Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Love and Death on Long Island (1997)

by on December 7, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Dec 14 at 4:30, 6:50*, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*6:50 Cinemachat with Elliott Stein


Former Village Voice critic Elliott Stein continues his valiant return to BAM by hosting the third film in BAM’s quartet of John Hurt films. Hurt, Nick Pinkerton recently interviewed for the Village Voice, appears himself on Tuesday evening with Scandal (1987).

Says David Edelstein of his performance, for Slate:

Hurt’s face is so deeply lined that he now resembles Boris Karloff’s mummy–not flesh and blood but flakes and embalming fluid. But if Hurt has the kind of visage we normally associate with dissipation, few actors are able to combine such bleariness with such (oxymoronic) concentration. This is a gentle tour de force by one of our greatest comic miniaturists.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

A reclusive, old-fashioned, intellectual novelist and widower living in London (John Hurt) stumbles accidentally into a screening of Hotpants College II at his local multiplex and becomes hopelessly, obsessively enamored of one of its young American stars (Jason Priestley). Fan magazines and the purchase of a VCR fail to satisfy his longings, so he travels to the Long Island town where his beloved resides and plots to encounter him in the flesh. This perfectly realized, beautifully acted, sweetly hilarious 1997 first feature by English writer-director Richard Kwietniowski, adroitly adapted from Gilbert Adair’s short novel of the same name (a comic variation on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”), is a witty, canny meditation on the power of pop culture in general and the rationalizations of cinephilia and film criticism in particular. What makes it perhaps even better than Adair’s clever novel, which is somewhat limited by its first-person narration, is the beautiful balance of humane sympathies Kwietniowski achieves; at no point does the foolishness or vanity of either character wipe out our sense of his dignity, and Fiona Loewi is no less touching as the movie star?s girlfriend. A small film only in appearance, this is as solid and confident as any first feature I’ve seen recently.



Geoff Andrew
for Time Out (London):

Kwietniowski’s feature debut, a marvellous adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novel, tells the hilariously unlikely tale of the obsession harboured by reclusive old fart London novelist Giles De’ath (Hurt) for hunky but not very talented American teen pin-up Ronnie Bostock (Priestley) after seeing him in an appalling movie. Unquestioningly hetero until his wife died, and barely cognisant of the modern technological world, let alone Long Island (where he fetches up in an attempt to meet his unwitting beloved), De’ath is simultaneously embarrassed, confused, tormented and rejuvenated by his infatuation. A genuinely literate, affectionate fish-out-of-water comedy, which never overplays its Death in Venice references, the film benefits hugely from Hurt’s superb performance and from Kwietniowski’s lovely parodies of straight-to-video fare.


Keith Phipps for The Onion Av CLub:

An unpredictable, often funny, always winning film, Love And Death On Long Island is filled with low-key humor and sharp observations about the state of art at the close of the millennium. Hurt’s performance—and it’s always a pleasure when the oft-misused actor gets a role like this one—and Kwietniowski’s direction invest the proceedings with a gravity that complements the fish-out-of-water jokes. What could have been either condescending or sort of creepy given the subject matter is instead charming, thought-provoking, and very much worth seeking out.



Daphne Merkin for the New Yorker:

A surprising film about romantic pursuit, written like a mischievous postmodern fable. Giles pursues his unlikely object of desire all the way to a sweet little Long Island hamlet, where his inventive plans for ensnaring Ronnie prove to be both baroquely funny and touching. One of the many ways in which the film subverts our expectations is by refusing to condescend to its central character; we come to see the daffy Giles as half stalker, half poète maudit, transfigured by romantic greatness. Directed with an original touch by Richard Kwietniowski, the movie is less about the nature of homoerotic longing than about the closeted nature of love itself.


Charles Taylor for Salon:

Casting Hurt as Giles was an inspired stroke. This most masochistic of actors — he makes Dirk Bogarde seem as breezy as Cary Grant — uses what he calls his “spaniel’s face” to sly comic effect. Sitting alone in his study, happily scarfing a pizza (Ronnie’s favorite food) and laughing atone of Ronnie’s pictures, scarcely daring to believe how much he’s enjoying himself, Giles is silly and touching. He’d fit right in among all the 14-year-old girls at “Titanic” sighing over Leonardo. (Kwietniowski doesn’t compound Giles’ snobbishness. Instead of being condescending, the excerpts we see from Ronnie’s teen comedies have a lively, parodic accuracy.) Taking a stroll to privately dispose of his fan magazines, Hurt looks as absurd as a figure out of Magritte. In one scene, Giles is watching a movie in which Ronnie dies. A stricken look comes over him, and as he inclines his face to the television screen as if to bestow a kiss on the visage of his dead love, the video image suddenly cuts to another actor and Giles starts back. It’s a small moment, but a lovely one, a swift comment on how, in a movie, everything rushes by, giving us scant time to hold on to what we cherish most.
Kwietniowski has done the best job possible of dramatizing such a dense, difficult, compacted book.



Mary Corliss for Film Comment (July/Aug 1997):

Real charm, in a story about the lure and seduction of a movie persona, can be found in Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, from the Gilbert Adair novel. A reclusive London writer names Giles DeAth (John Hurt) is disdainful of his public; he says of his books, “It’s easier to write one than to read one properly.” By chance he stumbles into a cinema showing Hotpants College II and, like Saul en route to Damascus, is smitten by a divine image: the face of a young actor named Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). Ronnie’s roles demand only that he look vacant. That matters as little to Giles as Lolita’s coarseness did to Humbert Humbert. He collects every form of Bostockiana, from videos of Ronnie’s films to fan magazine articles on “Hollywood’s Most Snoggable Fellows.” And finally Giles must, well he simply must, travel to the budding star’s home on Long Island for a reality check on his fantasy life. Or vice versa.


How perilous it is when one steps through the fourth wall of the movie screen! Every critic knows this.A fan at heart, the critic risks learning that the big beautiful people in films are, in life, smallish folks whose dialogue isn’t nearly as seductive as the lines screenwriters put in their mouths. But Giles is bold enough to test his faith. He meets Ronnie and works his wiles on the lad, constructing a rosy scenario that has Ronnie realizing his artistic ambitions by becoming a serious European film star. The climax of this dark, delightful comedy deserves to be kept secret. Suffice to say that it plays perfectly to Hurt’s ingratiating homoerotic passion and Priestley’s ability to hint at worlds of dim thought with a beautifully blank stare.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

As the writer, named Giles De’Ath, rises to his feet, he sees an image that causes him to pause. The camera slowly zooms in on his face, illuminated by the flickering light reflected from the screen, as he stands transfixed by the sight of a young actor named Ronnie Bostock. It is this moment of rapture that gives “Love and Death on Long Island” its sly comic enchantment. These opening scenes of “Love and Death on Long Island” are funny and touching, and Hurt brings a dignity to Giles De’Ath that transcends any snickering amusement at his infatuation. It’s not even perfectly clear that Giles’ feelings are homosexual; he has been married, now lives as a widower, and there is no indication that he has (or for that matter had) any sex life at all. At lunch with his bewildered agent, he speaks of “the discovery of beauty where no one ever thought of looking for it.” And in a lecture on “The Death of the Future,” he spins off into rhapsodies about smiles (he is thinking only about Ronnie’s).


There is something here like the obsession of the little man in “Monsieur Hire,” who spies adoringly on the young woman whose window is opposite his own. No physical action is contemplated: Sexual energy is focused in the eyes and the imagination. The cinema of Ronnie Bostock, Giles believes, “has brought me into contact with all I never have been.” It is always a disappointment when fantasies become real; no mere person can equal our imaginings. Giles actually flies to Long Island, where he knows Bostock has a home, and sets out to find his idol. This journey into the new land is not without hazards for the reclusive London writer, who checks into a hot-sheets motel and soon finds himself hanging out at “Chez D’Irv,” a diner where the owner (Maury Chaykin) refers to almost everything as “very attractive.” But eventually Giles does find his quarry. First he meets Audrey (Fiona Loewi), Ronnie’s girlfriend, and then Ronnie himself, played by Jason Priestley with a sort of distant friendliness that melts a little when Giles starts comparing his films with Shakespeare’s bawdy passages. The film doesn’t commit the mistake of making Ronnie stupid and shallow, and Audrey is very smart; there’s a scene where she looks at Giles long and hard, as his cover story evaporates in her mind.



David Denby for New York Magazine:

Writer-director Richard Kwietniowski has never made a feature before, but this debut effort is a triumph, a buoyant and elegant achievement — romantic and ruminative yet always precise, a comedy of longing propelled by a strong current of satirical observation. Kwietniowski plays the most beautiful effects off silence; he dwells on the baffled pause and strained hesitation. And yet the movie is never fussy or embarrassing; it finds the element of audacity in the love-struck aging artist and stays close to it. De’Ath may be a creep, but he’s also a true hero. He’s pulled by his obsession into the common life, and suffers the humiliation of getting things wrong. A video store is like a foreign planet to him; a TV set is an instrument of terror and wonder. The formality of English manners offers an extraordinary advantage to a nuanced actor like Hurt. With the slightest change of intonation — the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow — he suggests reserves of fear and rage. His sudden grin when he begins to get close to Ronnie is so flagrantly happy that one almost wants him to succeed. Everything Hurt does seems fresh, fully felt.


Love and Death on Long Island is based on a novel by an extremely witty British film critic named Gilbert Adair. I haven’t been able to get hold of the book, but I would guess from the movie alone that Adair was playing with the themes of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice — examining them through the lens of Nabokov’s Lolita, in which an English writer is mesmerized by both a beautiful American nymphet and the siren song of American vulgarity. This connection alone is a perverse joke, since Nabokov’s loathing of Mann’s novella is famous. In the movie, the joke of American commonness works both ways. Ronnie Bostock’s pizza-parlor and locker-room movies (which Kwietniowski re-creates with loving care) are appalling, but the ordinary folk whom De’Ath meets on Long Island are decent and friendly in a way that the sarcastic Londoners are not. Ronnie himself is an okay guy — no great brain or talent, but no stuck-up monster either. He’s moved by what he takes to be De’Ath’s interest in his mediocre movie career. Jason Priestley’s performance is on the bland side, but he has one great moment. It is the look on his face — the shot is prolonged for what seems an eternity — when the Englishman proclaims, in the Long Island hash house Chez D’Irv, his undying love for the young actor. At that moment, Jason Priestley’s Ronnie really does become someone worthy of eternal love.


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