An Ode to Writing, the Only Thing Harder Than Marriage

Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love , from a screenplay by James Howard and Arliss Howard, based on stories by Larry Brown, gives me the opportunity to pay my belated respects to Debra Winger on the occasion of her return to the screen at the reported urging of her actor-director husband, Mr. Howard, after being voluntarily retired from movie acting over the past decade. I wrote recently that I had missed the boat on Ms. Winger for some unfathomable reason. What in tarnation made me resist her blazing eyes and uninhibited sensuality in Urban Cowboy (1980), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Terms of Endearment (1983) and Black Widow (1987)? Now, I thought, here was a second chance I didn’t deserve.

Unfortunately, Big Bad Love , for all its undeniably good anti-mainstream intentions, fails to come off even as the cutting-edge manifestation it tries so strenuously to be. Mr. Howard directs himself as a long-failed writer named Barlow, who keeps mailing manuscripts to various publishers and getting them all back with a variety of rejection letters. The returned manila envelopes bulk large in his rustic roadside mail box. But no matter: Barlow keeps stuffing the box with new manila envelopes. Words keep floating around his head, and even on the screen and on the soundtrack. Even big words you never expect to hear in the Mississippi hill country, except when you remember that you’re very close to William Faulkner land and a rich Southern prose tradition that is to American literature almost what 20th-century Irish drama is to 20th-century British theater. And Barlow himself is not simply a fictional figure, but also an approximation of the thought processes of writer Larry Brown.

But the old aesthetic bugaboos resurface: Can a movie show how a writer thinks and writes without sacrificing the cinema’s kinetic needs? For that matter, can movies express the torments of a writer’s necessary solitude? When an exasperated Barlow hurls his typewriter from his porch into a leafy patch in the yard, I found his gesture almost as unbelievable as that of Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia (1977). At the time, I argued that no writer would behave in such a surrogated self-destructive manner, and I still feel the same way.

Big Bad Love actually begins deceptively, with fleeting glances of a bridal couple laughingly fornicating in a bathtub. When a fully dressed Barlow emerges in sleepy, grimy solitude to answer the door, we realize with the help of some pointed dialogue that we have been misled by an idealized memory of Barlow’s long-ago marriage to Marilyn (Ms. Winger), from whom he is now separated. Currently, Barlow’s only steady companion is a much-married layabout named Monroe (Paul Le Mat) who gets house-painting jobs for Barlow, shares his beer binges and flirts with Velma (Rosanna Arquette), a petty heiress he finally marries.

Barlow receives occasional visits from Marilyn when she drops off their two children for a paternal visit. Alan, the older of the two, keeps his emotional distance from his father, but Alisha is suffering from an incurable disease that foreshadows one of the catastrophes that is going to transform Barlow into a productive writer, much to the surprise of Marilyn and his mother, played by Angie Dickinson.

As I am drifting along from one tenuous impression of the movie to another, I may be making the plot seem more linear than it plays on the screen. Actually, Big Bad Love is avant with a vengeance, and Mr. Howard plays Barlow with an excessive amount of contorted expressionism. It is not so much drunkenness that Barlow is depicting, but rather a surreal form of animated angst. Still, when all is crumbling and caving in around her, Ms. Winger’s Marilyn becomes a stronger and more vibrant force in Barlow’s teetering and tottering existence.

When you think about it, Big Bad Love has one of the strongest casts you will see in movies this year–and not a bankable one among them. In addition to Ms. Winger, Mr. Howard, Mr. Le Mat, Ms. Dickinson and Ms. Arquette, there is Michael Parks being remarkable in a grizzled cracker-barrel part. And you think some more, and you begin to understand what Ms. Winger hates about Hollywood and all its who’s-hot-and-who’s-not arbiters of talent, with a calendar in one hand and an adding machine in the other. I simply can’t believe that an actress as gifted as Ms. Winger can’t find a decent role to play in her mid-40’s. The camera can be cruel, granted, but in Europe an actress of Ms. Winger’s caliber would be kept busy in grown-up movies.

Ultimately, though Big Bad Love is not without misfortunes and misadventures, it is mercifully free of malignancy. And though the writer as hero is not an ideal movie subject, it is nothing if not morally refreshing.

Wendigo : Urban Legend?

Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo , from his own screenplay, is a curiously cerebral horror film that reflects the director’s own self-awareness. “With Wendigo ,” Mr. Fessenden says, “I’m trying to evoke the power of metaphor in our lives, the basic need to construct stories to deal with the shocks of life.” The Wendigo itself is described as an American Indian spirit described variably in works of pop culture, but interpreted by Mr. Fessenden as a creature half-man and half-deer.

The picture begins with a blue Volvo struggling through the snowy roads in upstate New York. Kim (Patricia Clarkson), George (Jake Weber) and their 8-year-old son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) are Manhattanites on their way to a friend’s country farmhouse for a stolen holiday weekend. Suddenly the car is rocked by a collision with a deer. They are immediately confronted by a group of surly deer hunters, the most sinister of whom is a local inhabitant named Otis (John Speredakos), whom the short-tempered George unwisely taunts for claiming the kill when all he did was a “mercy killing after the collision.” From then on, the McLaren family is besieged by hostile elements, both human and supernatural.

The story is told from Miles’ point of view. He alone seems to be in communion with the Indian spirits that take the form of the Wendigo. The resulting violence turns unexpectedly gruesome without a comparable emotional effect. The characters are engulfed by the visual pyrotechnics, and the film becomes as cold as an upstate New York winter. Mr. Fessenden has nurtured his metaphors at the expense of his narrative, but he does display an original talent.

Pépé Le Moko At Film Forum

Julien Duvivier’s Pépé Le Moko (1937), from a screenplay by Duvivier, Detective Ashelbé (Henri La Barthe) and Jacques Constant, and based on the novel by Ashelbé (1931), with dialogue by Henri Jeanson, is being revived at Film Forum from March 1 through March 14 with a new 35-millimeter print.

With Jean Gabin in the title role and Mireille Balin as his Parisian conquest, if you’ve never seen the film, you may be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected complexity of the intrigues and the lyrical force of the feelings.