WAITING FOR THE MOON
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Jill Godmilow
Written by Godmilow and Mark Magill
With Linda Hunt, Linda Bassett, Jacques Boudet, and Bruce McGill.
Why bother producing a film about literary lioness Gertrude Stein and her faithful sidekick Alice B. Toklas that not only portrays them disingenuously as “just good friends” but also evicts from their celebrated Paris salon the entire menagerie of writers, painters, and other renowned egomaniacs who invaded it over three colorful decades? To paraphrase Gertrude on the subject of roses, a friendship is a friendship is a friendship, and, according to Waiting for the Moon’s rather prudish filmmakers, anything else it may have been is none of the audience’s damn business. Well, OK. It was their personalities, not any romping they did together in the sack, that attracted hordes of literati, illuminati, cognoscenti, and lesser lights seeking ordination from high priestess Gertrude as “promising” talents. Among the illustrious pilgrims were Picasso, Matisse, Picabia, Gris, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Man Ray, and many dozens more. One suspects there was something more alluring at 27, rue de Fleurus than the prospect of scarfing down some good home cooking by a couple of sweet old maids. So a filmmaker can blithely bypass the boudoir and instead examine the sensational company the ladies kept, and why they kept it. That’s interesting. But Waiting for the Moon delivers the meagerest doses of Hemingway blustering, Apollinaire versifying, and offscreen Picasso muttering something or other–and that’s all, folks.
If director Jill Godmilow’s ambition is to ladle up onto the screen 88 minutes of well-pedigreed literary material a la the Ivory-Merchant cabal (Room With a View, The Bostonians, The Europeans), all that’s left to do is tiptoe oh so reverently around a sham portrait of the Stein-Toklas liaison. Given ample PTL cash, the filmmakers doubtless could play out Jim Bakker’s motel escapade as if he were a castrato conducting private choir lessons there. But other than to concoct a silly apologia, what would be the point?
A really meaningful relationship by any other name (even the love poor Oscar Wilde found “dare not speak its name”) is still a meaningful relationship, and this one should be well worth the trouble of delving into cinematically. So it’s baffling why the screenwriters chose in Waiting for the Moon to recast what was, by all reports, in all ways a satisfying partnership instead as a pretty tepid and stilted tale of one very little old lady’s half-suppressed and wholly unrequited longings for her quite oblivious companion. Alice (Linda Hunt, the mighty mite from The Year of Living Dangerously), a “saint” everyone says, pines away for Eros but must settle for a maddeningly chaste intimacy with Gertrude, a “genius” Gertrude says. It’s noble stuff, a treasure trove of filmic opportunities to capture the presumably sublime ache of thwarted desire, of inexpressible passions, of nice folks wrestling with naughty thoughts and overcoming them at a very high cost. (The disturbing “flip side,” of course, is the implication that this prickly pair’s relationship would be sullied if they sprang suddenly on one another, that it would be ignoble as well as perhaps unsightly.) By focusing on a delicately deeroticized depiction of the Stein-Toklas link rather than their magnetic attraction for a host of maniacal artists, the filmmakers abandoned all cause for picking these literary (by no means, literal) femmes fatales in the first place. For all the difference it makes to the bowdlerized story line, you could just as well rename them Trixie and Agnes, and locate the “action” in a southern Illinois school library or, for that matter, a convent anywhere. What a waste.
While the script does take liberties galore with space, time, events, and the psychopathologies of the players, these self-sabotaging maneuvers might have been worth the risk if they were, say, anchored to a playfully offbeat plot (as in Harold and Maude) or calculated cunningly to cast incongruous luminaries together in common plights (as in Ragtime, The Seven Percent Solution, or Insignificance). But, given the polymorphously perverse crew trucking in and out of Stein’s Left Bank salon, why resort to so much fiction? All we have here in Waiting for the Moon is a poorly stitched set of highly inhibited and sentimentalized glimpses that is no more revelatory about this couple than is the typical Robin Leach interview about the life-styles of the rich and fatuous.
The film opens in the mid-1930s in a rural French retreat where, amid the sylvan splendor, bright flower beds, and the wailing of a plaintive infant, the elderly foster mothers Alice and Gertrude are seated editing and quibbling over Stein’s manuscripts. It’s a well-rehearsed kind of quibbling, a banter that old married couples, (or colleagues, mind you) might refine over aeons of more or less amiable disputation–and, of course, it breaks down in patterned fashion too. Gertrude is all icy precision, equipped with a supercilious demeanor even Mother Teresa might find, after five minutes, is too hard to take. Alice is a warmer sprite, if ready to parry and riposte briskly when suffering the “goddamn condescension” Stein dispenses so freely. The “setup” is clear: Gertrude emits all sorts of unctuously learned noises about literature and life, and earthy Alice, when the verbiage gets too thick, punctures her puffed-up pal over and over and over again. We are too acutely aware early on that Alice supplies the only semblance of “fresh air,” the kind that comes in deodorizing spray cans. It’s no real relief from the snobbish stench.
Cut to the Paris salon where, among walls congested with Matisses, Cezannes, and Picassos (acquired at the turn of the century, when Stein championed these “charlatans” against sneering and sniggering critics), the women obligingly pose while the director reverentially re-creates a static if mythic scene from ancient photographs of the premises. Aside from learning that Alice is a “morning person” and that Gertrude, like a true artist, rises at the crack of noon, there is precious little else disclosed about these semianimate icons and their iconoclastic disciples. (Hemingway and Apollinaire appear briefly only to stick out or cluck their golden tongues at the spinsters’ “plight,” then dash off to other movable feasts.) The screenwriters do their level best, within their own cramped format, to “humanize” Gertrude (anyone who can mimic a Dublin working-class accent can’t be all bad) and to contrive poignant scenes wherein Alice is shown reaping what consolation she can from the noncarnal realm of their deeply dyadic universe. The writers hint at Stein’s utter dependence upon, if not romantic love for, the languishing Alice, but decline to pursue this theme. The relationship evidently must be made a model of near-perfect mutual human nurturance where sexuality and neurosis never ever rear their ugly little heads. Aiming at sublimity, the filmmakers convey only a sense of their own squeamishness.
In its disjointedly episodic structure, the film often veers into silly and annoying artifices. Puttering through the countryside in their venerable Model T, Stein and Toklas pick up an American hitching his doomed way to the Spanish Civil War (“Off to fight the good fight, huh?”), chance upon Apollinaire hunting mushrooms, and then, like the good sports they are, spend an evening around the old campfire roasting marshmallows, swigging wine, and crooning Gertrude’s favorite tune, “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” to a ukulele accompaniment. In the annals of campfire scenes, though, Easy Rider wrung more merriment out of a single reefer and Blazing Saddles from a can of beans than Stein, Toklas, Apollinaire (Jacques Boudet), and the hitcher (Andrew McCarthy) manage with more abundant provisions. In other sequences, Alice, not a Catholic, traipses off to a confessional where she unsuccessfully tries to bare her languishing soul to a puckish priest, and Hemingway (Bruce McGill, who really seems to be playing the role of Teddy Roosevelt), anticipating the day his fountain pen runs dry, tastelessly rehearses his future suicide. Endearingly, Hemingway also is shown tipping off the alarmingly dense Gertrude that maybe for the sake of her own convenience she is overlooking the true depth of Alice’s affection. “You’re a jerk,” Papa Hemingway judges, if Stein resists recognizing what really melds her to her devoted pal. But in actuality Stein was hardly so obtuse, and Hemingway did not look so benignly upon such relationships. This sort of thing didn’t happen in Oak Park, my dears. Anyway, Hemingway was never all that friendly with a woman whose massive ego often distracted from the importance of being Ernest.
Stein and Toklas, this ain’t. And whoever the players are, they aren’t very engaging. All we ultimately have here–despite the subject’s phenomenally rich potential–is a dull and highfalutin “buddies film.”