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The Caveman's Valentine

When Samuel L. Jackson read George Dawes Green's 1994 Edgar Award-winning novel The Caveman's Valentine, he immediately set the wheels in motion to turn it into a film. Jackson was intrigued by the unusual hero of Green's mystery novel, Romulus Ledbetter, a schizophrenic man who lives in an outcropping of rocks in New York's Central Park. Ledbetter is far removed from the usual stoic private dick of the genre — a Juilliard-trained pianist, he once had a brilliant career ahead of him, a loving wife, and a child on the way. But the pressure of impending fame, compounded by his mental illness, brought on Rom's "brain typhoons" — fits of madness focusing on his imagined archenemy "Stuyvescent," who lives in the Chrysler Building and reads his thoughts using "Y rays." It's obvious why Jackson took to the character (the role would be a showcase for any actor) but also to the story, through which Jackson said "We see that he's not a throwaway person at all, but someone with strong ties to his daughter and flashes of musical genius." To direct the picture, Jackson signed up Kasi Lemmons, with whom he'd previously worked on her first feature film, Eve's Bayou. A remarkable debut, that film made liberal use of magical imagery and flashback to tell the story of a Louisiana family in 1962, filtered through the memory of a 10-year-old girl. "Kasi had the right kind of sensibility to make this kind of material work," Jackson said. The off-beat whodunit follows the filthy, dreadlocked Rom, dubbed "the Caveman" by his fellow urban street-dwellers, after he finds a dead body frozen in the tree outside his cave. The police dismiss the incident as a transient freezing to death; Rom is given reason to believe it was murder, and at first he believes it was the work of the evil Stuyvescent — a "valentine" left outside his home to taunt him. Genuine clues begin to surface, leading Rom to famed photographer David Leppenraub (Colm Feore), whose work features images of torture and crucifixion. He enlists the help of his police-officer daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), but she knows better than anyone how little she can trust her deranged father's version of reality. As Rom investigates further, he finds himself in genuine danger — because, after all, even paranoids can have real enemies. As we follow Rom's investigation, we get glimpses into his world, where Stuyvescent's green rays color his perceptions, his estranged wife appears to guide him as a muse, and his brain becomes filled with dancing "moth seraphim" who die when he throws a fit, only to create cocoons and be reborn each morning.

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"This was a very, very difficult film to get made," Lemmons told reporters at the time of the movie's release. "I mean, I was working on this project for four years, and we were actively looking for a green light for three of them ... I guess it was because people took one look at (the screenplay) and thought, you know, it's this arty thriller/character piece about an African American, schizophrenic homeless person. People would tell us, 'Look, don't bring me this!'" Once made, the film unfortunately failed to find an audience, probably for the very reasons Lemmons cited. But Jackson is extraordinary as Rom, a wounded, shuffling bear of a man with possibly irreparable mental illness. To Jackson's and Lemmons' credit, they remain true to the Romulus Ledbetter of the novel; he's not some cinematic "crazy man" who magically gets better by film's end through the love of his family and the resolution of the story. No, Rom is flat-out insane, and Jackson's ability to make him both dynamic and sympathetic is a marvel. Lemmons handles the material beautifully, using brilliant light and gorgeous set pieces (the dancing "moth seraphim" who live in Rom's skull, for example, are shimmering, muscular athletes with huge, feathered wings — at once beautiful, powerful and threatening) as well as varying types of film stock to take us into Rom's head. The film's only weaknesses come from Green's screenplay, and they're the same weaknesses that plague his novel. Like many books of this genre, the story suffers from far too much dependence on coincidence — Rom gets into Leppenraub's home because he just happens to see a photo of a guy with Leppenraub that he happened to go to college with, who just happens to be going to a party at Leppenraub's that very night — but like the novel, the screenplay is skillfully written, and the resolution entirely unexpected. All things considered, the mechanics of the mystery are beside the point, anyway. With Lemmons' imagery and Jackson's amazing performance at its center, The Caveman's Valentine is a beautiful gem of a film that deserves to be seen. Universal's DVD offers a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with crisp, rich Dolby 5.1 audio. And the sound is an especially important element in this film — Rom frequently hears whispered voices just out of range of his (and our) understanding, and the soundtrack by Terence Blanchard is incredible, criss-crossing jazz and classical piano to not just create mood, but to take us into Rom's Juilliard-trained head. The commentary track by Lemmons and editor Terilyn Shropshire doesn't offer much of note, beyond learning that Lemmons sister is a nurse who works with the mentally ill, and helped Jackson refine his portrayal. The deleted scenes are of interest, though, all watchable, and all understandable as to why they were cut — although the exclusion of one lengthy, multi-scene segment about two-thirds through the film does cause some confusion in the finished product as to how, precisely, Jackson returns from Connecticut to downtown New York City without any obvious means of transportation (watch the deleted scenes and you'll know). Theatrical trailer, cast-and-crew and production notes. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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