Old Man and the Screen

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Old Man and the Screen by Jessica Winter  

Hollywood so blithely adheres to the paradigm of May-December romance that when August-August liaisons do make it on screen — consider fortyish hottie Rene Russo and fortyish hottie Pierce Brosnan in last month’s The Thomas Crown Affair — it makes something akin to news. Now, on the heels of that bit of casting daredevilry, come two films that take us right back to the familiar churl-meets-girl

category, both hinging on mutual infatuation between middle-aged men and much younger women. At first glance, in fact, American Beauty and Guinevere seem like they might have plots parked precariously near one of Humbert Humbert’s roadside lodges, Hollywood’s worst sexist and ageist tendencies in tow. But heed American Beauty’s coquettish tagline (“Look closer”) and you find a pair of self-aware films that stay closely attuned to the minefields they’re navigating. Although Guinevere is a tepid, often clumsy film, and American Beauty is close to a great one, they share a nuanced take on intergenerational obsession, refusing, ultimately, to place the lion’s share of responsibility on the shoulders of their respective dirty old men.


Sam Mendes’s American Beauty begins with grainy handheld video footage of suburban teen Jane (Thora Birch), filmed by her boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley) as she complains about her “horny geek-boy” father and his yearning for her luscious blond cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari). The geek-boy himself, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), soon takes over the narrative in voice-over, to morbidly comic effect: “In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet. And in a way, I’m dead already.” The first moments of Guinevere are similarly self-referential, combining voice-over and

image-within-image. The screen fills with overexposed, blandly erotic photographs of Harper Sloane (Sarah Polley) as she speaks of the man who took the pictures, Connie (Stephen Rea), a former lover who was thirty years her senior: “He was the worst man I ever met, or maybe the best.” The photos themselves — shadowed, blurry — reflect her conflicted remembrances. Both films’ self-conscious openers assure the viewer that they’re likely to debunk the stereotypes on which they rely.


Guinevere‘s Harper is shy and coltish, twenty-one but younger-looking, and cringingly uncomfortable in her skin. At her sister’s wedding, Harper has a chance encounter with Connie, the hired photographer who takes a kindly interest in her. Soon she’s ditching school, taking a new interest in photography, and moving in with her new mentor-lover, Maynard-Salinger style. Things fall apart: Connie turns out to be a drunk in financial ruin and a serial svengali (his pet name for all his girls is Guinevere, after King Arthur’s adulterous queen). Harper’s mom (Jean Smart) eventually harangues

Connie with a grand, righteous speech, and Harper herself gets a big scene where she angrily — and predictably, in light of the film’s heavy-handed interest in the gaze — turns her camera upon a defeated Connie.


Though not a very strong film, Guinevere is a progressive one in its obvious, ungainly way. A one-dimensional Harper could have been drawn as easily manipulated, trapped in the glare of Connie’s affections. But the story, to its credit, is told from Harper’s perspective, and she portrays herself as a cognizant, willing participant in this claustrophobic affair. Her pleasure is Connie’s turn-on, and their handful of on-camera sexual encounters usually find her retaining his expert services in one form or other. Connie’s turn-ons, it must be said, aren’t the viewer’s, but they enable Harper’s sexual awakening, not her exploitation. What’s more, she stays with Connie long past their passion’s expiration date out of pity and endearment, not intimidation or thrall.


We don’t sense that Harper will come to perceive the romance, as the world might have her, as a grave mistake initiated by a menacing man: Sloane declines stock options on self-pity. She calls her affair with Connie “my glorious fuck-up”: note the possessive. Her mistakes are her own — not ones foisted on her by a preying perv in father-figure drag, — and she’s ruefully grateful to have them. “He’s the first person who’s ever believed in me, even a little bit,” she says; for a short time, that loaded scrap of belief is enough. The erotic life, Harper knows, is as much about fucking up as just plain fucking. And Guinevere endears itself to the viewer not only because it understands this truth, but because it lets Harper tell this to you herself.
The vast majority of female characters in film are portrayed solely in terms of how they relate to a man’s experience; in Guinevere the reverse is the case. It’s a start.


It also means that Harper is a three-dimensional character, not a shiny trophy girlfriend or a sweet slice of American pie: she’s blond (check) and skinny (check), but she’s also clumsy and skittish, sallow-skinned and snaggletoothed and painfully diffident. American Beauty?s pouty-lipped, wasp-waisted Angela, on the other hand, looks and acts like a commercial for an unrealizable ideal. For Spacey’s schlumpy Lester, she represents everything he wants and can’t have. A hack copywriter for a media magazine, Lester feels cowed and anesthetized by a sexless, contempt-poisoned marriage to a wannabe-social X-ray, Carolyn (Annette Bening). He’s jolted out of his years-long stupor by two discrete upheavals: the discovery that he’s probably going to lose the job he hates, and the sight of Angela performing with the cheerleading squad at a basketball game. Thus presented simultaneously with professional mortality and an obsessive, unattainable object of desire, Lester decides — and I’m

paraphrasing more than one critic here — that he has utterly nothing to lose. The prospect is both liberating and horrifying.


He imagines Angela dancing alone, just for him, in the abandoned gymnasium, opening her shirt as blood-red rose petals come shooting out; he dreams of her lying on the ceiling as petals rain down on him in bed, and jerks off to a vision of Angela in his bathtub, swimming in petals. The roses in these hilariously drawn fantasies are from his wife’s impeccably kept garden, the ones cut and arranged in vases around the house alongside the pasta makers and candelabra and crystal and all the other things that Carolyn has acquired and arranged in maintaining her imitation of life. When she interrupts couchside coitus because Lester is about to spill beer on the expensive Italian upholstery, he yells, “It’s just a couch! This is just stuff!” Never mind that the newly reformed Lester — who quits his job, starts flipping burgers at the local fast-food joint, and now compulsively says exactly what he thinks — has just purchased a red Firebird as a totem of his lost, lamented youth. Carolyn’s objects are empty signifiers, while Lester’s stuff — Angela included — at least represents memory, want, desire, and therefore promise. He’d like to fuck Angela, sure, but after a while that visceral urge is only part of an overarching regression-as-reformation.
The girl is what David Byrne would call an “advertisement for a version of myself” — she is not so much a new vision as a messenger from a past in which, Lester dimly remembers, he wasn’t dead yet.


Angela, meanwhile, does not resign herself to accepting Lester’s advances any more than Harper does with Connie; Angela does much of the pursuing, in fact. This balance of wills presents the question that, say, teacher-student harassment cases are made of: as blatant as Angela’s advances seem, does Lester’s eventual reciprocation of them still constitute exploitation? The dilemma gets knottier when we realize that Angela, like most advertising, is not what she appears. In this case, her confidence turns out to be pure pose, a work of play-acting directed both outwardly and inwardly. She is at once her own wish-fulfilling invention and Lester’s, and their mutual self-deceptions make their single, abbreviated encounter seem inevitable and yet terribly, tragically wrong.


Lester’s stricken realization of his false illusion prompts an awakening from a second reverie; he shares with the post-Connie Harper a certain startled lucidity. Lester’s progression — or, depending how you see it, degeneration — from domestic coma to fever dream to mournful clarity is perhaps what Eyes Wide Shut was headed for before it miserably derailed. Mendes’s film (from a script by Alan Ball), to be sure, does not decode Angela so much as reconfigure her as another kind of sign; but in doing so it earns the serene, heartbroken tone of the movie’s close. Some critics detected a mawkish shade coloring the final moments, but to me it evoked the perfectly prosaic and often ridiculous ways that we quell our impossible cravings for ideal love, ideal sex, ideal companionship. American Beauty and fleeting moments of Guinevere remind us that we are not what we have at any given moment but what we want, or wanted once, or what we have forgotten how to want.

©1999 Jessica Winter and Nerve.com