In the Movie Version, The South Has Lost Its Charm

Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , from the screenplay by John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt, starts out as a screen version of a Town & Country story and ends up somewhere closer to an episode of Perry Mason . The book was an enormous best seller with that formula, but the movie is unlikely to be as popular. The big problem is Mr. Hancock’s screenplay, which takes a few threads here and there out of Mr. Berendt’s elaborately woven historical and sociological tapestry of Savannah, Ga., and fails dismally to stitch together a coherent narrative out of the skimpy material. This is one of those instances where less is less, which may be why Mr. Berendt declined the opportunity to write his own screenplay. He knew, as his many readers knew, that the delight was in the details, and that there could not be enough details in the movie version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to provide an adequate context and build-up for the wildly eccentric characters on display.

Take the widely publicized Lady Chablis … please. There is too much and not enough of her in the movie, whereas in the book, she was allowed to be devastatingly and subversively sassy even beyond the bounds of political correctness. But at her first entrance in the movie, some sharp-eyed buffs may be tempted to shout “Crying Game” or perhaps even “Crying Shame” at the supposed ability of the black drag-queen performance artist known on and off the screen as Lady Chablis to “fool” John Cusack’s John Kelso until she/he reveals that her first initial F. stands for Frank.

Kelso is the movie’s fleshed-out version of the book’s John Berendt, a shadowy, neutral, even neutered, New York journalist-author-narrator-observer. One doubts that Mr. Berendt would have been fooled by Lady Chablis for an instant even if he hadn’t spotted Jaye Davidson’s telltale Adam’s apple in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992). Curiously, Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Hancock have chosen not to employ narration for a project that virtually screams for it. Instead, they add a frantically perfunctory love interest between Kelso and Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood), a local chantoozie who, in the book, was a handsomely huge woman in whom the book’s Mr. Berendt never showed the slightest romantic interest.

Still, I would not go so far as to say that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil should never have been made into a movie, or that Mr. Eastwood was necessarily the wrong director for this project. Certainly the presence in the cast of Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams, the closest thing we have to a protagonist, and Jude Law as Billy Hanson, Williams’ live-in lover, gives us the opportunity to keep up with the careers of two of the most spectacularly talented youngish character actors in the contemporary cinema. Mr. Hancock would have been well advised to turn Mr. Berendt’s book inside out, perhaps with a convoluted flashback strategy, or with a mystery that would enable us to unveil the beauties and eccentricities of Savannah bit by bit, as organic parts of the narrative. But Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Hancock had to contend not only with Mr. Berendt, who would have been justifiably miffed at such a radical transformation of his book, but also with the reportedly 2 million-plus readers of the book who would have cursed Mr. Eastwood for tampering with their beloved snob and tourist values.

Yet even here, the movie shortchanges the book by not allowing Jim Williams- antique dealer, collector, restoration specialist, self-made millionaire and murderer-to unfold sufficiently, with his witty, cynical, wondrously wise and common-sensical observations on everything and everyone around him. Similarly, Billy Hanson, the murder victim, is never given his due as a sensual magnet for both sexes in every stratum of Savannah society. My job, however, is not to speculate on what might have been, but to describe and evaluate what I myself experienced when I saw the movie. I must regretfully report that I was bored to stupefaction through much of the running time. The voodoo stuff was done much better in Eve’s Bayou , and the courtroom scenes labored for shock effects that fizzled. Forget the fact that the four trials in the book were compressed into one suspenseless proceeding in the movie.

As I sensed the restiveness of the audience, I realized that many viewers were undecided about whether to laugh out loud, chuckle, smirk, or just snicker at the grotesques paraded before them and the ostensibly wide-eyed Kelso. Both the book and the movie make it a capital offense even to be suspected of racism, homophobia and unkindness to old rich women with blue hair. Yet both Kelso and Mr. Berendt are so detached from all the gossipy animals in the Savannah zoo that one never feels any genuine warmth or affection for these creatures.

I Endured Sick

So You Don’t Have To

Speaking of freaks, and that seems like all I am going to be speaking of this week, Kirby Dick’s Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is a movie I am glad I saw, but I don’t ever want to look at it again, and thus I cannot recommend it in all good conscience to my readers, which is not to say that I question the raves it received from several of my colleagues. I was not familiar with Flanagan’s life, career and medical condition before I saw Sick , and, though I am not turned on by the prospect of enduring excruciating pain, I found Sick something of a revelation, though less artistically than existentially.

Look at me, God, he seems to be saying. Look at what You’ve done to my body with Your degenerative disease cystic fibrosis. You’ve ravaged me physically, but You haven’t broken my spirit. As badly as You have mutilated me, I am going to mutilate myself in ways that You’ve never imagined in Your wildest sadistic dreams. The pain that You and I have inflicted on me shall be the subject of my performance art. I defy You, God.

And so Flanagan did until he died of his disease in 1996 at the age of 43, an unusually long life span for a victim of the illness. Flanagan collaborated enthusiastically with Mr. Dick on the documentary, to the point of creating several new performances just for the film. He was aided by Sheree Rose, described in the production notes as “his longtime partner, collaborator and dominatrix.” She also recorded much of their life together.

There is in Flanagan’s metaphysical posture something of Molière’s Don Juan and John Milton’s Satan. Yet is there not something in Christianity itself, even in Christ Himself, that is defined by willful brutalization of the flesh? Is there a deeper sexual sadomasochistic subtext to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian or the Crucifixion itself? I was brought up with a God of pain and suffering, sin and guilt. Even today, I can’t help regarding the hedonistic side of my nature as something shamefully secular.

But I can’t endorse self-mutilation as edifying cinematic spectacle. Flanagan has succeeded in shocking me from beyond the grave through the death-defying medium of the motion picture. Awesome, yes, but truly sick also. Anyway, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I would not rest easy if I inflicted Sick on any of my readers outside the S&M culture with the alibi of art. Art it is not, but a bizarre display of raw existence it certainly is.

Bean Doesn’t Translate,

Not Even in Dollars

Mel Smith’s Bean , from a screenplay by Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll, based on a character devised by Rowan Atkinson and Mr. Curtis, has grossed more than $100 million abroad even before opening in the United States. I had never seen Mr. Atkinson’s prior characterizations of the bumbling character Bean on PBS and American cable stations. I vaguely remember Mr. Atkinson as the tongue-tied cleric in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), but I don’t remember guffawing as loudly as other people claim to have done at the time. But, hey, what did I have to lose?

If I can’t review him as a comic genius, I could revile him as a symptom of the decline and fall of screen comedy in our time. The noontime screening at my local theater had a fair share of parents and children-mostly fathers and sons, actually-and so I quietly turned on my audience-research laugh meter, particularly for the children who, as a tribe, have their guilt-ridden fathers eating out of their (the children’s) hands.

And there he was, Rowan Atkinson as Bean, one of the ugliest-looking men I have ever seen outside of a hospital for the terminally disfigured. Not only does Bean fail to realize how bad-looking he is; he persists in scrunching up his face to look even uglier. There is a touch of genius in that particular comic strategy, with its rejection of sympathy and pity. The movie itself, with its feeble spoof of art museums and scholars, was paper-thin, but Mr. Atkinson did generate some laughs with a series of sketchlike skits thrown together for a feature-length movie.

The Bean persona has been described as a combination of Pee-wee Herman and Jacques Tati. I suspect that Mr. Atkinson has considerable, if anachronistic, gifts as a farceur and is best taken in small doses, but, hey, a hundred mil is a hundred mil. Peter MacNicol and Pamela Reed earned my admiration for their poise under the fire of Bean’s baleful expressions.