You must be aware of the American
Southern Gothic tradition which encompasses such important writers as
Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, and Tennessee
Williams. The stories generally involve characters who are either
romantic eccentrics or once-great people gone to seed
... through excessive alcohol drinkin',
'n' givin' up on theyselves on account o' some terrible failure in life
or love. They live in crumblin' plantation houses, and their lonely
lives now consist of droppin' their g's, rehashin' their memories, 'n'
meetin' together with other castaways, exchangin' some speechifyin'
which is empty, but mighty purty and right flowery. To add atmosphere,
there's usually a passel of folks who have bought Colonel Sanders's old
white suits from Goodwill and wear them at all times while moseyin'
through the genteel decay of the old parts of Charleston, Savannah, or
N'awlins. Most of 'em, even the richest and most educated characters,
have white trash cousins who are secretly married to their other white
trash cousins, or even to their own daddies. You can also count on the
fact that the families are hidin' some other secrets far more macabre
than incest. God knows what. It might be that there are insane people
chained up in the attic, or that somebody killed one of his children, or
it might be that ol' granny is still sleepin' with granpa's corpse.
You name it. If Charles Dickens were to
be transplanted to the middle of the 20th century, he'd feel right at
home in the American South. This grotesque mythic structure is part of
the literary ethos in the South, sparking its worst excesses, but also
its grandest successes. Even the incomparable William Faulkner was not
untouched by the norms and conventions of Southern Gothic, although his
greatest works soared far above the genre. Southern Gothic. A Love Song
For Bobby Long is such a story, New Orleans division.
Oh, before I begin discussing the movie,
there's another thing you furriners may not know about American
Southerners. Let's discuss the name "Bobby". Up north it is more common
to find a Bob or Rob. You can find a Bobby or two up north as well, but
they are usually little kids, and just about 100% of them are really
named "Robert". In the South, it is common for "Bobby" to be the name of
an adult (in the case of this movie, even a once-distinguished English
professor), and the name on his (or her!) birth certificate may even be
"Bobby." It ain't always a nickname, down here, podner. Iff'n you meet a
Larry down here, his birth certificate may be stained with chicken
grease and BBQ sauce, but if you can still make it out through the
smudges, it'll probably say "Larry", not "Lawrence." If you meet a
"Billy Bob" down here (a strong likelihood), don't expect his real name
to be "William Robert."
That shit's too hard to spell.
No, just kidding. We can spell down here,
but William Robert Thornton is too inaccessible, too pompous, too New
For some reason, we exempt "Charles" and
"David" from the "stuffy Northerner" rule. Southerners often have
"Charles" or "David" on their birth certificate, and they are rarely
called "Charlie", "Dave", "Davy", or "Chuck."
The one syllable attached middle name is
more of a Texas thang. We're different in Texas. Our state was part of
the Confederacy, but is not at all genteel. We raise our voices to whoop
out loud, and our aristocrats are not nearly so polite as the refined
people in the Deep South. We think of ourselves as rough-hewn
Westerners, not genteel Southerners, or maybe just as Texans, since this
massive state used to be a country, and is still as large as the largest
countries in Europe. You'll find a Jimmy Don, Donny Earl, Billy Ray,
Betty Jo, or Billy Bob around every corner in the Lone Star State, but
we aren't like the decaying plantation aristocrats, who seem to prefer
the implicit reverse snobbery inherent in having the simplest and
humblest possible name, like Jimmy or Huey or Bobby. The mannerly
Southerners also seem to feature uniquely Southern creations like Arlen
and Beau(regard). Beauregard is kind of a universally Southern name,
isn't it? Just as you know Alistair is not an American, you can be sure
Beauregard is not a Northerner.
Bottom line: it probably should say
"Bobby Long" on his driver's license, not "Robert Long," but a legal
document is addressed to the movie character as "Mr. Robert Long."
The story begins as a young girl named
Pursline is sitting in a white trash trailer park in Florida, eating
peanut butter dipped in M&M's. She finds out that her estranged,
alcoholic mother has died, and heads off to New Orleans for the funeral.
She doesn't make it in time for the service, but finds out that her mom
has left her something as a legacy - one third of a disgustingly filthy,
unheated, run-down shack near the French Quarter. It seems that momma's
two roommates each own a third as well. One of them is Bobby Long, once
a brilliant literature professor, now a hopeless middle-aged drunk. The
other is Lawson Pines, once Bobby's teaching assistant, then his
confidante, now his fellow alkie.
The story is simply about the three of
them learning to live together and maybe helping one another to a better
place in life. On the way, they all get drunk and say cruelly honest
things to one another, and then they get all guilty and serious and
dramatically reveal all their secrets to one another, including the
horrible event that caused Bobby to go from boy genius to hopeless
derelict. Since Pursline is hazy on the identity of her father, I
suppose you can probably figure out the biggest secret of all about five
minutes into the film.
The narration and dialogue are heavy with
the weight of stylized Southern-fried prose. It begins, "Tahm was never
a friend to Bobba Long ..." The film ups the preciousness ante with a
constant exchange of literary references between Bobby and Lawson, as
they try to stump one another in an ongoing game of quotes from their
favorite authors. The film also moves slowly, takes a long time to get
into, and ends rather melodramatically ...
and yet ...
... yet I did eventually get drawn into
Somewhere in the middle I got hooked in,
started to like the characters, and even liked the way they turned their
artificial phrases. My eventual involvement was a real triumph for the
actors, because they were working with some eccentric material which was
difficult to make credible. This script could easily have degenerated
into something like a high school performance of Streetcar Named Desire,
but John Travolta, Gabriel Macht and Scarlett Johansson all brought some
charisma to their parts, and managed to do a remarkably good job at
breathing life into the affected dialogue. Although I know that old
smelly alcoholics and 9th grade drop-outs don't really talk like this,
all three of these performers functioned well enough to convince me that
they do, and all of them were smart enough to underplay the most florid
and melodramatic writing.
They were supported by some good N'Awlins
music, and fine cinematography by Elliott Davis, who shot the fringes of
New Orleans - the seedy run-down neighborhoods, the fading mansions,
the cemeteries, the neighborhood bars, the backyards and empty lots -
with precisely the romantic decadence required. I'd say it was damned
fine second generation Southern Gothic.
Is it a film for everyone? No. Nobody
else seemed to like it as much as I did. Did it have blockbuster
potential? No. It seems like it was made in about 1962, and it's too
much like a filmed play rather than a purely cinematic project. But it
did turn out to be a pleasant and easy watch for me, I found that the
time passed quickly, and when it was over I did not regret having
invested that time. If you don't mind an all-too-Southern and
all-too-literary piece of very old-fashioned movie making, you might
give it a shot.