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A Love Song For Bobby Long (2005 - R)
An adaptation of Ronald Everett's novel, "A Love Song for Bobby Long" is a poignant elegy- an homage to the Deep South and its Romantic ideals. The film depicts the tragic life of Bobby Long, the Myth that sustained his life thereafter, Lorraine, his protégé and sole confidant, Lawson Pines, and Lorraine's daughter, Pursalane Will, who freed both men from the bonds of their illusions.
Written by: Ronald Everett Capps (novel) and Shainee Gabel (screenplay). Directed by: Shainee Gabel.
MPAA: R for language and some sexual references.
Tagline: "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"…
“Time was never a friend to Bobby Long. It would conspire against him, allow him to believe in a generous nature, then rob him blind every time. We’d lost Lorraine, all of us, but long before she’d died”.
So begins “A Love Song for Bobby Long”, a story about a decrepit, slightly perverse middle-aged man who, though once a grand man full of dreams and academic prowess, is now confined to the bottle and the haunting images and literary anecdotes of dreams unrealized. Likewise, this is a story about a budding blossom, Pursalane Wills (Scarlett Johansson), and a withering weed, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht).
The film opens on a panoramic view of a mid-day New Orleans with a bum-footed half-drunk Bobby Long traveling his way, on foot, to the funeral of a woman by the name of Lorraine. Meanwhile the film pans to Panama, Florida where an unfinished girl , Pursy Will, sits on a couch munching on less than healthy snacks, watching TV, and enjoying being idle. Quickly however, she learns that her mother, Lorraine, has died. So she heads to New Orleans to answer the mysterious man, Bobby Long’s messages.
Arriving, as they say, a day late and a dollar short, Pursy learns that not only has she missed her deadbeat alcoholic mother’s funeral, but likewise she has become 1/3 of a new house arrangement where she is to spend her life now abiding in “a shit-hole with two alcoholic strangers”. As the rapport turns sour between her and the egotistical, enigmatic Bobby Long, she turns her time to finding a job, giving the house a face-lift, and confiding in the more ethically straight of her two male companions, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht)….
Still, as Pursy settles into New Orleans it seems everywhere she goes people recognize her as Pursalane Wills, the beautiful daughter of the magnetic diva, Lorraine. While Lawson and Bobby pine over that Myth of Lorraine, her tangible flesh-and-blood daughter Pursy is subject to the two men’s subjective perspective of her character.
Meanwhile the men discover that Pursy is a high-school drop-out and suddenly the power-play begins. It turns out Pursy has the compassion and perspective of a young Lawson Pines, the gusto and magnetism of a young Bobby Long, and the intellect of both. As a result the two failed scholars attempt to take her under their wings and harvest her intellect- to make a formidable woman out of a naïve child. But the truth is that Pursy is already as much a woman as the two men envision her to be. Lawson and Long dote, even ridicule, admonish, and enact other parental rituals to assume a filial bond with Pursy. Meanwhile Pursy is piecing the two men together and taking them as much under her wing as they do her. From her regimented house-cleaning sessions to her notorious fidelity to finding a job and supporting the “nest” Pursy is quickly blossoming from a young Pursy to a womanly, capable, apt, and beautiful Pursalane Wills.
Thanks to the avid intent of Lawson and Bobby, Pursy finds herself enrolling in school. So now her days are spent avoiding Bobby as often as possible via the classroom, her job-quest, and her daily household renovations. Meanwhile Bobby and Lawson sink themselves further and further into their illusionary world on cheap liquor and literary quotes. So their daily diet is fulfilled while the seasons turn and a balmy spring turns to a sweltering, claustrophobic summer, which gives way to a stagnant Autumn, which bends down for a formidable winter.
Drunken nights at the local bar prove ritual for both a daily supplement and holiday festivities. But one Christmas night Bobby gets a little too drunk and says a little too much…so the tragedy that haunts Bobby Long, and likewise his protégé Lawson Pines, is revealed. As it turns out, Bobby Long was once a majestic Alabama University English professor, charismatic, energetic, larger-than-life, and impressive. He had the beautiful wife, the darling children, and he had his protégé, the impressionable Lawson Pines. While the Bobby of old took Lawson under his wing the two soon find themselves to be more than mentor and student, but companions. But when Lawson’s love interests begin to involve Bobby, by way of Lawson’s girl friend’s smitten friend, the two men find themselves spending, once again, one too many hours and drinking one too many drinks at a bar one night. As they stumble over to the baseball field looking for Bobby’s son the last thing they envision is learning that he had been hit by a car and killed…so ended the days of the great illusion, the grandeur that was Bobby Long. Escaping to New Orleans in the sanctuary of blues and Blues, Bobby Long and Lawson Pines spent their days drinking, repenting, and trying to write an opus to rectify their wrongs.
Years later that unfinished opus becomes fuel for a fire, literally, and both Long and Pines are left broken men. So it seems Pursy has come to fix New Orleans in more ways than one. As graduation day closes in the stress of finals apprehends a paralyzed Pursy. As fate would have it, irony rears its ugly head and leaks one more crisis into Pursy’s life. It seems the house is officially left to Pursy’s sole custody and not to the two men who, though once detestable, have now become family to the orphaned girl. Still, hurt and betrayed, Pursy takes a stand.
After calling a realtor and putting the house up for sale, Pursy kicks the two men out, indefinitely, and begins to pack up her mother’s belongings. Its then that Pursy stumbles across another life-changing truth that is beheld in her mother’s signature song, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”. With graduation approaching the sun is setting once again on another pack of “golden days” for the men. For the first time in their lives, Bobby Long and Lawson Pines will have to face their façade, their fork in the road. The choice: choose to live or die, the decision: difficult.
“ A Love Song for Bobby Long”, as director Shainee Gabel notes, is the “personification of New Orleans…the kind of beauty of decay and romanticism as an illness”…The South creates an ambience for a story and its characters, for Bobby Long that story starts with the writer, who imbues the film with a meaning. But the “writer” in the film is not once or even two-fold, rather, the film is a tale of tales, each character sometimes literally, other times figuratively, “writing” their story” while the grand-master author, director Shainee Gabriel, regulates the tale’s unfolding of events, and monitors the way in which “meaning” is shaped. For “A Love Song for Bobby Long” the meaning is a nostalgic romanticism that stagnates the South with memories of golden days passed. The film captures the tragic undulating of the trivial triumphs and tribulations of men, (and women), caught in a past and unable to move into the future. In “A Love Song for Bobby Long” the death of Lorraine is the smothering of hopes, the stalemate of future progress, and the Romantic dream deferred. In her daughter Pursy, hope is restored.
The film’s cinematography is brilliant. Vivid hues of pastoral green and white cotton-candy, sugar-spun clouds blanket an almost fictitious royal blue sky. This “natural” landscape contrasts intensely with the dank and decaying textures of “the house”- the home of façade, artifice, death, and dreams deferred. As Travolta noted in an interview concerning the film, “the heat is a character, the sweat is a character, the bar is a character, the ambience, the atmosphere is a character in the movie”…and so Truth is examined through three actors suffering and sweating, literally, and fighting with and against the claustrophobic ambience that restricted them to as accurate and captivating a setting as possible. In the end you have a beautiful poignant film that captures the essence of humanity that depicts an impacting visual of the film’s overarching theme, “the heart is a lonely hunter”.
Music is hugely fundamental in the telling of “A Love Song for Bobby Long”. The first is that music is obviously, as director Gabel dubs, “the spine” of New Orleans. Secondly, there is an inherent relationship between Pursy and the film’s music in that her dead-beat mother, who was coincidentally a Jazz star, is defined by her connection to the music- a music that rather haunts the characters and the film throughout. In the jazzy blues and the melodic rhythms and beats is a voice of a woman past, a woman that is only ever referenced in words, in music, but never visually. The character of Lorraine is defined by, through, and with the musical soundtrack of the film. In effect, the music is Lorraine, who is arguably the epitome of that idyllic Romantic muse personified that has been the demise of thousands of the South’s young poets and lovers even after her death, which is as much a death of a Dream as that of a young woman.
The cast is deft. Scarlett completely inhabits her role as Pursalane Wills. She is natural, down-home, and perfect- from her quirky hard-faced independence to that current of fragility that threatens to surface; Scarlett’s face gives way to the nuanced and complex emotional development of her character. Though a small budget film, Scarlett’s performance garnered a nomination for the 2005 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress, Drama. Likewise John Travolta’s interpretation of his role as Bobby Long is captivating. A decayed, fragile, tyrannical, hard-headed, Romantic academic who borders on perverse and obscene, Travolta’s embodiment of Bobby Long is the perfect approach and portrayal of the Romantic enigmatic Deep South. The last- minute cast Gabriel Macht also comes to the scene with a deeply intense chemistry with both his leading lady and man. There is a comfortable rapport between Travolta and Macht, and likewise, an innocent chemistry between Johansson and Macht that it is hard to imagine a better fit for the role of the failed protégé scholar Lawson Pines, the “follower”.
Likewise the dialogue in this film needs to be recognized. This film is witty- as sharp as it is sharp-tongued. The dialogue is food-for-thought, double-edged, comic, tragic, and powerful. Like the setting, the dialog is a form of characterization, where each character is, though distinct, unified in their crass, hardened, sometimes jaded perspective of the world.
“A Love Song for Bobby Long” is a tale of broken people leaning on their equally broken figurehead, Bobby Long. As the south creeps slowly from one day to the next with each passing sunset and each paralyzing day, this broken crowd exchanges anecdotes on life, love, and happiness, though arguably none of them have experienced any of it as of recent. Meanwhile Bobby Long continues to play stage master and creates a façade of the Old South and its Romantic notions of Truth, Freedom, and Innocence. But the bohemian lifestyle is fit for a generation of the past. Meanwhile a coming-of-age Pursy Wills storms on the scene to rip down the shade; letting light shine through the dark cavern of Bobby Long’s artificial world that is made manifest in the decaying New Orleans’ house.
In the end, however, Truth is always better than illusion, and vicarious lives prove to be nothing but wasted ones. “A Love Song for Bobby Long” gives a voice to that authentic life that keeps going and survives, even when the going gets tough, while simultaneously paying homage to those jaded Romantics caught in a world halfway between the past and the future, but not quite the present. The film is beautiful, elegiac, telling, poignant, and profound. It is a rare gem and a sure treat for today’s cinema.
Scarlett Johansson plays Pursy Will,
John Travolta plays Bobby Long, the jaded Romantic.
Gabriel Macht plays Lawson Pines, the failed protégé.
Deborah Kara Unger plays Georgianna, the substitute lover.
Dane Rhodes plays Cecil, the bereft lover.
Narrator (Lawson): “New Orleans is a siren of a city, a place of fables and illusion, a place that Lorraine had to escape from, and a place that Bobby and I (Lawson Pines), had to escape to, away form Alabama, away from lives that no belonged to us.”
Lawson: “I remember the first time you took me to see Lorraine sing, it was my first time in New Orleans, I was so taken.”
Bobby: “Well, you were kind of sheltered, choked by that silver spoon.”
Lawson: “I thought she was so beautiful.”
Bobby: “She was.”
Bobby: “It’s a story of misfits. Invisible people, it’s beautiful.”
* * *
Bobby: “I really, really do enjoy fostering inspiration. You know Lawson is a writer, a fine one too. He’s writing a book about me.”
Pursy: "Oh, that’s fascinating. Chapter 1: I got up, I got drunk, I passed out. Chapter 2: I got up, I got drunk, I passed out…”
Lawson: “She was hard to understand, but she kept the door to her heart open.”
Pursy: “Well the way I understand it, it was more of a revolving door now wasn’t it?”
Narrator: “A New Orleans summer drowns in thick, dank, stillness. Lorraine’s house shrank with each passing day, straining uneasy walls closer.”
Lawson: It’s not like you have rent. You don’t need to work full time.”
Pursy: “I need to get away from Bobby fulltime, overtime.”
Lawson: “You know you eat like shit.”
Pursy: “You drink too much.”
Pursy: “Why d’yall leave Alabama?”
Lawson: “A lot happened real fast and New Orleans, all of this, sort of seemed Romantic at the time.”
Pursy: “Is it? Is it Romantic?”
Lawson: “It has its moments.”
Narrator: “Somehow the wine began to outlast the day. And that was all anyone could ever ask for.”
Lawson: “Does every word that comes out of your mouth have be in character? Or is that the idea, to be everybody except for who you really are?... Your redemption and my penance. That is the idea right?”