Fever dream

Peter Jackson might be the boldest English-language director working today whose films are seen by almost no one. His latest effort, Heavenly Creatures, should remedy that situation. Based on a real-life New Zealand murder case in which two adolescent girls plotted the murder of a parent they believed was impairing their plans to stay together forever, it's so bold, passionate, and perverse that it crosses just about every categorical line in cinema.

It's a tale of friendship that becomes a love story so pure and powerful that it transcends the boundaries of physical affection. It's a trenchant essay on the roots of creativity, and how the adrenaline rush of indulging your imagination can blot out reality completely. It's the best satirical look at the touchy bond between teenagers and their paranoid but loving parents since Rebel without a Cause. And it's a repository of dreamlike visual splendors so incandescent, and so phenomenally disciplined and intelligent, that it feels like the best movie Terry Gilliam never made.

The year is 1952, and the British territory of New Zealand looks and sounds rather like America during that period. Conservatism and propriety reign supreme; the men have short hair, the women long skirts, and the children vast reservoirs of barely subsumed passions.

Our heroine, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), is a frumpy girl with brown hair, freckles, a sweet smile, and a longing for escape. She's shy and neurotic, but her fantasy life is as rich as any poet's. Upon entering high school, she meets her ideal mate, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), a lithe, blond, classically beautiful young woman who's as sarcastic and outspoken as Pauline is polite and reticent. Juliet is the kind of girl who will respond to a teacher's request that she write an essay about the royal family by standing up before the class and reading a hilariously smutty romp about fictionalized queens and princes that sounds like something Jeremy Irons might mail to Penthouse Forum.

Pauline nurtures a fiery crush on her newfound best mate. (And who wouldn't? As played by Winslet, a radiantly unselfconscious actress with sparkling, mischievous eyes and no internal censor, Juliet is everybody everyone in high school ever secretly wanted to be.) When Pauline's parents give her a diary for Christmas, she begins to chronicle her friendship with Juliet in its pages. She doesn't merely jot down her thoughts and daydreams, however; because Pauline has a restlessly inventive subconscious and a keen understanding of how to access it, she lets this beloved friendship serve as inspiration for poems, short stories, ongoing novels, fictional travel books, even operatic librettos.

When Juliet finds out what Pauline is up to, she breaks the best news Pauline has ever heard: Juliet has a rich fantasy life, too, and has been writing obsessively every since she met the girl. She feels the same powerful affection and loyalty for Pauline that Pauline feels for her. In no time, their friendship has become so strong that they begin to walk and talk and think like one another. They create an elaborate system of in-jokes, pop culture references, and made-up terms to baffle their parents and schoolmates.

One of Jackson's towering achievements is his depiction of just how real the girls' free-associative fantasies are. When they declare their adoration for singer Mario Lanza and even say a prayer to him by candlelight, Jackson doesn't make their indulgence appear childish in the least. When they hear one of his songs in their everyday lives, it echoes through the storefronts and forests of their small town as if God were cranking tunes on his own boombox. Conversely, when they announce that Orson Welles is ugly and creepy and frightening, they have fantasies about being chased home from the local cinema by him, complete with skewed camera angles straight out of a Welles movie, with the Welles figure in black and white and the girls in color.

They begin to resent, even despise, anyone who tries to intrude on their relationship. And when they begin exchanging writings and elaborating on each other's creations, formulating a complex alternate universe called "The Fourth World" populated by knights and ladies and serfs and barbarians and butterflies with eight-foot wingspans, their hold on the dirty details of daily life becomes tentative at best. They can enter their own fantasies at will, at the same time, just by holding hands and wishing.

A rumor begins circulating that the girls are lovers, and to Jackson's credit, he simultaneously shows us that these rumors are both essentially correct and hilariously wrong. Although the girls feel so comfortable with each other that they hug and kiss and frolic like lovebirds both in public and private, their friendship isn't a byproduct--much less a thinly veiled excuse--for their physicality, as is so often the case with teenage first loves. They feel close physically because they're welded at the cerebrum.  

When Shakespeare wrote of a marriage of true minds to which no one should admit impediment, he could have been talking about Pauline and Juliet. Their love is so intense that it seems oddly chaste, as if two angels got tired of the responsibilities foisted upon them and decided to go off in a corner of heaven and play Dungeons and Dragons. They get so excited by one another's ideas (and by the drawings and maps and clay figurines they create to better visualize them) that they literally begin to shake. Sometimes they get so riled up that you expect their bodies to burn and fall apart and their brains to spring free and float around freely, communicating by telepathy.

The problem, of course, is that by shutting out the world, the girls also alienate the people who care about them. Their parents, filmed through wide-angle lenses and deliberately made up to look vaguely grotesque, act as perpetual spoilsports, even breaking them up on occasion in the name of common decency. But what saves Heavenly Creatures from the brand of one-sided adolescent pandering that makes the films of John Hughes so simplistic is the way Jackson straddles a tightrope between glorifying the children and understanding the adults. That's why the warped ending of this strange, sad tale ultimately seems not predictable, but inevitable.

I'll reveal no more, because to seriously discuss the motivation behind the girls' murder plot would require giving away some of the most audacious images and inspired sequences Jackson has to offer. It's worth noting, however, that Jackson gives everybody a fair shake, including the viewer. Famed for going beyond excess (his previous movies include the NC-17 Muppet spoof Meet the Feebles, which ended with a puppet equivalent of the Luby's massacre, and Dead Alive, a zombie picture so awash in death and gore and disgusting sight gags that it felt like The Wild Bunch remade by Sam Raimi), Jackson yokes his explosive visual imagination and thrillingly crude energy to the service of a very delicate real-life story. Like a good novelist, he gets inside his subject matter and uses every last drop of his creative power to understand it, and his skills as a storyteller and filmmaker are so startlingly precise that he passes his newfound insight on to us.

It's not at all hard to see why Jackson--a former cartoonist and photo engraver, and a lifelong devotee of the profoundly inappropriate--would be drawn to this material. If his idiosyncratic career tells us anything, it's that fearless artistic commitment can turn even the tawdriest, most inherently exploitative concepts--a porno puppetoon, an undead slapstick bloodbath, a perverse real-life murder tale--into something inexplicably innocent. It's not really sufficient to say that Jackson's brilliance turns trash into art, because that would imply that he saw his material as trash to begin with, which is certainly not the case. Jackson makes no distinction between high art and low; he's an artistic omnivore who feeds his imagination with anything that strikes his fancy.

But unlike Terry Gilliam, the ex-Monty Pythoner to whom Jackson is sometimes compared, Jackson is never transparent or shallow or clumsy; there's nothing bullying about his work, as there often is with Gilliam's. You never get the impression while watching one of Jackson's movies that he just wants to dazzle you or get a reaction out of you, or that he even particularly cares what you think at all.

His first loyalty is to his muse. He's a primal storyteller who makes debased subject matter pure again. His films are an illustration of the maxim that art is merely the byproduct of an honest and successful attempt to do something well. He's like a mad hermit filling up notebooks with the most horrific and beautiful drawings you've ever seen. That he would allow you the fleeting chance to peek over his shoulder is a privilege of the highest order.

It's a wet fall day in Dallas, and Peter Jackson, a smallish, rotund, bearded man in his early 30s, is sitting on a bench in Lee Park having his picture taken. He's quiet and reserved, almost shy; it's impossible at first to tell whether this is indicative of his personality or of the many grueling hours of flight time he's logged since embarking on a North American press tour to promote Heavenly Creatures. The photographer initially finds it difficult to convince him to smile genuinely; Jackson's expressions look more like weary, halfhearted smirks.

Then, suddenly, his eyes light up, and he shifts his body into a precise re-creation of Tom Hanks' pose from the Forrest Gump poster. "Lahf is like uh box uh choc-o-laytes," Jackson drawls. "Yew nevah know what you gonna get."  

It would be tempting to say his Gump impersonation is ironic, that his movies represent the opposite of Gump's moony, man-child way of viewing the world. It would also be wrong, for although Jackson's films acknowledge human suffering and depravity and horror in a more complicated and honest way than Forrest Gump, they are no less optimistic. In his heart of hearts, the man has faith in human nature, faith in the idea that true innocence is incorruptible.

The filmmaker doesn't set up his nave heroes--the sweet, lisping, Kermit-like hedgehog of Meet the Feebles, the young man watching his family turn into zombies in Dead Alive, the teen best pals of Heavenly Creatures--so that he can knock them down with cheap sarcasm and bludgeoning plot twists. He respects their purity and their determination to hold on to it.

"What's good and right depends much of the time on where one is standing," he adds. "There can be good in evil characters, and vice versa, but I think we respond to those same characters emotionally based on how completely we've been allowed to understand their motivations. I think what Pauline and Juliet did was horrible and sad, but I felt I could understand them as human beings. They were really quite innocent--not of the deed, but in their hearts."

He disputes the theory advanced by fans of his earlier films that Heavenly Creatures represents a bid for mainstream respectability. As punctuation, he issues a standing invitation to any filmmaker reading this piece to please make a gorier, more outlandish undead epic than Dead Alive. "I've read some critics who said there needn't be any more zombie pictures after mine, and I certainly hope no one else feels that way. I love the form too much to think somebody out there won't have the urge to top it."

For now, he says he has no plans to move to Hollywood. He likes working in New Zealand, where he can get large government grants to beef up his budgets, and where there's no puritan rating system to influence his style or choice of subject matter.

"It's very comfortable back home," he says. "There's a sense of being cut off from things, of being able to concentrate on your work without the kind of distractions a place like Los Angeles can bring. Each time one of my movies comes out, I get offers to move to the United States and direct a big-budget horror movie or fantasy picture...but because the jobs would require me to superimpose my sensibility on somebody else's material, I never actually go through with them. I like being my own person and telling my own stories."

"I know this is probably going to sound terribly self-centered and selfish," he says, "but I never put much thought into what audiences are going to think of my movies. Really, if the next movie I made were seen by no one but me and my friends, I'd accept that. I ultimately make movies only for myself. If other people get something out of them, if they provoke thought or some kind of emotional reaction, that's very nice, but it's not why I do what I do. I do what I do because I have these visions and I have to bring them to life."

Heavenly Creatures. Miramax. Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet. Script by Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh. Directed by Peter Jackson. Opens December 2.

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