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Young Adam
by Chris Knipp

Who was Alexander Trocchi? He was the author of a Brit Beat cult novel called Young Adam, and a fascinating figure of whose writing William S. Burroughs once said “He has been there and brought it all back.” Fledgling Scottish director David Mackenzie has brought it all back again for the screen in Young Adam, having performed the difficult feat of getting adequate funds to do so and gathered an able cast headed by Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, and Peter Mullen.

This is a worthwhile project and a logical one for those involved. It makes sense that McGregor and Mullen should try to jumpstart British cinema again by bringing this bold forgotten classic set in Scotland to the screen. The result may not be a revolution, but it’s a good watch, a beautiful dark lusty little movie with some rare nooks and crannies to it.

It was Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh who spearheaded the revival of interest in Trocchi and his novel. The Glasgow-born Trocchi (who died in ’84) spent so many years as a wild, drug using, intellectual figurehead in Paris, the US, and England, that people had pretty much forgotten he’d been a good writer admired for his style and his "sexistential" plots. Besides being a heroin-opium-cocaine-marijuana addict, pimp, magazine editor, translator and rare book seller who never gave up the wan hope that he’d do some good writing again, Trocchi once also penned pornography for cash. His own lust sticks out all over this story, as does his freewheeling sensualist nihilism.

The sexually predatory Joe (McGregor) is a failed writer with a dark secret who’s run off to become a hired hand on a barge running coal along the Forth and Clyde canal between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Ella Gault -- a typically powerful, merciless role for the bold and talented Swinton -- is the barge owner, often contemptuous of her husband Les (Peter Mullen). It’s obvious Joe and Ella are going to be between the sheets in short order. We suspect also that (as in Jean Vigo’s classic Parisian barge film L’Atalante), somebody’s going to have to leave. The small world is made even smaller by the presence of a son, “the kid” Jim (Jack McElhone) who peeks through cracks to see the humping. This is the Kitchen Sink School of adultery.

Before long Les gets the picture and moves off, but we know from flashbacks and concurrent affairs that Joe is a stranger to commitment. Eventually it emerges that he knew a lot more than he said about the body of the girl in the slip he and Les fished out of the canal at the movie’s outset. The story that unfolds about that body and its owner is a huge example of Joe’s endless capacity for non-commitment. Could it be there’s more than a little of Alexander Trocchi in Joe Taylor? You bet. But Joe’s a pre-drug version, whose only substances are the alcohol he gets in pubs and the cigarettes he always has dangling from his mouth.

The tone of this story may owe something to Henry Miller, but it's more usually described as a sensual and earthy version of Camus’s The Stranger. Joe experiences greater priapic pleasure than Camus’s Meusault. He doesn’t seem to get a lot of fun out of it, though. He’s a failed author making it with every woman who comes along, in order to forget his writer's block and his guilt. He’s a handsome, sexy devil who doesn’t so much seduce women as look them in the eye and wait to pounce. It’s hard to see how anybody else could be better than McGregor in this role. Working on home turf again for a change, he's never looked or acted better. Swinton, Mullen, and Emily Mortimer (as the former girlfriend) are equally good.

Mackenzie’s postwar Glasgow canal world is an authentic-feeling place where the interiors are chiaroscuro and exteriors bleached out and tinged with yellow. The shots are often striking in unexpected ways. The trouble with the movie is that it isn’t emotionally affecting. The wild sex scenes are no more than bodies rudely colliding. There’s more beauty in the arch of McGregor’s eyebrows or the rust of a barge in the late sunlight. There’s a grimy glamor also to the barge interiors, the luminous air of the pubs, canalside humps and slick dark streets; but the hero’s aimlessness destroys momentum and the movie fizzles out at the end. As Joe drifts through Young Adam, the present is mixed with the flashbacks of an equally aimless past, and things get a bit confusing.

Let’s hope Mackenzie’s work on his next movie pans out: an adapation of Spider author Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum. His first movie (The Last Great Wilderness) was a fiasco. This interesting effort is his second. With luck he may make another leap forward next time.

A tiny temple floats, rafted on a lake, surrounded by mountains and trees in a gorgeous nature preserve in Korea. A boy is in the care of an austere, calm religious man. The boy is playful and silly, but his play turns wicked. As he and the old man do their daily foraging on nearby land for food, the boy discovers a cruel game: he ties stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake to hamper their movements. The holy man crawls around watching him, saying nothing (the movie has almost no dialogue), instead tying a big stone to the boy's back while he’s sleeping. When the boy awakens he tells him: go and find the fish, frog, and snake and set them free, and if any of them have died you will carry that stone in your heart for the rest of your life. The fish and snake have died, and the boy weeps inconsolably.

Thus begins Ki-duk Kim's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (does the title sound catchier in Korean?), which has been greeted with such reverence there hasn't always been much analysis, and it’s full of puzzles and challenges. First of all, there is the eternal conflict over the relative validity of active and contemplative lives. The boy who’s taught not to be cruel to animals by the equally cruel method of having a stone tied to his own back, and who weeps so bitterly when he learns he’s caused the fish and snake to die, isn’t prepared by his life in the tiny temple to resist lust when a young woman comes to visit. Could it be that the teacher can’t really teach; that the peaceful Buddhist retreat, which is all an invention by a Christian director, is a nice place to get away to -- perhaps one of the most gorgeous places ever filmed, the more so as seen gloriously transformed through the four seasons -- but not a place where one can learn how to live in the world?

It is helpful to have been told since seeing the movie that, in Buddhist tradition, holy men know the moment of their deaths, and that the remains of holy men are deemed precious jewels, but who can explain the woman without a face, her head swathed in a mauve cloth, bringing a weeping boy? Why does the priest write the sutra using the ink-dipped tail of a whining cat? Is this idiosyncratic avantgardism or reference to another Buddhist concept? No doubt the fact that the role of the grownup acolyte who once was the boy playing cruel games with small animals is taken by three different actors -- the last the martial-arts-skilled director Ki-duk Kim himself -- means that all these experiences are universal and have happened to many men. But this is a movie, and it would succeed better as a movie if its seasonal segments worked either as completely separate short stories or as a running story with well-established continuity.

Let us also note that distracting visual beauty can be counter-productive in a movie that means to be intellectually stimulating. It’s no accident that more than one writer has called the effect of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring “hypnotic.” In a state of hypnosis we may learn nothing, or we may forget what we’ve learned. And the persistent harshness and cruelty of this movie, so serene and lovely on the surface, leaves a troubling impression. Ki-duk Kim shows a notable gift for combining dream-like fable with fabulous scenery; he certainly coats his doctrinal pills – if that’s what they are – in lovely and memorable images. But as the priest's lack of success with his pupil suggests, religious teachings only bear fruit on fertile ground.

©2004 Chris Knipp