeply and passionately informed by his relationship with his wife. His next two, which Heather finds cerebral and unfulfilling, were written after the wife’s death. The most important relationship in the present is the one between the septuagenarian novelist and the young critic, which gradually grows beyond the borders of the intellectual into a region where Schiller is less at home (no country, one might say, for old men.) Heather is ferociously intelligent, and not insincere in her admiration of Schiller, but she is duplicitous and calculating. Her friendship with a sleek young literary magazine editor (Jessica Hecht) reinforces the shallow end of her intellectual pool. Ariel’s key passion is her love for Casey Davis (Adrien Lester), an intellectual with whom she had broken up five years earlier over an impasse about having children.
Starting Out in the Evening is thrilling in a way that a movie larded with car chases and explosions can seldom be, because of the way it deals with that basic building block of civilization, the creative process. Watching Langella bring it alive sends shivers down your spine. With the cocking of an eye, a delayed half-take, a hesitation, a whispery curl of those heavy lips, he gives us a glimpse into the maelstrom churning inside his head. When Heather asks him how he is able to give his characters such independence of action and thought, he replies “It’s not mine to give. What I give them is the freedom to find their own way.” He never knows where a story is going when he starts out. He begins with a character, perhaps in a situation. Then the writing, he tells Heather, becomes a patient matter of “following the characters, and waiting for them to do something interesting.”
Ambrose rounds Heather out with a fascinating combination of intelligence, sensuality, and opportunism. Taylor, who grows even more appealing as she grows older, shows us in Ariel a woman struggling to apply the same standards to her own life that she requires of others. Lester labors at first against a shallow one-dimensionality of Casey’s character, but grows as he gets more to do.
This is a movie that was unconscionably ignored by the Academy when the Oscar lists were drawn. At the very least, Langella and the screenplay should have made the cut. But as an editor acquaintance says to Schiller when he asks him to read his new manuscript, “Literary novels are a tough sell.”
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be