Cognitive Dissonance Over America
Today’s movie double is an attempt to bridge two films that talk about what’s wrong with Americana. ‘The Rum Diary’ is sort of an insider’s leak while ‘This Must be The Place’ is more of an ironic dissection by Europeans. in both films – which I happened to see back to back – the audience is provided with intimate pictures of American sensibilities and aesthetic and the American dream while both films busily undermine the myths.
‘The Rum Diary’ of course is an adaptation of an unpublished novel by Hunter S. Thompson based on his own experience as a young journalist before he devised Gonzo journalism. It has cause aplenty. ‘This Must Be The Place’ is loosely about a aging rock star ho goes on a lone journey to discover meaning in family. It’s a look back at the crowd from the privileged position of a celebrity who has managed to scramble out from the daily grind of American life, living the American dream, except he is in exile.
Both films have a narrative involving exile.
Today’s movie double is an attempt to figure out where they’re running from and to where they run.
As usual, spoiler alert!
The Plight Of The Colonies
Johnny Depp plays Hunter S. Thompson’s alter ego, Paul Kemp, and Kemp’ adventures start from his arrival to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico in 1960 is the very picture of the Carribbean dichotomy of immense natural beauty and devastating poverty of the colonised people. Kemp surveys the landscape rather cursorily and decides that the freewheeling colonial rule of the island by US corporate interests is a despicable thing; and it is on this point that Kemp’s political awakening underpins his journey outward from America.
Sean Penn’s character Cheyenne is a rock star living in exile in Dublin. Sometime in the past he has had immense success so he lives on the mountain of wealth created in his youth, but his day to day is vague and disconnected, his emotions refracted through dissociative engagements with his wife and daughter, and ultimately he cannot make sense of his life. This all turns around when his father passes away and returns to America to rediscover the meaning of America in his life. In most part, Cheyenne’s discovery is that he is the coloniser who is returning to the motherland.
Both these characters are moved by their compassion through their stories and the emotional struggle for both men really boils down to the guilt they should for other human beings.
The Puerto Rico depicted in ‘The Rum Diary’ is particularly bleak. The imposition of the concept of Private Property upon the local population is insidious as it is ugly. Aaron Eckhart puts in a splendidly mean performance as Hal Sanderson, a man who can barely contain his greed and sadism beneath the veneer of an All American Golden boy who tells the local hispanics to fuck off from his beach.
The Dublin in ‘This Must be The Place’ is bleak in an entirely different way. It’s bleak because it is Ireland, and of course Ireland was the first colony of the English, so it goes without saying the bleak resentment pours from the Irish characters in the first part of the film. Cheyenne lives in this world protected by money, an aloof observer, just as the journalists in Puerto Rico in ‘The Rum Diary’.
“Too Late Is Too Late”
Sean Penn’s Cheyenne makes a statement damning his failure, where better late than never has a statute of limitation. Sometimes too late is too late and there is nothing recoverable from the situation. Too late is a theme than pesters at ‘The Rum Diary’ simply because the book it is based on was published so late, and then the film adaptation didn’t quite make Hunter S. Thompson’s own lifetime. At the climactic moment when Kemp, Sala, and Moberg marshal the forces of voodoo and a cockerill to print one last run, they arrive to find the printing equipment has been taken away, thus taking away the option to print one last honest entry.
Cheyenne’s trip across America is a belated search for an affirmation for his father. The affirmation involves acknowledging that his father was a Holocaust survivor, but also somebody who spent his life hellbent on exacting revenge – so much so he forgot to communicate with his own son. If anything, this reminds me of ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil‘ where it turns out the two main members of Anvil are the scions of Holocaust survivors, and this fact casts a very long shadow over their work. The fictional rock star Cheyenne is a captive of this legacy, just as the two guys in Anvil.
The Legacy Of The Holocaust In The Arts
I just want to take a brief moment to talk about the difference between the Holocaust itself and the legacy it brings to the arts. Historians and political scientists alike have had to wrestle with the legacy of the Holocaust, but perhaps no other human endeavor as the arts have had the best engagement with the horror of the holocaust. The only way we have come at the horror is by fictionalising it in many different ways – and even then we use it as a cipher and symbol more than get into the understanding of the horror.
No less than Stanley Kubrick thought that nobody had ever actually made a proper film about the Holocaust itself because the topic was totally intractable and inappropriate for the screen. It is so intractable that even making jokes out of the discomfort over the topic lands you with moral outrage from the self-righteous.
It may well be apocryphal but it is reported that Kubrick observed that even ‘Schindler’s List’ isn’t really about the Holocaust because it’s about the Jewish people who actually avoided the Holocaust. The point is, it’s actually quite hard to squarely frame up the central horror of the Holocaust and put it in a movie.
In any case, it’s worth noting that in ‘This Must Be The Place’, the place turns out to be the hiding place of the Nazi who once humiliated Cheyenne’s father. What happens at their meeting is at once an odd denouement as well as a transformation of understanding. For Cheyenne’s father did not seek vengeance for his people or those of his faith. He sought personal vengeance for a very personal humiliation from a lowly guard. It is an exquisite transformation, but once again Kubrick is proven correct. The film turns out not to be about the Holocaust really, but about a personal grudge that is inherited by the son.
The Wages Of Greed, Bastards Of History
Many American films that question the American dream come up hard against the problems of individualism and the fear of communism. ‘The Rum Diary’ is no exception. When the moment arrives when collective action seems like the best option, it fails to materialise as the Americans choose to disperse rather than gather their numbers and act. As an outsider, it is easy to observe that the impulse towards freedom at all costs is somehow an infantile anti-social impulse except it is enshrined in the American ethos. It is perhaps ironic that the most successful people who get organised in America are their elite athletes through their players associations who enter into collective bargaining with the owners.
This social environment in turn breeds the context in which characters like Hal Sanderson can try and exploit every advantage, every avenue and every person for his personal wants. The parties that achieve wealth status and power in America seem to do so by abandoning morality or ethics or any kind of social conscience. It is against this very bastard of an ethos that Hunter S Thompson’s character swears to confront at every turn, but then you wonder just how successful that might have been for Hunter S. Thompson himself.
The some kind of amorality casts a shadow over the America in ‘This Must Be The Place’. America’s desire for German expertise at the end of World War II led to many a Nazi finding their way to the USA. Some of them like Werner Von Braun had calling cards such as rocketry, but others were merely functionaries in the game of espionage. Thus, in the broad daylight of the post-war America, these people lived a life of peace; prospering even. Thus, Cheyenne’s desire to confront the old Nazi is his attempt to set the bastards straight.
When confronting the old Nazi, Cheyenne exposes himself to the weight of history and the triviality of his father’s humiliation. Up to that point we are left wondering whether Cheyenne can kill the old Nazi, but the need to transcend the dialectic leads Cheyenne to a different conclusion – one that can be better described as an eye for an eye. The film suggests that truly confronting the bastard has the chance of transforming our selves in unlikely ways.
Automobiles, Televisions, & Elections
American films spend a lot of time in Automobiles doing dialogue. Kemp and Sala bond in the little Fiat Bambino. Kemp’s relationship with Chenault blossoms in the red Corvette. Cheyenne and Mordecai have their most involved dialogue in the automobile. You take two random films about America and you end up with long scenes in the car. There must be essays upon essays written about this phenomenon in American cinema. The whole of modernity can be seen through scenes set in cars as people talk. In movies, at least, people talk in cars in a way that perhaps they do not talk anywhere else. It should be obligatory in film schools around the world to make their students shoot scenes set in cars.
Television sets is another cipher. Television in both films indicates the wider society as distant social context. Television and things that play on televisions in American films essentially amount to a Greek Chorus that provides the social frame work for the characters and their drama. This function used to be carried by the News Reels and spinning News Paper montages in old movies. ‘Citizen Kane’ no less weaves a montage through News Reels and spinning News Paper montages to give a social context to the story in order to build meaning.
So what exactly is playing on these TV sets?
The two films share something interesting and it is the fact that Presidential elections feature in the background on the television sets of both films. In ‘The Rum Diary’ it is the 1960 Kennedy versus Nixon, and in ‘This Must Be The Place’, it is the 2008 elections with Sarah Palin making appearances. In both films, the Republican du jour – Nixon and Palin – get a pasting by the characters in the film. It’s easy to denounce Nixon after all these since, knowing he turned out to be a pretty reprehensible human being. That makes pouring contempt on Sarah Palin easier than shooting fish in a barrel.
Still, this isn’t about griping about the liberal bias at all. I’m all in favour of the so-called liberal bias because I happen to think if there is such a thing as a liberal bias in the media, there’s not enough of it. I look forward to the day we watch a movie with some motel TV playing coverage of the Romney-Ryan ticket as a period reference, showing us how morally bankrupt and ethically challenged “the 1%” happen to be.
A Silly Side Note
The title ‘The Rum Diary’ keeps reminding me of Felix Heradia a.k.a. ‘The Run Fairy’.