Boats In, Boats Out, And a Town Full of Stories

Lasse Hallström’s The

Shipping News , from a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the

novel by E. Annie Proulx, has received very mixed reviews since its release.

But long before then it had become the victim of a persistent “buzz” in the

trade papers, the gossip columns and on the Internet-so much so, apparently,

that the picture has been dismissed as a mess, Mr. Hallström wound up in the

hospital before he could sign off on a final edit, and six minutes of the film

were cut after the first screening.

I am baffled by all the negativity surrounding it, and I am

prepared to designate it as the most underrated film of 2001. I am surprised

also that Kevin Spacey has been widely branded as miscast and ineffective in

the lyrically submerged role of a congenital loser named Quoyle, whose tangled

roots drive him back to Newfoundland after a series of disasters that occur

while he is working as an ink-setter for a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Since I can’t imagine any

other actor in such a nebbish role being half as effective as Mr. Spacey, I can

only urge my readers to rush off to this singularly stirring entertainment

before it disappears from view. However, if you do plan to see The Shipping News , you may not want to

read any further in this review until after you have seen the movie’s jolts,

surprises and epiphanies for yourself.

The movie begins with what I can only describe as a lyrical

linkage between Quoyle, the ever-drowning, water-hating child, and Quoyle, the

still-drowning adult. The child has been thrown off his father’s dock as a

“tough love” way of teaching the boy to swim. As the boy gazes helplessly up

from the depths, his face dissolves into that of the grown-up Quoyle still

drowning, metaphorically, in the sea of existence. We realize instantly that he

has not done very much with his life, and his life has not done very much with

him. Mr. Hallström and his collaborators have thus established a character and

life pattern in record time without wallowing in a sea of behavioral

mediocrity. We see Quoyle at his unrewarding post, by a circulating machine we

have seen so many times spewing out newspapers with melodramatic headlines.

Here the presses are de-dramatized as we see everything from Quoyle’s point of

view.

Things change very rapidly when a voracious female named Petal

(Cate Blanchett) invades Quoyle’s life and barely gives him a chance to breathe

before she has bedded him, married him and presented him with a little girl

named Bunny, whom Quoyle cares for dutifully while Petal is out carousing with

other men, and not just out. On occasion, she brings her lovers right into the

house, and keeps complaining to her husband about how boring he is. It is hard

for an actor or a character to keep his dignity in this situation, particularly

in these macho times for many movie-going tastes.

Still, the story keeps getting more outrageous than life,

especially after Quoyle receives a telephone call from his father telling him

that he and Quoyle’s mother are about to commit joint suicide, and want Quoyle

to make the funeral arrangements. It is about this time that Petal runs off

with her current lover and takes Bunny with her. Curiously, Bunny has always

loved Petal despite, or perhaps because of,

her excesses. Nonetheless, Quoyle persists in believing that Petal and

Bunny will return, a belief that transcends stupidity into becoming a kind of

heroism. The police arrive at his door to tell him that Petal and her lover

have died in an automobile accident. Bunny is safe, however, because Petal sold

her for $6,000 before she embarked on her fatal trip. The irony is that Bunny

continues to love Petal, and for a long time refuses to believe that she is

dead.

It is in the midst of these

catastrophes that Quoyle’s Aunt Agile (Judi Dench) arrives at his doorstep to claim the ashes of her brother, Quoyle’s father. She then persuades Quoyle to

start a new life with Bunny in their “ancestral” home in Newfoundland, actually

a ramshackle house precariously anchored on an ocean-side cliff. When Quoyle

first sees the house, he cannot believe that he and Bunny and Aunt Agile can

possibly live in this wreck of a dwelling. But Aunt Agile persists, and Quoyle

and Bunny bunk down for a new life.

Quoyle applies for a job at the local newspaper with only his

ink-setting position in Poughkeepsie to recommend him. He is immediately

recruited as a reporter by the managing

editor, Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite). Quoyle’s job is to report the

shipping news, picayune as it is in this small fishing port. The paper’s owner,

Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), gives Quoyle his most valuable lessons in magnifying

a routine story into a journalistic coup. But to succeed, Quoyle must overcome

his understandable lifelong aversion to water.

As Quoyle gains confidence about his place in the picturesque

town of Killick-Claw, he takes the initiative in courting a local widow, Wavey

Prowse (Julianne Moore), and her retarded son, Harry (Will McAllister). Wavey

tends to look more kindly on Quoyle when Bunny becomes the only child ever to

bond with Henry. But Wavey is no pushover, and Quoyle discovers he has to go

deeper into his feelings than he has ever gone before to land Wavey, who has

her own secret about her husband. Despite its seeming quaintness, Killick-Claw

is the repository of many cruel secrets, all of which are revealed by the final

fade-out, though not without some initial puzzlement.

When Aunt Agile enters the

family’s outhouse to pour her brother’s ashes down the hole, and then proceeds

to defecate on his last remains, it is not until much later that Quoyle and we

discover that Aunt Agile is simply avenging an old wrong. So much becomes clear

about Quoyle’s father, and, in the process, Quoyle begins healing his own

wounds as he starts his new life.

There has been a lot of talk about this movie or that being

faithful to this book or that. Ms. Proulx has stated that she is quite pleased

with the adaptation of her much admired novel. But even if it could be

demonstrated that the filmmakers did not dot every i and cross every t in

transferring a prose work into a film, I would argue that a film stands or

falls on its own merits as film irrespective of its literary source. It may

therefore be possible to imagine a stronger and tighter film than this version

of The Shipping News , but I am

inclined these days to embrace positives rather than hold out for ultimates.

There is more than a little humor, dark as it may be, in this

version of The Shipping News . Mr.

Spacey’s Quoyle pops up unexpectedly from time to time with comments that are

witty and pithy-some in headline form-and I find that sign of complexity

interesting in a character who is otherwise a candidate for total

condescension. Julianne Moore projects warmth as Wavey, and it is welcome in a

film that without her could be as cold emotionally as it is climactically. In a

very small part, Cate Blanchett displays an amazing versatility in humanizing a

preposterous character like Petal. And what can one say about Judi Dench that

has not been said over and over again forever and forever?

If I had to encapsulate the movie in two scenes, I would begin

with the frenzied spectacle of Bunny hammering away homicidally at her doll

because she found it “boring,” a quality she fears her mother Petal found in

her to cause her to abandon her. When Quoyle, witnessing Bunny’s rage, tells

Wavey that Bunny worries him when she beats the brains out of her doll, Wavey

calmly observes that the doll is a toy, not a person, and Quoyle shouldn’t

worry. I found Wavey’s attitude very wise and compassionate. I have no idea

where the idea for these scenes came from: the book, the screenplay, the

director or all three, but they are typical of all the small moments that

eventually coalesce into an expansive celebration of several repaired psyches.

It is good also to see Scott Glenn and Pete Postlethwaite supplying more than

their share of local atmosphere.

Love on Paris Time

Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time

Is It There? from a screenplay by Mr. Tsai and Yang Pi-Ying, is a whimsical

and fatalistic tale of two cities-Taipei and Paris-reflecting the

cross-fertilization of Asian cinema with the French nouvelle vague . Indeed, Mr. Tsai has declared in an interview that

François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows

(1959), is his “all-time favorite film.” Hence, the materialization of

58-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud on a bench in a Paris cemetery serves as an hommage to Truffaut and his 14-year-old

alter ego 43 years ago in The 400 Blows .

Mr. Tsai’s film (which I

reviewed when it was featured at the New York Film Festival last year),

however, is much drier and more unyielding than anything from Truffaut. Its

plot is simply a pretext for Mr. Tsai’s ruminations on the very loose

connections between people alienated from the modern world. Hsiao Kang (Lee

Kang-sheng) peddles watches in Taipei for a living. A few days after his

father’s death, he meets a young woman, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), who is

leaving for Paris the next day. He leaves her his telephone number in case she

wants a special watch he doesn’t have on hand.

Meanwhile, his mother prays obsessively for the return of her late husband’s spirit, and Hsiao Kang becomes

obsessed in his turn with Shiang-chyi, now far away in Paris. He tries to

bridge the enormous distance between them by setting all the watches and clocks

in Taipei to Paris time. Ironically, Shiang-chyi is having a lonely, miserable

time in Paris, and wants to call Hsiao Kang in Taipei, but has lost his number.

There is an ending, more surreal than supernatural, but it provides

a form of spiritual closure, though not the promise of happiness in Western

terms. Mr. Tsai is a very original artist in his medium, and What Time Is It There? should be seen at

the very least for its spasms of absurdist humor.