Desperately Seeking Anima

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've got your Capulets and Montagues, your Griffin and Phoenix, your Ike and Tina. Cautionary tales, the lot. Yet it doesn't matter how well you prepare yourself, how many amulets you wear or how many mantras you chant — love will circle overhead until you collapse in the desert, then swoop down and gouge out your vitals. Then you'll rise and stagger on alone, half-slain, to search for the 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 shortcuts through the aforementioned wasteland. Based on the novel by Scott Spencer (which Gordon preserved 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 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 soulmate's passing. Several drafts and nearly a decade after its initial development, the project arrives with a strength and subtlety almost nonexistent in movies rushed off the film factories' assembly lines. Only the most glacial hearts will resist being melted and moved.

“You can't be everything to me,” tenderly explains Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) to her smoldering beau, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup). When he replies that, indeed, he does want to be everything, she nearly acquiesces: “Oh, dear … I love that you said that.” Not only is this a wonderful glimpse of their 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 is telling him his love is presumed dead in a car-bombing.

Flash back to 1972, to the groovy New York (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 invites her to dinner. She accepts, on his 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 10 years, to snowy Chicago (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 Gov. Kinosis (Lawrence Dane). Fielding is game for the promotion, and Green is savvy enough to make it work. The problem is that Sarah's ghost has begun to appear to Fielding, disrupting his concentration as well as his relationship with Juliet Beck (Molly Parker), who happens to be Green's niece. Sarah 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.

Waking the Dead charts the passage of a decade, 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 Fielding's life. It's complex and assured work; 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.

Waking the Dead is a pensive, reflective movie, similar in tone to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, yet, due to its temporal breadth and tight emotional focus, it packs a more intimate punch. At a celebration in Washington, D.C. (Montreal), late in the film, Fielding's fatigue and visions cause him to have a fit in which he shouts that he doesn't want pity or generosity — he wants to see himself. Corralled by yes men and aching for the glow he once knew with Sarah, Fielding's challenge is to discover that wholeness within. In this role, Crudup takes over as Sensitive Male where William Hurt and Claude Raines left off.

Sarah's psyche is vital to this struggle, and Connelly shows us the immense passion of a young woman who wants to give her all to her man, but knows she has another mission to fulfill. The role affords an intriguing opportunity to assess the feminine zeitgeist of three decades. The voice of Joni Mitchell, occasionally catty but undeniably intelligent and compassionate, complements the rich hues of the '70s, while the '80s are evoked with a hard, loveless bleakness (one imagines early Pat Benatar songs). What would have happened if this tale had been set in the present day? Would the ruthless, retarded persona of a Courtney Love have influenced Sarah? Would Fielding have been so deeply touched in the first place?

Director Gordon, whose other films include The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, and Mother Night, offers much to meditate upon here, and it's no surprise, with its theme of spiritual fusion (à la the prince in Anna and the King), that Waking the Dead was hatched by Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures. (It seems strange that the woman who turned down Hannibal is now developing a spate of films about gangsters, bounty hunters, murderers, and executioners, but why not trust her to do her work?) Waking the Dead stands well on its own, without defense, but if the naked emotions here seem rote, or the jaded forget the glow of love (and the agony of its loss), these lines from Sixth Dynasty Chinese poet Shen Yüeh may spark the memory:

“I think of when she comes — shining, shining, up the garden stairs, impatient, impatient to end our parting. Tireless, tireless, we talk of love, gaze at each other but never get our fill, look at one another till hunger is forgotten.”

Ever been there?

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