Film review – On the Road (2012)

27 September 2012
On the Road: Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style of writing is an energetic mix of impressions and observations, made visual in the film adaptation of his classic novel On the Road where Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) experiences adventure, drugs, sex, jazz and an intense friendship while travelling around America during a time of great cultural shifts and tensions. As with the novel the film is told from Paradise’s interior view of the world where his nonconformity was part revolutionary and part youthful self-indulgence. The film doesn’t depict the broader social and political issues of the era as Paradise was more focused on cultivating experiences and discovering America via a series of road trips with his best friend and muse Dean Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund and based on Kerouac’s fellow Beat Generation member Neal Cassady).

On the Road has long been declared ‘unfilmable’, which is only worth mentioning to illustrate how narrowly some people regard cinema. A film adaptation of On the Road that conforms to a classical Hollywood cause-and-effect narrative structure probably would never work, but fortunately not all films are made adhering to the Hollywood tradition. While the term ‘art house’ is mainly used today as a catchall marketing label for a wide range of films, it once meant films that genuinely aspired to something different to the dominant product coming out of the American studio system. For example, the various waves of European art-house cinema movements that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately went against Hollywood conventions to focus on things like character subjectivity and challenging established film style to express ideology, inspire active thought rather than passive viewing, and create impressions of places, people and ideas. In America there were various avant-garde and counter-culture movements doing similar experiments with narrative cinema. American filmmaker John Cassavetes’s early improvised and cinéma vérité style of cinema in the mid 1950s coincided with the publication of On the Road in 1957. These are the cinema movements that make On the Road extremely filmable, resulting in director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera’s absorbing adaptation.

The film style reflects the interior focus of the material and captures the essence of moments rather than facilitating a traditional narrative. Scenes at parties and in music clubs are tightly framed, often shot with a disorientating sweeping camera and frequently contain dialogue drowned out by the music. Such scenes have a seductive mix of energy and immediacy that expresses the Shock of the New as experienced by the Beat Generation’s lust for life and experimentation. As a contrast the scenes of the American natural and urban landscapes are warmly lit and soft focused to convey the romanticised vision of life on the road.

While On the Road is a series of impressionistic moments, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as aimless. The relationship between Paradise and Moriarty is a symbiotic one based on the desire both men have to replace their absent fathers. Paradise begins his travels after the death of his father while Moriarty is continually searching for his, based on scraps of information that he is living derelict on the streets somewhere. If the film ever does feel laborious it is during the final part of the film, which initially seems like one sequence too many. However, this is because for Paradise it is one adventure too many while for Moriarty the desire to pursue an impossible ideal and maintain the dream is too strong. The final stages of the film are some of the most powerful in how they portray the dark side to the young men’s adventures, which includes a level of excess that cannot be maintained and a destructively neglectful treatment of the women in their lives. There is also a scene where they go to hear music and cannot get into a club unless they hire coats, suggesting that the counterculture they once embraced as their own has now been absorbed into the mainstream, removing its potency and purpose.

While Riley and Hedlund are superb as Paradise and Moriarty, a real strength of the film is the performances by the supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen who channels William S Burroughs through the Old Bull Lee character beautifully, as well as Amy Adams who plays his wife Jane, based on Joan Vollmer. Kristen Stewart is sensational as Marylou (based on Luanne Henderson), the teenage girl Moriarty marries and then travels with. Stewart portrays Marylou as a wild, passionate, liberated and free willed person while also giving her a melancholic edge since she knows her adventures with Moriarty are finite. As Moriarty’s second wife Camille (based on Carolyn Cassady), Kirsten Dunst articulates the anger and disappointment of a woman who realises she is just a part of her husband’s grand adventure and not allowed to have her own. While the female characters are barely given a voice in the novel, the inclusion of extra details from the filmmakers (some of which came from Carolyn Cassady’s autobiography Off the Road) gives the film a welcomed extra dimension.

While other adaptations of seminal Beat works, such as Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) have incorporated biographical detail with the hallucinogenic imagery and experimental approach from the original texts, On the Road is a much more straightforward adaptation. The film even has the same pleasantly casual tone of the novel where the mind of the reader/viewer is allowed to drift to then come back and pick up on the next sensation on offer. While fidelity to source material is an unreasonable and unrealistic way to evaluate the value of a film adapted from a novel (see ‘The book is never better than the film’), it is remarkable when a film so faithfully captures the spirit of the original text. Salles has done exactly that with the film adaptation of On the Road, resulting in a cinematic treat for lovers of Beat literature and in particular Kerouac’s novel.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – A Dangerous Method (2011)

29 March 2012
A Dangerous Method: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

One of the few working directors who deserves to be recognised as an auteur is David Cronenberg and a signature element to his films is how much they invite psychoanalytic readings. So to have Cronenberg direct a film about psychoanalysis founders and pioneers Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is something of a cinephile’s dream come true. In A Dangerous Method, which was based on the play The Talking Cure (by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay) and the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method (John Kerr) Jung is using Freud’s talk therapy on Spielrein shortly after the First World War. Spielrein, who later became a psychoanalyst herself, becomes a forbidden object of desire that is too much for Jung to resist, resulting in an affair. Jung is therefore a quintessential protagonist for Cronenberg.  In his 2001 book The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, William Beard describes Cronenberg’s dominant theme from Videodrome (1983) onwards as a focus on ‘a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go.’ Jung is that transgressive creator and the realm where nobody else wishes to go, which is both hidden and repressed, is the unconscious mind of Spielrein.

While very much a dialogue-heavy historical film, all the recognisable elements of Cronenberg’s preoccupations can be found in A Dangerous Method. Given Cronenberg’s previous exploration of psychoanalytic concepts such as the monstrous feminine as defined by patriarchal culture, it could almost be argued that A Dangerous Method is the most obviously Cronenbergian film to date, despite the absence of visceral bodily horror that so defined his earlier films. In place of abject gore is Knightley’s portrayal early in the film of Spielrein suffering from hysteria, which has resulted from her intense self-loathing and guilt towards her own sexuality. Just as psychological conditions manifested physically in films such as The Brood (1979), Spielrein’s inner torment spills out into her body as she sits close to the centre of frame, almost looking at the audience, and contorts and writhes while Jung talks with her. Knightley is all chin and forehead, at times threatening to stab the audience with her face in a truly confronting and remarkable series of scenes.

Stylistically the film begins with a sense of melodramatic urgency to mimic Spielrein’s distressed state of mind. The music is full of dramatic flourishes as she is rushed into hospital by horse and carriage. As Jung’s methods take hold the film calms right down into the clinical style that is so common in Cronenberg’s films. The cinematography is crisp and in deep focus, carefully composed close-ups lovingly portray the different apparatus used in Jung’s tests and white dominates every scene. The hospital walls are white, the patients are dressed in white, Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) dresses in white and all the bed sheets are white. The use of white is not only clinical, but it suggests Jung’s detachment from not only his family and work – he by contrast always dressed in black – but from his own sexuality, despite being part of a new psychosis treatment that involves talking explicitly about the sexuality of others. We never see any sense of true physical or emotional affection between Jung and Emma, and even the birth of his child is deliberately kept off screen with the baby first appearing in the film not being nursed by Jung or Emma, but by an anonymous nurse.

The main source of tension in A Dangerous Method is Jung having serious doubts about his view of sex as a somewhat functionary act, needing to be controlled and at best something that can simply be described as ‘tender’ between man and wife. Continuing Beard’s arguments about the characteristics of Cronenberg’s protagonists from Videodrome onwards, Jung desires a transgressive transformation that will ultimately prove to be destructive, although in the case of the far more subdued A Dangerous Method, melancholia is the price Jung plays rather than literal obliteration. The transformation is to become somebody who indulges in their sexual whims to the extent that it means the ultimate betrayal of the doctor/patient relationship.

One trigger for Jung’s transgression is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who is the other extreme to Jung in terms of advocating indulging in every sexual desire possible and therefore both horrifies and fascinates Jung. Then there is Spielrein, the closest thing A Dangerous Method has to a monstrous feminine, whose passions twice spill blood into the pristine white colour scheme of the film and who becomes the figure that Jung spills his anxieties onto. Earlier in the film while Jung is treating Spielrein, they walk across a bridge high above a wild forest, suggesting an attempt to cross the divide between the conscious and unconscious mind. Later in the film they are depicted together adrift in a lake in a boat with suitably red sails, as if now lost together in the unconscious.

The final trigger for Jung’s transgression is his desire to undermine Freud, his father-figure type mentor whose methods he deviates from in classic Oedipal defiance. (And the Oedipal dynamic is completed by Spielrein who is first the object of Jung’s forbidden desire and then becomes a symbolic maternal figure after she aligns with Freud). Freud is differentiated from Jung in numerous ways including class, wealth and race, but it is once again the depiction of the spaces Freud occupies that combines the most interesting comparisons. While Jung’s offices and home are sparse and controlled environments, Freud works in a warmly lit cramped office that is filled with books, cultural artefacts and photos. Jung floats at sea or stands above a forest, while Freud walks through an elaborately manicured garden that allows for abstraction without loosing its sense of order and control. A statue of a sphinx stands in the garden, yet another reminder of the prevailing imagery of the monstrous feminine in folklore, mythology and psychoanalysis. Jung smokes a pipe, which requires careful preparation to arrange the tobacco in a concealed space to be respectfully enjoyed. Freud smokes a… does it even need to be written out?

A Dangerous Method is a puzzling film as despite being directly about psychoanalysis, it’s the most surface level of all of Cronenberg’s films. Rather than delving into the murky depths of the human mind, A Dangerous Method is more an opportunity for Cronenberg to stage an extended dialogue between historical figures whose work clearly means a lot to him. This is nonetheless compelling cinema, especially for audiences resigned to the fact that more questions are going to be asked rather than answered. Is sex an act of liberation, denial of the self or surrender? Strong arguments are put up in all instances and like all matters of sexuality, it seems the ones who are least comfortable with their own are the ones who make the most fuss about it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – The Road (2009)

27 January 2010

The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

After the success of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, the next novel by McCarthy that was the obvious one to adapt for the screen was his Pulitzer Price-winning novel The Road. When it was announced that Australian director John Hillcoat was going to direct there was a sense of relief. Hillcoat’s previous film, his 2005 Australian Western masterpiece The Proposition, articulated the sort of violent existentialism and bleak landscapes that are to be found in McCarthy’s story about an unnamed man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Also, Hillcoat’s début feature film, the 1988 futuristic prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, contains a similar fragmented narrative to The Road where a sense of relentless monotony is punctuated with extreme, but fleeting, incidents.

The trust placed in Hillcoat to adapt The Road has paid off and the result is one of cinema’s most faithful adaptations. Hillcoat has embellished some aspects of the novel and condensed others for the purpose of making the text more cinematic but it would be very difficult to question any of his decisions as by doing so he has successfully ensured that The Road functions as a film in its own right.

As the unnamed father in the film, Viggo Mortensen delivers an astonishing performance as a man who is essentially trying to survive while still doing the right thing. The parental bond that Mortensen establishes on screen with the 13-year-old actor Kodi Smit-McPhee playing his son is extremely powerful and this bond gives the film the small bursts of humanity that radiate out through the bleakness. Smit-McPhee is astonishing and demonstrates a disciplined approach to portraying complex emotions on-screen that is far beyond his years. Together the pair ‘carry the fire’ through a wilderness populated by murderers, rapists and cannibals.

Visually The Road is a relentless palate of greys and browns making the eye initially struggle to adjust to its lack of colour and light. This of course is part of what makes the film such a beautiful expression of McCarthy’s prose and Hillcoat wisely uses a low-key combination of location footage and CGIs to create a sad industrial wasteland that is more reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker than Mad Max.

The one main sticking point many may have with Hillcoat’s The Road is the ending, which, although it stays faithful to the novel, on the surface may appear compromised. It is nevertheless a fitting conclusion that actually remains completely true to the core ideas expressed throughout the rest of the film and upon extended reflection it becomes clear that it is the only ending that is possible. Anything else would have upset the delicate balance of ideas and meaning that make The Road resonate so profoundly.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Good (2008)

11 April 2009
John Halder (Viggo Mortensen)

John Halder (Viggo Mortensen)

In the last twelve months there have been several films tackling the very complex issue of how German people living during the Nazi era responded to the horrors of the Holocaust. Now comes Good, an adaptation of a 1981 play by the British playwright Cecil Philip Taylor. Directed by Austrian director Vicente Amorim, Good is a portrait of John Halder, a man who despite seeing himself as a good person still allows himself to become drawn into the upper echelons of the Nazi party. While The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas presented the innocent perspective of a child and Valkyrie presented a very Hollywood and uncomplicated depiction of men opposed to Hitler, Good is more interesting. Halder opposes Hitler but is so lacking in courage to act that he allows himself to be swept along by the tide and resorts to self-denial. He prefers to keep his head down rather than speak out but finds himself in a very difficult situation when the Nazis react favourably to a novel he wrote about euthanasia. Also unlike Hanna Schmitz in The Reader, Halder can’t elicit sympathy through being uneducated or make the excuse of supposedly being put in a position of just following orders. He is a literary professor and author and through the suffering of his Jewish friend Maurice, he knows exactly what sorts of injustices are occurring.

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