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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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