Love, Death, and the Imagination in Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World
This appreciation was written for Film Comment magazine in 1996. Reflecting fond memories of SIFF film-going, this review also expressed my delight in discovering The Whole Wide World, a terrific movie by Dan Ireland, one of the founders of SIFF and an old friend. – KAM
Dan Ireland passed away on April 14, 2016, at the age of 57. We revive the piece in honor of his memory. – Editor
The citizens of Rain City have been passionate devotees of the Seattle International Film Festival for nigh on to two decades. Founded by Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald, a couple of optimistic entrepreneurs from Vancouver, B.C, SIFF bowed in 1976 with an l8-day slate of movies by the likes of Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, Luis Buñuel, Lina Wertmüller, Claude Lelouch, Claude Chabrol, Paul Verhoeven, Ken Russell, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Hot stuff in the days when the small but dedicated Seattle Film Society was practically the only reliable purveyor of cutting-edge foreign film north of San Francisco. Under the quiet rain, Seattleites queued up happily.
In the two decades that followed, the Ireland-Macdonald baby kept growing, until the Seattle fest now screens 250 films over a period of nearly a month. Though three or four other theaters are often in play as venues, the true heart of this film orgy is the cavernous 800-seat Egyptian Theater, which for the faithful becomes home away from home every May-June. Those spring evenings with the likes of Krzysztof Zanussi and Michael Powell are among my happiest cinematic memories.
This past June, I returned to the city where, in spite of mildew, I thrived for nearly a quarter-century; there was an American-independent competition for best first film, and I was one of four jurors. Among the more than a dozen films in contention were Jim McKay’s Girls Town, Sal Stabile’s Gravesend, and Alan Taylor’s Palookaville—all examples of the currently fertile genre of flavorful ‘hood movies, featuring ethnic tribes of argot-speaking boys or girls looking for a way to stay alive, make a living, and/or crash out of their mean streets. Rachel Reichman’s uncompromising Work fell into this category as well, only the neighborhood is rural New York, economic and spiritual dead end for a not especially beautiful or gifted girl left behind by her summer love, a college-bound black woman.
But The Whole Wide World, the film unanimously voted best of the bunch, is a very different kind of ‘hood movie, set in a couple of backwater Texas towns in the mid-Thirties, and the boy and girl who speak its special language break out mostly through their imaginations. That The Whole Wide World (to be released at Christmas by Sony Classics) should be a first film by old friend and fest co-founder Dan Ireland brought me full circle in my remembrance of things past, and made this latest of many Egyptian bacchanals the best kind of reunion.
Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century is one of two movies the main characters watch in The Whole Wide World—the other being Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn, a rousing boy’s adventure story if there ever was one. I see World as a mutant species of screwball comedy, kin to Hawks’ duel between lovers and theatrical professionals. Both films embrace aesthetic as well as sexual creativity. World’s Novalyne Price (Renée Zellweger) and Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio), each an incomplete soul, could be said to fight their garrulous way through to durable love and collaboration.
Howard and Price are no theatrical, fast-motion Oscar Jaffe and Lily Garland mounting and shedding one existential “performance” after another on a cross-country train. But, in the 1930s context of Brownwood and Cross Plains, Texas, communities with limited views of love and fiction. World‘s radical writer of sword-and-sorcery sagas and aspiring teacher struggle heroically to grow up, to achieve their own coequal peaks from which to read reality, and to love each other despite dragons separating them. All the sex and violence that my young policeman fancied in that still from Hawks’s masterpiece is, in World, loosed largely in the imaginations of Weird Tales pulpwriter Howard and True Confessions scribbler Price; and writ small, incrementally, through passionate verbal intercourse and one or two kisses, during a series of drives on backcountry dirt roads and surveys, from a parked car, of West Texas landscapes gravid with fictional possibilities.
A vacant expanse of golden field and blue sky fills the frame at the beginning of World, with a tin lizzie driving in from the left, carrying with it an aura of imminence, of something or someone that might stir up the serenity of that rural scene. “I met Robert Howard today” are the first words spoken (Novalyne Price, over-voice), and they are laden with story-to-come, “yarn” beginning, as in “I had a farm in Africa…” or “Last night, I dreamed I went back to Manderley….”
Young Price sits out on her front porch on a summer evening, as though waiting for the young writer she doesn’t know is coming. Too scared of her formidable grandmother to come to the house, the creator of Conan the barbarian and H.P. Lovecraft’s designated “master of modern fantasy” leans against the car, a great, burly boy—a mama’s boy, we learn—in white shirt, suspenders, and trousers a tad too short. As Novalyne approaches, the camera tracks auspiciously toward Howard, rising upward from his feet to take all of him in. However different from the heroic figure Novalyne may have pictured in her mind’s eye, the way her POV drives toward Howard marks the pulp-fiction writer as some kind of true magnetic north for this bright, feisty young woman whose whole life will become a testament to their intense rapport.
Part of what makes The Whole Wide World such a satisfying surprise is the fairy-tale rhythm that accrues from narrative dissolves, set in motion by that first track-in on Howard, carrying us from one encounter between the couple to the next. Other people pass through the film, events outside their relationship occur; but in some dream-logic way, especially early on in their relationship, they are alone in the world—except for Howard’s ailing mother (Ann Wedgeworth), the sorceress who stands forever between them. The movie itself might be one long heated conversation during a slow drive from sunset into moonlight. Thus, in contrast to currently fashionable Uzi-fast cutting and fidgety frame dynamics, World pays its story out slowly, in depth, punctuated by moments of great emotional violence that do not assault but rather respect an alert, observant eye.
During their first drive, chaperoned by Price’s old sweetheart, the talk is all about writers and writing, and the three parse out an H.L. Mencken witticism by heart, cracking up in complicit laughter at its exotic familiarity, out on a West Texas backroad three miles from anywhere. D’Onofrio—terrific as the cruelly conflicted Howard—gives his character a nervous, dumb-farmboy’s laugh to sort oddly with the largesse of his braggadocio and an almost chanting quality, like some ancient Celtic boasting or mourning song, in his speech: “I’m verbose! I’ve got plenty of words!… Haii-illl no, let those writers write like me!” His boxer’s arms, seldom still, are always expressive, whether hanging apelike at his sides, with knuckles curled back (“Time to go on the prowllll”), reaching greedily into empty space for forms unseen by others, or yearning awkwardly out toward Novalyne, then retracting as though suddenly broken. Novalyne’s a sweet talker, too, giving as good as she gets. She’s energized by the idea of writing, and warmed by Howard’s intensity, the confident enthusiasm of a wild man. Her voice is light, high, almost silky, like a series of excited pats; sometimes it skips down through small gurgles, like fast water flowing through a rockbed.
In every scene, Renée Zellweger draws and holds the eye, no small feat when sharing screen space with the combustible D’Onofrio. This actress’s fresh face can’t be called beautiful in any conventional way, but it’s animated into idiosyncratic loveliness by remarkably responsive intelligence and emotion. Her skin pinks in pleasure or anger, her eyes squinch in permanent readiness for rich amusement, and her ripe-fruit mouth speaks of robust character and sexuality. “I have a strong heart,” she assures Howard, and indeed, of the two of them, she appears to be the more fearless warrior.
Their second spin comes a year later, after Novalyne, now a new teacher, literally drives up to the castle where her frog-prince is guarded by his possessive mother and lures him out to play. In the first of many similar compositions, Novalyne looks through a window at Howard’s back, eavesdropping as he types away, conjuring up mythic heroes, mighty battles and mind-boggling orgies at the top of his lungs. He’s a kind of thrilling flicker to the girl who writes a trite True Confessions story called “I Gave My Daughter Movie Fame.” The running joke about his ordering up sunsets and moonlight especially for her—turning sadder as their bond frays—measures his allure; she loves the way he populates and weaves the whole wide world into fascinating yarns, even as she insists that she herself wants to write about ordinary, “real” lives and places.
Later, in a beautifully composed tableau, the two sit on the hood of his car, parked on the right, facing a nighttime sky over a field full of corn slanting across the frame, lit up in their headlights and by the moon. Robert jumps down to tell Novalyne about his creation, the barbarian Conan. Crouching in front of her like a bare-knuckle fighter, wrestling with the strength of his fiction, the yarnspinner fairly sings… “He’s the damndest bastard there ever was” … the camera moves in ever closer to frame his rapt writer’s eyes…”with a mane of black hair and crystal-blue eyes.” Projecting a drive-in movie for her, Robert makes love the best way he knows how: “Combat’s all he’s ever known … all he ever wants to know … he don’t take it from nobody, man, beast, devil, or god … and when the women feel those tree-trunk firm arms around them, why, they melt like butter….” Carried away, Novalyne takes fire from his seductive narrative rhythm, using his words and very gestures to dramatize her own Amazonian battles with the kids she teaches.
In these early moments of their courtship, her mentor’s “madness,” Robert’s ability and need to live into his erotic fictions, merges satisfyingly with Novalyne’s creative life. She can imagine wearing the mask of his barbarian even in her smalltown schoolhouse. When her uncommon beau rants about the “maggots of corruption” all around them, and predicts that someday rape and murder will take place on stage as they did in rotting Rome, Novalyne talks back in good humor, arguing with as many “bastards” and “damns” as spice his speech. (Reprimanded by a prim colleague for her salty language. Novalyne bursts out, hilariously, “Do you see any children in here for me to defile with my damns?”) But cursing signals freedom to this modern young woman; she can’t penetrate Robert’s darkness, to the very real curse that imprisons this bright child. When he regales her with an awful story about a sorceress who drains young women of their youth during wild orgies, Novalyne can’t see through the pulp-fiction fairy tale to a young man called to his mother’s bed—”I need you, son”—to lift her like a baby, tenderly stripping away a wet nightgown from her wasting flesh. His Christmas present, a volume by Pierre Louÿs full of Beardsley-esque engravings of naked women, might school Novalyne in the kinds of nightmares that ride Robert, but we see her flinging—in ritual slow motion—the offending volume into the dark under her house. (Louÿs authored The Woman and the Puppet, source of Josef von Sternberg’s black parable The Devil Is a Woman.)
Very early on, Novalyne takes in her new principal, a Cross Plains “catch,” and sees his ordinary, cheerful good looks as the very pattern of “a man.” It’s not long before she has gauche Robert dressed up in suit, tie, and straw hat—a uniform that, unlike his farmboy getup and his “dark vaquero” costume (Zapata mustache and huge sombrero), doesn’t draw outraged glances in the street. Watching, with a disapproving teacher friend, her wild man sparring his way up an empty street (he’s writing a boxing story), she’s embarrassed by his outlandish transports into the world of the imagination, by the very vehicle that carried her out of a moonlit cornfield into mythic realms. Novalyne’s fundamentally civilized soul—”I care what these people think!”—signals a snake in the couple’s psychic grass.
Their first true estrangement comes, on the phone, when Novalyne, down with a cold, asks Robert to take her to the mayor’s Christmas party. Conan’s progenitor, already umbilically tied to a sick woman, explodes, damning her efforts to domesticate him as a way to ruin his writing and assaulting her “realistic” style: “It’s just copying!” Afterwards, his automobile stalled, Robert flings himself into a cornfield to swordfight his way through unseen enemies, then staggers, weeping, to his waiting mother. The camera tracks in on Robert’s maternal anchor, in just the same heated fashion Novalyne was first drawn to her boy-on-the-go, leaning against his car. Grounded, this mother’s son already anticipates the deathblow he himself will eventually deliver as he sits in this same vehicle.
Only once do Robert and Novalyne “marry” anything like that hungry tracking motion to each other. The two hike in from a dusty road, careful to avoid the “giant rattlesnakes” Robert warns are everywhere (“Robert, you lead on…” chortles Novalyne). Picnicking on a hill that overlooks a great coil of meandering river, fields and woods, hazy in dim sunlight, they can see “the whole wide world … and others, too.” Robert slips out of frame, and Novalyne turns to see a wolf, with whom she exchanges a long, oddly feral gaze. She glances rightward, looks back to see that the wolf is gone, and then moves to Howard’s side: “There you are.” The syntactic logic of the shot sequence identifies the wolf with Robert, and with Novalyne as wild girl.
Describing his new novel, “the best damn book ever written about frontier life,” Robert chants out the story of its hero, “a morose, ungainly misfit among men, who falls in love with an Indian girl.” (Mother Howard has confided to her son that Novalyne looks “part Indian,” and he’s queried her about “ancestral memories.”) The tale galvanizes Novalyne, propelling her toward Robert to kiss his cheek, and her “wolf” falls upon her generous mouth as though it were home. As they embrace, kissing passionately, the camera circles them vertiginously, through a series of ecstatic dissolves, so that the whole earth seems to move around the fulcrum of their joined bodies.
That wedding of writers, lovers, and world is shattered in two stages. At the end of the embrace on the hilltop, Novalyne innocently asks why Robert’s hero has to be a misfit: “Can’t he be handsome and kind?” Howard’s arms spasm awkwardly, back and away from her; and he rises to bellow out the ingredients for a less flawed hero. Later, as they drive home, after Novalyne tells him what she “sees” in him (“thoughtfulness, loyalty, intelligence, imagination”), she places her hand affectionately, perhaps even a little proprietarily, over his. Drawing back abruptly, with a funny little kid’s dip of his head, her not so picture-perfect knight tries for Byronic armor: “The road I walk, I walk alone.” Though we don’t yet know it, a terrible amputation is almost complete. When their final farewell does come, with a last kiss and embrace, it’s as though the ungainly man with a blasted boy’s face has dismembered his arms from her very body. (One is reminded here of the marquee ungrammatically advertising World‘s second movie attraction, which divided Robert and Novalyne attend separately: “The decks ran red with Captain Blood.”) This 20th century love story ends as it began, with exiled Howard flanking his getaway car and Novalyne under cover of her porch.
In the penultimate moments of their strange love affair, Howard and college-bound Novalyne, grown out of her incarnation as “Indian girl,” wander through the wooden shell of a house where once newlyweds might have lived. “Suppose,” says Robert, ever the writing coach, “you were a beautiful, lonely girl and you came out to enjoy the sunset, and you saw a handsome Indian brave. What you’d do about him is the yarn you’d write.” Novalyne measures the terrible abyss between these almost soulmates, in love and in their life’s work: “I’d just wash off his warpaint, get him a good suit, and ask him to accompany me to Sunday School.”
In fact, what Novalyne Price did about her “morose, ungainly misfit among men” was to teach so passionately for 44 years that she counts generations of students grateful for the way she midwifed their imaginations. And then, at 76, she wrote down her still-vibrant memories of Robert E. Howard in a book called One Who Walked Alone, from which The Whole Wide World was adapted. Dan Ireland has brought Price’s book to the screen with rare intelligence and delicacy, drawing complex, riveting performances from D’Onofrio, Zellweger, and Wedgeworth. Ireland’s first film ranks as one of the very few unaffected, spirited treatments of the relations and workings of the creative mind, at its lowest and highest points.
If the momentum of pure screwball comedy moves us toward the marriage of order and chaos, intellect and passion, old bones and leopards, then in some sense the dialectic of The Whole Wide World falls short of traditional consummation. Still, the forms of white and black magic that snake their way through World unite in the moment Novalyne reads the telegram announcing Howard’s suicide. Without any hesitation or change in expression, she retrieves paper and pen from her desk and writes, “Dear Bob….” The woman to whom The Whole Wide World is dedicated clearly never stopped talking to the boy who didn’t walk entirely alone: “Robert, you lead on….”
To sample poetry and letters by “the grandfather of sword-and-sorcery fiction,” visit the Robert E. Howard home page on the Web: http://pages.ripco,com:8080/~bbb/howard.ktml
[Originally published in Film Comment, September-October 1996]