The Catcher in the Fly

Never having been particularly enamored of fly fishing, male bonding, or Presbyterianism, I did not read Norman Maclean's autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, until very recently -- and only then to coincide with the film version directed by Robert Redford and at the prodding of some friends who spoke highly of it. Maclean's story is undoubtedly a solid, beautifully crafted piece of writing, and I can see why the book was a leading contender for the Pulitzer when it appeared in 1976. (There was no fiction prize that year, incidentally; a special category was introduced and that multicultural granddaddy, the late Alex Haley, won instead for Roots.) The short work is a faithful act of reminiscence depicting the early stirrings of a Scottish-American family in Missoula, Montana, during the first three decades of the century. The elderly Norman remembers his free-spirited younger brother, Paul, and a metaphorically fertile apprenticeship under a stern though benevolent minister father as each related to one another at home, in church, and on the river. "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing" reads the loaded opening line. It is no overstatement.

A River Runs Through It concurrently sustains two moods, one celebratory, the other elegiac. First, there's a toast to the fly fisherman's art, one that basks in the most extraordinarily precise detail; readers ignorant of the minutiae of the sport are bound to be captivated by the author's sure-footedness in outlining the many subtleties and variables of the casting-and-catching craft. Additionally, Maclean panegyrizes his Scottish kin, their cultural definition and maturity, their passion -- however contained in expression -- for ritual, and their unspoken love of nature, that mysterious force which, as the narrator intones near the close, connects all human experience.

But the story is also a threnody for a lost place and time and for the memory of the fallen Paul Maclean, the "beautiful" brother who strays from the path of virtue, drinks, gambles, womanizes, and dies prematurely. The vocation of fly fishing and the private reservoir of family affections are becomingly, and often surpassingly, poetic in their retelling. "Then in the arctic half-light of the canyon," ruminates Norman, "all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot river and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise...

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." At its best, the writing matches the flowing motion, crystalline trasparency, and simplicity of river water.

But these are the same attributes that render it, to this reader at least, somewhat flavorless. Maclean's reserve as a writer and man, his gentlemanly detachment in allowing the tragic elements of his story -- and there are many -- to speak for themselves, belongs to another generation. (To a fault, Maclean is true to his inherited Scottish-immigrant sensibility.) The protracted section when Paul and Norman are obliged to take along the latter's pathetic brother-in-law, Neal, on a fishing expedition -- a violation of a strictly observed ethos -- is the single exception, and here there's sparkle and spice in the storytelling. Especially vivid is the portrait of Old Rawhide, Neal's strumpetty companion, the former beauty queen of Wolf Creek, who "did not intend to spend the rest of her life as a disappointed athlete, so she would shack up one winter with a fancy roper and the next winter with a steer wrestler." But elsewhere, notwithstanding the author's carefully spun and often bewitching "outdoor" writing, there's a surfeit of blandness.

Economical of length and emotion, it's not the kind of story that lends itself to adaptation to film, which begs the question: Why has Robert Redford directed A River Runs Through It? The more compelling question could well be: How did he get it made? When Maclean first attempted having the collection of Western stories published, he received the following rejection from a publisher: "These stories have trees in them." And while the medium of film basks in the reflected glory of magnificent natural settings, movies about the great outdoors don't make for easy pitches inside Hollywood studio offices -- particularly a turn-of-the-century family saga about things "that come by grace," such as trout and eternal salvation.

Richard Friedenberg has provided a fine screenplay, one more faithful to the letter of the story than perhaps to its spirit. Augmenting the concise skeleton of a plot with research into the Maclean family history, the result has a well-roundedness that counters some of the strange leaps of chronology in the book. For example, we witness in terrific detail the dynamics of the Maclean home -- the minister overseeing the education of young Norman in his study, the reticently communicative understanding between the brothers -- and later the wooing and winning of Norman's wife-to-be.

The panoramic vistas of the Big Blackfoot River (actually filmed at three rivers: the Gallatin, the Yellowstone, and the Boulder), where paragraph after paragraph of the story takes flight, are undeniably eye-catching, thanks to Philippe Rousselot's cinematography. Yet it's a testament to Maclean's skills that his penmanship outperforms the camera in conveying the magical multiformity of nature and the sublime reflectiveness of the fisherman's craft. What the film does rather better is capture the flavor of the period -- especially such details as the dark-lit interiors of the Maclean home, the slow-moving jalopies driven across dirt roads, and the women wearing bobbed hairstyles and knee-length skirts typical of the Twenties.

But Redford launches his film badly. Literally focusing on historic black-and-white still photography accompanied by folksy instrumental music (by Mark Isham) that disturbingly echoes the "Ashooka Farewell," the title sequence is obviously a crib from Ken Burns's The Civil War. Maclean's writing certainly doesn't ask for this reference, and I'm amazed Redford has the face to try something so bargain-basement.

Some scenes are far more contextual in the film. The one and only instance in the film during which the boys fight, and their mother gets in the way, slipping and falling down on the floor, is painful without the tears described in the book. And the interlude with Neal and Old Rawhide is reduced to a bitingly funny vignette, which works splendidly. The news of Paul's death comes as swiftly and shockingly as the severing of a head. Here as elsewhere Redford and Friedenberg stick to Maclean. In the middle of a paragraph about his promise as a fisherman ("`Just give me three more years'") comes this numbing recollection: "When the police sergeant early next May wakened me before daybreak, I rose and asked no questions. Together we drove across the Continental Divide and down the length of the Big Blackfoot River over forest floors yellow and sometimes white with glacier lilies to tell my father and mother that my brother had been beaten to death and his body dumped in an alley." The next image, of the mother gingerly and silently walking up a flight of stairs as Norman looks on, is more moving seen than imagined. The best moments are the eloquent, silent ones.

With one exception, the actors are beautifully chosen. Tom Skerritt's lackadaisical style has matured into genuine subtlety, and his minister evinces a glowing sensitivity and earthy good sense. As Norman, Craig Sheffer comes of age after years of playing a slew of embarrassing high-school anti-heros. The most difficult thing for an actor to do is wordlessly convey thought processes, and this is Sheffer's best gift in playing the voyeuristic (in the best sense of this word) older brother. Emily Lloyd, after being fired from Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, delivers a lovely performance as Norman's Montana sweetheart; this is her best work since Wish You Were Here. But Brad Pitt's bad-boy grin was best left out in the desert after Thelma and Louise; his Paul, glamorized to the limited extent that a trailer-park urchin can possibly be, defines beauty -- of face, mind, soul, and craft -- about as credibly as a stuck pig suggests a state of grace.

By the way, Redford himself performs the voice-over narration, which is intelligent, articulate, and thorough, but hopelessly inappropriate. Since Maclean was an old retired college professor and a septuagenarian when he took up the writer's trade, there is no way to reconcile the trembling, liver-spotted hands we see fixing a fly to a line at the start and finish with the movie star's polished reading of Maclean's seamless prose. Nothing about Robert Redford suggests old age -- except maybe his own face after years under the Utah sun. A River Runs Through It is an accomplished film, but also a frustrating one because of Robert Redford's contrived nobility; one could be watching Ordinary People set in Montana. When it comes down to it, the film is perfunctory in showing us how young Norman came to be haunted by Waters.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
Directed by Robert Redford; written by Richard Friedenberg, based on the novel by Norman Maclean; with Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, Tom Skerritt, and Emily Lloyd.

Rated PG.
Opens Friday.

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