Saturday, April 02, 2011

Waking the Dead (2000)

Mesa, Mesa

By Nicholas Stix
Two-and-a-half stars

May 28, 2004
A Different Drummer/Banned at Amazon

Waking the Dead is perfectly mediocre: 50 percent wonderful, and 50 percent dreadful. It tells of a man’s reaction to the mid-1970s political murder of the love of his life, a love whom he cannot bid farewell. Set during the early 1980s, we see flashbacks to his love affair, as in the present, while campaigning for political office, he either imagines that his lover’s ghost has come back from the dead to visit with him, her ghost really does visit him, or she never died. He almost goes mad.

“Sarah Williams” was a leftwing activist in the sanctuary movement, trying to protect Chilean refugees seeking asylum in America from South American dictator Augusto Pinochet. “Fielding Pierce” was an idealistic coast guard officer from a working class, union family. Fielding planned on entering politics, but was of a more liberal, reformist bent, in a sense no longer recognizable in an age in which “liberal” is a euphemism for socialist, or worse.

First, the bad news.

The movie should have been thirty minutes shorter; although it lists as only 105 minutes, it seems interminable. And in a picture with little action, and many quiet, talky scenes, the dialogue is mostly poor. Instead of cutting slow scenes, director Keith Gordon plays with the editing, with blink-like pauses within a scene. And the constant back-and-forth in time confuses some viewers (e.g., my wife). That screenwriter Robert Dillon was nominated for an “Independent Sprit Award” tells you all you need to know about that award.

Now, to the good news.

Jennifer Connelly and Billy Crudup are attractive as the lovers, have excellent chemistry, play likeable characters, and give vivid performances. You hurt for them. The cast includes some talented players whose faces (Stanley Anderson, as Fielding’s father, Broadway’s Janet McTeer as his sister, and Hal Holbrook as his political mentor) you might recognize, but who are not, or in Holbrook’s case, are no longer name “brands.” (Ed Harris is listed in the credits, but I must have blinked when he appeared.) And there are two scenes that jump out from the rest.

One is of a campaign stop during Pierce’s campaign for the House. It is filmed as if by a Madison Avenue ad director, with jump cuts to accentuate activity, and now in black and white, now in color.

The other scene is a flashback to the sanctuary church group. The lovers are eating with the smug, Marxist pastor, and a smug, forty-something, Chilean refugee couple. The self-righteous refugees are mercilessly attacking America, and Fielding for wanting to enter the “corrupt” world of American politics. The wife then announces, triumphantly, “Everything is politics,” blissfully unaware that she has just refuted her own argument. (If everything is corrupt, politics is then no worse than anything else, and there’s no reason NOT to go into politics.) Fielding laces into her:

Uh, I’m sorry, but do you believe that I’m going into politics so I can become a corrupt son of a b---h who sells electrodes to the Chilean secret police?... I am so sick of having to apologize for being an American.

Pastor: North American.

Fielding: Uh, God, I’m so sorry. Yes, North American. But I can’t help noticing that when people run to freedom they tend to wash up on North American shores. This country is still the best that we’ve been able to do in the whole f-----g history of the planet.

Sarah: You’re arguing by yourself.

Fielding: I’m in this whole f-----g room by myself, and I’m choking on the collective sense of superiority.

That scene had perfect pitch. I have heard “educated,” foreign “aristocrats” say the same thing, practically word for word, and the anti-Americanism of the American pastor, who refuses to grant the very existence of the country which rescues the refugees he champions, has since been institutionalized. (Every time someone refers to America as “North America,” he is insulting America in the most pathetically petty way he can.)

Waking the Dead is based on a novel by Scott Spencer (Endless Love), who specializes in obsessive love. Initially, I assumed that the story was influenced by Ghost (1990) and To Jillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996), but then discovered that Spencer’s novel was published in 1986. Director Keith Gordon had previously made one very good movie, A Midnight Clear (1992), and the near-masterpiece, Mother Night (1996). A Midnight Clear is about a momentary cease-fire, in the last days of World War II, between some isolated American and German troops. It is a poignant, tragic, flawed movie that works better for those who, like Gordon, have a post-Vietnam sensibility. Mother Night is based on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1966 masterpiece (no, not Slaughterhouse-Five), in which American-born playwright “Howard Campbell” (Nick Nolte), who lives in Germany during the Nazi Era, is engaged by U.S. intelligence to become an apparent traitor. Campbell makes Ezra Pound-style radio broadcasts in support of Hitler, which are used to send coded messages to the Allies. Campbell’s cover is so deep, however, that even after the war, the Allies will never admit that he worked for them.

The underlying theme tying Mother Night to Waking the Dead, is that our sorry lives can only be redeemed by one great love, and even that redemption is bound to be crushed beneath the jackboots of totalitarian politics. Keith Gordon is, at heart, a German romantic.

If Waking the Dead is on TV, give it a try. It might also be worth a rental, as a date-at-home movie.

(I first submitted this on May 20. When it hadn’t been posted by May 27, I submitted it, cut by a couple of words, again. Apparently, I’ve run into one of those Amazon staffers who does not dig my sensibility. For terms of comparison, note that submissions by most top-ranked Amazon reviewers (e.g., #1 Harriet Klausner) are posted the next day, and even I have occasionally experienced the thrill of seeing an Amazon staffer post a review only minutes after I’d submitted it. And so, when Amazon sits on a review for a week or more, it means some staffer is suppressing it.)

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