There are movie columns that come free from the neon-lighted glare of the multiplex lobby, from the sweet smell of a thousand spilled kernels of stale popcorn. This is one of them. In June of 1995, I'm at my desk, looking at the blinking cursor on the computer screen before me, trying to think of a way to start my review of the film version of The Bridges of Madison County when, all at once, with an intense, arrowlike certainty that's rare in this life, it hits me: The book, the book, start off with the book . . . It might be comforting to believe that Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County was intended as a parody of some kind, but no parodist's blade was ever quite so keen. Even Swift, were he alive today, couldn't keep a straight face all the way through this little book's solemnly inept prose, its endless pages of cosmic dithering and men's-movement preening.

I would highly recommend The Bridges to anyone. Either you'll buy into it, which a number of intelligent people tell me is a transcendent experience, or you'll split your sides--it has more laughs than any two Dave Barry volumes. You can even play parlor games with the text, such as trying to pick out Waller's most syntactically challenged sentence. I remain stumped by the choice between " . . . in fact, I doubt if few men have ever done anything more difficult than that" and "Robert Kincaid taught me what it was like to be a woman in a way that few women, maybe none, will ever experience." Ed Wood, be not proud.

In brief, which is all that's required, The Bridges is the story of a four-day fling in 1965 between a restless farm wife named Francesca and a photographer named Robert Kincaid who's visiting the small Iowa town where she lives. She's an Italian war bride; he's on assignment for National Geographic, shooting the covered bridges for a feature.

He stops to ask for directions one day while her husband and kids are away at a state fair. The two of them have an intense affair, but when he asks her to run away with him, she stays for the sake of her family. He leaves, too decent and noble to ruin her life.

In structure, it's the classic love-'em-'n'-leave-'em fantasy of the compulsively independent man who wants the memory of a perfect romance more than he wants the romance itself. This fits neatly into the housewife's daydream of a diversion from drudgery which remains guilt-free because it harms no one. Can you say, "More than a year on the best-seller list?"

But this recipe for success is quite incidental to Waller's concern, which is to describe in staggering and hilarious detail how peerlessly cool a guy this photographer is. Kincaid, who, with no apparent irony, refers to himself as "the last cowboy," is a man of "incredible intensity, but controlled, metered, arrowlike intensity that was mixed with warmth and no hint of meanness." As a lover, Kincaid is " . . . a graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at that moment." As an artist, he doesn't take pictures, he "makes" them ("That's the difference between Sunday snapshooters and someone who does it for a living"). Even his prowess at opening beer bottles warrants an admiring pause: "He took the Swiss Army knife . . . and flicked out the bottle opener on it, using it expertly."

In case there's any doubt about who Kincaid the character really is, Waller spells it out for us in his preface: " . . . at the end of my travels, I felt I had, in many ways, become Robert Kincaid." That preface is psychologically telling in general. Much of it is pre-emptive: "In an increasingly callous world we all exist with our own carapaces of scabbed sensibilities. Where great passion leaves off and mawkishness begins, I do not know. But our tendency to scoff at the former and label genuine and profound feelings as maudlin makes it difficult to enter the realm of gentleness needed to understand the story . . . "

In other words, if you hoot at his book, it means that you're an asshole, not that he's a ding-a-ling.

Ah, but let us take our leave of the heady world of fine literary criticism and travel down the slopes of Parnassus to the vulgar world of the movies for a look at the film version of The Bridges, directed by Clint Eastwood, who also stars opposite Meryl Streep as Francesca. In terms of craft, modesty and intelligence, the film of The Bridges knocks Waller's "novel" on its sanctimonious ass. Which is exactly what's wrong with the film--stripped of its kitschy, campy raptures, The Bridges loses much of what made it fun.

Instead, the film is just a well-made, watchable, genteel love story with too many long scenes of the stars slow dancing. Regrettably, they're miscast--one's an icon and the other's a technical-acting specialist. Perhaps with Christopher Walken or Nick Nolte as the photographer opposite, say, Cher, the film could have been lively, but Eastwood and Streep have no sexual heat between them.

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