DETOUR AT BLISS COUNTY
Clint Eastwood’s version of Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County plays the adultery-with-meaning game in just the way the blue hairs must empathize with because during the viewing I saw they were sobbing into their Puffs as if confessing their own “forbidden” loves. Listening to the sniffles, I got a case of the chills thinking that what may be at the root of so many of our social problems isn’t the lack of personal values but the ruinous insistence on trying to live out someone else’s. Waller’s boobheaded novel is the Love Story of the 90s, but it owes its apparently very strong emotional wallop to Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. Waller’s weepy opus may go one step further into unaccredited attribution—it’s the equivalent of a Joseph Campbell-inspired romancer; and the movie has been filtered through the new found feminization of Eastwood as—are you ready?—Alan Alda as sensual Johnny Hartman. Unfortunately Eastwood as Robert the Holy Grail and Meryl Streep as Francesca the Martyress don’t use the power of their common sense to at least “follow their bliss” to meet at the same time every year. Oh no, not these two: instead, they endure torturous, long-separated silence until the very end, when they’re joined in death at one of Madison County’s fabled bridges in a way they never could be in life. The less you think about it, the more Madison County works; the more you think about it, the less tolerant you become: how convenient that, even considering the cool down after heated sex, it gets chilly enough during a hot Iowa summer night that a fire place can rage. Eastwood seems to have inherited the physical legacy of Henry Fonda—it’s in Eastwood’s minimal utterances, his slight slump of the shoulders, his flattened fanny, his gait. And in these later years, he’s become rather winsome in the way he looks fatigued and simian, not unlike one of his co-stars in Every Which Way but Loose. As Waller’s romanticized National Geographic photographer, he has moments that are his gifts to the ladies. The first kiss between Robert and Francesca is unlike anything Eastwood’s done before and viewers are being swayed by the gentility: we can believe and feel the tenderness of his slow motion advances. It’s as if he’s read the latest women’s woes-about-men books and Ann Landers’ columns about women preferring cuddling, endless smooching, almost eternal foreplay. Eastwood’s Robert is in search of a goddess as certainty; despite his nomadic lifestyle, which otherwise necessitates self-reliance, he’s powered by the transcendental—that impossible quest for the ideal woman. Unlike the carpers who thought Streep would be wrong as Francesca, I believed from the start that she’d probably pull it off. (Had a younger actor been cast as Robert, Isabella Rossellini would have been the only other choice.) Cutting back on the thickness of an Italian accent (which sounds close to Arianna Huffington), looking almost plumpy, Streep’s Francesca, as if by environmental osmosis, has become Iowa-ized, and part of Streep’s business—her anxious jitters, her furtive peaks at the new man in town, her first dance and kiss—belong to the character. As actress, however, Streep may be too anxious, caught with a case of the shpilkes, causing us to start watching her more closely than we might want to: as in Silkwood, she can’t smoke cigarettes convincingly (yet why is it that in some of her movies she knows how to inhale grass?) and though we notice that through Francesca’s boredom she maintains a clean house, we spot the somewhat dingy kitchen sink and stove and wonder why they haven’t been Ajaxed. Richard LaGravenese’s script, faithful to Waller’s sap, loads onto Streep and Eastwood scenes that go on and on, and poor Streep suffers the most: when laden with a mixture of desire and false blame after a first round of love making, her brunt conflictions against Eastwood are right out of Psyche 101. As you think about it—and, reiterating, thinking about this movie is very dangerous—Streep’s spewing is like a bulimic’s purging; it’s not pleasure she’s upchucking, it’s a lifetime of regret. The final purge—for me, anyway—is the “Last Supper.” Francesca manages to collect herself, coming to terms with her commitment to her loveless marriage, and there’s Robert, pouring the booze of commiseration. All I could think about during this dreariness was whether the insect stealing the scene was intentional. If still vogue, Streep’s “auteur” is that her characters, even in comedy, carry more impedimenta than her co-stars. (Only Nicholson in Ironweed matches the weighty baggage.) So of course Streep’s burdens are far heavier to carry than Eastwood’s, that her Francesca has to be satisfied that an intense four day affair will endure the coming years of the pain of being married to the meal ticket who’s also the father of her two children. The legacy of Francesca’s dissatisfaction is almost the fate of her daughter too, until she discovers the “meaning” of the bridges of Madison County. Typical of lamebrained romantic writers—sacrificing the heroine’s own glory of love while thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to bequeath it to a dipshit the audience couldn’t give a damn about.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.