Arts & Culture

Summer Viewing: Starting Out in the Evening

There’s a New York you don’t read about anymore but you should. It’s the one in which the Ansonia is still a residence hotel on the Upper West Side, catering to dying salesmen, down-at-heel hucksters, and catchpenny gutter philosophers. It’s … Read More

By / July 17, 2008

There’s a New York you don’t read about anymore but you should. It’s the one in which the Ansonia is still a residence hotel on the Upper West Side, catering to dying salesmen, down-at-heel hucksters, and catchpenny gutter philosophers. It’s the one where you walk into a Woolworth’s to discuss Marx and Wilde while having your roast beef flooded with flour gravy. It’s the one where middle-class poverty is not only livable but the cause for political fellowship, and where cigarettes are allowed everywhere, and you get a strange look if you ask someone to put his out. It’s the New York of Leonard Schiller in bloom. Sadly, when we meet him in Starting Out in the Evening, a subtle and fine film that was adapted from Brian Morton’s novel of the same name and recently released on DVD, most of the color has gone out of his life and work. Played wonderfully by Frank Langella, Leonard is a forgotten novelist and who’s been writing his fifth and, in all likelihood, final book for about a decade. His others, bearing titles such as Tenderness and The Lost City, have long been out of print, and he seems resigned to his status as a has-been until an ambitious and comely young graduate student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) offers to help revive his reputation by writing her Masters thesis on him. This is the moment some older gentlemen of letters must wait for all their lives, but Leonard is reluctant. He wants to be left alone in his hermitage, and nothing about him, from his careful and precise speech to his outdated wardrobe, makes this request appear confected out of false modesty. After being told by a publisher that the industry is now all “celebrity confessions and self-help books,” Leonard reconsiders. However, in agreeing to be interviewed and scrutinized, especially by a biographer-critic who wears her confidence as lushly as her lipstick, he is soon drawn into the kind of literary relationship that has felled less disciplined talents. I suppose I’ve already given the game away, but Leonard’s dynamic with Heather turns out to be less Johnson and Boswell, more Salinger and Maynard. There are moments that do seem forced and incredible between the two; one involving honey, more about which you’ll have to hate me for not disclosing. Yet there is a quiet dignity, on par with Schiller’s own, to the way director Andrew Wagner allows what could have been a queasy and eccentric love affair – Harold and Maude take Broadway, with the gender roles reversed – to develop as naturally as any other. It helps that that common language is a dead one: literature. “A New York Jew imitates D.H. Lawrence at his own peril,” Leonard tells Heather in answer to one of her early questions, delivering a line that may not send the average twentysomething’s panties flying off, but has a definite effect on her. Heather finds men her own age like chewing gum, “ten minutes of flavor, then just bland repetition," and she is both worshipful and peremptory toward Leonard, taking liberties she thinks that having an intimate knowledge of his fictional characters has afforded her with respect to his own secluded existence. But even her easy working rapport with her subject doesn’t give her the right to interrupt his daily writing schedule (“Maybe a little shakeup in the routine is just what Leonard needs”), which he adheres to with a religious exactness. Indeed, a scene of Leonard hunched over his typewriter with his hands folded as if in prayer opens and closes Starting Out, two bookends reminding us that we should seek elsewhere for a romantic study of an artistic lion in winter. Another bookend to complement the theme of Leonard and Heather: the fractious on-again off-again relationship Leonard’s daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), a failed dancer turned pilates instructor, shares with Casey (Adrian Lester), recently moved back to New York from Chicago, whose refusal to conceive a child with her accounts for the off-again bit. Though gentle and disarming, Casey has big plans of his own – he wants to found a leftwing little magazine – and they only include Ariel as a sideline cheerleader. She kids herself that their second go-round can remain “hot and light,” and his self-absorption is amplified by Leonard’s lone recognition of it; though that, too, like an aged oeuvre, can be forgotten. After Leonard suffers a debilitating stroke, it falls to Casey to help him through one humiliating geriatric episode. The result is another unlikely bond forged between young and old, and this one actually seems stronger. It should be noted that the title of Morton’s novel borrowed from Alfred Kazin’s Starting Out in the Thirties, one of the more eloquent – if also mean-spirited and score-settling – memoirs about the celebrated New York Intellectuals, of which Leonard was clearly envisioned as one. (Kazin had a brief cameo in the book.) So it’s a shame there’s only a single direct on-screen allusion made to this dazzling and mythologized milieu, and that it’s made by an editor at the Village Voice: “Bellow, Schwartz. To be honest, I was never really interested in that crowd. I imagined them as a bunch of white guys in suits going to bed early.” That’s as good a reason as any to remember why you stopped reading the Voice. Here’s Schwartz filtered through Bellow in Humbolt’s Gift: “You don't know what you're missing. I'm a poet. I have a big cock.” Who knows? There might have been a time when even the mannered Leonard Schiller talked like that.