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Films: Explorations

Romance and Cigarettes


The Last Winter

IFC First Take

A bit unexpectedly, John Turturro's film Romance and Cigarettes sent me back to Wordsworth. In the landmark preface to his Poems, Wordsworth explores the differences between Imagination and Fancy. He describes the former as the power to create and realize, but the processes of Fancy, he says, are "as capricious as the accidents of things, and the effects are surprising, playful, ludicrous, amusing, tender or pathetic, as the objects happen to be appositely produced or fortunately combined." Continuing his preview of Turturro, Wordsworth writes, "Fancy depends on the rapidity and profusion with which she scatters her thoughts and images, trusting that their number, and the felicity with which they are linked together, will make amends for the want of individual value." Many have called Romance and Cigarettes imaginative; to me it is fanciful.

As a base for his plunge into Fancy, Turturro uses an ultra-common story. A construction worker named Nick lives in Queens with his wife and grown daughters. (Nick's last name is Murder. Never commented on.) His wife, Kitty, discovers his affair with Tula, a saleswoman in a naughty-lingerie shop: wife is enraged. The strife and consequences of the triangle are most of what passes for plot, embellished somewhat irrelevantly by Nick's passion for smoking, which blackens his lungs and darkens the finish.

The film starts virtually in the middle of the marital explosion in the Queens kitchen, scorchingly profane, with Nick--as is often the case with trespassing husbands--feeling aggrieved by his wife's fury. So far, so veristically OK. Then he tells her bitterly that if she doesn't want him, she can go back to her first love, and we get the film's first unconventional touch- -in fact, one of the best such touches, light and truly imaginative. The first love, a nice-looking young man, the same age as he was back then, steps into the frame and invites Kitty to return.

But he quickly disappears, and the brawl continues. Nick, feeling more aggrieved than repentant, strides out of the house, and here comes another truly imaginative lift. Burly Nick, strolling through the Queens streets, bursts into a lovelorn song, and he is quickly accompanied by a chorus of singing and dancing garbagemen. It's refreshing--and for the same reason that the songs were refreshing in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. We feel that Nick's emotions are soaring. The realism is being elevated in the interests of enlarged feeling.

But that is almost the end of Imagination in Romance and Cigarettes; from then on, the unconventional touches are sheer Fancy insertions, intrusive displays. To begin with, Turturro shortchanges the story that is supposed to carry the film. Allen told a moderately interesting story, and all his musical fioritura heightened the moments that had some appeal to begin with. Turturro's story is sluggish and stale, and the whirligig flourishes are not enlargements: they are only compensations (hopefully) for the dull story. Character after character bursts into song and dance, intrusively rather than engagingly. (The choreography by Tricia Brouk, plentiful, is good enough, but it doesn't really raise the film to an exhilarating plane.) Some inserts are not musical. After a moment in which Nick feels desolate, we get a flash of him in costume as the blinded Oedipus; Kitty and a young man make love on the imaginary grave of Nick, whose stone calls him an adulterer. In one sequence a calf runs down a street outside a hospital. Apparently Turturro included the shot as further proof of his anti-realistic bravado. The height, or nadir, comes near the end. Nick breaks up with Tula on the shore of a lake. She begs him to let her fellate him before he leaves. Irately, he throws her into the lake, and, gliding gracefully underwater, she sings. Once again, this is not Imagination but Fancy, not meant to expand character or feeling: just another reminder of Turturro's cleverness.

Tula's sex offer is one of her mildest remarks in the course of the piece: to call her foul-mouthed is not to do her justice. She is played by Kate Winslet, one of the best screen actresses of her age, who gyrates and slinks along like any schoolboy's dream and, possibly to amuse herself at least as much as us, gives Tula a provincial British accent. All in all, Winslet's performance shows that a professional, if she accepts a role, keeps her word and fulfills it.

James Gandolfini--here Mr. Murder, not Mr. Soprano--shows more flexibility than usual. On television and elsewhere, I have often thought that he was little more than 190 pounds of Italian-American ethnicity, with appropriate sound effects. Here there are hints of a man. Kitty, his wife, is done by Susan Sarandon, always valid, always appealing, always funny and sad. The only gross casting error was using Elaine Stritch to play Nick's mother. No film mother and son can ever have had less relation in speech, tone, and looks. Besides, the mother has been dragged in only to deliver a pointless sexual aria. Christopher Walken, always magnetic, is also dragged in as Kitty's cousin to do some snappy songs and dances that are, again, irrelevant.

Romance and Cigarettes has benefited from the frustrations of the film- making community. Whenever a picture comes along that deliberately violates film-making conventions, it is bound to be praised by those in and around the business who envy the director's nerve. (This sort of film is, of course, very different from the usual film musical, which is highly conventional.) Distinctions are lax between works of Imagination, like Allen's or like Medak's The Ruling Class, and works like Romance and Cigarettes, which are simply escape hatches for Fancy's feeble flights.

The world's energy problems have been winding through films, one way or another, at least since The China Syndrome in 1979. The Last Winter is fundamentally on this subject, but its focus is unusual. The film is set in a station along an Alaskan pipeline, a station of some size and comfort where a group of men and a few women keep watch. The subject of energy in this case becomes a matter not primarily of economics and politics but of personal conditions--a relatively few people clumped together in the middle of immense emptiness.

An oil rig in mid-ocean is the immediate comparison, but the oil-rig crew has the limitation and (as it turns out) the blessing of never leaving their station. These people in Alaska have phones and computers and video, but they are surrounded by space that they must continually explore--three hundred and sixty degrees of snow that only at first seems static, arctically pastoral.

The screenplay is by Robert Leaver and the experienced director Larry Fessenden. This was my first encounter with Fessenden's work, despite his reputation for high-level scare films, and very quickly indeed it is clear that he is not any kind of exploitation maven. He is gifted, knowledgeable, keen-- possibly a bit canted in his choice of materials but an authentic, serious film- maker. More: he establishes these points less by the vistas of immensity, although they are stunning, than by the way he handles the corridors and rooms and doorways within. The oil station begins early to remind us of the spaceship in 2001. The station is (yes) stationary, and the space outside is not super- cosmic, merely incredible, but again the people within are bound together by more than physical proximity.

The story, which has mostly to do with the authority of the chief and with one of the women, is adequate but is only the means of dealing with the themes. What really happens here is that, while the story is going on, the real conflict is between the space outside and the diminutive human beings within it. Eventually this conflict has a dire effect on one of the crew, and consequences follow. Mentions recur throughout of world matters like global warming, but the film is really about a set of specific human circumstances that follow from those huge matters.

Well, up to a point. Now comes some shaded news. Around two-thirds of the way through the film, a severe accident occurs at the station, and The Last Winter suddenly shifts from the subjects above to a much more usual drama of physical survival in dangerous conditions. The radios and phones go out, people get hurt, the chief and one of the crew set out on snowmobiles for the nearest station, twenty-five miles away. The film's whole tone shifts--from subtle mystery to blunt drama. The new tone is scarily handled, but it is a lesser film. Apparently the writers felt that the natural conclusion of the larger drama they had begun would take too long and would not be vivid enough. So they threw in the accident--tingly but a chromatic transposition.

Fessenden, who is his own editor, has splashed in from time to time some glimpses of a character's thoughts or fears or past or future, all of which help to maintain the atmosphere of overview that carries most of the picture. The cast is certainly adequate, especially the chief, played by Ron Perlman. Decades ago I used to see Perlman in avant-garde drama Off-Broadway. Time and adventure have now brought him to gruff authority in the midst of the Alaskan wild.

And that brings up the last fascinating point. It is not Alaska. The picture was shot in Iceland. The cinematographer, G. Magni gustsson, is Icelandic. If the fact that this is his native country helped him with his exterior lighting, it is certainly a boon. But his interiors are at least as good, subtly lit, precise. Once again gustsson proves that first-class cinematography is now international.