Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Lost Language of Cranes

I apologize profusely for ignoring all my fans out there in the dark for the last few weeks. Things have been just impossible here at Chateau Maine and I have simply been unable to get down to the home theater to view a film for several weeks. My new theatrical project, Mother Teresa: The Musical has simply taken over. My production company has had some trouble finding suitable storage and rehearsal space so I'm putting everybody up here at the Chateau. Set pieces and racks of costumes are simply filling up the halls and the door to the home theater has been blocked for the last few weeks by a large fiberglass flying saucer, built for the second act Outer Space ballet that I've had commissioned to give the show some eleventh hour punch. 

The flurry of activity has left me breathless and the house in some disarray. All of the extra people who need to be supervised has also caused a few headaches. I have asked Joseph, my manager, to please send someone skilled in discipline to the house as soon as possible to bring things under control. There have been far too many objects flying through the air, even when there have been no people around and I do find the occasional knick-knack moving itself to be somewhat disconcerting. When things get to bad, I simply retire to the home studio to work on my routines. I have a lovely little number in a jade green hoopskirt that opens the show, all about the joys of girlhood in 19th century Albania, or was that Alabama? Not that historical accuracy matters much - it's the overall emotional impact of the show that's going to make it an artistic triumph. 

I did finally squeeze in behind the flying saucer and into the home theater last night for a film. I was absolutely exhausted after several weeks of Hollywood cocktail parties, schmoozing up potential investors. I collapsed on a handy Ottoman, but not before spying a copy of The Lost Language of Cranes. As I had an idea for an ornithology number where Mother Teresa and St. Francis talk to the birds, I decided it might be just the thing for some rest, relaxation and inspiration. I popped it in and settled down with some Glenlivet and ice. 

I was a bit disappointed to find out that the cranes of the title are those of the construction rather than of the avian variety and that there was no bird life of any kind on view. What did unfold was a TV film from the BBC from 1991, based on the novel by American author David Leavitt. At the time, US studios and television was steering away from overtly gay subject matter, especially adaptations of literary American novels. The British, on the other hand, had no such compunctions. Sean Mathias, who later adapted Bent for the screen, provided the screenplay and it was directed for the BBC with some sensitivity by Nigel Finch. 

The Lost Language of Cranes is the story of a middle-class British family. Father Owen (Brian Cox) is an academic, mother Rose (Eileen Atkins) is in publishing as is there grown son Philip (Angus MacFadyen). Philip, who is out socially to his friends and colleagues, but not to his parents, is having a passionate affair with the moody American, Elliot (Corey Parker). Elliot, who is something of a prick, besides being gay, was actually raised by two gay men after the death of his mother (Rene Auberjonois and director John Schlesinger). Being around Elliot convinces Philip that the time has come for him to tell his parents about his life. 

Philip's announcement is met with tight lipped British reserve by the senior members of the family, but it tips Owen over the edge into examining his own life. For years, he has secretly been meeting men for furtive sexual encounters and, now that the subject of homosexuality has been brought into the family, he has doubts about his choices, guilt at what he has done to his wife, and anger that in his generation, he was not free to live as an out gay man and have a successful life. Father and son start to have parallel coming out processes. As in life, there are no easy answers and the plot does not resolve itself with a neat bow with every character getting what they deserve. At the end, the three protagonists are all adjusting but the future remains unsettled. 

The title refers to a textbook case in the psychology of language being studied by Philip's friend Jerene (Cathy Tyson in a throw away role). A small child, neglected by his parents, learns to communicate by watching building cranes on a nearby construction site. (A story element apparently lifted from the children's book Are You My Mother?) Who this child is or how he relates to our characters is never explained and I expect he is supposed to be a metaphor for the inabilities to communicate that exist in the family. However, these scenes are not well integrated with the domestic drama and the concept falls flat. It's the sort of device that works well on the page but that is not conducive to translation into the visual medium of film. 

The film starts off rather slowly and a bit disjointed, but by the time Philip makes his announcement and his parents begin their journey of self discovery, it picks up steam. The fine performances of Brian Cox and Eileen Atkins, both first rate actors, make the final forty five minutes hum along. You begin to feel the very real anguish they're going through and care deeply about where they're going to end up. The film is worth viewing for Ms. Atkins' restrained performance at scenes revolving around a dinner party when much that is never spoken is revealed. Angus MacFadyen, in his film debut, also acquits himself well. 

As this is a BBC telefilm, the production values are essentially non-existent but, as it's a modern day domestic drama, they aren't especially missed. The spot on performances more than make up for it. The weakest link is Mr. Parker. I'm not sure if it's his American style up against some of the best British actors or if it's the essential unlikeability of the character. Fortunately, he disappears part way through, but not before removing his shirt once or twice. As this is a film about homosexual relationships, there are some same sex kisses, implied sexual activity and shirtless torsos, but the average hour of US daytime drama is steamier and seamier. 

Large building site. River walk. Lasagna dinner. Adult cinema. Gay piano bar. Married builder. Renters dilemma. Bartender sex.

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