Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is Elegy a Eulogy for the Sexual Revolultion?

In literature, an elegy is a mournful, melancholic or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead.~Wikipedia

From the start we know the film’s theme. The opening scene features the acclaimed author and professor of literature David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) being interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show talking about a colony down the road from the Puritans that relished sensuality but was ultimately wiped out by the hardline Puritans, their “maypole” cut down. Fortunately, according to Kepesh, the Sixties came along and open sexuality re-surfaced, a glorious time to be celebrated.

This is followed by a private monologue that comes across as honest, challenging and vulnerable, an older man thinking about the waning of his years and his sexuality. His public face is boastful and confident, but privately we see an anxious man. In this manner the film’s theme is established:

I think it was Betty Davis who said old age is not for sissies. But it was Tolstoy who said the biggest surprise in a man's life is old age. Old age sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know you're asking yourself, I'm asking myself, why can't an old man act his real age? How is it possible for me to still be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy? Because, in my head, nothing has changed.

As the story unfolds we see a man who has spent a lifetime ritually taking advantage of his power as an authority figure to whisk away the hearts of his various college students over the years, sexually possessing them one by one. For decades he has been the beneficiary, for his own ends, of the “liberation” he has written about.

Elegy is the story of David Kepesh, an aging professor who unexpectedly gets emotionally entangled with his latest conquest, Consuela, a young Cuban student played by Penelope Cruz. And what is potentially a story that is both challenging and enlightening film falters and falls. Why? Because Hollywood, just like David Kepesh, has a habit of treating women as sex objects instead of people.

As one imdb.com reviewer put it, “At times funny and heartbreakingly moving, this movie mostly just makes you think how lazy most men are when it comes to relationships. I found it interesting how even a cultural critic, a man who spends his life looking for deeper meaning in everything, can look at a woman and only see a sex toy.”

Here is a professor of literature, influential enough to be a celebrity, and the most meaningful thing he can say to this young woman is that she has “beautiful breasts”… Oh wait, he says "the most beautiful breasts he has ever seen in his life." What does this say about his values? That women are essentially sex objects and this is his best Barbie doll ever? This is a young woman in a Master's degree program and not once do you here dialogue about political issues or the challenges of post-modern philosophy. We only learn how many boy friends she's had sex with and how many he's bedded.

Where is there any candid discussion about the meaning of life? The film shows a man over-analytical and ever-wrestling with self-doubt, hope and despair. But where is the character development in Consuela? She doesn’t want to be like her parents. She likes his piano playing. She wants to travel, but that's about it.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

There are additional characters in the film worth noting, especially George O'Hairn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning confidant played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper is very good in the role of confidant and sounding board. Later we meet his son who is now wrestling with a rough spot in his own marriage. And then there is Carolyn (Patricia Claskson) , whose strictly sexual relationship with Kepesh has been ongoing for twenty years, following their youthful ideal of sexual freedom unencumbered by emotional ties or responsibilities. Except you can see by Kingsley's behavior that this has begun to bore him. And then later we see that she is extremely jealous when she finds evidence that another woman has been sleeping with him, which he lies about.

For some reason, all of David Kepesh’s decisions put me on edge, and it is very possible this is the director’s intent. Kepesh, whom many young men might aspire to be, is not really a role model at all.

The film flips through time into a fast forward. His relationship with Consuela has extended far beyond his usual trysts and eighteen months into it she continues to invite him to be part of her life, wanting him to meet her family, to be a person. He has already declined at Thanksgiving and Christmas and now there is a large family gathering he finally conceded to go to and he struggles to find an excuse once more. He lies and she sees through and it’s annoying.

The movie has a surprise twist at the end which the screenwriter probably meant as a justification for focusing on Consuela's breasts earlier on, but it doesn't work. The overall effect is one more depressing layer of story.

To their credit, the acting is fine throughout and the film itself is first rate. But there is a humorlessness that makes it maudlin, though again, this may well be intentional because times have changed for David Kepesh and his ilk. The university posts a sexual harassment hotline number right down the hall from his classroom and as important as he is he'd experience serious consequences if he bedded the girls in his class the way he used to. In this regard the film has a measure of integrity that is noteworthy.

The movie is based on the The Dying Animal, a novel by award-winning author Philip Roth who has a reputation for making readers uncomfortable with his candor regarding sexual themes like promiscuity and lust. So it is not surprising that this film makes us uncomfortable as well. Was the sexual revolution a good thing? For a season it was very good for David Kepesh and his friend George O'Hairn. Kingsley does an excellent job of showing that even when the stars align, the thrill can be gone.

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