Lisa Schwarzbaum
October 17, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Garbo Laughs

Current Status
In Season
Elizabeth Hay

We gave it a B-

Most people like movies; some love them or even — to use ”Annie Hall”’s superlative — lurve them. The protagonists in ”Garbo Laughs” and ”The Movies of My Life” are in the lurve category: Cinema is as vital to them as bread and water, a nutrient for the soul. And from different ends of the Americas, novelists Elizabeth Hay and Alberto Fuguet tell us why.

Harriet Browning, the melancholy, middle-aged Canadian heroine of Hay’s erudite-slash-geeky tale ”Garbo Laughs,” is the kind of cinemaniac who might send a less obsessed acquaintance fleeing. More passionate about on-screen love than the people in her own life, she composes letters in the 1990s to famous film critic Pauline Kael. (”…your affection for Cary Grant gave my own free rein. I said to myself, if smart, pixie-faced Pauline Kael can call him ‘The Man from Dream City,’ then so can I.”) And though she’s put through various plot paces by her creator, Harriet and her fellow cinephiles appear to exist most vibrantly when they are playing name-that-title games and arguing about best-thisses and worst-thats. (Which is better — ”Casablanca” or ”Citizen Kane?” Discuss. But not with me.)

”Garbo Laughs” explains that Greta Garbo’s laugh was dubbed in Ninotchka but not why letters to Ms. Kael enhance Harriet’s offscreen existence. ”The Movies of My Life,” on the other hand, by the snazzy young Chilean pop-culture literary star Alberto Fuguet, makes a bang-up case for the psychic force of Hollywood in countries far from California. On a layover in Los Angeles on the way to a conference in Japan, Chilean seismologist Beltran Soler experiences an earthquake that temporarily roots him in limbo, rattling loose a list of the 50 most important movies of his youth in the 1960s and ’70s. (We’re talking big, mostly American tickets like ”Dumbo,” ”The Poseidon Adventure,” and ”The Deep.”)

Soler spent those years shuttling between family members in Nixon-era California and Pinochet-era Chile. He saw ”Jaws,” for instance, as a 12-year-old in 1975 at Cine Oriente in Santiago de Chile: ”My heart didn’t stop pounding the entire time. I don’t know if it was because of the shark, the pulsating music of John Williams, or the fear of being with my father and not knowing what to say.” With each memory, Fuguet tosses up a salty popcorn-kernel taste of cultural dislocation.

Fuguet, by the way, is a leader of a hip South American artistic movement that disdains the flights of magical realism invented by elders like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But lurvers know, don’t we, that movies are the visual embodiment of magical realism. And that sometimes, nothing but two hours of magic will do.

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