|The Man from Elysian Fields: Snakes and Wordsmiths|
Columbia Tri-Star (DVD), ASIN B000087F7R
What modern writer does not owe Ernest Hemingway an enormous debt? His prose demonstrates the impact of a single word. Simultaneously, his famous Iceberg Theory omits every element that a reader already knows. Overall, his conquest of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes leaves his literary descendants gasping in his wake.
No movie makes this point more clearly than The Man from Elysian Fields, which alludes to the literary giant in its opening scene. With Andy Garcia playing the ambitious Byron Tiller, the film expands the warnings found in A Moveable Feast. This memoir described the villains awaiting those with dreams of publishing the magnum opus. The rich, both coming and going, tormented Hemingway from the beginning to the end of his years beside the Seine.
In place of Paris, however, this movie sets the Hemingway hero down in California, where, it suggests, more than one Pulitzer prizewinner dwells. Instead, Garcia encounters the mysterious Luther Fox, brilliantly played by another icon -- Mick Jagger. If the devil ever appears in broad daylight, surely he will saunter like this limber rock star. Every nuance of his protean face underscores the temptations sending a writer straight to psychological hell.
In fact, though, Fox claims credit for leading the naïve Tiller in the opposite direction. His business, Elysian Fields, supplies the marathon writer with an income even while it wrecks his private life. The plot parallels selected facts of Hemingway's own expatriate existence in the twenties -- the loving wife, a doll of a son, extramarital romance, and connections with an artistic world too glittering to offer salvation.
First-rate casting characterizes the actresses in this film. As the supportive helpmate, Julianna Margulies maximizes the sensuality of the ingénue. Her anger at her spouse climaxes in scenes of reserve, requiring the full range of a major talent. Her foil, Olivia Williams, perfectly captures the benign impression of an author's angel. Will someone unveil her treachery before it staggers our wannabe?
Premier among the film's pantheon of con artists, the Pulitzer prize-winning Tobias Alcott (James Coburn) devotes the remainder of his life to exploiting his competition. Only Shakespeare, perhaps, critiques the great more thoroughly than this movie. "Lilies that fester," the Bard of Avon lectures, "smell far worse than weeds" (Sonnet 94. 14). The white mane of the bard may not symbolize a lily, but neither will Alcott willingly retreat into the dark night of failing inspiration.
This movie should be required viewing for all Hemingway imitators. That famous progenitor left us his account of an artistic Eden, where human snakes lie in ambush. This film's scriptwriter, Phillip Jayson Lasker, unleashes an emotional meltdown: His trumped Casanova battles to burn shame into glory.
For a fiendish ride through the perils of success, order this film immediately -- watch it for every last drop of insight. Released in 2002, its vision will never lose currency.
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