Charles Baxter’s novel The Feast of Love opens with the appearance of its narrator, Charles Baxter, waking and rising from bed late one night. Baxter wanders around his neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., unexpectedly spying on a couple making love on the 50-yard line of a football field. Shortly thereafter he meets up with Bradley Smith, a fellow innocent night-stalker who begins to tell Baxter the stories that become a bountiful feast with love as the main ingredient.
Yet in translating The Feast of Love to the screen (which drops the opening sequence), scripter Alison Burnett re-configured the story’s recipe by removing a key spice, Charles Baxter, and making an astute substitution. In the novel, Bradley Smith’s neighbor Harry Ginsburg is a Jewish professor facing guilt over his desire to stop enabling his son’s drug-fueled lifestyle on the West Coast. Onscreen, Harry merges into the narrative center, thus taking on more of the Baxter role and morphs even further due to the casting of Morgan Freeman, transforming Harry Ginsburg into Harry Scott.
Writer-director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) explains during a recent phone interview how after the book’s initial optioning and major players had fallen through, he contacted Tom Rosenberg, the producer of The Human Stain (Benton’s most recent directing effort prior to Feast), who had acquired the rights and was putting his creative team together. Benton stepped in after a scheduling conflict derailed another director, but the casting of Freeman was an issue because “generally I don’t like it when someone has hired an actor and I’ve had nothing to do with it. But it happens that in that role I couldn’t have imagined a better actor.”
It’s curious that Benton ended up overseeing this project with its focus, at least in its development, on the subtle shifting of race in character. While much of Feast‘s issues are behind the scenes (as in The Human Stain), the question of race and identity plays a pivotal role in the narrative.
In Stain, Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is a besieged college professor who attempts to fend off attacks of racism for offhand comments he made about a pair of African-American students. Yet Silk has spent his entire life hiding his own blackness behind various facades, one being his fabricated identity as a Jew.
This identity switch recalls questions of the cultural standing and bonds between blacks and Jews in society, highlighted in the dialogue between Cornell West and Michael Lerner in their book Jews & Blacks. Both groups struggle to define their identities in America. Each does so in opposition to the white mainstream, although Jews find themselves in an even more complex position due to their ability to reject or embrace “whiteness.”
But for Feast, Benton says that initially the development team was “colorblind,” not thinking about “Morgan or Jane Alexander (who plays his wife)” in that way until later when he jokingly wondered “if we were setting a trap for ourselves” due to the nation’s rather recent past in which miscegenation was illegal (little more than 30 years ago for those who trumpet how much has changed).
The final choices all came down to casting and performance rather than a calling to address these “issues.”
Yet on a deeper level, in its messy, episodic exploration of love, Feast does embrace issues of identity — whether based on race, class or sexual orientation — more honestly and subtly than might be expected from a big-budget American studio film. At times, Benton’s approach toward the adult drama and its various components feels European.
He quickly and humorously points out that while “the French generally handle this kind of subject matter better than we do, we handle teenage high school pictures much better than the French.”
On a more serious note, he believes the problem is that “we have simply forgotten these kinds of stories … complicated stories with ordinary people. In the ’70s, there was violence and there was also erotic content. We’ve forgotten erotic content and concentrated solely on violence. And I’m surprised at this. I hope people will see this movie and others like it and realize that there is an audience for these kinds of movies.”
By using a phrase like “these kinds of movies,” Benton surely wants to categorize them based on their common, everyday humanity, which dares to elevate that very ordinariness to a near mythic status. He wants us to see ourselves in a different, better light without forcing us to dream of schemes beyond our own basic humanity.
Maybe Feast of Love and others like it will help us find a sustaining love of self that will translate and transform into a love supreme. (tt stern-enzi)