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Hearts in Atlantis***

What fatal conjunction of the stars could account for the fact that two films dealing with a relationship between a boy and a much older man opened in the same week? But the one, L.I.E., might be termed a "song of experience," detailing a teenager's encounter with a pedophile, while  Hearts in Atlantis,  adapted by William Goldman from a pair of stories by Stephen King and directed by Scott Hicks, is a somewhat strained paean to the vanished days of the protagonist's youth, told in a long flashback that occupies most of the running time of the picture. Yet where L.I.E. plays around not too successfully with some explosively scabrous material, in Hearts in Atlantis only dirty-minded adults and some equally dirty-minded juvenile hoodlums think ill of the friendship between the eleven year old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and the aging Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins).  

I had premonitions of disaster going to see a movie with as lugubrious a title as Hearts in Atlantis. Fortunately, they turned out to be largely unfounded. At the beginning of Hearts of Atlantis, the adult Bobby (David Morse) returns to his former home in a small town for a funeral and recalls  events that had taken place in 1960, when his widowed mother took in the amiable but mysterious Ted as a boarder. After the two become friends, the clairvoyant Ted warns Bobby to be on the lookout for some sinister men who are pursuing him. Ultimately, however, it is Bobby's own mother, who has been suspicious of Ted's interest in her son from the beginning, that betrays the man to his enemies in order break up the relationship between the boy and the older man. 

Hearts in Atlantis made me think of a mildly supernaturalized version of Truman Capote's novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. Stephen King fans may be disappointed, but Goldman has wisely chosen to downplay the whole question of Ted's psychic powers in favor of more dramatically promising material. More than anything else, the film harks back to what was once a quite popular subject in post-World War II American novels, plays, and motion pictures, the story of a sensitive youth, male or female, coming of age in a hostile environment. Probably the most famous, as well as most artistically successful, representative of the genre is Carson McCullers' drama Member of the Wedding, but it also crops up in both of James Dean's two most famous roles, in Elia Kazan's East of Eden and in Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause, and lives on in Pat Conroy's novel The Great Santini, which supplied the material for a highly successful movie directed by Lewis John Carlino and starring Robert Duvall.

All of these works in whatever media are lineal descendents of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's great novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), whose publication marked one of the truly revolutionary events in the history of European literature. But by the time James Dean came along, the conventions of the genre were beginning to look pretty threadbare. The real driving force behind the rise of the youth genre in the 1950s and since has been the ever-expanding teenage market, not the justifiable despair of adolescents about the way things are. Set in the United States today, where at some schools students pack guns and know all about the mechanics of sexual intercourse before entering puberty, the sufferings of Werther or of the lovers in Frank Wedekind's Spring's Awakening, would seem almost farcical.  

It is thus hardly surprising that Hearts in Atlantis moves its story back into a less problematic era. Nevertheless, I find the whole idea of 1950s America as a locus of innocence highly specious for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'm getting tired of seeing pop artifacts from the period being treated with the same reverence usually accorded great works of art from the High Renaissance. Secondly, having lived through those years--I turned eleven in 1954--I can attest that it was no age of innocence. The omnipresent threat of nuclear destruction, the tacit suppression of dissent, the stultifying conformity of the Eisenhower regime--these were the salient features of the 1950s, whose repressive atmosphere was far more accurately captured by the animated feature The Iron Giant (1999) than by this movie. Nor are matters helped by Hicks's predilection for smothering his material under a thick impasto of spurious visual lyricism laid on with help of the cinematographer, the late Piotr Sobocinski. At its worst, Hearts in Atlantis resembles a kitschy brochure for a travel agency featuring trips into the past--"Revisit the Scenes of Your Lost Youth Now!"

Stephen King often associates sexuality with violence, but Hearts in Atlantis makes a graphic equation of the two by crosscutting between shots of Bobby's mother being raped by her boss in a hotel room with ones of Carol being beaten by a villainous youth from a Catholic school who has previously tried to harass her and ridiculed Bobby as a fairy. More sophisticated films in this genre, like Joseph Losey's The Go-Between, usually present the loss of innocence as compensated, if unequally, by a tragic yet inevitable gain in knowledge--"We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind," in the words of William Wordsworth's great "Ode: Intimations of Immortality". Yet by making this equation, Hearts in Atlantis depicts adult sexual desire not just as a loss of innocence, but as a descent into animality. 

What awaits Bobby as he moves into puberty would seem to resemble the fate of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). The only antithesis to the basically depraved behavior of most adolescent/adult males in the film is represented by Ted, who is not only celibate but practically sexless. True, he makes jokes about kissing girls with Bobby, but he comes across mainly as a male old maid. At the end, Bobby and his mother, now reconciled, move to Boston, and he goes on to a prosperous career as a photographer. Nevertheless, the film's real center of gravity lies in the past, and Bobby's memories of his pre-pubescent days of splendor in the grass.

In spite of its pretensions, Hearts of Atlantis is a lightweight movie, but not a bad one. The release of the film was, needless to say, only fortuitous, but given the longing for affirmation in the country at this moment, I think the picture is headed to be a big hit. Nor will the small-town setting and the shrewd way the movie plays the nostalgia card hurt its chances of success at the box office. Hearts of Atlantis is a far better picture than the wildly overrated The Sixth Sense, and it deserves to do at least as well as that overdone turkey did. Note 12/13/01: So much for my ability to forecast box office grosses. Hearts in Atlantis sank quickly from view not long after its initial sortie, although it may win Hopkin an OscarŪ nomination for his performance. 

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database


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