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Monday, May 22, 2006

Indecenter Proposal

M and I just returned from the Music Box, one of three theaters in the nation (according to the informational postcard I cleverly remembered to take with me, then lost in my cargo pants for a good long while) currently showing Nick Cave's The Proposition. (Yes, it's that Nick Cave, if you happen to know who that Nick Cave is.) And if you don't, you might want to look him up, because he's offically on my to-be-killed list.

Actually, I don't think I really did know who Nick Cave was, although his name rings a "Oh, that musician guy who did . . . that stuff . . ." Because we strive for precision here at Telecommuniculturey, I went searching for something more specific than stuff. That's how I discovered that he's Nick Cave of The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave of the not inconsiderable solo career, and also Nick Cave fiction author, as well as Nick Cave who wrote the screenplay for this in three weeks. That also happens to be how he ended up on my "to-be-killed" list. Some bitches are just too talented for their own good.

It is appropriate, yet ironic, that Nick Cave should end on up that list. His appearance on it is appropriate because the name that he is nervously staring up at, the person whose continued safety and good health he is most sincerely wishing for (Uh, if he knew about my lists and was smart enough to fear me), is Kitano Takeshi (aka Beat Takeshi)---writer, painter, comedian, author, actor, director---well, you see where this is going. The irony comes in when I reveal that, more than any Sergio Leone flick, more than Unforgiven, more than an imitation Western or Western knockoff, The Proposition reminded me of Takeshi's 2003 version of Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.

Ok, maybe that's not the most shocking news ever. After all, Leone's films are Occidental cousins to the samurai genre. But it's more that certain aspects of Cave's approach to the Western reminded me of Takeshi's, rather than any superficial superficiality of plot (what plot?), characterization (ahem), or theme that brought Zatoichi to mind. One of the most striking things (to me, anyway) about Takeshi's Zatoichi was the way the drama was, literally, set against the rhythm of everyday life.

Cave takes almost the opposite tack. Much of the music (which, of course, the marked-for-death Mr. Cave did) intrudes on the action, breaking the audience's attention from one scene and hurling them into the next. It's physically jarring (i.e., loud, sudden), but it's also thematically and instrumentally plaid with polka dots. That's not a criticism (remember, I've disclosed my lack of shame on this topic), it's obviously a deliberate choice, and for me at least it worked in keeping up the relentless sense of unease (not that the visuals needed much help there). But for all the times the music takes a sledgehammer to the fourth wall, there were also times when I couldn't tell whether I was hearing foley work or the soundtrack (e.g., as Mikey is first brought into town, there's a man working with some kind of metal implement and the accompanying sound could be metal on metal, or it could be a constant rolling snare).

Despite my extended digression on all things aural in The Proposition, I have heard that film is a visual medium, and thus I have to turn some attention to the director, John Hillcoat. This appears to be his second feature film outing, the first being a prison film also written by Cave. As a film, The Proposition It isn't perfect. Hillcoat is a little too in love with the "silhouetted against the sunset" shot; his attachment to dusters fluttering in the breeze borders on the fetishistic (and this is ME talking here). But the rookie mistakes are minimal, and there's a lot of true beauty and nascent skill.

There's a moment when Charlie revisits what's left of the scene of the crime (in which he may or may not have actually taken part---more on that momentarily). The house is burned out and falling apart. As he steps over the threshold, the sun shines down, briefly casting the shadow of the roof slats on his back. It evokes Mikey's prison cell, of course, but it also places the physical burden of the place on his shoulders.

Hillcoat also has a knack for composing shots that capitalize on a number of disparate elements. They can be initially disorienting (fun fact: Australia seems to be rife with vegetation that has elements that can easily be mistaken for human body parts), but resolve quickly enough that the technique isn't tedious (in fact, the musical tendencies I've already droned on about are a nice complement to that aspect of Hillcoat's visual style). It also helps that he relies primarily on this approach when we're following Charlie or when we eventually meet up with the remnants of the notorius Burns Gang. In town, the shots are pointedly traditional, ordered, and flat.

To get back to the Zatoichi analogy (I know you've all missed it), another reason why The Proposition brought Beat to mind again goes back to the rhythm of everday life. Unfortunately, in Banyon there is no rhythm. There's hardly any kind of everyday life. The townspeople are more a mob than a community. In fact, the only times we see them assembled are when they're soaking up the brutality sanctioned by what passes for the law. The ugliness of their mentality seems to be indiscriminate, as we see when Martha Stanley, wife of the Captain of Police (I think), walks or drives through town. (Not that she's physically assaulted, but the rage directed at her is palpable.) As a result, the town ends up being just as chaotic and untamed as the actual outback, despite the two different visual approaches. There's little that's fluid about the film. In fact, it's more like a a gruesome, terrible slideshow than anything else. But I think that's the point. As we judder and hurtle through the story's timeline, there is never a moment when the course could have been changed or the tragedies averted.

Amid all the entropy, though, there are two locations that anchor the film. The first is the Stanleys' home in all its incongruous, transplanted-bit-of-England glory. It's literally a place a part, bounded as it is inside a picket fence supported by a perimeter of rudely cut and carved branches. The interior tends to the minimal end of the Victorian interior decorating spectrum, but there are delicate touches (e.g., what appears to be a hand-stenciled decoration running around the walls of the public rooms; a prettily fussy tea set, etc.) that carry it off. And the piece-de-resistance (don't bother me with diacritics) is the fact that the Stanleys take their meals on the veranda overlooking their rose garden. Inside and out, the house is not of the town. At the same time, though, there are unmistakable hints of colonialism that sneak in: The doors are open constantly (and the delicate French doors are fronted by crude full-length shutters secured with stout bars), and for all the multi-colored fountains of roses, the exterior of the house is more akin to a Japanese rock garden than the verdant English countryside.

On the flipside of the Stanleys' model of femininity, Arthur Burns's cave is relentlessly male, hewn from the living rock, etc., etc. Seriously, his bookshelves are by Davy Crockett, and they creak under the weight of manly leather-bound volumes dealing with damned manly topics, I'm sure. Within the friendly confines of their lair, the manly Arthur, his manly Aboriginal sidekick, and his not-so-manly New Kid on the Block pass the time by quoting things and singing tender Irish ballads. Ok, snarkier than I intended to be. I liked the idea of Arthur's base being a known quantity, and I like the earthyness of it in contrast to the "Nothing natural, please, we're British" homestead of the Stanleys, but some elements of the execution may have been a bit too too.

Performance-wise, The Proposition is pretty much gold, across the board. Emily Watson is dream casting if you want to sell England-on-the-Outback. Fortunately, she's given a bit more to do than simply lie back and be English (despite the complaint I saw on a blog review that there are no positive female characters in the entire Cave!Verse). She's tender and quirky. She's capable of terrific gallows humor and of being every bit as brutal as the rest of the crowd when she learns that the "boy" for whom she felt such instinctive sympathy was (probably) involved with the rape and murder of her friend (quite probably her only friend in her current, nightmarish world).

Danny Huston is a curious foil for Emily Watson, and Arthur Burns is a curious foil for Martha Stanley, but it works. He is, in large part, the grounding for Charlie's identity, just as Martha is for Captain Stanley, and the ebb and flow of their stories is nice, as Charlie peels himself away from Arthur and everything he stands for, even as Captain Stanley finds his way back to Martha and the man he means to be. And if Cave didn't quite pull off what it is to be an Irish man in Australia in the 1880s as he did the experience of the British colonial wife, none of the fault lies with Huston. He also has, excuse me, a damned fine head of wild Irish hair.

Richard Wilson, as Mikey, is a nice physical counterpoint to Arthur. He is slight and quite feminine and keeps up the frightened stare and skittering body language of a trapped, terrified animal throughout. It's somewhat unfortunate that there wasn't enough character building or relationship building (or plot points, for that matter) to get across why Charlie, in particular, feels so responsible for Mikey, in particular. As it is, it's a generic "he's my little brother" deal that feels a bit tired.

For one of the putative stars, Guy Pearce doesn't have all that much to do other than to be dirty as Charlie Burns, the perenially overlooked middle child who keeps things together. He is convincingly fierce in his inexplicable love for Mikey, and to my ugly American ears, his Irish accent was unwavering. Given the limited dialogue he has, he also deserves kudos for creating and maintaining a recognizable character pretty much through body language and facial expression.

But whoever was meant to be the star, the real title surely goes to Ray Winstone. As Captain Stanley, he needs to be brutish enough that no one mistakes him for the one true-hearted, color-blind, class-oblivious lawman on the outback. The assault that he and his men launch on Charlie and Mikey (and two comparatively innocent Asian women who happen to be with them) is vicious, but the physical violence is nothing to the choice he's forcing Charlie into, and he is merciless in laying down the ultimatum. All the same, when he persists in refusing to participate in Mikey's flogging on the grounds that the boy is a simpleton and a pawn of Arthur's, it is easy to believe that he is as principled as a man can be under the circumstances. He takes the audience to the brink of bug-fucking-craziness right along with him. I felt physical relief when he wrenches himself out of the downward spiral so he can be there to pull Martha back from a very-familiar-looking brink, and in turn allows her to be his salvation.

To get back to Cave and his position on my to-be-killed list, I think he's not in any danger so long as Takeshi lives and Cave's death doesn't suddenly become absurdly convenient for me to achieve. His safety lies in the fact that The Proposition is a gut-wrenching, effective story, but it's still a flawed one. Anthony Lane sums this up well in The New Yorker: "If anything, “The Proposition” feels too conscious of that responsibility [its identity as 'the last redoubt of the Wetern']. It is one of those movies—Antonioni’s “Red Desert” being the most flagrant example—that spend so much time brimming with moral and political suggestion that they almost forget to tell us what’s actually going on." I'm with you, Anthony, my brother. There were several times when I had no idea what was going on. Why have we gone all Farenheit 451 on our manly tomes? What, exactly, has happened to the fugitive from the set of Carmen who cured Guy Pearce of a collapsed lung? How does Faramir stay so clean?

I'm willing to meet Cave halfway and admit that my own ignorance of the politics of the period makes my viewing of the movie a pretty shallow one. He includes Aboriginal characters who are not simply sidekicks (although their roles are minimal), and I'm not ideally equipped to decode the added meaning of their roles. However, it's worth noting that the truly meaty politics here are decidedly white-on-white, or as John Hurt (And as an aside: You've just gotta love John Hurt. Even when he's phoning it in, he recycles his fool from Olivier's Lear and it's just soooo worth the price of admission), white on black-turned-inside-out (which is what the Irish are nothing but). Nonetheless I was interested in the wording of the disclaimer at the beginning, which apologized to Aborigines and the people of the Torres Straits and noted that photographs of people who have died, which violates their spiritual practices.

Anyway, flawed though it is, this is well worth seeing should it make its way to a theatre near you.

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