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L. I. Lolita

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Great Shelf O' Hair: Jason Priestly escapes from the incestuous world of 'Beverly Hills 90210' into a real movie.

An aging English author discovers love and death

By Richard von Busack

THE BRITISH POET Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) committed suicide at age 18--not a moment too soon, from the evidence of some of his verse. By dying young, Chatterton inspired an 1856 memorial painting by Henry Wallis. This painting, which hangs at the Tate Gallery in London, is the linchpin of the pleasing, piercing romantic comedy Love and Death on Long Island.

John Hurt plays the author Giles De'Ath (hard accent on the last syllable), who is branded by the sight of Wallis' Chatterton. The painting haunts him years later, after the demise of his rather severe wife. It's the first glimmering he's had that he might be a lover of men without realizing it.

As in Sugarbaby, in which Marianne Sägebrecht's character was recalled from living death by a bad rockabilly song, De'Ath is transported by the sight of a minor actor in a worse than minor film. In search of adventure, De'Ath goes to see Hotpants College II (the cruel ticket-taker makes the modest little wordsmith ask for the junk movie by name).

On screen, De'Ath sees Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly), and the vision slays him as dead as Chatterton. Like all who get the bug late in life, De'Ath falls hard and is soon compiling scrapbooks and poring over teen magazines for photographs of his idol. Taking his folly to the limit, De'Ath comes to Chatterton, Long Island, to seek out Bostock where he lives.

I once heard the novelist A.S. Byatt describe certain male writers as "peacock-y." De'Ath is more like a wren. "So British you wouldn't believe it" is the way De'Ath is described by Bostock's Parker Poseyish girlfriend, Audrey (Fiona Loewi). He's as unused to America as a Martian would be, and it is only through luck and a bit of courage that he finally gets to meet Bostock.

Giles befriends the actor, who, like all of his breed, is yearning to be taken seriously. The hopeless passion, seemingly headed for disaster, is fulfilled in a way that neither could have expected.

Love and Death on Long Island bears some studious parallels to Death in Venice, but it really resembles Lolita--from the motel where De'Ath stays to the Charlotte Haze-like culture vulture who runs it. And Priestly, too pretty for anyone to have taken seriously before, really shines as the love object. He looks like he could be the son of Sue Lyon, who starred in the 1961 film of Lolita. All the gestures are there: the cynicism in the youthful mouth, the eyes that let you know that at least some part of him sees through De'Ath's extravagant flattery.

First-time director Richard Kwietniowski sets the film in the present, but it has the look of the early 1960s (even though it was filmed in Nova Scotia; Canada does appear less injured than America). The atmosphere of the past makes the story work, because we are asked to believe in a pair of unlikely comic ignorances: the ignorance of American technology on De'Ath's part and of lecherous Europeans on male starlet Bostock's part.

The movie is critic-proof. Everyone drawn to write about film knows what it's like to get a hopeless crush on some shadow. Love and Death on Long Island is lovable because it endorses the crush and doesn't propose that falling for images on the screen is a lesser love.

Hurt's immense dignity and just as immense absurdity make Love and Death on Long Island a must-see. Priestly responds to the casting; nothing has ever become him like this, and he knows it. Love and Death on Long Island is a comedy about romantic love striking a man when it's too late for him, but it also celebrates the romance of the movies: the moments of real art that transcend commercial purpose, all the actors who were better than the stuff they got to play, all the accidental moments that--through film--defy death and become eternity.

Love and Death on Long Island (PG-13; 93 min.), directed and written by Richard Kwietniowski, based on the novel by Gilbert Adair, photographed by Oliver Curtis and starring John Hurt and Jason Priestly, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose and at the Palo Alto Square.

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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