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Smooch operator Keith Gordon's 'Waking The Dead'

By Ray Pride

MARCH 28, 2000:  Love does not come to the end, goes a verse in the Bible... thus sayeth the Lord.

Based on the wonderful exemplar of Keith Gordon's "Waking the Dead," the Lord was not in denial when he said that. A far from perfect movie, the 39-year-old Gordon's fourth feature somehow may be a perfect romance. Start with the lead actors, Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, and their first looks at one another, the exchange of glances that unfurls as Fielding Pierce (Crudup) walks into the publishing house owned by his hippie brother in 1972. I'm not totally a sap for a fierce, desperate romance, but I knew that as a director of actors, as a director of this romance, Gordon had just wrought for me a "You had me at hello" moment. When Fielding lays eyes on activist assistant Sarah Williams (Connelly), I could only hope that the rest of the film would be as attentive to gesture, moment, chemistry. Crudup's eyes widen a bit, he almost smirks, but in a way that diminishes instead of heightens his cheekboned finery. Connelly's smile is both shy and bold, and when it breaks wide, notice her lip catching, tickling just above her shiny white teeth.

We are in the relentless present tense of the get-to-know you. It's the middle of the Vietnam War and he's sheathed in a Coast Guard uniform. "C'mon, can't we think of this as a wartime romance?" he jokes. She resists. He persists. There is a standoff. He plays with her hair. They say goodnight. She yells from her window, tosses him keys. The play begins.

Anything central to the romance is piercingly good. There are side characters and subplots that are not as thoroughly nuanced. Yet when you see these two actors melting into their roles and one another, you see a fine director of actors pouring out his deep-held notions about romance and the thrall of romantic love.

I love how the characters talk to each other about life and love. There are talks about politics, particularly because Fielding perhaps wants to become president one day. She tells him that she wants "a life of unbelievable adventure and profligacy -- and at the last possible moment, sainthood. I want a life that makes sense." This is purple prose, some of it drawn from Scott Spencer's novel, yet it is never prosaic in Gordon's adaptation. Everyone should want to be prompted to speak in this effortless fashion when they open their heart to trust -- no fear of betrayal, no fear of double-talk, no fear of revenge to be had if betrayal comes. Only their longing for endless love, innocent, naive, and awfully pretty to look upon, seems foolish.

Sarah is privileged and Fielding comes from the working class. If he becomes a Chicago D.A., perhaps he can become Senator, and, if life clicks, do good from the White House. Gordon's budget is limited, considering his ambitions, and several cities and decades are confected out of Montreal locations. The always-underfinanced director pulls neat little tricks to distract us from the conflict between cash and his storytelling needs. But again, I don't mind a damn thing around them.

The great tragedy of the film, which is indicated quickly, is that Sarah's life is cut short. Can you cauterize your veins, can you forget a great love? Can the heart be caught in amber? You know the answer: no. She returns. Flesh? Phantasm? Fever dream? See it; you decide.

I felt alive watching this movie. If I used those words to describe many movies, I would be talking about the sensation of my leg falling asleep, rumble of the belly, getting bored and stealing glances at my date. But for me, "Waking the Dead" is electrified ecstasy: all of Spencer's language falls away, the flaws and bumps of Gordon's loving yet fiscally undernourished production melt into air. Two actors of immaculate subtlety and critically unassailable bone structure match eyelines and cannot, cannot ever let go, through rhetoric, cant, disagreement, death. Some of us merely live with our ghosts.

Sarah and Fielding, as the timeless lovers, embrace consuming passion, and Fielding honors her with the undying respect that love demands.

Gordon wears his heart well. It becomes him. He rejects irony and sobs alongside his gorgeous, forlorn lovers. "Waking the Dead" is a film about loss that you cannot regret. Perfect love is an ideal dream, full of idolization, idealization. Yet Gordon as writer and director has made something remarkable -- an imperfect movie the central performances of which are as delicate and right and true as any gentle yet urgent first kiss that you will not admit to remembering yet cherish to this day. (From my lips to your ears.)


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