Friday, March 9, 2012

Film Pairing — Nothing Sacred, Only Profane...And Provincial

The star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) is Savannah, Georgia. And the best parts of the film are the scenes that reveal the lovely, eccentric nature of its inhabitants. It is a town that seems unconnected to the rest of the country in time and place.

This is also a place where its people are privately wild and tolerant, while publicly genteel and proper — a kind of exaggeration of the stereotypes of the South in general, where I often think of people preaching abstinence while keeping pints of Southern Comfort in their underwear drawers.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good an Evil is the real-life story of Jim William’s trial in which he is accused of murdering his down-low lover. Kevin Spacey plays Williams, a self-made, rich collector of fine antiques. Jude Law plays the “low-class” kept-boy who may or may not have tried to kill Williams before being shot himself. John Cusack plays the author who is trying to make sense of it all — the bigger-than life characters and the meaning and pay back of doing evil. Kim Hunter appears briefly to steal a scene or two and Savannah’s own, real Lady Chablis plays Lady Chablis, thereby gaining well more than 15 minutes of deserved fame. Clint Eastwood directs this slightly too-long, slightly uneven telling of Berendt’s story. But in the end — largely because of the society that is so colorfully portrayed — this is a worthwhile film and a great match for the more subdued and possibly more provincial characters in Six Degrees of Separation.

Wrong, it seems, is not always easy to discern. That is one of the similarities in the two films. So is the fact that both are based on real-life events. I would also make the case that, in many cases, Manhattan is as, or is more provincial than the rest of the country. Here, in Six Degrees of Separation (1997), we also have a film about closed societies, the nature of crime and the misrepresentation of reality. In the midst of it all, perhaps there is a thought-provoking question about the spirit and letter of the law.

The film is based on a successful play by John Guare and in that adaptation, there is a kind of formal theatricality that permeates the film. Don’t let that put you off, however. There are rich performances, especially Stockard Channing’s. And it’s a joy to watch an obviously talented young Will Smith interact with such accomplished veterans as Donald Sutherland and Ian McKellen. Also, such real-life New Yorkers as artist Chuck Close and actress/socialite Kitty Carlisle make cameo appearances.

The story is about a pretender to the 1 percent and pretender to celebrity. Smith plays the young con, who in this case, pretends to be Sidney Poitier’s son in order to access Fifth Avenue families. His interaction with various folks didn’t always provide a pleasant outcome. Was this interloper responsible for greater good or greater evil? The answer, to me, was properly unsatisfying.

Seems to me that the bawdier landed gentry in Savannah probably drink something different from the upper crust of the Upper East Side. Savannah is known for its hard drinking and its permissiveness on the subject. Much like New Orleans, one may legally walk about the historic district with a shot or two of Southern Comfort, providing it is in a paper cup. But let’s keep it light for the dinner party crowd in New York. Maybe a civilized fresh peach spritzer (or a Chablis) for the first film and a bottle of expensive Cabernet for the second.

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