Friday, February 19, 2010

Towards Love: another vision of The Road

It feels strange to say I do not want to leave The Road behind me, but find myself yearning to stay with it in some agonized way even as my best male efforts to resist tears lingers on at the end. It is, most unexpectedly, a masterpiece. That rarest of things, a superb and true adaptation of a great novel, the likes of which I find myself comparing with To Kill a Mockingbird and its translation into film almost half a century before.

This might seem like an odd parallel to make. The author Harper Lee’s child’s eye view of small town life in Alabama, and her heroic depiction of a widowed father confronting Southern racism – along with the 1962 black-and-white film which starred Gregory Peck as the supremely noble embodiment of that figure, the attorney-at-law Atticus Finch – have an idealistic 1950s sheen to them. So much so that every Father’s Day Gregory Peck is still recalled in various polls and magazine articles as our iconic image of fatherhood: modest, upright, warm, he suggests a man’s finest hours have little to do with machismo and much to do with tenderness.

Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision of our future in The Road would appear a world away from this reassuring feminine ideal (based in fact on Harper Lee’s own childhood). In it an unnamed father and his son trudge south across a waste-land towards the coast. They push a shopping trolley full of scavenged supplies as they flee the onset of what seems to be a nuclear winter, though we are never sure what brought our civilization down into its ashes. McCarthy prefers to concentrate on the journey the father and son make, dispensing with any back-story in a few Spartan sentences: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”

The film similarly elides explanations, using precisely the same words in a voice-over by a wolfishly lean Viggo Mortensen as the father. More than anything it’s Mortensen’s vaguely hyper-thyroidic eyes that capture you with their imagined depths, a physical attribute that has made the Danish-American actor a standout in projects as varied as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eastern Promises and Indian Runner. As The Road begins a screen door bangs shut on a life of humid colour and we are jolted awake, out of his dream of the past and into a shadowy present where the father clutches at his son with a mix of animal fear and ferocious affection, “each the other’s world entire”. The son is played by the 11 year old Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who last tore our hearts out as the boy who bore witness to adultery, madness and self-destruction in Romulus, My Father. Charlize Theron appears in flashbacks as the mother: languidly beautiful and lost as a summer of love; then increasingly sallow and wrought till she gives birth at home while a destroyed world waits outside her door. There in memory she will stay.

Father and son must make their pilgrimage to survive through a charred landscape veiled by rain and snow, past poisoned rivers and dead forests vertiginously shaken by earthquakes, through the monochrome misery of deserted cities and on towards hollow-feeling skies split by far-off lightning. An environmental apocalypse as much as any man-made explosion is heavily implied. This rupture to the natural order has the stage pitch of Shakespearian tragedy, with close-ups by lamp and fire light sketched by Samuel Beckett – as well as an authenticity that might give even the most ardent climate-change doubter pause for thought. Cynics will see it another way, as nothing but a downer, and yet another art experience capitalizing on the zeitgeist of fear around us now prompting a rash of anxiety disorders among our children about the state of the environment.

Ironically much of the film is indeed ‘genuine’. Australian director John Hillcoat and his production crew used Google Earth to discover eight miles of abandoned freeway in Pennsylvania, along with run-down soulless suburbs in Pittsburgh, abandoned coalfields and a burnt out amusement park. The goal was to avoid CGI effects, and with additional shooting in the snows of Oregon and the use of New Orleans in the wake of a Hurricane Katrina’s ravages, much of the scenery is drawn from a real-life America naturally traumatized and economically depressed.

As a science fiction film set in the near-future this gives The Road a sobriety and believability that is unsettling. That the pluming smoke in one scene was taken from September 11 and grafted into the background only adds to the film’s claustrophobic tethers on the collective unconscious, though some of these post-production techniques, including the de-colourizing of the natural landscape for heightened bleakness, have subtracted from this emphatic realism and created a synthetic, photo-realist quality. This may well be intentional, creating an iconic look that is quasi-medieval and fable-like at times, qualities reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish film about “the silence of God”, The Seventh Seal.

On the road father and son endure starvation, elemental deprivation, and the threat of ragged gangs reduced to robbery, rape and cannibalism. This is a world where starvation and brutality are the facts of life; where everyone is ‘homeless’, worn-out shoes and soiled clothing lined with plastic bags for protection. The father’s greatest gift in this existential horror story – and the story is best seen as a frontier Gothic horror tale rather than a sci-fi experience – would appear to be a gun with two bullets.

One of the first ‘sharing’ moments is a scene where the father explains to the boy how to cock this gun, place it in his mouth, tilt it upwards and blow his own brains out. “Like this. See?” Deep down the father knows the boy is incapable of suicide. But he does his best to prepare him all the while he must be willing to do the deed himself. We hear Mortensen’s thoughts again in voice-over, a God-said-to-Abraham voice where there is no God above, and no consoling or compelling faith to support the sacrifice of his son into oblivion: “Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?”

That anybody should be surprised this material might form difficult subject matter for a film defies common sense. The problems of translating the myriad nuances of event and character and thought patterns that a novel can embrace, let alone the mysterious enchantments of language itself – in McCarthy’s case a chant-like undertow to his story-teller’s voice that is either prayerfully hypnotic or overbearingly portentious depending on whether you enjoyed reading the The Road or not – creates a whole other strata of difficulties that could kill even the best intentions.

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2007, McCarthy’s novel crossed over into the mainstream to become a literary best-seller. In doing so it gained the imprimatur of no less a house-hold icon than Oprah Winfrey, whose attachment to the cadences of McCarthy’s Biblical language reflects her own church upbringing in the South and the ringing power of what might be termed pulpit oratory. It’s no great coincidence that she and McCarthy are both Tennessee raised – and that two years earlier her Book Club had revived interest in three classic novels in a row by William Faulkner, the author to whom McCarthy is most often compared.

But The Road was not just ‘popular’; it penetrated in the deepest, word-of-mouth ways. People, particularly men, felt shaken to the core by its reflections on fatherhood, love, family and the future of the planet for our children in this time of terror, war and ecological dysfunction. The book was duly heralded as the most important American novel of the last hundred years, even as an end note to American and perhaps Western civilization itself. At the most raw level it had the power to frighten those who read it into loving better, to remind us that love is both an act and a responsibility rather than some fuzzy romantic feeling we can allow to drift about us. To read the novel was to renew one’s vows as a parent, to being in the world and caring, and to recognize the need to do something with and about that love, or risk losing it.

Repeated delays in the release date of the adaptation, and with it whispers that it might not receive a cinema outing at all (that dreaded yoke around its neck: “a straight to DVD release”), hinted at not only the obvious darkness of the story itself, but a deeper flaw: an indulgence in that darkness, an immersion in all the worst horrors of McCarthy’s novelistic vision without the pay-off of those final cathartic, run-to-your-children-and-love-them emotions.

The construction of a deceptive preview trailer that has sought to hide this darkness by promoting it as one of those end-of-the-world nightmare spectaculars in the vein of films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, utilizing panicky news-reel footage and explosive snippets that are not actually seen in the film – with shots of Charlize Theron looking beautiful and scared – did not assuage concerns. A dog’s breakfast seemed the inevitable outcome of these competing ambitions and pressures.

Instead the film is neither a fetishistic art-house indulgence of McCarthy’s most miserable extremes, or an entertainment-on-steroids compromise that bastardizes the original work. No, against all the odds it strikes towards the deepest core of the book’s appeal, and emerges as a grand cinematic poem about love, about what we give and what we teach and how this is carried on between generations. Any father, mother, or ‘child’ knows this territory. And like the book, the film’s ultimate reverberations are restorative precisely because it pushes us towards love – and sacrifice. The outcome in the film then is the same as that of the novel: hope, not decimation.

Those bright powers observed it would be deceptive not to warn people of the film’s more confronting scenes. A basement with half-alive, partially dismembered, naked figures recalls the Holocaust in writhing miniature, though it is the sounds from this same house later at night rather than anything you witness that curdles the stomach. But then who would go see a story like this without expecting a shadow or five? One might say the poor fools who get sucked in by the trailer, which may be just as well, and in its way a brilliant marketing ploy, however compromised its motives. For it is certainly true we are too easily entertained by those things that should trouble us, by what Saul Bellow once described as “the ecstasies of destruction” inherent in our shallower entertainment past-times. These days even what troubles us is mere grist for the entertainment mill as video game manufacturers market extreme war-game violence with pop songs like Tears for Fears ‘Mad World’, as if romanticized depression and nihilistic inertia might serve for a conscience to excuse your pleasure in slaughtering whoever whenever any time you like.

As an author, McCarthy has hardly been immune from criticisms of unnecessary violence, and of relishing it in his work. In fact it’s hard to think of a more violent author in the history of American letters. Prior to The Road the book on which his critical reputation most powerfully rested was Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a spectacular and endless succession of nightmare scenes depicting a teenage boy’s involvement with a hunting party collecting Indian scalps in the American West. Here McCarthy’s language spewed off the page with Old Testament power, long declarative sentences joined by one ‘and’ after another, no quotation marks, and a seeming resentment of commas into the bargain.

His greatest commercial success is now No Country for Old Men, which stripped back the engine, paring down the archaic language and long, coagulating scenes into something ready-made and revved-up for cinematic adaptation. Fans saw it as McCarthy-lite; the old devil going soft and cleaning up his style. But the same bitter messages dominated both the book and the film it spawned: evil and violence win; the world is savage and sad. My feeling is this message hollows out both that novel and the Coen Brothers adaptation, and makes them lower experiences, even if the spare, vicious momentum of No Country for Old Men cleared the way for the prayerful, rhythmic simplicity and power of The Road.

It’s interesting to note that McCarthy’s favourite novel is Moby Dick. When Herman Melville wrote it he told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as a lamb.” McCarthy has enjoyed similar sins over his startling novelistic career. If Blood Meridian was indeed McCarthy’s wicked book, The Road might well be said to be his blessed one. The difference is one of both content and intention. McCarthy dedicated The Road to his own then 7 year old son John Francis. It may be that The Road is the first book McCarthy ever truly wrote for someone apart from himself, the first he ever wrote for the world rather than against it (or at best grieving whatever innocence it could have had). McCarthy’s sense of mortality as an old man in his 70s may have also increased the urgency with which he delivered it to us, spare as a book of hymns about forgiveness for our sins and maybe his.

A look at the director John Hillcoat’s earlier work on The Proposition meanwhile makes it obvious why he has been the perfect choice to direct The Road. Apart from the fact Hillcoat cited Blood Median as an inspiration for The Proposition, there are similar lyrical qualities to the way he has people emerge out of a primal landscape, qualities that drew from singer Nick Cave’s script and were enhanced by the latter’s accompanying soundtrack work with Warren Ellis. A closing scene in The Proposition, where two brothers sit, side by side, one bleeding to death from the other’s gun shot wounds, recalls nothing less than the unleashing of of Bob Dylan's ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ in Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s a moment that brings a genuine poetic majesty to The Proposition after so much violence and bloodshed.

Hillcoat has wisely chosen Cave and Ellis again as the composers for The Road and they deliver a stirring soundtrack. Even so I did not think the director was capable of what he has achieved here. I had assumed that like McCarthy in his most pessimistic incarnations, Hillcoat would be too caught up in his passions for melodrama and baroque flourishes of brutality to produce something this spiritual and warm. I was very wrong. In tune with the great old man of American literature, John Hillcoat has created a masterpiece in The Road that transcends his dark materials and takes us on into something pure and possible. Like the father who loves his son, like the extreme nature of the novel itself, the experience will reassure you of cinema’s capacity to stoke “the fire inside you”.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this essay appeared in The Australian Literary Review under the heading "Towards love" on December 1st, 2009.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cold, Black Style: The John Cale Interview

The Welsh composer and rock ‘n’ roll musician John Cale is not someone you take lightly. Having witnessed his solo concerts, as well as interviewed him on occasion, I’m all too aware of how Cale’s mountainous, crystalline presence can turn as withering as a trudge across the sub-arctic tundra.

And yet my fondest memory of him dates back to our first encounter at Sydney’s then post-punk venue of choice, the Trade Union Club in the mid ‘80s. After a press conference to a quivering mass of rock journalists, Cale’s publicist allowed 5 minutes each for one-on-one conversations, an absurd amount of time but I stood in line like everyone else. All I could think when my turn came was to ask if he ever went back to Wales? The saturnine titan of the press conference dissolved into a gentle reverie.

I was reminded of this again recently while reading his 1999 biography, What’s Welsh for Zen. In it Cale speaks of everything from the dourness of life in a mining village to being molested as a child at the local church, to the presence of Arthurian legends in the region and rumours Merlin was born not far from where he lived in Garnant. “Out on the mountains,” he writes, “I had an ever present feeling I was running on the bones of ancient people.”

Reading those words I could still remember his coal-dark eyes studying me back at the Trade Union Club. “Eventually you learn that being vicious is a weakness,” he told me then, “that it’s just a way of hiding – and not a sign of strength at all.” This comment seemed aimed at someone off-stage, most obviously his old Velvet Underground songwriting partner, Lou Reed. It was also a reference to Cale’s former self, and the severe cocaine addiction he had just overcome.

That night Cale would play an interpretation of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ which remains one of the most chilling performances I’ve ever seen on a Sydney stage. It has since become a calling card of his or, more precisely, a coup de grace whenever I’ve seen him play: “Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell, down the end of lonely street…”

Ten years after our meeting at the Trade Union Club the Zen Welshman would shit on me like cold snow in a phone interview. So cold I swore I’d never speak with him again. It’s that Walt Whitman thing, I guess, containing multitudes, contradicting himself, so what?

Today he’s in a kinder, more expansive, even amusing frame of mind. But I’m always aware of being on my mettle. It does not help, however, that I have assumed he will be performing his entire 1973 album, Paris 1919, as part of the Sydney Festival. A pastoral and baroque suite of songs inspired by the Treaty of Versailles and the novels of Graham Greene, the record is often cited as one of Cale’s best and most approachable works. Unfortunately my line of enquiry is entirely wrong. Yes, he’s performed that record in full recently at other festivals overseas, but he is launching a far more wide-ranging concert in Sydney under the aegis of ‘Signal to Noise’, a theme that matches the keynote address he is also giving at the Festival.

“It’s that John Cage idea, that there’s no such thing as silence,” he explains. “Wherever you go you carry in your ears the sound of blood rushing through your veins. You can never be pure about listening to Brahms. There’s always traffic in the background, or someone in the audience coughing, your own breathing...”

Cale’s concert and talk, he says, will be dedicated to work of his that has influenced, or was later inspired, by the punk movement of the ‘70s: a musical culture driven by elements of anarchist and left wing politics, a passion for experimentation and a wipe-the-slate-clean, DIY aesthetic that could be highly aggressive.

With half my interview vaporized before me it’s helpful to have done additional research. So you’ll be focusing on Sabotage/Live (1979) era material, I ask, bouncing back as best I can. “Yes, songs like ‘Gun’, ‘Fear is a Man’s Best Friend’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’...”

Cale’s voice has a barrel-chested, baritone rumble to it like faraway thunder – as well as a rasp that hints at an older man’s waning physical power. He is now 67 years of age. Three marriages down; one daughter. Across his career he emerges as a shape-shifter, restlessly moving through neo-classical, pastoral, stormy rock n roll and electronic influences. When I call him an explorer he doesn’t exactly agree, emphasizing instead that “the songs are about characters talking about things, so you can make it very different each time you do it depending on the ecology of the character in each song.” He nonetheless enjoys my troubled visions of having seen him do ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ as a solo artist so long ago.

“Oh the version with band and me now, that’s pretty much a gargoyle,” he brags, beginning to laugh. “The song has room for that. It has room for a very creepy side. The lyrics support it. It was always important for me to emancipate it from the original. But it was a really hard nut to crack. It’s written in a major key, and it took me a while to get out of that, years. When I [finally] put it in a minor key that made it much creepier. It got me out of the ditch I was in. I wanted to do it as a resurrected song with my band [again now]. I was a big fan of the band Free – they played so slow and sexy. I wanted to be in that same groove with it.”

Imagining an avant-rock composer like Cale banging his head to Free is not the first image that comes to mind. But then neither is his interest in using samples from Sammy Davis Jnr tracks in his recent music – “the old stuff has a really nice swing to it” – or for that matter a fascination with Pharell and Snoop Dog, both of whom he loves.

These sampling and hip hop influences have been filtering into Cale’s work for some time, reaching their height on his last release in 2005, blackAcetate, and what almost qualifies as doom rap in the song ‘Brotherman’. “We tried,” he laughs, “we tried,” but Cale feels the hip hop leanings came far too late, incorporated mostly at the production rather than the songwriting process on blackAcetate. He nonetheless enjoys the use of sampling live, “just having a good thump underlining everything. The problem is to avoid it becoming cold and vicious, to give it that swing.”

Cale goes into an involved explanation of sampling and playing that reveals his artisan nature, and the heavy classical training that gives him such a vice-like intellectual grip on how he approaches rock ‘n’ roll despite his passion for improvisation and ‘noise’. In What’s Welsh for Zen Cale described his group of the punk era as “a very good band that had a cold black style to it and was poised to do something.” To me this is a definitive description of everything about Cale, good and bad: a cold, black style poised to do something. When it happens, look out. When it doesn’t, run.

As a founding member of the Velvet Underground, Cale undoubtedly developed a thick layer of permafrost while slugging it out with his creative nemesis, Lou Reed. The latter would finally oust him from that band. In doing so the group kissed goodbye to the European avant-garde influences (a passion for drones, feedback, repetition and improvisation) that had marked Cale’s viola, bass and organ contributions to Reed’s droll, strangely romantic tales of sado-masochism and drugged identity within the Warhol Factory social scene on songs like ‘Venus in Furs’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Sister Ray’ and ‘Waiting for the Man’.

The rejection by Reed was a bruising experience for a brilliant and innovative musician. Cale had previously distinguished himself in the classical arena after being singled out as a prodigy by the likes of Aaron Copeland and John Cage. As a teenager he was almost prematurely determined to be “a living composer not a cataloguer of the dead”. It would reputedly lead to his being given “the Most Hateful Student Award” by teachers at Goldsmith’s College in London after performing a La Monte Young piece for piano with his elbows, then developing another composition of his own that required screaming at a plant until it died.

Inevitably he defected to rock ‘n’ roll. First with the Velvet Underground then across a multitude of roles as a solo artist, producer and A&R man for record companies, signing up artists and expanding new technologies like quadraphonic’s. As a producer Cale would steer pioneering debut albums by Nico, The Stooges, The Modern Lovers and Patti Smith, who tried to punch him out when he sought to exert excessive control over her band.

Having indulged heavily in most drugs, Cale would blitz himself with cocaine across the 70s and 80s. Paranoia and agoraphobia were the by-products, hall-marked by songs like ‘Fear is a Man’s Best Friend’ and creepy stage appearances wearing a hockey mask, as well as a notorious incident where he took a meat cleaver a live chicken and threw it’s head into the audience. After celebrating the birth of his daughter Eden in 1985 with a bottle of wine and a gram of cocaine he decided he’d reached the end of the proverbial line.

This annihilating tendency in his background draws me to a quote of Cale’s that all of Andy Warhol’s work was about death. Would he say the same thing about his own work? “Absolutely,” he replies. “And that was made very clear to me after 9/11. I lived about a block away from the World Trade Centre. Everybody was trying to get out.” Cale’s voice drifts off to the moment like he’s seeing it happen again, the office paper that rained down from the exploded offices and over the streets. “It was like Christmas out there. Like snow.”

“Two days later I had to leave for a concert in a Philadelphia. The problem was how to get out. There no flights, bridges were closed… it seemed impossible to go. No one told you what was going on. Eventually I got a limo with three musicians, we found a bridge open, and we drove to Philly. I’d been indoors all that time, walking up and down. I hadn’t been rehearsing. And suddenly there I was on stage in my ‘normal’ role. It was certainly made clear to me then, that night, how much my work was about death.”

For such an iconic and influential figure Cale has remained the cold outsider really, a loner all the way. It’s fascinating to discover that Cale spoke no English till he was seven years old; while his father spoke no Welsh. Ironically his miner father was also an amateur musician, and music bridged some of the huge gulf between them – as much as it later came to embody what was also lost.

This history might explain why Cale almost seethes when I mention the warmth that underlined a 1990 memorial project like Songs for Drella, where a re-united Reed and Cale put together a narrative song cycle in the wake of Andy Warhol’s death. It had seemed to me a re-assertion of Warhol’s more humane personality, a counterpoint to the chill blandness of the Pop Art image with which he is so widely associated. Cale suddenly burns in my ear: “It’s perfectly possible to be sympathetic and emotional without having to talk to anybody, or walk around shaking hands like your friends with everybody. It’s perfectly possible to feel everything going on, perhaps more so than those who seem to be involved.”

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum on January 2-3, 2010.