Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Starting Out in the Evening

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I like movies about people. I enjoy them even if they don’t have exploding helicopters or computer generated monsters. Human beings are the most compelling focus for film. We can never realize all there is to know about our species, so this subject is a bottomless source of enlightenment and wisdom.

A good relationship movie can take place in one room and still be rich in content and rewarding in its message. A case in point is My Dinner with Andre. It is the process of personal interaction that captures our attention and makes us want to learn more about the characters. This dynamic holds more interest than the body count in a shoot ‘em up adventure saga.

Fiction gives the author a larger scope to present the human condition, because he (or she) is not limited by actual events. An individual’s inner discourse can be revealed in the first person format. Dialogue tells us how the characters perceive the world and interact with each other. We are what we say. Dialogue also supports the narrative flow. A film would quickly lose its audience if it consisted entirely of description.

A new motion picture of this genre is Starting Out in the Evening, directed by Andrew Wagner. SOitE examines the life of Leonard Schiller (portrayed by Frank Langella) an aging novelist who struggles with the knowledge of his impending demise and loss of artistic inspiration. His character is not demonstrative, so Langella has to present him in an understated manner. His facial expressions alone convey half his message. This is not easily done unless you have mastered the craft of acting, and in this performance, the veteran thespian is at the top of his game.

The story line incorporates a daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who struggles with turning 40 while remaining unmarried and childless. She dearly loves her father and enjoys a good relationship with him. Earlier in Ariel's life, Leonard devoted the majority of his time and focus to writing, so she is anxious to garner any scraps of attention while he is still alive.

After many years of struggle to succeed as a dancer, Ariel has resigned herself to living on the edges of her chosen vocation, by teaching yoga and Pilates.

The one area where Ariel and Leonard differ is men. The love of her life is Casey (Adrian Lester) who broke her heart once before when their relationship dissolved over the issue of children. When Ariel reconnects with Casey, her father is not shy about voicing his disapproval. He fears that a second breakup will plunge his daughter into an emotional tailspin like she experienced after the first affair.

Ariel and Casey are made for each other. In some scenes, Ariel glows so intently when she is with her man that you can feel the heat coming off the screen. He feels the same about her, and at Ariel’s 40th birthday party expresses how she completes his life.

But the subject of children is a stumbling block. She wants them. He doesn’t. In their second go round, they try to avoid this critical issue by opting to keep their affair “hot and light”, a strategy that is doomed to failure.

A fourth character is Heather (Lauren Ambrose) who contacts the writer, because he is the focus of her master’s thesis. Although Leonard is reserved and cautious, she charms and sometimes bullies her way into his life. He agrees to a series of interviews, which quickly transition their professional relationship into a personal one. Heather brings the freshness and enthusiasm of youth back into Leonard’s existence. In exchange he bestows upon her a lifetime of literary wisdom. The film's title, Starting Out in the Evening, reflects the interaction between these two characters.

But Heather’s probing questions force Leonard to reexamine his life and work at a time when he would rather forego such painful analysis. The tension this creates is one of the core dynamics of the movie.

One writer describes seeing a well crafted motion picture as “going down the rabbit hole”. Even though you are sitting in a darkened room, watching light pass through a series of celluloid images, you are taken to another place, where you become one with the characters and experience their most intimate emotions. It is cathartic and changes you. You are a different person for the rest of your life after seeing the film. The process adds one brick to the wall of experience that supplements your consciousness.

That is the magic of art. It alters us and allows us to see the world from a new perspective. SOitE reminds us that life is yin and yang. It is a cycle. We are born, we are young, we get old, and then we die. Each stage has a lesson to teach us. We wouldn’t have wisdom if we didn’t live long enough to acquire it. And we wouldn’t have the fearlessness and enthusiasm of youth if we knew everything that would go wrong with our lives.

No matter what point you are at in your life, Starting Out in the Evening will reacquaint you with the fact that your existence is precious and ephemeral. Enjoy the now and savor your time here on Earth. For, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, soon enough you will "go gentle into that good night".