The Voices of Voiceless

Carson McCullers' name may not have the instant familiarity of a Twain, a Fitzgerald or even a Salinger, but in her own oddball way, she was one of the great American writers. At 22, an age when most of us are still stumbling around, grasping and whining like the overgrown children we still are, McCullers penned the hit novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a heartbreaking and utterly beautiful portrait of the denizens of a small, Southern town. It was an awful big novel for a sheltered little girl from down South, and it was so good a few critics wrongly insisted that McCullers' mother (a sometime writer in her own right) must have been the true author. McCullers' was simply too good, too soon.

Throughout her short life, McCullers' work was populated by miserably alienated freaks—ranting communists, bitter drunks, hunchbacked dwarfs, deaf-mutes and some crazy butch girls—but while she was honest enough to portray these characters with all of their considerable flaws intact, she also saw their scraggly nobility and loved them with a fierceness that was obvious on every page. No doubt hers was a compassion born of having lived such a rotten life herself; a gawky, fragile-looking girl, born too shrewd and moody for her time, afflicted with debilitating strokes that left the left side of her body useless from an early age, McCullers was a born misfit who swung (wildly) both ways but never found lasting contentment with either camp. She drove her friends and lovers to madness with her feverish yearnings for their attentions, and by all accounts, she could be an absolute bitch on wheels. When she wasn't at the keyboard, she was out catting around town on some unwholesome adventure or she was sick in bed. She died years before I was born, and yet I adore the woman as if we grew up on the same block.

And so while I can point out to you that this week presents you with an ultrarare opportunity to attend a public screening of the once-acclaimed but now all-but-forgotten 1968 film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I must bite my tongue to resist carping about all of the priceless details the film omits from the book, the missed opportunities, the lost nuances. McCullers' novel was a bittersweet tale of a deaf-mute who is rather befuddled, even alarmed to see that his silence is taken for depthless empathy by his fellow townsfolk; as he floats through the street, lost in his private agonies, his neighbors all labor under the poignant delusion that he alone understands their innermost souls, that he actually gives a damn. The McCullers geek within me objects to the film version's sentimentality, the shuffled scenes, the abbreviated characters; but the film critic in me reluctantly admits that a movie is a movie and, as such, usually benefits by leaving out most of the scenes from the original book where the characters sit alone at the kitchen table and muse about the awfulness of life.

This screening really is a precious opportunity; good luck finding this picture in a video store or on TV or pretty much anywhere else outside of the darkened classrooms of schools for the deaf. As a pure moviegoing experience, seen without the filter of raging McCullers geekery, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is probably a corker; go see it, and let me know, would you?

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter screens at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-3456. Tues., 5 p.m. $6-$9.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *