The Substance of Fire

Daniel Sullivan, USA, 1996)


It is always oddly, quaintly touching when filmmakers pay homage to the various arts and crafts involved with the act of writing a medium which has so often been opposed to cinema.

François Truffaut included in his films many fond scenes of book reading and letter writing. 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) continued the epistolary theme. Many movies for children these days celebrate dusty old bookshops as repositories for ancient wisdom and a sense of wonder. It is all so nostalgic and often rather alarmist, as if reading and writing were about to be swept down the drain.

The Substance of Fire is about quality publishing another old world tradition presented as being under dire threat of imminent extinction. Isaac (Ron Rifkin) is a publisher who believes in serious books of cultural and historical significance. He goes to any length, no matter the expense, to produce his limited editions in the most careful, reverential, beautiful manner possible.

Unfortunately, Isaac is about to finally collide with a new world in which racy, trashy novels about sensational lifestyles become instant bestsellers.

This war of high versus low culture is overlaid upon a generational and familial dispute. Isaac's canny son Aaron (Tony Goldwyn) wants to re-orient his father's publishing business. In a vicious war of wits, Aaron manages to get the upper hand in the boardroom by persuading his brother Martin (Timothy Hutton) and sister Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) to support his bid. Enraged and rejected, Isaac goes solo and commits himself to an impossibly costly book project about the Holocaust just as old age is starting to eat away at his capacities.

The story eventually concentrates on the relationship between Isaac and Martin. The sensitive son and cantankerous father, as they attempt to live together, are linked in their intimate experience of illness although director Daniel Sullivan and writer Jon Robin Baitz are bizarrely coy when it comes to specifying and detailing these life-threatening illnesses.

The Substance of Fire resembles a hushed, high-tone mix of Terms of Endearment (1983) and a serious Woody Allen film. For much of its length, the attention to the rarely depicted milieu of publishing, and especially the insistence on the intractable horribleness of Isaac as family patriarch, make this an attractive and compelling piece.

However, its determination to reach a somewhat sunny resolution, despite everything preceding it, rings false, and forces the drama into a string of simplifications and evasions a fate all too common in supposedly tough American relationship dramas.

© Adrian Martin September 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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