' Cinema Romantico: The Bridges Of Madison County

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Bridges Of Madison County

"He was not one of these people. They were stoics and he was a romantic. He had married the wrong woman and thereby missed out on his destiny...God, with His fine sense of humor, had dropped him here among the Lutherans, a Spaniard by the waters of Lake Wobegon." - Garrison Keillor, "Liberty"

Strangely, I had never seen Clint Eastwood's (whose new movie - "Hereafter" - is out today) infamous adaptation of Robert James Waller's schmaltzy (supposedly - I've never read it) novella of the same title. I say strangely because I grew up in the county next door to Madison County. It just seems like I should have seen it, right? So why didn't I? Well, it was released in 1995, in the summer between my junior and senior year at high school. I mean, come on, I was more concerned with seeing "Batman Forever" and "Waterworld." Also, I encountered two couples from my church at the pizza place where I worked who had just seen the movie and their verdict: the husbands hated it, the wives loved it. That's all I remember about the movie at the time. Men were supposed to think it was the worst thing ever and women were supposed to think vice-versa. (I also enjoyed Dave Barry's take on the whole subject.)

Since that time, though, I'd grown older and "wiser." I'd learned to appreciate the mega-brilliance of Meryl and Clint had made my second favorite movie ever. And when I saw it on TMC late one night, well, I knew the moment had arrived.

It opens in the present. The mother of Michael (Victor Slezak) and Caroline (Annie Corley) has died. They learn she wants to be cremated and have her ashes scattered near a particular covered bridge. They find her diaries and learned she had an affair. Occassionally throughout the film we flash back to these two to find they have problems mirroring their mother's and they use this shocking discovery to better their situations. Watching these force-fed, artificial scenes play out I could not help but wonder why screenwriter Richard LaGravanese had not excised them from his script. Whoops! After seeing the movie I learned that, in fact, LaGravanese had invented them specifically for his script! Why?! The esteemed Roger Ebert, who otherwise did not like this device but felt it "necessary", wrote: "the whole emotional tone of the romance depends on it belonging to the lost past." But is it not the director's job to evoke the feeling of it belonging to the lost past? Meanwhile the lessons learned by Michael and Caroline as the film returns to them every now and then comes across as the sub-standard version of the real story we're seeing in the sixties.

Yeah, the real story. Francesa Johnson (Meryl Streep) is a housewife in Winterset who long ago gave up her job as a teacher to tend to the son and daughter of she and her husband Richard, who seems nice enough but says about 9 words throughout the film and usually wears overalls. When Richard and the kids head off for the Illinois State Fair to showcase a prize steer, Francesa gets the farmhouse to herself for four days but not more than, what, 42 minutes after the family has left who should come barreling up the gravel driveway but Robert Kincaid. That is, handsome, dashing, worldly Robert Kincaid, played by Eastwood himself with windswept hair in a performance that is rather understated and natural and also willingly gives the spotlight to Streep. But more on her in a minute.

Robert is a photographer for National Geographic sent to rural Iowa for some photos of these famed bridges. He is lost. Francesa hops in his truck and takes him to the first bridge on his list. She invites him back to her house for iced tea and then for dinner and so on and so forth and we all know where this is headed.

I was vaguely aware of the big to-do at the time of Eastwood helming this material and how it seemed like he was the wrong guy to pull off this melodramatic enterprise. Yet, really, honestly, could anyone else have pulled it off? That economic, un-ornamental style of Eastwood's was the only style that could have made all this work. If Spike Lee's camera is like the NBA Slam Dunk Contest and if Paul Greengrass's camera is like the Cyclone at Coney Island then Clint Eastwood's camera is a guy just chilling on a park bench and contemplating. That's all it does. It contemplates. There is not a new way to say it so I'll just say it again - with some material this works splendidly, with some material it does not. This is the right material. By being so matter of fact he properly reduces the melodrama. As I recall there is hardly even a conventional music score. Most of the music comes out of a kitchen radio. Authenticity. And he lets Meryl be Meryl.

I'm sure her Italian accent is fine. I really don't know. What I do know is this is a performance of immense physicality, which is to say her multitude of mannerisms here are not for show but for a higher purpose. She wraps her arms around herself as if she is holding something inside that longs to get out and the way she simultaneously generates unease and excitement around Kincaid with just her reactions is the precise definition of an actress conveying a character's innermost feelings all on her own. And her breakdown in the truck in the pouring rain (I mean, the pouring rain, for God's sake!) while her husband remains oblivious could have easily turned into the lead in the Pottawattamie County Ice Cream Social production going for her Oscar, but Meryl makes it hurt. What can I say that hasn't been said about her? She's a national treasure, a virtual Panama Canal of acting prowess.

(Important Note: She was nominated for Best Actress, correctly, but as noted awhile back this Oscar was supposed to be Elisabeth Shue's for "Leaving Las Vegas" who took the most familiar archetype imaginable - Hooker With A Heart Of Gold - and made her sweat beads of reality to such a degree that no one should ever play a Hooker With A Heart Of Gold again. Instead Susan Sarandon won for playing a nun. Damn you, Sarandon.)

It is a typical contrivance of films to have the Unlikeable Spouse so we can cheer for the lead actor or actress to wind up with the Soulmate. This argument, I suppose, could be leveled at "The Bridges Of Madison County" but I don't see it that way. Let's face it, in real life there really are Unlikeable Spouses. Often they are not even in Unlikeable so much as they are merely Indifferent. Passion is long done gone. The game is over and it's time to just run out the clock. Anyone who thinks these sorts of marriages are just movie mechanics are in denial. These sorts of marriages are all over the place. And what "The Bridges Of Madison County" knows above all else is that more often than not people will stick these marriages out, a sentiment which was captured in totality by (who else?) Planet Earth Poet Laureate Bruce Springsteen when he wrote: "Our love may be cold but with you forever I'll stay."

Robert Kincaid might just be Francesa Johnson's one true love. But Robert Kincaid isn't who she pledged to love and honor all the days of her life, is he?

4 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I loathe this movie, loathe it. It's easily my least favourite nominated performance of Streep (including the unbearably bland Music of the Heart). I just hate everything about it. This is the sort of movie that comes on and gives me a headache.

And if we're going to argue about the 1995 Best Actress race (though I'd STILL give it to Sarandon) we can't NOT talk about Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Just saying.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Nicole Kidman. "To Die For." Touché. It's been a long while since I've seen that movie but that was a great performance, whether nominated or not.

The heart knows what it likes, though, and my heart will forever be aligned with Elisabeth Shue's Sera.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Well, she IS the best thing in the movie by a longshot. Kind of sucks that she's forgotten today and Nicolas Cage is in every other movie. That's Hollywood for you.

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