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[whitespace] Twist and Turn

An optimist looks at life, rock-and-roll, ups and down, and the new film Where the Heart Is.

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"I want to thank you," sighs Chris Stewart, turning in his seat to face me, his cheeks wet with tears, his British-accented voice slightly strained from the effort of prolonged sobbing. "Thank you for encouraging me to see this. I thought it was exquisite. I think it's a masterpiece."

We've just seen Where the Heart Is, starring Natalie Portman.

The enthused and grateful giddiness with which my guest has received this new film--a so-called "chick flick" about the Karmic fortunes of a golden-hearted trailer-trash dreamer named Novalie Nation--can best be explained by pointing out a couple of facts:

One, the movie, contrary to sneering dismissals from Neanderthal critics, is a genuine charmer. There are powerful performances from a solid ensemble cast (including Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing) and a flawed-but-indomitable heroine (Portman) whose spirit of goodness and generosity, as it carries her through everything from bad boyfriends and murderous tornadoes, is nothing short of inspiring.

Fact number two, Where the Heart Is marks the first time Chris Stewart has been inside a movie theater in over 20 years.

A former drummer for the rock group Genesis--he performed on the band's first album and was then replaced by Phil Collins--Chris Stewart has lived a life every bit as surprising and chance-filled as Novalie Nation's. After dropping out of the music biz in the early 70s, he became a professional sheep shearer and a some-time writer for Rough Guides, publisher of travel books for economic adventurers. Thirteen years ago, having saved a few thousand pounds, Stewart and his wife Ana bought a little farm in the Alpajurras, a remote region of Spain at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where they've lived without running water, in relative poverty and "extreme happiness" ever since. Another twist occurred when , on a whim, Stewart agreed to write a book about his life in Spain. Called Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia, it was published in Britain last year, and became an enormous, instant best-seller (a quarter million books and counting), unexpectedly transforming Stewart into a wealthy man.

The American edition, published by Pantheon Books, is on its way to becoming a word-of-mouth hit in the states as well.

Which brings Stewart to Where the Heart Is.

Now on the last legs of a massive book-signing tour, the drummer-turned-farmer-turned-celebrity author--"I feel like a pole-cat in a poodle parlor," he says--accepted my offer of an afternoon at the movies, and is still reeling from the over-amped stimuli of state-of-the-art stadium seating, cupholders, deafening THX sound system promos, and grossly expensive snacks.

"Where I come from this could feed an entire family," he notes, hoisting a small bag of popcorn.

"People must be entertained," allows Stewart, basking in the warm sun after the show, "so art should be entertaining, but an artist can also set out to change the world, to somehow reduce the sum total of human swinishness and human misery.

"And this film has achieved that," he adds, waving an arm at the theater, "because we were both so inspired by its story. It's made us want to be like Novalie Nation, to go out and commit some decent act in the middle of our otherwise rotten miserable lives."

Though anything but rotten and miserable, the extremely well-liked Stewart--a committed environmentalist who has successfully introduced the notion of organic farming to his fellow farmers--argues that environmentalism is not the greatest of virtues.

"Being environmentally friendly is very easy to do," he says. "To leave our farm in a better state than we happen to have found it is a black and white matter. No trouble at all.

"What's difficult," he chuckles, "is dealing with other people as you should do."

We pause to watch observe a one-footed blackbird, until now quietly snatching crumbs from the sidewalk, attempting to defend himself against a noisy attack from a marauding two-footed black-beaked bullies.

"Birds are like that, you know," he remarks. "You shouldn't learn messages from nature, because nature is a bitch. Nature is fascism at its purest. No deviations are tolerated. You can't run the world like nature unless you want to run a fascist dictatorial society.

"I talk about nature as if it were the enemy, and yet I live in the middle of it in Spain. But nature is the enemy. Nature is the beast that stops your vegetables from growing by putting slugs and caterpillars and diseases and fungi and God knows what else.

"Nature fights you at every turn."

Musing on the twists and turns of his own life, Stewart takes a characteristically optimistic view. He claims no bitterness at having just missed mega stardom as a rock-and-roller.

"I sort of know what my life would have been like had I remained with Genesis," he says, "and I think I've had the better life. I think about it a little, now and then. Those fellows have had wonderful lives, certainly, but I've had the opportunity to take advantage of twists and turns that they've never been able to take. Those decisions we made so long have lead me into a different part of the maze. And it's been a life of great contentment."

In the film, Novalie says, 'You're whole life can change with a single breath," and every change brings pain, new opportunities--and more change.

Stewart's own twists and turns are far from over.

"I learned a couple of months ago that they 're going to build a long-delayed dam in our valley," he reveals. "It won't flood the valley but it will raise the river, possibly within the next five years.

"Here I'm using expensive organic fertilizers," he laughs, "taking great care with the land in every way. And now it looks like it's going to be buried under the bed of river in a few years time.

"It's wonderfully ironic, isn't it?"

Stewart knows that even this tragedy will bring new twists and turns, good and bad, to his own remarkable story.

"As my publisher said to me," says Stewart, "when I told him about the dam, 'Well, that's the most awful thing I've ever heard. It's so terribly sad. But there may be another book in it.'"

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From the May 18-24, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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