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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Gatherings, Part 2 (originally published 8/01)

There is a certain type of television commercial in which gatherings of family and old friends are portrayed with a kind of nostalgic glow, all warm and fuzzy. The implication, usually, is that you would never have had this kind of nurturing cocoon had you not used the sponsor's product.

But for those of us who live in the real world, rather than in Madison Avenue's parallel universe, such gatherings rarely exude the kind of unadulterated succor and solace to be found in these commercials. When circumstance brings us together with those who know and love us best, we know that there may well be just as many fights as reconciliations, and just as much pain as there is healing. This is the group dynamic that drives films like "The Anniversary Party," which is currently in theatrical release. As we saw last week, this type of situation has also provided the premise for lots of earlier films. Here are a few more such titles to look for on home video.

"Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962). In his most directly personal work, playwright Eugene O'Neill takes us on a guided tour through the nightmarish life of the Tyrone family through the simple process of allowing us to spend an evening with them. Despite the name change, this is transparently a portrait of O'Neill's own family, brimming with the mortal psychological wounds that only loved ones can inflict. The cast of director Sidney Lumet's film version is first-rate: Ralph Richardson as the alcoholic father; Katharine Hepburn as the drug-addicted mother; Jason Robards, Jr., as the cynical older brother; and Dean Stockwell as the sensitive younger brother. Be sure you see the uncut, 179-minute version, not the truncated 136-minute release.

"The Gathering" (1977). In this made for television movie, Ed Asner stars as a hard-driving executive who has been estranged from his family for some time. One Christmas, he receives an ugly present from his doctor - the news that he doesn't have long to live. His wife, played by Maureen Stapleton, persuades him to arrange a Christmas reunion with their four grown children. He insists, however, that they not be told about his condition. Although sentimental, screenwriter James Poe's script never descends to the level of schmaltz. This film is no longer available on video, but older copies remain available for rental.

"The Big Chill" (1983). Last week I recommended a small independent film written and directed by John Sayles called "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980). "The Big Chill," directed by Lawrence Kasdan and written by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, covers very much the same ground in the mainstream Hollywood idiom. It reminds me of a Pat Boone "cover" version of a Little Richard song. The melody is the same, but the tone is different, and a great many of the subtleties of phrasing are missing. This is not to say that Kasdan's film is without merit, however. It isn't much of a put-down to say that a script doesn't measure up to Sayles's standard. Kasdan, like Sayles, shows us a gathering of friends who were in college together during the 1960s, and who are re-examining the paths their lives have taken while wondering when and how they lost their youthful ideals.

"Come Back To the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982). In 1955, James Dean came to Texas to give his last film performance in "Giant" (1956). This is the story of six members of the James Dean fan club of McCarthy, Texas, for whom their idol's presence in their midst was a transcendental moment. Twenty years after Dean's fatal car crash, the club reassembles in a small McCarthy dime store. The main characters are Jo (Karen Black), Sissy (Cher), and Mona (Sandy Dennis). As flashbacks weave in and out of present-day scenes, we watch with mounting dismay as secrets are revealed and carefully nurtured delusions are shattered. Mona, for example, is forced to abandon her cherished fantasy that her son is Dean's love child. Director Robert Altman had originally mounted this play on the stage, then used the same sets to inexpensively translate it to film.

Interest in Dean's work, by the way, is experiencing a bit of a revival, owing to a recent made-for-cable fictionalization of his life. Next week we'll take a look back at his brief but unforgettable film career.

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