Monday, June 19, 2006

Sandra and Keanu Reunite Via Magic Mail Box

The last time I had a conversation with the Duluth seamstress was in September 2001, nearly five years ago. The previous time we had a conversation was over a dozen years before that. Yet in all honesty hardly a day has gone by in all that time that I haven't talked to her. She seemed honored when I told her that during what was probably the last conversation we will ever have.

I mucked up that friendship mighty fine but her love and friendship will never leave me. She was the one following my hospitalization for head problems, when all seemed lost, who did the one thing no one else in my life seemed capable of doing anymore: she made me smile. Just as importantly I found a long lost side of me through our friendship. I found my sense of humor again. In a time it seemed impossible, whenever I was around her I felt like myself again for the first time in a long time. I don't know a bigger compliment that I'll ever be able to give to another person.

Thus the timing of meeting her was important to what she came to mean to me. Likewise if my head had been where my heart was (in a better place) at the time I think our relationship might have lasted a whole lot longer.

I tried to put the Duluth seamstress behind me by fictionalizing her. She was a major character in the great unpublished novel that has only gathered dust in my bedroom closet. There were times that tact was successful- I wasn't entirely sure I hadn't made her up in some desperate dream.

But it was through some real fiction that the "she's only a character" strategy dissolved into the watery stuff that flows from the eye ducts. When I saw Sandra Bullock play a bit part in a Sylvester Stallone sci-fi movie I was immediately struck at how much she somehow reminded me deeply of the Duluth seamstress. I wasn't exactly sure what it was about Bullock that made that watery stuff start flowing uncontrollably during the unintentionally comedic Demolition Man. Was it her eyes? Her eyebrows? Her smile? Her face? Her voice? Her down to earth sense of humor? I've never been able to answer that.

Since Bullock became a star with Speed, I've made it a point to try and see each and every one of her movies if not on opening day, then shortly after. I'll be the first to confess it is a pathetic effort to feel like I'm going to a movie again with my all time favorite movie going partner. During our chat in 2001 I asked the Duluth seamstress if anyone had ever told her she reminded him/her of Sandra Bullock. "Only about a thousand times," she said. "In fact this guy carding me at the liquor store this morning said that." I couldn't help but think throughout this last conversation that she not only seemed a bit freaked that I called, but she also seemed a little sad about what happened between us.

Bullock's latest film, The Lake House, reunites her with her Speed co-star, Keanu Reeves. The Lake House couldn't be anymore different than Speed. It doesn't have any flying buses or wild chase scenes or wall to wall action. Most of the movie takes place with Bullock or Reeves' character reading a letter to the other. (This latter film does have a couple of references to the earlier film- there's a bus accident that plays a major role in the plot; both characters' dog is named "Jack"- the name of Reeves character in Speed. Indeed The Lake House's plot reaffirms what Bullock's character repeated over and over to Jack in Speed: that relationships that begin under extreme circumstances seldom last.)

The Lake House is a remake of a Korean movie called Il Mare and its complicated (and almost fairy tale like) storyline seem foreign to an American movie and almost standard for films made in other countries. Both characters live in the same house only two years apart. Through the magic of a mail box, the characters are able to communicate with one another.

Not much happens in the movie other than two people fall in love. The beauty of The Lake House is that the movie well understands that two people falling in love happens every day but it still doesn't happen nearly often enough.

Given the story's unique plot device one has to suspend logic in order to be able to enjoy The Lake House. I'm not even sure given the rules of the world in the movie that the ending makes sense. But still this isn't a movie like any I've seen before and by the end I was blubbering, a sniffling wreck of a human being. And this time around I don't even think this emotional state had anything to do with my odd affection to Sandra Bullock. By the end of the movie I truly cared what happened to the two characters, wishing despite the odds and the circumstances that they would end up together.

The Lake House tells a convincing (albeit odd) story about how timing has as much to do if not more, with our place in the world in whether a relationship will succeed or not. The movie contains my favorite Keanu Reeves performance. He hits all the right notes as a decent, yet damaged architect. There's a scene where Bullock's character gives Reeves' character a gift, a book from the future that contains a very personal photograph, and given some difficult circumstances, Reeves begins to weep. It's a perfect scene. All the right emotions are expressed through his acting and verbal cues and not a word, and no music are needed to make it all work.

Likewise in many ways this is Bullock's best movie yet. Her character is sad and lonely, quite aware of how her withdrawal from the world into her work and how her relationship with Reeves only adds to what is in a way wrong with the woman she has become. Bullock has shown in every one of her movies (except for the dreadful Miss Congeniality duo) that she understands that playing a role understated is often more effective than going over the top with something flashier. The Lake House features her most understated performance to date. She is sad and it isn't the absence of her smile that she uses to convey it. It's her body language. She looks weary here and even the events from a magic mail box doesn't seem capable of shaking her back to life.

The day before I saw The Lake House I happened to watch Charlie Chaplin's last silent film, the brilliant Modern Times for the first time. There isn't a whole lot of similarities between the two movies yet both left me with a similar feeling of a re-energized, if still reserved hope of going out and facing the world again.

Modern Times has a lot of great things going for it. There's Chaplin's sheer genius for physical comedy. (There's a scene where Charlie's character has accidentally ingested some cocaine while in prison and as he tries to march back to his cell with the rest of the prisoners after dinner, he does these snappy little twirls that are a delight.) There's also a spellbinding performance by Paulette Goddard (as the "gamin") whose joy and energy simply radiate off the screen. My favorite moment of the film though is when Charlie's character is coerced into accepting a job as a waiter and part of that job requires him to do a song for the restaurant patrons. Since talking movies were the wave of the future and Chaplin's silent skills all of a sudden were a thing of the past- the challenge for the character seem to be Chaplin's way of answering anyone skeptical of his ability to survive in the movies if he chose to do so (he didn't). The character is shy and nervous about singing in public for the first time and Chaplin plays this for all it's worth. And yet when he does finally sing it's a wonderful performance. It's the greatest cinematic middle finger gleefully ever given.

Ironically Modern Times has proven to be timeless. It's the story of the might and weakness of labor unions and the corruption of power in a world devoted no matter what to technological advances despite the human costs. Watching the movie is like having the ability to reach into a magical movie mail box to another time to not only appreciate the history of what once was but also understand how what once was has made this world a better place after all.

Likewise The Lake House given many critics' scorn and indifference will likely disappear as one of many failed summer movies of 2006. Yet I can foresee a time a couple of years from now when someone discovering this movie will unexpectedly be transported to another time and another place. That's the beauty of a good movie- it can take us to a place where we've never been before and yet still returns us to where we've never been quite able to leave behind.

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