Vorn Colgan has been New Zealand’s best-kept musical secret for so long now that it seems almost a shame to spoil it. He has been writing and releasing albums under the Vorn moniker to critical acclaim and commercial non-plussed-ness since 1999, as well as contributing to the work of indie legends such as Dangerpin, The Sproutts and Gold Medal Famous. He also makes up approximately 50% of the Wellington Sea Shanty Society. You can catch him at MOON in Wellington this Saturday, May 14. And you can go here to check out his albums and musical projects. Here are Five Films That Have Stayed With Him…
1 – The Breakfast Club: America is a foreign country, they do things differently there. But we tend to forget that because we are drowning in a Fresh-Kills-sized pile of their cultural offcasts. Think I’m overstating this? Ask a New Zealander how many amendments to the US constitution they can name, and what they’re about. Now ask that New Zealander about the New Zealand Constitution, and see what they can tell you.*
Now listen to me.
We don’t have as much in common with Those People as we think.
But we feel like we know them because we grow up in a media hellscape which is arguably unique in its combination of addiction to foreign content and suspicion of anything homegrown.
And we don’t even notice how much we’re forced to learn about this one weird nation, to the exclusion of all others including our own, just to be able to watch a movie and laugh at the ‘funny’ bits. You pretty much have to meet an actual United Statesian in real life to realise the lopsidedness of this bargain – you stop and provide conversational glosses for Boy Racers and Waitangis and First Fifteens while your USer companion can breezily spout Thanksgivings and Proms and Yada Yada Yada without having to wonder for a moment whether you know what they’re on about. Speaking of which, you’ll automatically understand their accent, while they politely try to hide how little of what you’re saying they can actually parse; because you’ve grown up listening to them, but this is the first they’ve ever heard of you.
Two decades and some change ago, I first saw The Breakfast Club and fell in love with it while (and arguably by) missing its entire central premise. I was young, and not yet fully culturally saturated, and though the entire movie is about stereotypes, and the characters therein could have been lifted directly from the pages of Stereotyping For Dummies, I found them all Complex and Individual and Fascinating.
In theory this should have stopped me from getting the film at all, on any level. The whole point of the damned exercise is that we meet these five characters, we instantly allot them their stereotypical roles, and then after getting to know them for 96 minutes, we are moved by their rejection of our prejudices: “…what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case; a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?” Not at the time, it didn’t. Even though the opening scene of the movie sets out these roles with a hand so heavy it could be composed of pure neutron star extract. Even though, in the bookend closing scene, the athlete says “and an athlete” and the basket case says “and a basket case”. Look, maybe I’m just thick.
Maybe I’m just thick, but the whole yawningly-obvious rabbit-from-hat charade wherein the 1-D characters slowly grow a couple of spare dimensions was lost on me, because these people seemed complex to me from the outset, precisely because the stereotypes where I grew up were chopped out with quite differently shaped cookie-cutters.
The idea, for example, that Judd Nelson’s Dope-Smoking bully and Emilio Estevez’s Sports Guy could come into conflict, or indeed be two different people, was outlandish where I came from. A side effect of sparse population is that people often have to double up: the local Pharmacist is also the head of the volunteer fire brigade, the Dental Nurse coaches the netball team, the Jocks work part-time as Stoners and vice-versa. Besides which, Jock and Stoner are terms I learned from Hollywood, after I left High School. Where I came from, the word for jockstoners was Normal. There wasn’t a word for anyone else. You didn’t refer to anyone else, you just punched them.
To a teenager in rural 90s Taranaki, Ally Sheedy’s character is precisely as realistic as Dobby the House Elf: a conventionally attractive person wears non-approved clothing and behaves unpredictably? And no one makes her wear approved clothing and behave predictably? And at no point does she just kill herself? Well that’s not a real thing.
There is – I kid you not – a scene in this movie where Judd Nelson’s ‘criminal’ mispronounces the name of a French playwright, and Molly Ringwald’s ‘princess’ corrects him (“It’s Moliere”) and she is seen to have put him down. That was the point in the movie where I started to equate the American Midwest with Narnia. What is this bizarre mirrorworld in which knowing something about a book increases your social cachet? Through Ringwald’s character, the screenwriter seems to be telling us that there are people who attend high school who are rich, and who know things, but do not attempt to hide either of these social plague-sores. Not In My Back Yard, there aren’t.
I haven’t mentioned the Brain, of course. At my school, he would have been at another school.
If a great ensemble movie (not to mention a 97-minute bottle episode) relies on relatable characters, then we are not off to a great start. But there were two things that sold me on the movie immediately, despite the obvious elements of surrealist fantasy itemised above.
The first thing is that it opens with that Bowie quote, and they’re actual words from an actual song. And they’re great words.
I mean, at the time I knew there were great songs, and shit songs. But great songs had words like “Take me down to the Paradise City/Where the grass is green/And the Girls are pretty”, whereas shit songs had words like “Love love me do/You know I love you/I’ll always be true/So please/Love me do”.
I had no idea you could write words for songs like “And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations.
/They’re quite aware of what they’re going through” – I had no idea that I’d heard those lyrics plenty, without even noticing them. You can sneak awesome words into songs, and people won’t even notice they’re awesome words, because they’re in a song, where no one expects awesome words. Why, that’s a hell of a thing.**
So that was my mind blown in the first couple seconds.
And the second thing, the thing John Hughes nailed by accident while trying to do something much more banal, was the personification of arbitrary authority in the form of Principal Richard Vernon. The devil has the best tunes, and the villain gets the best lines, and when someone offers you a good villain you snatch off their arm along with the offer and you act the living shit out of that thing, till there are chew-marks on scenery that isn’t even on the same film set. And Paul Gleason did just that, dressed in Barry Manilow’s wardrobe, with a toilet seat cover hanging out of his otherwise-flawless tight flares. So much of the purported heart of this film is now clunky and cringy and unverisimilitudinous, from Bender’s creepy idea of How To Impress The Ladies to the very freaking suggestion that any of the film’s key conversations could take place unfacilitated between unmedicated teenagers. But when the seven worlds collide, and we all inhabit a Vygotskyan U-or-Dis-delete-where-applicable-topia of child-directed LearnFun, and no-one knows what a school or a detention or a Bowie or Calvins in a ball are, we will still know The Little Men Who Are Given Power.
Don’t mess with the bull, young man – you’ll get the horns, the shitty little tyrant warns, and because it’s the 1980s and Roland Barthes is like totally still a thing, Gleason gives us the literal horns before even our Atari-addled minds have had time to forget: his face framed by the Sign of the Goat, he gloats: “You’re mine Bender. For two months I got you.” It doesn’t matter that this is just a little man in a dead-end job offering detentions to a teen-played-by-a-thirty-year-old who doesn’t have anything better to do than detention, in the world of the film or outside it. The stakes may be tiny, but that just makes it realer. This is the parking warden who won’t cut you slack when you’re a minute late, and it’s the cops beating Rodney King. It’s the security guard who wouldn’t let me into the train station one morning even though I was wearing a train guard’s uniform, and it’s Herod ordering baby genocide. And Bender, bless his yucky upskirty soul, reads the script of the rebellion crushed before it starts, rebelling vainly anyway because one choice is as futile as another in a world where Dick gets to run anything: “No.” “So?” “Yes.” “Fuck You!”
This is the heart and the bowels of this film, too strong and foul and vital for reduction to stereotypes – when you are small, the big people who own you will tell you what to do and tell you it’s for your own good. And as soon as you’re big enough, they’ll send you away, somewhere where small people will tell you what to do, and tell you it’s for the good of society. They will see you as they want to see you. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. And the best you will be able to do is say ‘Eat my shorts’. Or seek comfort in sex. Or write a little essay no-one will read.
It’s hard on parents, this film. Philip Larkin-level hard. So hard that Molly Ringwald struggled to watch it with her daughter. But don’t let the Simple Minds fool you – it’s hard on the kids too. The very fact that it’s the 80s and you can have characters do and say things that would be unimaginable on today’s screens places this movie much closer to Kids than Mean Girls – retrograde sexual politics, dope-smoking bravado, and the hanging question of whether anyone will talk to anyone at school on Monday, are all places where teens live right now, just as they did when Emilio Estevez could pass for a teenager. We see these kids as neither they nor anyone else wants them to be seen: stoned, horny, self-obsessed; crying about nothing in particular. Trying to solve problems with make-up. Blaming their parents and pashing on the football field. It shares with all the great Bildungsromans the quality of reading completely differently depending on your age.
And it starts with a Bowie quote.
“And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”
Which he wrote when he was 23.
2 – Purple Rain: Prince is a foreign country. They do things differently there. So it’s reasonable to expect that his musical hagiography would be a little different from those of other megastars. Elvis’s early films, A Hard Day’s Night, Eight Mile, One Trick Pony, This Is It, Loud Quiet Loud, Shut Up and Play the Hits – when musicians of note are called upon to play more-or-less-themselves, they tend to make sure they are shown in something like a good light.*** Or a good-enough light all things considered, if they’re the Pixies.****
Prince though, when it came time to sum his life, his music, and his sacred honour, he did this other thing. Though I will never be quite sure what that thing was. Purple Rain, as well as being the Ultimate Solution to the Problem of Musicals (of which more later), is either a film in which Prince states unequivocally that he is an egregious and unmitigated arsehole, who looks mighty fine; or it is a film in which Prince states that to be an egregious and unmitigated arsehole while looking mighty fine is what the philosophers sought when they asked “What is the good life?” I’ve watched this film more often than any other on this list, and I still can’t make up my mind.
But maybe you feel that ‘egregious and unmitigated arsehole’ is a nasty thing to say about someone recently deceased. A rabbit hole opens up before us, and in that rabbit hole we must discuss how once people die, they become simply and inarguably good, and we may not speak of things they did which were not good, for to speak of such things makes us bad.***** I intend to dodge that rabbit hole by treating hereafter only of Prince, the fictional character in the totally-not-biographical movie Purple Rain, rather than Prince, the person who died recently, making you his grieving relative apparently.
Prince, the fictional character in the totally-not-biographical movie Purple Rain, does only one good thing. The one good thing which he does is to make phenomenally awesome music while dancing with an awesomeness which is phenomenal. This is not two things, by the way. There is a unity to Prince’s performance which defies pettifogging ampersandal divisions like Song & Dance or Rhythm & Blues. SingPlayDancing is what Prince does with a goodness. When he is not doing this thing, Prince the fictional character does and says exclusively Bad Things, in a way which leads me to adjudge him a Bad Person. At the risk of turning this Review into a Plot Summary, let the litany commence.
Prince, while looking mighty fine, exploits and emotionally abuses his bandmates. They offer him songs they have written; he pouts like a mighty-fine-looking petulant child. The closest he comes to discussing this or any other matter with his colleagues is a scene in which he literally speaks through a puppet (displaying an annoyingly well-honed talent for ventriloquism), saying ‘I don’t want to play your stupid songs’. He makes a puppet say that to his band. He makes his band listen to a puppet saying that, while looking mighty fine. This is passive aggression taken to a level that not even the Germans have a word for. Prince, while looking mighty fine, lives in his parents’ basement, where his beauty routine is often interrupted by the sound of his father beating his mother. Prince’s response to this is to sample the sound of his mother’s weeping and use it on a track. He reverses the sound, so it sounds like she is laughing, or maybe coming. His troubled home life informs his lyrics (which are so awesome he never needs input from his band): “Maybe I’m just like my mother/ She’s never satisfied”. At no point in the movie is his mother portrayed in a situation any human could describe as acceptable, let alone satisfactory.
Prince, while looking mighty fine, sets out to seduce a newcomer to the scene by being an unmitigated arsehole to her for quite a while. In their first exchanges, she approaches him with simple and fresh-faced admiration; he responds by saying something opaque then moving rapidly away from her. You know that awful superhero movie trope where the poor normal person asks the follow-up question but Heroman has already flown? Prince thinks that’s how you treat people you like, in real life. Actually that’s probably not fair. There is never any indication that he likes this person. Their first date consists of Prince allowing her to smell his hair for some hours as he traipses around the Midwest on the ostentatiously purple motorbike he bought instead of moving out of his parents’ basement. He then makes her leap naked into a lake under false pretences, before hilaaaaariously pretending to ride off without her. Three or four times. While looking mighty fine. He plays her the track I mentioned above, with his mother’s reversed tears on it. Later, she buys him a guitar. You know the guitar Prince plays? She buys him that guitar, then tells him she’s joining a band. His reaction is to belt her in the face. Last time I watched this movie my companion cried out involuntarily “Say sorry, you arsehole.” He doesn’t say sorry.
About this band she’s joining – it’s run by Morris Day, lead singer of the Time, Prince’s arch-rival band. The idea is supposed to be that Morris Day is a bad person and The Time is a bad band, and that’s why it’s okay to punch people in the face for wanting to work with him. This idea is hard to pick up though, because a) Prince wrote all The Time’s music, so it’s kind of awesome (Prince can’t write bad music, even on purpose, of which more later) and b) Prince is so ceaselessly bad in this movie that it’s impossible to write a character whose behaviour is worse. Early in the movie Morris is accosted in the street by an angry ex-lover; he has his bodyguard-pimp-butler-backup-dancer Jerome throw her into a skip bin. This scene, or rather the fact that it’s played for laughs, is weird 80s gender-politics discomfort at its worst. Or it would be if Prince hadn’t spent so much of the movie going out of his way to find worse ways to treat people. Apart from this foray into hard-to-watch-ism, Morris’s sins are: advising dancers to shake their butts more (which used to be considered creepy before hip hop became a thing), trying to impress his date and the rest of the club by showing off his wealth (which used to be considered shallow before hip hop became a thing), boasting about his music and insulting the music of others (which used to be considered bad form before hip hop became a thing), and generally treating the whole enterprise as a business venture rather than an artistic one (which used to I’m not typing it again). Basically the case against Morris Day is that he is Jay Z, an argument which has not aged well.
I want to be clear. Of Apollonia’s two suitors, both are awful, and she would do well not to enter a relationship with either. But let’s pretend this tired him-or-me narrative holds even a millilitre of water for just long enough to ask – do you want to be with the guy who wants to buy you champagne and have his Italian Chef prepare you breakfast and help you advance your career? Or do you want to enter a basement and be physically abused? The answer, Prince suggests, will surprise you.
I love this movie, by the way.
Sure, I’m listing all of these bad things that make Prince a bad person. But that’s what Purple Rain is, it’s a list of bad things Prince does, that make him a bad person. And a series of musical performances designed to make you believe that it’s okay to be a bad person when the music is this good. In my favourite part of the movie, the Darling Nikki scene, Prince is supposed to be at his lowest artistic ebb. He is now making terrible music that no-one likes –you can tell because the bar owner says so. They had to give the bar owner that line where he says the music is terrible and everyone hates it, because the terrible music everyone hates is actually awesome. Even The Time’s music is awesome. I believe Prince tried really hard to write something that would alienate and confound his audience in that lowest-ebb scene. I believe he tried to craft a sound for The Time that would make us instantly see them as cheesy materialistic no-hopers. But he was just too good. He was so good that his attempts at being crap trumped most peoples’ attempts at being great. Arsehole.
And almost by accident Prince did The Thing Which Can’t Be Done – Prince made a musical where every musical number genuinely advances the plot and genuinely stands alone as a piece of music. This is the closest thing you will ever see to a movie in which all the music is diegetic – even the When Doves Cry montage could be just what Prince is dreaming as he sings. Look I love The Sound Of Music, okay, there I said it. But that nun wasn’t actually spinning round on a hill singing all that sentiment. And if she was, where was her orchestra? Suspended next to my disbelief? By making this a movie about bands, set in studios and clubs and parents’ basements, Albert Magnoli and William Blinn answered the Musical Question (why the hell are all these people singing?) in a way so simultaneously obvious and seamless that it didn’t even occur to me that this was a musical until I looked up the Wikipedia article just before writing this essay.
And its central argument? That it’s okay to be just horrible to absolutely everyone, as long as you’re genuinely that damn good at music? Well obviously that’s bullshit. But just for this hour or so, why should we care, while Prince is alive, and singing, and dancing, and looking mighty fine?
3 – Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Yeah you heard me. I’m here to tell you this is a Great Film, in Capital Letters. Sure, it has become fashionable now to quibble with Python, to point out dated attitudes and to mock the ritualistic scene-quoting in which its fans indulge. People who do this are generally either arguing that the thing they like is more better because they like it more and it’s betterer (which I will dignify with this response only: let’s see your Seinfeld in 14 years. Let’s see your Louis CK in 40 years); or worse, they are playing at lame adolescent pretend-iconoclasm, like those insufferable punks who tell you that Dickens was bad at structure or that Shakespeare just adapted other peoples’ stories. Of course it’s got dated attitudes, it’s forty one fracking years old. Of course its fans quote it ritualistically…oh. Well that’s going to require some context. Let me take you to a foreign country, where they do things differently. Where peasants toil collecting mud, and the ruling class asserts its right by brute force, where literacy is the preserve of a select few who guard its secret with their lives, lives which are nasty and brutish and short.
Let me take you to 1990s rural Taranaki.
Imagine for a second that The Lord Of The Rings is not that movie Peter Jackson made in New Zealand which we’re all proud of because we also are from New Zealand, but rather that book that you read as a signal that anyone who wants to can remove your trousers as a joke, anytime. Imagine that computers aren’t something you’re reading this sentence on, but rather something you profess ignorance of, unless it is your specific aim to have your trousers removed as a joke, anytime. Imagine that if something reminds you of something else, you have to be able to remember both things, long enough to make a remark encompassing both things and their connection, rather than googling a picture of a cat with the relevant phrase written thereon and copy-pasting it into a box.
If you’re reading this, and how can you not be, then you are part of a huge and densely interconnected network of what would once have been called losers. You like to read, you can work a computer, you are evidently willing to wade through thousands of words of analysis of long-dead films that weren’t that good when they were alive. You’re a geek, you’ll say, with pride; a pride that means you’ve forgotten.
In 1990s rural Taranaki, and all the 1990s rural Taranakis of this world, which are legion, you were no one and you were part of a huge nothing. The things that interested you, that you found amusing, the things that you were good at, they were strange things for strange people and a person’s highest duty was not to be strange. But late at night, in the dark, while the house slept and the people who weren’t strange were at parties, talking to each other, if you watched the telly carefully enough, you might see something like this:
A surrealist comedy set in Dark Age England, which portrays Dark Age England more realistically than any Documentary or Drama, and plays its effortless mastery of the subject matter for laughs. A series of set-pieces, linked by a narrative, each of which is strong enough to stand alone, but lovingly placed in categories: You’ll laugh at this immediately. You’ll get this at the end. You’ll laugh at this when you’re older. You’ll never actually laugh at this, but Jesus is it clever. This is just silly. This bit is way better the second time.
A film which is happy to literally wallow in muck; to make jokes which are childish (ha ha, the nuns are horny; ho ho, the knights yell ‘run away’ as they run away) but which is also completely at ease playing 20th-century political discourse against medieval hero-myths (“strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government”). When it’s not finding the ludicrous in fiction and fantasy with coconut-powered horses and windbag sorcerers and killer bunnies lurking in caves, it’s digging out dark gags about the absurdity of real history – the sheer awkwardness of fully-armoured swordplay, the bleak existence of the corpse-dragger, the ignorance and magical thinking which lead to mob justice and witch-burnings (“It’s a fair cop”); like the two great touchstones of English-language drama, Shakespeare and The Simpsons, The Holy Grail plays to the cheap seats and the eliterati alike, often simultaneously.
It’s also, just casually, a rare example of post-modernism actually making something good. Although let me pause here and say that there is nothing so utterly full of reeking diarrhoea as the idea of post-modernism in literature. All the so-called hallmarks of pomo were played with and played out before literature even entered what we would call its modern period. Cervantes’s whole shtick was intertextuality. Laurence Sterne smashed proairetic narrative to tiny self-referential pieces and Swift made a career of deconstructing popular tropes and forms while simultaneously honing them to a gleaming satirical point. What people with tenure refer to as postmodernism, artists and audiences have been calling fun, pretty much since art has had an audience. Nevertheless, let’s pretend it’s a thing for a second and glance at the Grail in its tenebrous light – fourth wall smashed in the first scene: check. A heady mix of the too-real-to-be-taken-seriously and the too-silly-not-to-believe: check. Halfway through the movie we cut to a history professor recapping the story so far in plummy oxbridge tones; he is cut down by a passing chevalier. The movie ends with all the knights being arrested by a 1970s police force for this and various other murders.****** The entire story displays a deep skepticism about the entire story, but turns a reflection on the shadiness of myth and hero-worship into pure and unfettered joy at how silly we are all being, kings and peasants, cops and minstrels, Pythons and fans alike.
But I digress – I was supposed to be explaining why we’re always quoting this shit to the world’s eye-rolling annoyance. The joy in being silly is the key – a joy we’re specifically invited to share. This film knows its audience, and it trusts us, and it asks us to join it in hanging up our seriousness for an hour or so and enjoying some incredibly clever incredibly dumb shit; and the glee with which it shares this sense of to hell with it I’m just going to come out and say community is instantly infectious.
And in a time long since past, you couldn’t just share this experience by pressing a button, and you had to be careful who you shared it with, because the film and your enthusiasm for it are weird, and weird gets you beaten. So every now and then, you drop a little Easter egg into a conversation. “How do you know he’s a king?”, you might say. Or “You’re using coconuts.” Like an early Christian in a Roman alleyway, you sketch a little picture of a fish in the dirt with your toe, and you wait to see if you get a nibble. Life among Normals was a constant trial for Nerds, before Nerds created a planet-spanning digital communication network so they could find each other, and Python quotes were like a prison slang designed so you could communicate without the guards knowing what you were on about. You might draw that fish a hundred times before you found one person who what it meant, and when you found that person by god it meant something. The sheer volume of conversations now on social media where people use quotes from pop culture properties as synecdoches for entire arguments or ways of looking at the world (“Old man yells at cloud”; “Not sure if X or Y”; “I don’t always X, but when I X, I Y”) is a direct descendant of the Pythonian mode, which we had to carve in mystic runes on the very living rock, not having a smartphone like you whippersnappers.
So roll your eyes. You’re just showing what you don’t know. This is a Great Film, and if you don’t think so, your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.
4 – Drowning By Numbers: It was my brother who turned me onto Channel One. Prior to his great discovery, I, like any other New Zealand Teen in a two-channel mediascape, saw Channel One as foreign country, where they do things boringly. TV One was all news shows and Coronation Street and Michael freaking Parkinson and there was never any reason I could see why a thinking human would voluntarily press a button to unleash such a stream of wilful mundanity into their own eyes. But my brother, two years older, and more experienced in the Quest for Televised Nudity, had explored the darker reaches of the One Network’s late night programming, and inadvertently discovered the Artistic Dodge.
The Artistic Dodge is a trope in public discourse around entertainment wherein you get to portray vastly more profanity, obscenity, and human anatomy if your intentions are ‘artistic’. It’s the reason why in some countries (like the one we live in) you could only see Elijah Wood’s performance in Maniac at a Film Festival. The stated reason: ‘The horror remake has been classified as objectionable “except if the availability of the publication is limited for the purpose of study in a tertiary media or film studies course or screened as part of a film festival”.’ To expand this argument – a bad film full of bad things should only be watched by serious people who are studying the bad film and its bad things as part of a government-approved course; or by self-selecting elite audiences who, by dint of their willingness to pay over the odds for a movie ticket, are deemed to have aesthetic rather than prurient motives for watching filth.
This idea fills me with rage. Its only possible basis is pure and undisguised classism – there are people, like undergraduate film students and festival-going champagne quaffers, who can be trusted to watch a movie without going mad and harming those around them; then there are the remaining plebs, who must be shielded from that which is too rich for their blood. Jesus Christ. Apart from anything else, have these people met a fucking undergraduate film student? Censorship and the Nature of Obscenity are thorny subjects, and now (in the third paragraph of a review of a movie which I haven’t even mentioned yet) is not the time to litigate them. But I will say right now that if it’s good enough for a festival-goer it’s good enough for a person, those two being Exactly The Same Fucking Thing. Jesus Christ. Anyway, people have been reveling in titillation under the guise of High Art since forever. Matthew Wrather at Overthinking It dot com has called this the Donkey Fucking Conundrum – you may wax prétentieuse all you wish about the rich tapestry of dreams and reality, life and art, love and magic which The Bard has woven for us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but everyone knows you just wanna see Titania Fuck The Donkey. Personally, I say if people want to watch Donkey-fornication, then let ‘em. Or if such a thing will end society, then don’t let ‘em. But for God’s sake don’t pretend that the very essence of Donkey-Fucking is changed depending on whether its viewer is stroking their beard or swigging from a Tui bottle. You think the Donkey cares? The Donkey’s getting fucked either way.
Anyway, this thing that makes me so mad made my brother very happy, because it meant he found a whole new source of boobs on screen – the late night beeb-inflected art films of Television One. And so it came to pass that we watched Drowning By Numbers because it had boobs in it. And then, all alone and with great circumspection, I watched it again, and again, because I was in love with it. Drowning By Numbers is the first art movie I ever had a crush on, and as is the way with puppy love I was willing to overlook its flaws, because I’d never met anyone like it before. Nowadays I’m much less patient with highfalutin gimmickry and precious concepts; I’m much more interested in a good story well told. I certainly couldn’t describe this film as a good story well told. I couldn’t even tell you the story.
I can tell you what the film’s about though – it’s not that highfalutin and vague. This is a film about sex and death and the games that people play. It’s littered with all three, all lovingly shot in a kind of Autumnal Techni-sepia. The games are pagan-flavoured and ritualistically performed, described in voice-over by the main character (if you’re a kid), Smut. Smut is the coroner’s son and his job seems to be cataloguing everything in the county that dies and occasionally circumcising himself with scissors. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. The deaths are legion but the three big ones are the titular drownings – three husbands, drowned by three wives, each of whom in turn sweet-talks the local coroner into covering up the crime. The wives are related – a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter – and all have the same name. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. The sex is pretty standard arthouse fare – it’s not that kind of movie. It’s so exquisitely filmed you want to lick your fingers after every scene. For all its game-playing, it takes itself utterly seriously. Of course it does, it’s an art movie.
It’s an art movie, and it stays with me as a reminder of how good and satisfying and deeply affecting such a thing can be: after all, fuck me and my good stories well told, film is an audio-visual medium. And someone has to explore the potential of the medium, not just to tell stories, but to evoke sensations, and to stimulate wonder, and to look just so damn pretty. Drowning by Numbers looks so damn pretty it could be the poster child for the Every Frame A Painting campaign. It’s such a heady brew of smarty-pantsy ideas and body horror and sensual joy that it’s like being tickled all over, inside and out. And it leaves you with this feeling that is impossible to describe – but then, in the end, all feelings are impossible to describe, that’s why we make art: because we hope one day to make a piece of art so consummate that its viewers feel that feeling too, even if they don’t understand why or how.
Also, there are boobs.
5 – Pulp Fiction: That old chestnut. Pulp Fiction, like Oasis and MDMA, is a nineties phenomenon which has been praised so far beyond its merits and dissed so far beyond its flaws that any further virtual ink spilled on its doorstep seems a criminal waste. And given the average age of the last four films is a distinctly unsexy thirty three, I have to face a thing I’ve been doing throughout this essay that I hate hearing other people do.
You know that thing where Prince or Bowie or whoever dies and everyone over 40 leaps immediately onto Facebook crying ‘we shall not see his like again’ and decrying that music used to be awesome and now it’s crap and it’ll never be good again because all the people who made good music are dead now? I bloody bloody fucking hate that thing. I scream at my innocent, spittle-flecked screen, “How can you not get it? How can you not notice your parents said the same crap?” Because obviously music isn’t getting worse – look, absolutely worst case scenario if only one of the 8 billion people alive right now records a good song today there are more good songs today than there were yesterday. And how things really are is so much better than that. Because this generation has seen an unparalleled democratisation of the means of production of music and film and radio and literature, and so more people are making art than ever. And if you believe in the Flynn effect, which I do, and you would too if you’d met both my niece and her great-grandmother, than the much-greater number of people who are now making art are much smarter than those who went before. If nothing else, and if you really want to buy into the good ol’ days horsepucky, well then, consider that today’s makers are standing on the shoulders of giants, and wielding interconnected supercomputers. Youth is a foreign country. They do things differently there. That goes for your youth as well as other peoples’.
Of course the reason things back in the day seem so much better than now is that now you are old. And back in the day you were young, with this fund of energy and curiosity and time, free and endless time, to put into discovering new bands and watching new films and thinking new things and feeling new feelings. And now you are old and grey and full of sleep, and all that energy and time has been replaced by experience and responsibility, and just reading a several-thousand word essay on a bunch of films you’ve already seen a dozen times already seems like a needless chore.******* C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante, and increasingly you feel there’s no temps a perdre. So you rail at the kids but the kids are alright, it’s you whose knees are going.
I know this phenomenon and I hate it. And I know I’ve been doing it all day, ref, and I’m about to do it some more. But if it were done when ’tis done then ’twere well it were done quickly, as they used to say in my day. So let’s get on with it.
The reason I couldn’t in good conscience leave this film off a list of Five Films That Stay With Me is that this is the last movie where I and several dozen others sat in a theatre and gasped and laughed and groaned and cheered in unison, involuntarily. Today, I know, this film is just something that Xers who think they’re into film drone on about. But when it came out this film was exhilarating. Something about the hairpin lurch from banal discussions of the finer points of European fast food to picking skull shards out of your perfect coiffure, from gangsters dressed in board shorts looking like a couple of dorks to the plunge of a six inch needle into a dying chest and the gasp of reanimation (echoed by a crowd on the edge of its collective seat), something about this film really got people’s hearts racing in a decade where showing enthusiasm was the height of uncool. Talk about films that stay with you: I will remember till the end of my days the groan of gross disappointment from a sector of the audience when John Travolta removed his shirt and a thousand teen wet dreams were rent asunder on the shore of his furry dad-bod. Visceral is a word that was made for this film, in the literal sense of pertaining to internal organs. Between stretches of conversation so studiedly quotidian that they would be cut from a reality TV show as being too real to be interesting, things that should be inside bodies are blown and ripped and punched out of them, and things that should not be in bodies are forcibly shoved into them in a way that makes you gulp and shudder and cry out involuntarily.
And my hands are up. I know that here in the cold light, twenty two years of CGI gore and swords later, Pulp Fiction can’t do that to an audience any more. I know that there are millions of people who are viscerally moved by Michael Bey leaning very close to their faces and screaming “Ass! And Robots! ASSANDROBOTSANDEXPLOSIONS!!!” will be left cold by The Django Guy’s Old Movie. I ain’t mad at them, I just travelled here through time from a distant past to say that movie really got people going once upon a time. Like it was actually exciting.
And that thing where the scenes in the movie aren’t played in order, well back then I thought it was just, so, like, challenging, right? And now I think it’s arbitrary and sophomoric, so whatever else has changed in twenty two years, it’s still the case that I’m a cock. But look at it this way: to say nothing of the film makers he was emulating, Tarantino himself had already done this parataxis-on-crack thing in his first film. So he knew he wasn’t being particularly original by showing the scenes out of order. And if you go full nerd and view the movie chronologically, it’s actually a tight little number – no real narrative flab, the structure is way better than Dickens******** and the gargoyles are just as great and grotesque. This movie didn’t need a film-student-pleasing gimmick to make it great. Arguably it could have been better without it. But the director had a vision, so he sat down anyway with his editor’s razor and chopped the thing up. Gave it to us in bits. Trusted us to digest it, somehow. Whatever else he is, and he is many other things, Tarantino is not a coward. And he made this one film that really stayed with me.
Now get off my lawn. There’s clouds out there need shoutin’ at.
*This will not work if your interlocutor is a Political Science Graduate, obviously. But that glitch leaves my point proven – d’you think all those folk you see on Fox pontificating on the American Constitution graduated from anything ever?
**C.M. Burns (attr)
***You will notice I have left out Digg. You will also notice I said musicians of note. We can continue this discussion in the carpark.
****Yes, some of these films are ‘fiction’, and some are ‘documentaries’. We can continue this discussion in the carpark.
*****What recently deceased former All Blacks? I didn’t say anything about recently deceased former All Blacks…
******I laugh like a drain when the cop takes a shield off one of the knights, saying “That’s an offensive weapon”, for reasons I either can’t or won’t explain even to myself
*******In your face, made you read it anyway