Monthly Archives: March 2013

‘On The Road’

Filming The Unfilmable

I used to love the work of Jack Kerouac. I read it when I was young enough to catch the flame but old enough to see the writing as a bit of a stunt -much in the same way as heavy metal guitar players are ‘stunt players’. It’s been years since I’ve read ‘On the Road’ and ‘Visions of Cody’ so I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get with this film installment.  There have been quite a few attempts in film to catch the ‘Neal Jack and Me’ dynamic but none of them have come close to the raw, dynamic, pounding energy of the prose.

When I heard people were producing this film, I felt excited and elated as well as fearful. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m more sanguine. It couldn’t have been easy trying to make head or tail of a story that apparently has no structure. What the hell was Jack Kerouac on when he wrote all this stuff down? Of course Benzedrine and lots of it.

What’s Good About It

The bits on the road. The film takes a heck of a long time to get on the road, but when it does, it starts to look good. Some of the shooting of exteriors in this book is breathtaking – as it should be – while the production design remains steadfastly true.

The performances by the three main actors is passably good. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise is in some ways the best and the worst. Garrett Hedlund’s Dean Moriarty is an exhaustive (and exhausting to watch) study of the mythic character, drawing deep on both internal descriptions but also probably bits gleaned from Neal Cassady’s life. If Garrett Hedlund manages to summon the ghost of Neal Cassady, then Sam Riley utterly fails to evoke Jack Kerouac, but that’s not a problem because because it’s meant to be the fictional Sal and not ‘Zagg’ himself.

Kristen Stewart plays an excellent poly-andrously-erotic teen-wife Mary Lou. I was actually quite surprised. While I’ve never seen a single one of the twilight movies, I am familiar with the ragging she gets on the internet. In this film at least she shows more than a little pulse and her wild ecstatic dance scene as well as the numerous sex scenes show she’s quite a gutsy actress.

Some beautiful cameos are in there too with Viggo Mortensen appearing as Bull Lee, Amy Adams as his wife, and Steve Buscemi as the gay driver.

What’s Bad About It

The bits that are incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book. I knew what was going on, but if you hadn’t read the book, how were you supposed to understand this thing?

The film also tries to cut to the moments that stick out in the book with minimal connection or explanation. It’s a hard film to assemble in your head. The backwards and forwards thing at the beginning hardly sets the scene and you never really get a grip on where things are going.

The film also lacks any kind of rhythm or sense of exhilaration that is in the book. Yes, the cars go fast, but there is no sense as to what this means. One of the hallmarks of Kerouac’s prose is the flow and sense of dynamism and speed. This film is more meditative, but stodgy. It makes Sal Paradise seem emotionally constipated.

What’s Interesting About It

I guess the most interesting thing about it is that it got made. I don’t know if I would have made some of these choices, but there is now a film of the book that defied being filmed for a good 60 years. When you consider Kerouac wanted to have Marlon Brando in it as Dean Moriarty way back in the mid 1950s and here we are now with Francis Ford Coppola having executive produced it in 2012, the making of this film is in of itself a bit of Americana and cinema history.

The film also reaches behind the book to drag into sight Jack Kerouac as opposed to ‘Sal Paradise’ and Neal Cassady instead of ‘Dean Moriarty’, William Burroughs instead of ‘Old Bull Lee’. Because we know so much about these figures, the film actually has a weird docudrama edge to it.

Ahead Of Their Time

I’m really struck by how far ahead the Beat generation were in their tolerance and acceptance. Certainly the post-War relief resembles the Paris-between-the-wars Euphroia and Berlin-between-the-wars decadence all rolled into one, and is very understandable. But when you consider the range of things the Beats tried and wrote about, it becomes an astounding list.

The homosexuality text that seemed so peculiar in their oeuvre is not longer odd-looking today when most people are okay with the notion of ay marriage. The rest of society has had to come a long way to accept homosexuality but there it is in the writing of the Beats. The drug taking and brazen permissiveness has sort of drifted into the mainstream of our society to the point that we don’t bat an eyelid at once taboo topics as infidelity, divorce, prostitution, porn and drug abuse. In the very small time frame in the post WWII decade, the Beats documented all these potentialities that later got explored and expanded greatly in the cultural landscape. That, is impressive with hindsight; and as somebody who was reading this stuff in the 1980s, I can’t tell you how astounded I am that their vision of how things could be, has come true. It’s amazing that the cultural distance the Beats traveled in that decade is the equivalent of the 60years since that the mainstream has traveled.

Cars And Sexuality

Maybe the Beat Generation really were the first generation to have a threesome in a speeding car. It’s hard to tell. But Dean/Neal presages a kind of American youth that explodes with Elvis Presley and Rock’n’Roll music. He is merely ahead of his time, as is Jack Kerouac who had the good sense to write it all down. There is a feeling that Rockabilly is around the corner in the country towns in the late 1940s, all ready to explode across the airwaves.

There is also something in Neal/Dean that links right into the space of ‘American Graffiti’ as well as ‘American Gothic’. The trashiness of the character is never too far away, and yet there is something of an archetype of American masculine sexuality. It’s fast, hard, enduring and very confused. The car and driving cars then becomes a kind of expression of this fast, hard, enduring and driven nature.

Kirsten Dunst’s Camille offers a kind of counterpoint as she embraces an early brand of feminism that is about to explode in Berkely, only so many years in the future. It’s not explicit, but the text is there. She recognises Dean and cars and sex are interrelated at a very deep level that he cannot begin to articulate,let alone disentangle.  Camille, importantly, never gets in the car unlike Kristen Stewart’s Mary Lou.

Neal Cassady, The Mythmaker

If anything is interesting, it is the shadow Neal Cassady casts over not only this film but a lot of American culture. Consider for a moment that Dean Moriarty isn’t the only fictional alter ego of Cassady. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg seemingly couldn’t stop writing about Cassady. More interestingly, Cassady was the model for Randle Patrick McMurphy, the main character of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ by ken Kesey. Once you realise that, then you realise the weirdness and wildness portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation is not some generalised bum, but a very particular portrait of a very particular persona.

Hunter S. Thompson writes about Cassady in his Hells’ Angels book, and Tom Wolfe writes about his ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. Bands have written references to him, from the Grateful Dead and Doobie Brothers  and John Schofield and Tom Waits through to King Crimson’s glorious ‘Neal Jack and Me’. Certainly with ‘Neal Jack and Me’, we’re struck by the juxtaposition of the mania and boredom, the insane longing and sense of loneliness, even in the context of a threesome. All of this comes as a legacy of Neal Cassady.

He wasn’t some kind of run of the mill white trash anomaly. He was the kind of persona that has found its way into fiction and songs over and over again, like some buccaneer or a highwayman. He was the cultural enfant terrible that broke through from the other side when class walls in America were temporarily brought down by two world wars.

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler

This film makes out that it was Dean Moriarty who came long and lit the fuse to Sal Paradise’s wanderlust. The real life Kerouac was already well traveled by the time he ran into Cassady. He has written about his stint in the merchant marine as well as how he got a mental health discharge from the navy during World War II. The film also goes some ways towards trying to describe Sal Paradise as being in a writers block. From what we can glean from accounts and the volume of his manuscript, Kerouac was probably more prone to a kind of graphomania and logorrhea than writers’ block.

There is the famous quip by Truman Capote who, having heard a description of Kerouac’s work methods said, “But Jack, that’s not writing. That’s typing.”

As a guy who bangs out blog entries here, I can tell you Capote’s putdown hurts even me.

The uncomfortable tension in the film is partly due to the fact that the film makers consciously separate out Sal Paradise as a character from the entire Kerouac legacy, and yet, when Sal sits down to write towards the end, he does exactly as Kerouac did and types on to a massive scroll of paper. Kerouac himself can’t help but peep through from the back of the diagesis.

The Lacunae Of Jazz

The intersection of the Beats and Jazz is also noteworthy – because the people Kerouac and co. were listening to in New York essentially forms the outline of Bebop. Bebop’s fragile little moment in history is where music was allowed to finally break free of traditional arrangements. The freedom to improvise against standard progressions evolved into a kind of extended harmonic exploration, that opens up possibilities. And the suddenly jazz is left behind by the commercial explosion of rock music.

The explosion of jazz music in the post war decade is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper malaise in America concerning race. America effectively went to war to free Europe – other white people – while black people stayed impoverished and deprived. The apparent re-structuring of the social order did not extend to the blacks and so their music – jazz music heads into a heightened expression of this alienation.

The emotional intensity of the jazz that is discussed and written of by the Beats echoes their attempt to break with traditional societal norms. What follows on from Jazz turned out to be a very different thing to what the promise might have been. The implicit understanding of these kinds of cultural manoeuvres informs the writing of Kerouac greatly. We get snippets of this idea when Sal’s voice over is backed up by Bebop music. It frames up the era of these people, but it also gives an outline to the over all cultural thought. On that level, the film isn’t too bad.

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Another Hangover With Chicks

Here we have another film trying to cash in on the success of ‘the Hangover’ by swapping the gender. The other film is of course ‘Bridesmaids’ which, you desperately hoped for the cathartic laugh and never got. This film has a few cutting funny moments, but then loses steam as it meanders through tedium to a really flt climax.

Spoiler alert!

What’s Good About It

There are some really funny lines in it. The set up is pacey and gets you into the action quick. The blow job joke in the plane is pretty good. Some good character moments come and go. You want more but you don’t get them.

What’s Bad About It

The film is pretty irresolute about how gross-out it wants to go. There’s the obligatory vomit moment, and rubbing the stripper’s crotch with a wedding dress moment but generally it stays pretty tame. The script, in its minutiae, has a lot to answer for. It’s singularly lacking in insight and always goes for arch comment or the put down to get out of a scene. It only seems to work half the time.

The 3 main characters are not terribly attractive as human beings. They look better than they behave and they do behave appallingly but so little of it gets a good laugh. the worst of the lot is Isla Fischer’s Katie, who you cannot imagine functioning properly in society at all so you don’t believe for a moment. it’s not the performance that’s the problem, it’s the writing. Similarly with Kirsten Dunst’s Regan, you almost get an insight into the mean girl but at the end of the film she’s just a mean girl with a condescending appreciation for her friends. Again, it’s not the performance, it’s the writing.

So much of the story seems to revolve around Lizzy Caplan’s Gena trying to recapture her long lost love, which is probably authorial fantasy more than good plotting. It’s a shame because the actors are putting in decent performances to animate these corpses of characters. Rebel Wilson is particularly good as the maligned Becky who marries first in the quartet.

What’s Interesting About It

I have to admit, I do wonder how things look from the girls’ dugout of the mating ritual playing field. There are so many areas of hypocrisy in our society that it must be like a minefield for the women who have to navigate the mess, so films like this and Bridesmaid offer a glimmer of hope in understanding what the hell is the pressing issue.

The most frightening character might be Regan who is living the form without understanding the function. She’s doing everything right, she tells us, but somehow it doesn’t work out right. Then we see her screaming and yelling at other people in order to get them to do what she wants them to do. The unpleasantness of the character leave you thinking that she makes herself unhappy so that she can inflict the anger on as many people as possible.

Maybe the point of the film is that personality disorder is everywhere and there is no point in trying to make sense of people’s atrocious behaviour. Or maybe the author has a very distorted view of the world and the people that inhabit it.

Anyway. The thing that stands out about this film is that girls clearly don’t have as much fun as the guys on their Bachelorette Nights. The stripper that turns up to do the ‘Magic Mike’ noise cop routine gets cut off by indignation. Apart from the incessant drug taking that characterises act 1, and some really abortive sex, the principal girls have a lot less fun the guys of ‘The Hangover’. Society’s hypocrisy is deeply ingrained. Regan’s sexual encounter with Travis is punctuated by abusive name-calling and taking a phone call, pretending nothing is going on. Hypocrisy rules, but they don’t know why.

The film even goes some way to explore this problem with Katie’s failure to connect with Joe, and subsequent suicide attempt – which gets glossed over the next day with a bit of vomiting – which also suggests that the drama queen thing and the excessive drug taking and the rampant irresponsibility is Katie’s personality disorder.

The film also has a very complicated relationship with strippers. On the one hand, the film goes some way to affirm them as characters and people, but once they are out of the strip club, strippers become objects of contempt. The constant need to assert the up and down in relationship demands that somebody be at the bottom of the social totempole and in this film, it is ruthlessly assigned to strippers. This is in stark contrast to ‘The Hangover’ where Las Vegas becomes a field of no hierarchy, a true anarchy of values; in this film, the girls just won’t let go of social hierarchy in fear of losing something in that exchange.

The thing is, humiliation is the essence of comedy. Somebody’s got to be humiliated for there to be a laugh. The girls in this film just won’t come at that, and I think the writer is being too easy on these characters for it to be genuinely funny.




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The Anatomy Of Prevarication

How Screwed Are We? How Screwed Are They?

I’m still reeling from the Leadership challenge that wasn’t. Julia Gillard seems to be smarting smug about all this but I can assure her that all the non-contest achieved was to seal her fate at the next election. Today, Peter Hartcher has this article here which spells it out:

The Prime Minister told her cabinet minister her government was in difficulty in the polls because it was suffering leaking, destabilisation and treachery at the hands of Rudd and his henchmen.

Crean replied: “I understand what that’s like, I went through that myself” when he was Labor leader from 2001 to 2003. “But I’m saying to you as honestly and bluntly as possible that you can’t consistently, for this long, be on 31 or 32 per cent just because of destabilisation.

“I was never that low. You have to look at your own performance.”

He was referring to Labor’s share of the primary vote. Labor failed to win the last election with a primary vote of 38 per cent. It has been consistently below this level for the entire 2½-year term since, meaning that it is in line to lose decisively at the September 14 election.

And the party’s national secretary George Wright told Labor’s national executive this week that it was planning its campaign on the assumption it would win 32 per cent of the primary vote – meaning it fully expects to suffer an election wipe-out of historic proportions.

Far from Canberra, and party politics and the influence of the media and the news cycle, out here where the real people live, it seem extraordinary to us that Julia Gillard takes the unanimous support she got at the meeting as support for her to continue. As Simon Crean rightfully pointed out to her, it’s just not the damaging leaks; there’s something fundamentally wrong about the way she is going about her business as Prime Minister.

You could say a lot about her prime minister-ship, from an analysis of the symbolic to the policies to the rhetoric, but what the 31% support says is that the middle has dis-endorsed her.

Here’s a back of the envelope calculation of just how bad she has been doing. If you work from the total pie of the electorate, it’s easy to understand. 10-12% of the population are loony Left and and an equal proportion are loony Right. this counts for the Greens and Nats at the extreme ends of the spectrum – the Commies, the Eco-Terrorists, the Trotskists, the Fascists, the Ayn-Rand-devotees and so on. That leaves about 75-76% in the middle. There’s always going to be the empathy-impaired Liberal-Conservative types who make up 30-35% of the population. That leaves about 41% which used to be roughly the primary vote for the ALP back in the Hawke-Keating era, some of which has absconded to the Greens. Last election, it seemed this number was 1%, so let’s say it’s 40% of the population is ‘traditionally’ ALP voting by dint of conscience, empathy and properly progressive thinking.

If Julia Gillard is hovering between 28-31%, it means about 10% of the voting public who would vote ALP are on strike. Roughly one quarter of the people that count, the people who can be appealed to through argument and  persuaded through intelligent discussion have switched off and have done so for an awfully long time.

Now, Julia Gillard might point at her policy record but she has also rhetorically burnt these people down. She has said she is not a Social Democrat, not a Progressive, but a Labor Prime Minster, who is proud of the trade union links. She is willing to wage an election around ideas that sound suspiciously like class warfare rhetoric but like the Tea Party of the right in America, it’s only language that can firm up the electoral base. The base are the poor captives of the rhetoric who cannot vote otherwise. Yet for those who can, she has not made a single difference. Instead, what we’re hearing from Julia Gillard is that she’s going to bat for the Trade Unions and people on welfare payments through Centrelink. That’s it. And people wonder why her support is 31% on a good day.

Let’s say for a moment the electoral strategy for the ALP is the prospect of Tony Abbott is so awful – let’s face it, he would be a catastrophe – the 10% on voting strike will have to come running back to the ALP on 14th September. It’s really risky taking these people for granted. In a sense, it’s a game of brinkmanship between this 10% and Julia Gillard. What the hung Parliament showed is that the ALP can’t count on them to automatically support them. What the 31% figure (and 62% support for Kevin Rudd) shows is that they have not mended bridges.

Given the strife of the ICAC hearings in NSW where the NSW Right faction has been found to have been largely bankrupt of policy, decorum and integrity, there may be no coming back for the ALP in NSW for at least 3 elections cycles, which is roughly a decade. And without NSW, how often can the ALP win the Federal election?

The picture that’s beginning to emerge is that the the ALP as we knew it may no longer be electable. Kevin Rudd may come to represent the last time that an ALP leader was able to marshal the ALP standard and win office in his own right for a very long time. The longer it goes, the more historians are going to blame this current bunch of ALP members who let Julia Gillard drive the party into a ditch at full speed. Contrary to the drivel here, history will be rightfully harsh on the ALP and in particular Julia Gillard.

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The ALP Circus

Shooting Yourself In The Foot With Blanks

After weeks of destablising, it’s come to this. The clamouring for a leadership change became intolerable so Simon Crean decided there ought to be a spill; Julia Gillard called for a 4:30pm meeting for a ballot and at 4:21pm, Kevin Rudd said he’s not going to contest. So, Simon Crean ended up losing his ministry and going to the backbench without getting to contest anything, and Julia Gillard unanimously stayed Prime Minister.

And we the people of Australia sat and wondered how on earth this hellish turn was supposed to end. This is torture. Torture! The United Nations prohibits torture and here we are suffering at the hands of our own politicians we elected. It’s a bit of a quandary what this is supposed to mean, “moving forwards”, as Julia Gillard is wont to say.

None of this is new. This was the way it was last year. Kevin Rudd didn’t and doesn’t have the numbers to return as Prime Minister. This might even be the end until after the next election where the ALP will be belted out of Parliament by an angry electorate. The worst thing is that Tony Abbott… yadda yadda yadda… you know the rest. We’re so brutalised by all this we’re letting the hung Parliament turn into the dying days of the Weimar Republic when Hitler made his move. It’s a hideous prospect, but it’s true. There’s nothing reasonable about Tony Abbott. He’s going to be a disaster. And the ALP is decidedly going to continue sending out Julia Gillard as their Leader – all with her 31% primary vote support – to try and stop Tony Abbott.

Am I meant to feel pity? Is this their ruse?

Look, I’m still going to Donkey Vote on 14th September. The only choice I can think of is whether I draw a smiling pig on the ballot paper or an ejaculating penis. I cannot in all conscience bring myself to vote for any of these mongrels. The only way I would consider voting for the ALP is if they removed Julia Gillard – which is what the polls have been saying for weeks; and now that they’ve unanimously decided they’re keeping her, I’m left with the artistic choice between the pig and the penis drawings.

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 18/Mar/2013

Tin Ear Drum, Tin Ears, Tone Deaf

It’s a new week and a new poll says Julia Gillard’s got to go. As far as the electorate’s concerned, she’s a Dead Leader Walking.

The Prime Minister conducted a live-in campaign tour of western Sydney, announced $1 billion for the WestConnex expressway, promised a brace of benefits for workers, pledged $1 billion for aged care staff, attacked foreign workers on 457 visas and championed ”Aussie jobs,” and presided over strong growth in the number of people in jobs.

All for no electoral gain. The only movement in Labor’s primary vote was a 1 per cent rise, which is within the poll’s margin of error of 2.6 per cent. Neither offers to meet voters’ needs nor appeals to their prejudices made any discernible difference. The evidence of the last month is that, as a campaigner, Gillard is ineffectual. So if Gillard can’t do it for Labor, who can?

The poll tested the standing of four alternative leaders – Kevin Rudd and the three Gillard ministers most commonly touted as leadership material, Bill Shorten, Greg Combet and Bob Carr.

Asked whether they would prefer Gillard or Rudd, respondents chose Rudd by exactly two-to-one, 62 per cent to 31. His edge over Gillard on this measure has risen by 5 percentage points in the last month. Asked to choose between each of the other three and Gillard, respondents chose Gillard every time.

”The voters are saying, ‘if we can’t have Kevin Rudd, we’d rather have Julia Gillard over any of the alternatives’,” Stirton concludes. In short, there is no realistic option of a ”third candidate” to lead Labor.

That’s sort of the problem, though, isn’t it? It’s too late to go back to Kevin Rudd because even if they did, they’re not going to win. That choice was way back in February 2012, so as far as we can tell, the ALP is accepting it’s going to go down with all hands, thank you very much Captain Improbable.

Julia Gillard defiantly says she won’t flinch. Well, neither does a corpse, so I don’t know how not flinching is going to help.

”I’ll just keep getting on with it and dealing with the issues that actually matter and all of this kind of side-commentary can do whatever it does. It’s not going to deter me – or distract me.”

Ms Gillard has just emphatically ruled out any prospect of her stepping down before the election, insisting Labor made its decision on leadership when it rejected Kevin Rudd’s challenge last year. ”I haven’t revisited it since and I won’t be revisiting it. The decision’s made.”

But, in an expansive exclusive interview with Fairfax Media, Ms Gillard said Mr Rudd would play a prominent role in the election campaign, saying he would be ”asked to participate in the campaign more broadly than his own electorate”.She also indicated she would not resist a return by Mr Rudd to the front bench after the next election, saying: ”It would obviously be a matter for him that I would deal with in the circumstances of the time.”

Good heavens! After the next election when the ALP gets decimated in the polls, it might be only Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard remaining. She sure as heck won’t be keeping the leader’s seat after she presides over a mess that is likely to go down in history as the mother of all drubbings.

One of the more awful trends in the last few months has been the growing acceptance that come 15th September, it’s going to be Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. It’s like the 5 stages of grieving. We’re done ‘Denying’ it. We’ve been ‘Angry’ for 3years now. Some people are trying to ‘Bargain’.

The optimistic conclusion is this: Life under Tony Abbott may not be as bad as we fear. Perhaps. If we’re lucky. Assuming he’s fair dinkum and his mates don’t succumb to the power aphrodisiac.

I forgot to mention the other finding from the German research was things never turn out as well as optimists predict.
Such is life …

This is what we have been reduced to. I guess I’m going straight to ‘Depression’. It’s going to be very hard to accept Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. There’s something so insidiously  wrong about that – but what can you do? Vote of Julia? Puh-lease!

How Rotten Is NSW Politics?

If anything has been busily hammering the nail into the coffin of the Federal ALP, it’s been NSW ALP with all the horrible bits and pieces coming out of the ICAC inquiry. For a start, the Morbid Obedity that is being explored doesn’t just cover coal; it turns out it covers Ron Medich and the Michael McGurk murder. It even goes far back as Offset Alpine. Eddie Obeid’s right in there with Rene Rivkin. (In fact, that mess of course leads to the Caroline Byrne thing but we won’t go into that here.  The point of all this is that there was a cabal of people in and out of each other’s deals, cleaning up on the scraps left over by government; and Eddie Obeid made sure that he left big scraps on the table and that a sizable portion of the scraps went into his own pockets.)

I seriously wonder if the ALP will survive this scandal. They may not come back for over a decade, both in NSW and Federally. We may be witnessing the end of the ALP. And they would only have themselves to blame.

Oh, let’s never forget that Eddie Obeid’s support and sway over the NSW Right Faction swung the numbers for Bill Shorten and Mark Arbib to oust Kevin Rudd. Julia Gillard may well wonder why she does so badly in NSW. If she could get her head around our deep disgust, then she might even get her head around flinching in revulsion and resigning.

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‘Seven Psychopaths’

Combining Two Gimmes

I’ve pointed out recently that psychopaths make for great characters for writers because they remove the need to have rationales that are rational. I guess you can say they have irrationales instead. The other easy thing for a writer is to write about the film making business because alas, it is true, it is writing about what we know best. Cue the writer with writers block story and Bob’s your executive producer.

So I don’t know what else to say about the conception end of this thing but that the writer gave himself two ‘gimmes’ in choosing to have seven psychopaths and a writer with writers block in LA. Otherwise this film could interpreted as 7 plot fragments in search of a proper story. Each one might have been a good film, but here they are, mashed together like some movie mash up. Maybe it is for the best – after all, it’s only the movies – why be so precious?

Here’s the obligatory Spoiler Alert moment!

What’s Good About It?

I know I’m bitching about it, but the disjointed narrative is good. It keeps you guessing and it’s very nice of the film makers to set up a game like that. Also, the interplay between the various psychopath scenarios do add up to a tapestry of tales that makes for interesting viewing. The cinematography switches between a kind of prosaic flat white LA light and a more poetic desert thing which works quite well.

The performances are hammy, but the film is so off kilter it doesn’t seem to matter. There’s Colin Farrell putting in his Irish expat routine, there’s Christopher Walken playing yet another psychopath, with Woody Harrelson paying yet another, and so on. Sam Rockwell sort of reprises his ‘Dangerous Mind’ psycho and Tom Waits is… well, he’s Tom Waits. It’s the dead opposite of ‘The Master’ where you’re not sure of what importance anybody has by their looks or name. Even so, the film manages to keep you guessing

What’s Bad About It

I don’t know if self-referential films really work as first order fiction. Meta-textual stuff is always going to lead a film to not being serious about itself. Films about film making are inevitably ironic because they reference the film business as well as film as a medium so they really have no shot at being a first order text. All comparisons to movies happen not in a vacuum but on a pressure cooker of meaning fragments. In the case of this movie, you feel you could do with less of the impulse to take jab at other movies.

Some of the writing is pretty ordinary. You can almost follow the plot without watching the movie which means it’s radio-with-pictures in parts. The set up is corny and I don’t know if having the bitchy girlfriend from Australia is particularly pertinent. It’s a total waste of an Abbie Cornish.

What’s Interesting About It

This is tough. In some ways it’s all interesting because the cliches slosh around like a fruits in the fruit punch bowl, and yet like ‘Argo’ there is something very ordinary and tedious about this misadventure. My suspicion is that this thing is miscast between the nihilist psychopath played by Sam Rockwell and the sensitive drunk writer being played by Colin Farrell. My sneaking suspicion is that it might have been cooler with the other way around.

Anyway, here are some things that popped out.

Rewriting Vietnam

The Vietnam War seems to have some kind of informing effect to this narrative, as one of the psychopaths is an ex-Viet Cong, Vietnamese officer who is hell bent on revenge against Charlie Company who wasted My Lai. It’s a cute bit of twist that this is made to weave back into the burning monks protesting the war. The film strives towards leaving violence behind, but in doing so it has to go through copious amounts of carton violence to get there.

The thought that popped into my mind was “what would Ingmar Bergman make of this?”

Bergman’s film ‘Persona’ centres around the moral abjection and horror to the image of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire, as it happened in the 1960s and seen on the TV news in Sweden. Liv Ulmann’s character goes into a state of aporia and shock as she tries to cut herself off from a world that horrifies her. You sort of wonder if Bergman would accept the contention that the self immolation as a selfless act really leads us to a world that is post-violence. Fromwhat I can recall, ‘Persona’ seemed to posit that violence in society stems from our indifferent practice of hypocrisy. I wonder if Bergman would have understood the irony of indifferent cruelty leads to enlightenment and laughed – or whether he might have simply spat the dummy.

The Zodiac Killer

One of the victims of the psychopaths turns out to be the Zodiac Killer. He is incorrectly murdered in 1975 in this film. It got me thinking about the prevalence of psycho-killers in popular imagination to the point that we sort of accept that there is a certain space they occupy in our cultural imagination. Even the Talking Heads song ‘Psychokiller’ has a weird anecdote where the woman who inspired David Byrne with the phrase ‘Psychokiller’ was herself brutally murdered by a random psychokiller.

It seems a shame that this film comes after the magnificent Fincher film because, while the killing of the Zodiac Killer in this film is funny, it seems like an exhausted subject, and the resulting laugh is dry and tired. It’s hard to imagine a higher point of psychokiller craziness than what we have in something like ‘Silence of the Lambs’, so having seven of them running around merely becomes an attempt to substitute quality with quantity.

now that I reflect on all this, I do wonder if the Zodiac Killer got to see ‘Dirty Harry’.

Seven Go Around Town

Seven anything is the makings of an epic. One of the story tropes in fiction is the seven who by some chicanes in fortune come together to accomplish a task. It’s ‘the Seven Samurai’, it is the ‘Magnificent Seven’ – and when it’s sold cheap it’s the ‘Three Amigos’ or ‘Ocean’s’ 11, 12 and 13.

Even the script laughs at this construction of its own film, when Rockwell’s Billy says, “Maybe we should make it Seven Lesbians and two of them are black, which would at least get it made”. That’s an odd line that suits an environment where film funding is driven by arbitrary political correctness routines, rather than Hollywood. One suspects the script was set somewhere else before it was moved to LA.

The fake climax described by Billy is intriguing in that all the generic cliches of other films are put together haphazardly, but being a movie about movies it leaves you wondering if there were more gags to be had just there.

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‘The Master’

Hello Goodbye Cockatoo Island Film Festival

This film had the dubious distinction of opening what is likely to be only and last time the Cockatoo Island Film Festival was held. Was it a worthy opener? People were oversold tickets so not everybody got to see it. Probably not good to be remembered for things that had nothing to do with the film itself or the circumstances of the making of the film.

The film also had some scuttlebutt about it being about L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Scientology, so it already has an interesting edge to it, even before you sit down to watch it. There’s already a whiff of something funky about a film with this much chatter surrounding it.

In any case, it’s just appeared on the Fetch TV box, so with a bit of delight I decided to download and watch. Here’s the obligatory spoiler alert. Don’t read on if you hate surprises being ruined. I might let one out by mistake.

What’s Good About It

Here is a film by a film maker who is not afraid to take risks. I envy the film maker for the backing he gets to make such exploratory films. The only other American film maker I can think of who is working this close to the wind of cinema and ignoring the narratologists like the McKees of the world is Terence Malick. This film powers on with the economy of shots and deft story telling that has dropped off the lexicon of post-Speildberg Blockbuster film making.

In amongst the brisk misc en scen are some gorgeous shots to die for that not only look good but provide so much insight into the subtext of what is happening. Even if it weren’t for the subject matter, script or performance the cinematography alone drives the narrative like a juggernaut. It’s a rare achievement and entirely commendable.

What’s Bad About It

Sometimes with a film where ambiguity is implicit in the telling, it’s not surprising the film becomes cryptic in parts.  It is not entirely clear how Freddie ends up on the particular boat with Lancaster Dodd and his outfit. Equally, it is unclear at first that Freddie absconds from the group by simply riding off with the motorcycle. Because of this, the film requires a bit of story reconstruction as you go along.

Comparisons have been made between the Lancaster Dodd character and L. Ron Hubbard, and hence Scientology, but it’s better not to approach the film with those ideas floating around. If anything, this has nothing to do with Scientology as such, and is a better film by forgetting about that notion.

What’s Interesting About It

The film is consciously not endowed with pretty people Joaquin Phoenix of course is a rare leading actor who has a hare lip, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is nobody’s idea of a stud; Amy Adams is pregnant for the better part of the film – as if she is perpetually pregnant – and is particularly so in her nude scene. Now, Amy Adams is pretty, but the whole cast looks like they’ve decided to go “no make up”. Others, simply pass by and add to a layer of ordinariness with their less than actorly-good-looks. The net effect is actually a heightened sense of the particularity of the characters that draws you in. It’s the opposite of watching a star-driven vehicle and decoding the roles. It makes you pay attention to the actors and what they are doing.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is an extraordinary performance. He looks thin, gaunt, awkward, and yet like a coiled spring, ready to leap into violent action. He spends the whole film with a pained expression as he wrestles with metaphysics with a mind that is not capable of digesting the words to describe the metaphysical. He frowns, he laughs bitterly, he lurches, he punches and generally staggers through the scenes with a strange aplomb.

Amy Adams’ Peggy Dodd is also a revelation. The best scene might be the bit where she slaps Freddie awake to tell him he has to stop boozing, but also notable is the scene where she reads out passages of sadistic pornography with a straight face. It’s all very strange and you wonder how she kept a straight face through all of it. I was squirming with laughter in my chair.

Laura Dern makes a brief appearance as a cult member convening a scene in Philadelphia. Her performance is also notable in that you’re left with no uncertainty that some people just want crazy metaphysics to be true so much, they’ll believe anything and dedicate themselves to it with wild abandon. She’s not in it for long, but when she’s there, she’s riveting with the craziness.

The Inner Sanctum Of Crazy

Paul Thomas Anderson has mapped out enough of an oeuvre to reveal to us something of his work. he likes ensemble pieces, but the ensemble inevitably goes towards describing a court. In Boogie Nights, it was a court presided over by Burt Reynolds’ porn king, while ‘There Will Be Blood’ was about the mining patriarch played by Daniel Day Lewis, and ‘Magnolia’ gave us insight into the court of the Tom Cruise cult leader. This film lines up nicely with that trend.

The figures in each of these courts creates a miasma of neuroses and personality disorder, but it also forms a tableau of grotesquery unlike any other director’s work. His films actually remind me of Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks‘ and its wedding banquet scene where all the circus freaks sing “You’re one of us, gobble-gobble, gobble-gobble.”. It’s a jarring accusation at the world and one wonders what drives Paul Thomas Anderson to make movies about these crazy courts. His films are great because you know you’re gong to see some extraordinarily outrageous characters doing some outrageous things.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Has Come A Long Way

Yes, he’s won that Oscar for playing Truman Capote, but I can remember Philip Seymour Hoffman being the guy who plays the lackey or the miserable, or the miserable lackey. Here, he is playing the alpha male, dominating the conversation and delivering a performance that scares the bejesus out of you as this cult patriarch. This is a disturbing alpha male if you ever saw one on screen. It’s the kind of performance that leaves you having nightmares afterwards. The character of the Master Lancaster Dodd is so memorable you feel like you’ve witnessed something so wrong. An this is the actor who was so prominent in ‘Happiness‘.

The fullness of his red, ruddy cheeks and cold piggy eyes with a faint smile all forms parts of this beguiling, insanity-charged, quixotic, charismatic cult leader.

The Sexual Animal

Any film where I have to talk about it by referencing ‘Freaks’ and ‘Happiness’ shows you just how edgy the film gets. Almost unrelated to those impulses is also Anderson’s penchant for grotesque depictions of sexual behaviour. there is the scene where all the women are nude, and they are shot under an unflattering flat light. This segues into a scene where Amy Adams’ Peggy gives Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster a handjob. The sexual subtext in the film is ever present and yet none of the depictions of sex are attractive or glamourised. There is an anti-romantic impulse running right along with a Freudian disdain for convention.

Indeed, one aspect of the story is Phoenix’s Freddie Quell’s great quest to get laid. Freddie goes from a perpetually frustrated state being in the Navy to a self-defeating drug-abusing state to a cult-controlled eunuch state and eventually runs away in search of his sweetheart. The need for sex is the dirty big aching sorrow inside Freddie but the whole film involves him in a process that doesn’t get him there, but instead gives him spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

The film is unambiguous about sex, which is perhaps the most important thing to realise given the strange polyvalence of meaning in the rest of the film.

America The Grave Of Souls

One of the other subtexts from Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre is the insight that America is some kind of spiritual black hole where even the yearning for the spiritual comes with a price tag. This film is slightly different in that Lancaster and Peggy are not doing it for the money or the desire to hoodwink people out of their cash – they genuinely believe their mumbo-jumbo and their conviction drives the metaphorical train of destiny.

The America that Lancaster and Peggy see is a barren place full of lost souls or the walking dead. Their solution is to invoke the spiritual wherever they go, and yet somehow they manage to surround themselves with the material trappings of this world. They even renounce America to start their weird school in England. There, we find Lancaster in a massive office behind a tremendous oak desk with grandiose ornaments. Not only are Lancaster’s exhortations empty, they are hypocritical; but this hypocrisy comes from America being a fundamentally materialist society, and Lancaster cannot shed that cultural spine.

The America we see in this film is physically beautiful. It is hauntingly sunny and bright, yet there is a tiredness crawling in through the drawn faces of the people – I’m thinking of Laura Dern, who is playing the full crazy in this film.

Cults As DIY Spirituality

The film gives us an up close view into the circle of people who believe in Lancaster’s patter. What’s made clear is that these people want spirituality to be there because they want to invest in a meaning beyond the life they live. They dress up the process as ‘work’ because it  beats going to Church and listening to a sermon. That kind of spirituality would be too consumerist for these people – they want a custom-made, personalised spiritual experience and that is why they’re so invested in ‘the process’ as depicted in the film.

I don’t know if this is really how it goes, but it seems to be a very well put together idea with some moving parts that fit. It’s a great insight this film offers.

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