Film: Love rolls up for the odd couple

Porkies meets Lolita in the shadow of Henry James... and it works. By Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture
Beverly Hills 90210 and Love and Death on Long Island have something in common. What is it? Jason Priestley. At first glance, the presence of a strapping young American TV star in a low-budget British art-house movie seems a little incongruous. "But I felt I needed somebody who had those heart-throb looks, that fragility, that sort of puppiness," says director Richard Kwietniowski. "Jason had that vulnerability I was looking for - I obviously couldn't have used Mark Wahlberg."

Priestley is cast true to type as American teenage idol Ronnie Bostock, the star of the Hot Pants College films. There is, though, a twist to the tale. This time, the character obsessed with Ronnie isn't a teenage girl - he is a fusty old English novelist by the name of Giles De'Ath (John Hurt). After taking refuge from the rain in his local cinema, Giles becomes enraptured by Bostock's beauty. He buys a video recorder so he can freeze-frame his favourite moments from Hot Pants College II. Eventually, he sets off across the Atlantic so he can meet Bostock in person.

While writing the screenplay, Kwietniowski used to put photographs of Priestley and John Hurt side by side on his desk, trying to imagine what they might look like on a poster. The combination always made him smile, but he was told by friends that it was absolutely inconceivable two such different actors would ever appear in the same film. Hurt, the classically- trained virtuoso, star of such films as The Naked Civil Servant, The Elephant Man and Midnight Express, and Priestley, the bobbysox idol, were worlds apart. That, though, was the point - the gulf between them in real life was in keeping with the characters they were to play on screen.

As Kwietniowski acknowledges, the idea of the high-brow European submerging himself in the minutiae of US popular culture isn't altogether new. When Vladimir Nabokov was researching Lolita, he used to travel on the back of buses, eavesdropping on the chatter of the local schoolgirls to make sure he had their slang down pat. Kwietniowski took his research to equal extremes, quizzing American teenagers to make sure he used their argot correctly and didn't, for example, have characters saying "Humungous!" when in reality they'd say, "Totally!"

He acknowledges that the obsessed novelist hero of Love and Death on Long Island isn't so very far removed from Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. "One of the things that I like best about Nabokov is that he writes in the US as a European. In his work, you always have the sense of the pleasure he gets from the directness of American culture, its confidence. For instance, when Lolita goes to summer camp, it's called Camp Climax. Humbert is a bit taken aback by that."

Whereas Nabokov's Humbert is a monster who uses his eloquence to justify his behaviour, Giles is a far more sympathetic figure. "That's why I wanted to cast John Hurt. I wanted to make Giles a character audiences could care for." Hurt, he knew, would carry conviction as a bookish intellectual, but would also bring humour to the part.

It took a leap of faith for Priestley to play the elusive object of desire in what is essentially a gay love story. Love and Death on Long Island was not at all the type of vehicle that was likely to appeal to the teenage fans who idolise him. "But I had a hunch that he would be mature enough to see what the script was doing and not be threatened by it," says Kwietniowski. "I thought he could bring elements of his own experience to the character."

Many of the movie's best jokes come at the expense of US teen comedies about dumb college kids with oversized libidos. Kwietniowski argues that the satire is even-handed. If Porkies-style US stag humour is made to look ridiculous, so is the absurdly conceited behaviour of the English novelist abroad.

In preparation for shooting the Hot Pants College sequences, Kwietniowski watched dozens of teen movies. "I wanted the extracts to feel authentic. But I found that those movies were really quite strange. Most of them feature more male nudity than female nudity.

How can this be? "They're made for guys. But I didn't just want to make fun of them. I wanted to shoot those spoof sequences in a way which suggested that Giles' obsession was not ridiculous - that it is possible to find beauty where no-one ever thinks of looking for it." In the course of the film, Giles, the French-poetry-reading, high-culture snob, becomes so intrigued by Ronnie's teen movies that he even tries to write a script for one.

Kwietniowski avoids the usual cliches about the Old World innocent abroad in the big, bad American city. As he puts it, "I thought it would be pretty dreary if the displaced Englishman went to New York and was mugged in Times Square and everything was loud and boorish."

Instead, Giles ends up in a leafy, close-knit, suburban community. Rather than dismiss him as an eccentric, the locals in the Cheers-like diner around the corner from his motel accept him as one of their own.

When Kwietniowski first read Gilbert Adair's novel, he was convinced he could make a film of it. Adair was not so sure. "I took Gilbert to lunch to try to get the rights," Kwietniowski remembers, "and he told me that he didn't see how it could be made into a film by anyone." But eventually Kwietniowski talked him round.

As the screenplay progressed, each fresh draft went from director to novelist. "Gilbert was very, very useful with suggestions. I remember once he phoned up to tell me that Giles split an infinitive on page 29. I was horrified."

It has taken an extraordinarily long time for Love and Death on Long Island to reach the screen. Kwietniowski started work on the screenplay in the winter of 1992. The film was ready in time for the 1997 Cannes Festival. Now, over a year later, it finally emerges in British cinemas. The delay may have something to do with the way it resists easy categorisation.

"Is it a British film?" Kwietniowski asks himself. "No. Is it an American film? Not really. Is it gay-themed? Well, yes and no. I liked the idea of it being an entertainment that works on its own terms."

The crux comes when Giles tells Ronnie that he loves him. "Everybody who has ever said that knows what it feels like. You hold your breath and wait. It's almost become irrelevant who he is saying it to," remarks Kwietniowski, pointing out that most audiences are so caught up in the emotion of the moment that they fail to realise that they're watching Giles proposition another man 30 years younger than him. "If you didn't know what they had seen, you'd think they were talking about The English Patient."

`Love and Death on Long Island' opens on 3 July