In Starting Out in the Evening, the demons of creativity are eased onto the screen in a loving, personal manner that most will find too slow, “untidy” with the subplots and devoid of action. For the rest of us, director/co-screenwriter Andrew Wagner (based on the book by Brian Morton, with screenplay assistance from Fred Parnes) and veteran actor Frank Langella brilliantly cast as the fading-from-view novelist Leonard Schiller, have combined their talent, insight and superb sense of understatement to plumb the emotional and psychological depths of one whose art trumps family, friends and fortune.
At one with the tone, and adding extra resonance to the mood, is Adam Gorgoni’s score—particularly the entrancingly poignant and just-right balance of dissonance/consonance in the piano-string writing. Harlan Bosmajian’s camera faithfully captures the proceedings with rhythm and lingering shots that underscore the unfolding relationships and parallel lives with surety that is acknowledged and further enhanced by Gena Bleirer’s savvy edits.
And, like the painstakingly typewritten words (no word processor for Professor Schiller) on reams of white pages, the art direction (Dara Wishingrad) and costumes (Claudia Brown and Brooks Brothers combine to present an impeccably turned-out conservative writer whose colour must be pulled from his pages) that find their own verisimilitude in the black-and-white credits.
But when all is finally revealed it’s gesture—especially the hands—that lifts this film into the ranks of extraordinary and, like the literary arts it draws on for the premise, bears repeated viewings to savour the subtlety and intimate sense of self.
The first is embarrassing innocence when masters’ candidate Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose, alluring when required) brushes her reluctant subject’s aging hand with an unabashed kiss even as he has rejected the request to become the subject matter of her thesis. But his initial reluctance soon vanishes and they begin a series of face-to-face interviews. Heather is more than a little enamoured with the author-who-could-be-her-grandfather because his early novel, Tenderness, “… set me free, I felt like an alien.” Not long after that revelation, she slips off Schiller’s severe glasses and finger-paints his face in oil. Moments following that sensuous, silent touching, as they lie fully clothed in bed with Romeo-and-Juliet-corpse-style reverence (cross-reference below), his hands vacillate in a marvellously charming Will he?/Won’t he? embrace …
Much later, Casey (Adrian Lester—on-again/off-again boyfriend of Schiller’s nearly-forty, better-get-pregnant-before-it’s-too-late daughter, Ariel—Lili Taylor) comes to his potential, frequently scornful father-in-law’s most personal assistance: after a debilitating stroke, the critical novelist is forced to allow Casey’s muscular hands and arms to lift him in and out of the wrought-iron bathtub and dry his withering body. The humbling situation’s potential for the black, career-oriented publisher who has no intention of raising a family with his beloved, to pass on taking “so there!” revenge, is an understated highlight of the film.
Schiller’s (by now the name reference—intentional or not—to the poet of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” subliminally instills further literary resonance) brutal, if necessary, dismissal of his graduate student’s intrusion into his dwindling “work hours” with a slap that might have morphed into another caress, clears the stage of his misunderstood nemesis with a single stroke that will be the envy of playwrights everywhere.
Finally, it’s the unseen hands taping prose, starting out on their new journey of “following my characters, hoping they will do something” that is the master touch in this haunting examination of the creative—if disturbed—mind in its zone. JWR