THIS has been a good year for T.S. Eliot, at least in movie titles. ``I've Heard the Mermaids Singing'' is the second film this season - after ``Eat the Peach'' a few weeks ago - to take its name from ``The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock,'' one of Eliot's most widely read poems. ``Mermaids'' has little in common with ``Prufrock'' except the mood of that memorable phrase. It's a gentle and easily watched movie, with an engaging story and vivid characters.
While it isn't as dense or fragmented as Eliot's work, however, it has serious things on its mind as it explores the complex relationship of two unusual characters. It also has a subplot about homosexuality that may offend some moviegoers, although it's tastefully handled, and a little four-letter language.
The heroine is a young woman named Polly, and except for her skill as an amateur photographer, she couldn't be more ordinary. Drifting cheerfully through life with no great aims or ambitions, she takes a part-time job at an art gallery. There she comes to respect - and almost to worship - the curator, a woman more intellectual and sophisticated than Polly could ever dream of being.
The story grows more complicated when Polly does a bit of well-intended meddling in her boss's life, bringing attention to a painting that the curator has squirreled away from view. This small incident leads to a violently dramatic climax - and to a denouement that's one of the most touching and uplifting scenes I've encountered in a long time, even though it comes so late in the movie that the credits have already started.
``I've Heard the Mermaids Singing'' was written and directed by Patricia Rozema, a new Canadian filmmaker. While she's a fresh arrival on the movie scene, she isn't afraid to take chances on unconventional storytelling tactics - framing the plot with a videotaped narration, for instance.
Sometimes her methods come close to failure, especially when the script and the lead performance (by Sheila McCarthy) teeter on the edge of cloying cuteness. In the end, though, ``Mermaids'' triumphs as an artful and imaginative film that proclaims and celebrates the unique importance of every human personality.
``I've Heard the Mermaids Singing'' was one of the chief attractions at the just-completed Telluride Film Festival, so I made a point of tracking Ms. Rozema down for an interview.
Conversing on a park bench outside the Mason's Hall theater, waiting for a cue to go inside and introduce a screening of her film, she talked about her new cinematic career with a nice mixture of enthusiasm and modesty.
Asked how she started on the ``Mermaids'' project, she said that evoking a certain ``tone'' was one of her main goals.
``The tone I wanted to try was light and whimsical,'' she explained, ``with a slightly painful underside. I called it `achingly silly' and `quietly absurd' when I thought about it.''
There was also a message she wanted to get across, though.
``I wanted to tell myself, `Don't pay attention to what the world has to say!' If they say you're good, then you feel great for a while - but if you listen then, you also have to listen when they say you're bad. So just carry on. Have the kind of simple relationship with your art that Polly has with her photography. She does it because she loves it.''
Taking this idea to heart, Rozema applies it not only to Polly's photography but to her own filmmaking.
``The other motivations [besides love of art] are kind of empty,'' she says. ``If you do it for fame or money - well, fame is a two-edged sword. And there are a lot more reliable ways of making money!''
Rozema regards writing as the heart of filmmaking, more important than either shooting or editing. There's nothing exotic about her approach to the process, though.
``I have a notebook,'' she says, ``and I just collect - ideas and sights that please me, things I overhear. I put it all together, and then shape and reshape and throw out and put back in. Writing is almost like making a mosaic, for me. I just put in as many things I like as I can.''
Born and raised in a small Ontario town, Rozema studied philosophy in college and planned to become a writer.
``For me, it's write or burst,'' she says. ``I feel things that I don't understand, and I gotta get 'em out. Creating a character like Polly - with a big internal universe - is no accident for me.''
But she also discovered ``the wonderful economy of pictures'' in a TV journalism job. She then worked as an assistant director and completed one short film before embarking on her first feature. Made far from Hollywood and the movie establishment, ``I've Heard the Mermaids Singing'' belongs to the new breed of nonstudio independent production that has been attracting much attention - and a growing audience - in the past couple of years.
``My film is really independent,'' says Rozema with a wry smile. ``It's even independent of the history of film, because I don't know the history of film. I didn't see many films, I didn't go to film school. ... I comfort myself by saying it's your depth rather than your breadth of knowledge that counts. And whatever I do see, I take seriously. But if you want to read, and to socialize sometimes, you can't do everything else you'd like.''
Her lack of previous film knowledge doesn't make Rozema shy. ``I think of [filmmaking] like writing a diary,'' she says. ``I'm exposing what tickles me and what frightens me and what appeals to me. You can't learn how to write your own diary by reading other people's diaries. You can learn a lot from other people and how they respond to each other.
``But the more self-indulgent I am, the farther I think the film will go out - the more it's likely to reach other people. In English classes, they call it `finding the universal in the particular.' I do stuff that makes me just a little uneasy. The emotions of this film are very close to the bone.''
Most important of all, perhaps, is Rozema's hope that her movie will make people feel good. ``You'd have to be a real misanthrope to dislike Polly,'' she says, referring to her heroine. ``She really is a generous, compassionate, gentle soul. It takes so much work to make a film, you might as well like the people you're going to be watching!''
She uses the words ``sophisticated optimism'' to describe her attitude toward Polly and people in general.
``If you look far enough into anyone, there's a reason for everything,'' she says. ``To understand all is to forgive all. That's why I love to make compassionate characters. I would love to have that said of me in 80 years when I've got my few little films: that I showed compassion to my characters.''
In the immediate future, she hopes to experiment still more with form and content. ``I'd like to get odder, quirkier,'' she smiles. ``This is still a little straight-looking for me.''
And she'll keep striving for the ``tone'' that means so much to her.
``I would love to create a film that gives me the kind of effect certain pieces of music have on me,'' she says warmly. ``I just, you know, want to burst.''