Desperately Seeking Anima

Waking the Dead

 O! Sweet vulture of love! Picking through the bones and sinew of doe-eyed fools the world around! How exquisite is thy rending, how blissful the release! Spirits in crimson rivulets swirled, souls as carrion shredded! Two vibrant hearts made still as one, to sate thy gnashing beak! Blessed bloody bird, bearer of oblivion… canst thou tarry longer?

Yeah, the drug of romance and its rotten hangover are nothing new to stage, screen, and stereo. You have your Capulets and Montagues, your Griffin and Phoenix, your Ike and Tina. Cautionary tales, the lot. (The formula is as follows: Person + Person + Lovethang - Brains = Emotional Abattoir yielding Freakburger w/Special Sauce.) Yet it doesn't matter how well you prepare yourself, how many amulets you wear and mantras you chant; love will circle overhead until you collapse in the desert, and love will gouge out and swoop away with your vitals. You'll rise and stagger forth alone, half-slain, stopping your gaping holes with sand, and you'll search for that elusive beast that robbed you of yourself. ( If you haven't already given this a whirl, a parched path probably awaits. Happy trails!)

The reason Keith Gordon's new film Waking the Dead is so beautiful and satisfying is that it takes no shortcut through the aforementioned wasteland. Based on the novel by Scott Spencer (which Gordon defended from Hollywood's "odd habit of taking wonderful books and throwing out things like the characters, the plot, and the ending"), the movie is at once a romance, a mystery, a political drama, and a very subtle ghost story. Most notably it robustly broaches a theme seldom explored in mainstream film, that of a young man's quest to regain his spiritual integrity in the wake of a soul mate's passing. Several drafts and nearly a decade after its initial development, the project arrives on the big screen with a strength and subtlety almost nonexistent in movies rushed off the film factories' assembly lines. Only the most glacial hearts may resist being melted and moved.

Crudup and Connelly in a love story to rival Love Story
Crudup and Connelly in a love story to rival Love Story

"You can't be everything to me," tenderly explains Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) to her smoldering beau, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup). When he devoutly replies that indeed he does want to be everything, she nearly acquiesces: "Oh, dear… I love that you said that." Not only is the moment ideal for peering into this relationship, it leads directly to some of the most wonderfully wrenching eroticism glimpsed in the cinema in many a season. The tears that pour forth feel no more like actors' tears than the ones Fielding weeps in the opening sequence, set in 1974, when he gapes in disbelief at the television, which tells him his love is presumed dead in a car bombing.

Flash back to 1972, to the groovy New York (though filmed in Montreal) publishing office of Fielding's hippie brother Danny (Paul Hipp), where Fielding, fresh out of the Coast Guard, is smitten by the earthy Sarah. After blathering about himself through lunch, he asks her to dinner, which she accepts, on the promise that she'll be allowed to talk. Thus the romance begins, with Fielding's ungrounded ambition balancing Sarah's unbridled activism, opposites attracting with a magical magnetism. Bold and noble in their naiveté, they both want a life that makes sense, even though she feels she could disappear at any moment, while his future is obviously preordained.

Zoom ahead ten years to snowy Chicago (also filmed in Montreal), where political mentor Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) states his intention of grooming District Attorney Fielding Pierce to run for Congress, a gesture endorsed by Governor Kinosis (Lawrence Dane). Fielding is game for the promotion, and Green is savvy enough to make it work. The problem is that Sarah has begun to reappear on Fielding's periphery, disrupting his concentration as well as his relationship with Juliet Beck (Molly Parker), who happens to be Green's niece. "Can I just say something?" Fielding sheepishly asks his stodgy father (Stanley Anderson), "and we'll never have to talk about it again?" His father agrees, and the son tries to explain his emotional thrall, but the receptive ears of family and friends prove inadequate to break Sarah's spell. She haunts Fielding in the snow, in his heart, in his coldly lit bed with Juliet. As his political aspirations are slowly manifested, his emotional stability gradually disintegrates.

With this established, Waking the Dead charts the evolution of ten years, both for Fielding and for America (the hippie brother becomes a whoring junkie), nimbly juxtaposing painfully vibrant memories of the '70s with the tightened regimen of the '80s. (David Byrne and Brian Eno's manic "Help Me Somebody" sets the pace.) In this sense it's a coming-of-age movie, but the editing (by Jeff Wishengrad) is so fluid that it feels all of a piece, with Sarah, sometimes spectral, sometimes hotly tangible, weaving in and out of the life of both the younger and elder Fielding. It's complex and assured work, especially given how close to maudlin the director dares to venture (with Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" held up almost as a shield). Also, as Sarah's lefty politics clash with Fielding's increasingly conservative machinations, her earth mother yin and his spit-and-polish yang could have dissolved into gross caricature. Thanks to the profound investment of Connelly and Crudup (reteamed here after their pairing in Inventing the Abbotts), the lovers breathe, ache, and wrestle plausibly.

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