Paging Tennessee Williams

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:51

    A Love Song for Bobby Long

    Directed by Shainee Gabel

    At the core of A Love Song for Bobby Long lies a cathectic object: It is a paperback edition of Carson McCullers' novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This book, with frayed pages and yellowed edges, can be distinguished by its cover art: a lavender-tinted photograph of the actress Sondra Locke, who played the young heroine in the 1968 film version of the novel. That edition was what used to be called a movie tie-in (a print product sold alongside a movie release). It's not just a marketing item, but a souvenir of an era-a mass-produced Rosebud. Bobby Long's director, first-timer Shainee Gabel, proves her bona fides by highlighting this tie-in novelty; she goes beyond nostalgia, investing it with a distinct emotional energy that suffuses the entire movie.

    This odd, endearing film risks featuring John Travolta as Bobby Long, an alcoholic Louisiana professor, who teaches wild, trashy, recently orphaned Pursey (a Sondra Locke-type character played by Scarlett Johansson) how to read books for meaning and how to read people for their true worth. His educator's authority extends to his roommate, former student Lawson (Gabriel Macht), whose drinking problem indicates a scared writer's way of forestalling his own literary ambition (and possible failure). Together, they form a platonic triangle, living in the run-down house left to Pursey by her late mother, a blues singer. So this story is primarily about social dregs and emotional cripples, but Gabel (aided by cinematographer Eliot Davis' use of halation) outlines these characters as palpably sexual beings. Plus, she suggests that each one has pages of depth.

    The significance of that well-worn paperback (Pursey is shown reading it in a bus station) comes from its suggestion of forgotten literary ideals and of longed-for movie values. Gabel reasserts them in Bobby Long in order to connect to a heritage of sympathetic storytelling. What some reviewers have dismissed as hackneyed (the eventual revelation of the characters' relations) is, in fact, presented as a principle. It is too bad that modern movies have accustomed us to stories about people who are uprooted and nihilistic, because when these characters' sexual instincts crisscross and their literary interests ricochet, Bobby Long becomes bravely romantic. Travolta, Johansson and Macht are obviously acting, but Gabel uses this exceptionally avid troupe to invoke-and glamorize-the androgynous essence of Carson McCullers' plea for the lonely and misunderstood. The cast vivifies McCullers' longing; their eye contact exchanges complex feelings that, through repression or ignorance, formed the closeted basis of much Southern lit. And due to illiteracy, recent movies have left such richly complex expression to novels.

    Having once thumbed a similar paperback of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I appreciate Gabel's sense of it as a trenchant cultural artifact. It became her touchstone, the inspiration for this unexpected yet surprisingly affecting exercise. Bobby Long seems to be a movie out of time (that's why critics trash it), but it is actually, through Gabel's conviction, a rare example of a genuine cultural totem. Like an old paperback, its conventions bear the fingerprints of other readers, other films and shared emotional experience-which just makes its idiosyncrasy more special. Gabel is not an avant-gardist, but she does what the avant-garde is supposed to do: account for the stored-up feelings that pop art codifies. In this way, Bobby Long is a more coherent version of the confused passion that turned to chaos in Tarnation (actually a better title for this film). Gabel has derived from McCullers a way to correct the isolation that is abetted by Tarnation's artsy elitism.

    "Don't you get it? We're all strays," Bill Murray says in The Life Aquatic. No artist understood that feeling of outsider alienation better than McCullers. Gabel relates to it romantically, as a way of resurrecting sensitivity, of restoring people's respect for difference, and to make a place for the unfortunate and luckless folk among us. Long describes the small household as "misfits, lost people." Because Shainee Gabel isn't indulging the usual indie celebration of privileged dysfunction (Pieces of April, The Station Agent, Before Sunset and other crap), she seems to speak for a more basic human frailty. Bobby Long isn't at all about dysfunction (as is Million Dollar Baby), but about ungritty perseverance-through learning, through reading, through communication.

    Although the film was shot on location and shows a respectful eye for the Delta humidity and lived-in local faces, its authenticity is emotional rather than regional. The film is redolent of McCullers, Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams' imagined South-of exposed desperation and abject self-pity. Gabel channels an art form valued for the way characters sweat out our own politely held-in frustrations. It is the remarkable references to literary touchstones that make Gabel's project cohere. That image of the McCullers book is almost biblical, yet the film's dialogue is spiked with about as many literary quotations as Godard's Nouvelle Vague. Each aphorism, a testament to human history and culture (what college courses used call "the humanities"), makes the movie hum.

    At first, these lines (Robert Browning's "Why stay we on earth except to grow?" sound tony, but the sashaying Southern accents ground the erudition, focusing awareness on a very modern irony: that Long, Lawson and Pursey, despite being well-read, fumble wisdom and mishandle their own lives. Pursey accuses Bobby and Lewis of "acting like characters in a book nobody takes the responsibility to write." She harshly judges them for using literature to fend off the world. ("Everybody knows that books are better than life, that's why they're books.")

    And yet, literary heritage is so crucial that not all of Gabel's references are literal quotations. Her evocation of Southern drama is equally important. Echoes of Tennessee Williams reverberate in the tension between the trio as they swap affection. David Gordon Green's Undertow was a more film-savvy Southern fantasy, but he doesn't know the difference between being inventive and being naive. Gabel thoroughly understands her subject; she knows what emotions are worth and which emotions matter. A family fight between Long and Pursey is a strikingly good round of reflection, interrogation and connection. And you have to salute a filmmaker who is audacious enough to bring back Robert Frost's "Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length." Gabel's best moment-Bobby on a streetcar confronting a pair of lovers so young and innocent they could be twins-proves Frost's poetic insight.

    Travolta may be past the point of being convincing as anything but a movie star, yet he makes Long's optimism believable. Johansson is as radiant as she is emotionally precise, and Gabriel Macht is an equally fine discovery-showing a sexy, intelligent reserve. He, too, has an ambiguous yet direct quality. When Lawson confesses that Long "had me so convinced of my own ability to do anything that I may have fallen a little in love with him myself," Macht perfects a Tennessee Williams Everydude. That's three charming performances in which we see people trying to live up to the hope commemorated in Williams, O'Connor and McCullers. Most movies are not half as ambitious.