The Wild, Wild Fest, Part 2

Many directors are stimulated by similar stories and themes but handle them in quite contrasting ways. And festivals -- if you overlook the paparazzi gloss and rumors that "Nick Nolte himself will be here!" -- offer the serious filmgoer a rare opportunity to explore how the same concerns can be exciting in one theater and deadly dull in another. Take the case of Love, Etc. and Courting Courtney.

Courting Courtney director Paul Tarantino is described in press materials as a "New Jersey native transplanted to Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties to attend classes at USC." Not to impugn film school training as a general principle, but it is alarming that so many alums have emerged with so little imagination, having seemingly been inspired to take either of two roads, neither of which is the one less traveled by. Thus we have on the one hand the film that rebels against tiresome realism and sets out to bewilder us with cinematic non sequiturs, and on the other the film that aspires to be Step One of what the director hopes will be a future body of work that will be studied in other film schools and earn her or him the designation of auteur.

Courting Courtney belongs to the second category. One can imagine the author/director's screenwriting teacher saying, "Write from personal experience. Write from the heart. Write about what you know." Seeing as how so many fledgling auteurs in L.A. write about the same thing -- the pangs of youthful love and the need for (sexual) acceptance -- the story has by now become so formulaic that one can just as easily write about what everybody else knows and still claim to be writing "from the heart." So much so that one can also imagine the same teacher passing out a photocopied script and advising students to just change the names of the characters and then go out in search of money.

The film breaks the world record for instant exposition. Boom! There's a talking head. It belongs to the hero/narrator Nick Hastings (Dana Gould), and he's telling us, "I'm a filmmaker, I need grants." (As if we didn't know.) He tells us also that he thought he should do a documentary about his old girlfriend Courtney but his friend and cameraman thinks it's a rotten idea.

Paul, you should have listened.
Just when you thought it was safe to look at the screen again, there comes another talking head, and another; and if we're not looking at the heads, we're listening to voice-overs: the girlfriend, her boyfriend, Nick's friend; after a time you lose track because you really don't care. Courting Courtney is California in the worst sense. Who's sleeping with who, who should be sleeping with who, and when will the "right" pair end up in bed together -- these really don't seem like life-defining issues, but they're all this uninspired jumble can offer.

Paul Tarantino the writer is a trifle more impressive than Paul Tarantino the director, but not much. Here and there he comes up with a funny, quirky line, like this one from Courtney (Eliza Doyle, who could be a charmer in the right role): "Nice guys are boring. Until you're 30, and then they're scarce." After Nick and Courtney predictably connect, Nick has the hit line of the evening (by this time you'll take anything). It's a voice-over, naturally. "I'd broken the primary law of documentary filmmaking: I'd slept with my subject. Of course, this law was created by Jacques Cousteau, who probably never had the opportunity."

Now that the film student has gotten this one off his chest, perhaps he'll go on to better things, and better grants.

Love, Etc. is the work of Marion Vernoux, whose debut film in 1992 was called Personne Ne M'Aime (Nobody Loves Me), and as she co-wrote this screenplay (with Dodine Herry, from Julian Barnes's novel Talking It Over), we can assume that the subject of love is of more than passing interest to her -- and of greater import than as a lure for grant money. As a matter of fact, the French seem never to tire of the subject, not only in films but in novels, plays, and even philosophy. The concept eludes them; it cannot be defined, yet they know it has led people to heartbreak, murder, suicide, and war, even as it has inspired the creative efforts of hundreds of artists who have squandered their lives in a futile search for the perfect relationship. For all that has been said about the "naughty" French, they seldom represent love as the game of musical beds that serves as the theme of Mr. Tarantino's uneventful opus.

A New Yorker cartoon of several years back shows a middle-aged couple sitting over a glass of wine. She is staring blankly at him as he says: "I love you the way the French love Jerry Lewis."

We laugh at first, and then we understand how profound the statement really is. And here we have the theme behind the deceptive simplicity of Love, Etc.: What does it mean to love? To be loved? To be happy or unhappy in love? If we don't understand love, why do we want it so much? In French drama, cinema, literature, and music -- from Sartre to Camus to Flaubert to Balzac to Rohmer to Piaf to Brel, and now to Marion Vernoux -- we can be defined as the species that needs love without any clear idea of what it is.

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