PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A BOOZY SCREW-UP 

For William Faulkner, great writing vindicates odious writers. "If a writer has to rob his mother," he famously told a Paris Review interviewer, "he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." Like Faulkner, Larry Brown grew up around Oxford, Mississippi, and dropped out of Ole Miss before pursuing the writing life. In the title story of his 1990 collection Big Bad Love, Brown depicts a hard-drinking, hard-luck, would-be writer who robs his mother of her faith in him. "You have no vocation," she concludes.

That character, Leon Barlow, shares initials with his author, but their fortunes have diverged. While Brown, a prominent professional, has published eight books, Barlow — known to all as Bobby — still scribbles in obscurity, papering his bathroom walls with rejection slips. Bobby is Brown's miasmic alter ego, the self still mired in the cycle of failure from which the author, a former housepainter and firefighter, escaped through the power of his gritty prose. "I'm no stranger to underachievement," declares Arliss Howard, playing Bobby, in a screen adaptation of Big Bad Love that he produced, directed, and co-wrote (with his younger brother, Jim). It was shot in 32 days in Oxford and Holly Springs. Howard's wife, Debra Winger, plays Bobby's ex, Marilyn, the long-suffering mother of his two children. As Bobby's exasperated mater, a Southern lady with a Mercedes, the redoubtable Angie Dickinson is both venerable and vulnerable.

Big Bad Love is the story of a screw-up, a man who makes a mess not only of his own life but also of the lives of those closest to him. He is a talented painter and storyteller, but he is a genius at bungling. Leon Barlow joins figures from Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski in the sullen pantheon of fictional writers who court the Muse but sleep with failure. In his directorial debut, Howard offers up a bluesy ode to dereliction that is animated by musical collaboration from Tom Waits, R. L. Burnside, Tom Verlaine, and even the Kronos Quartet. It is a film about attitude more than incident, and whatever story lurks in Bobby's life is camouflaged by Howard's fondness for ostentatious camera work and editing. The narrative is both understated and overwrought. Images of Bobby pecking away at his Royal manual typewriter alternate with memories of happier times with Marilyn and with fantasies of literary triumph. Scenes from the author's past metamorphose into pages of his fictions. "Some dreams ruin being awake if you know the difference," notes Bobby, in a film where reverie and memory mingle with the wakened present.

While spurned manuscripts cram his rural mailbox, Bobby earns beer bucks by helping his buddy Monroe (Le Mat) paint a house. Monroe, who saved Bobby's life in Vietnam, is intent on salvaging it from alcoholic melancholy in Mississippi, but his troubled friend is trouble for others as much as himself. Marilyn has reason for obtaining a restraining order against her former husband and for worrying about Bobby's occasional custody of their ailing 4-year-old daughter, Alisha.

Like Piñero, which opens in San Antonio at the same time, Big Bad Love perpetuates a myth of the artist as self-destructive monster. It offers a rural twist to the familiar figure of the famished writer seeking meaning amid the mean streets of indifferent cities. Barlow is a creature of pickup trucks on back roads that ramble past fields of kudzu, a regular at the local bar and general store, and a sporadic resident of the county jail. Though he has not entirely succeeded in extinguishing Marilyn's feelings for him, Bobby is a very hard man to like, even when, at the end of the film, after retrieving his Royal from the bushes in which he threw it, he sends off in the mail a manuscript whose title page reads: Big Bad Love.

Big Bad Love
"A bluesy, blowzy ode to failure"
Dir. Arliss Howard; writ. Arliss Howard and Jim Howard, based on stories by Larry Brown; feat. Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Paul Le Mat, Rosanna Arquette, Angie Dickinson, Michael Parks (R)

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