On the Public Expression of Private Woe

A vaguely Bergmanesque modality opens Martin McDonagh’s Academy Award winning short film Six Shooter (2004). An extreme close-up frames the face of Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson), laying bare the gamut of his shock and grief when a hospital doctor informs him of the unexpected death of his beloved spouse in the wee hours that morning.

But this is no weighty Bergman-like tome on death and its repercussions in the lives of loved ones left behind, in spite of the fact that death has captured many on its rounds through the night. The doctor is unable to spare more than a few minutes to console the grief stricken husband, there having been three other deaths for the staff to contend with that night. No less than two cot deaths and the fatal shooting of a mother by her son.

Before boarding a Dublin bound train home, Donnelly takes leave of his wife with a loving kiss on her inert lips and the presentation of a keepsake, a picture of a cherished pet of hers – a rabbit. On the train he snares a place opposite a young lad as extrovert and in the mood for the gab as the newly widowed is not. It soon becomes apparent that nothing in life is sacred for the Kid (Ruaidhrí Conroy). And death, most certainly, is not either.

The pair are joined in the carriage by a maudlin youngish couple, the parents of one of the cot death babies aforementioned. The teasing the Kid directs at them – he conjectures, among other things, that more than likely they were the ones responsible for their baby’s death – almost drives the father to violent retribution. Upset beyond words, the mother ultimately takes the most drastic of steps in response.

But not even this, carried out right in front of him, is sufficient to imbue respect for what others may be personally suffering in loss in the Kid. Yet, to his credit, he manages to partly win over a by this time less woebegone Donnelly with a hilarious story, deriving from his childhood, about a cow with trapped wind. The best day of my f….n’ life, he proudly proclaims.

It eventually dawns on Donnelly that the the Kid and the matricide he was told about at the hospital are one and the same. And further calamity is in store on what has already been a calamitous day in the lives of these strangers on a train. The ironic, bittersweet ending caps off an entertaining meditation on the problematical nature of private pain.

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Death and grief, as well as the director’s liking for catching the audience off guard with totally unexpected ‘wham bam, thank you, m’am’ moments, also underpin his feature Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Frustrated by the inability of the local police to find the person who raped and murdered her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) opts for a unique bit of naming and shaming when she pays to rent out three long fallen into disrepair billboards on one of the entranceways into town.

This bull by the horns action sets her on a collision course with the police, though not so much the officer, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), actually named as his klutzy underling Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a lawman of unconventional methods who stands accused in the eyes of not a few of torturing blacks in custody. Many in the small Mid-west community share the establishment outrage at Mildred’s tactic and side with the popular chief. They view the woman’s stratagem as especially cheap and tactless given Willoughby is in the latter stages of a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Mildred is hardly a saint. However, the morality or otherwise of her moves aside, she is at her combative best when dealing with some of the acrimony she lets loose. Officer Dixon resorts to various means to try and coerce her to take down the billboards impugning the superior he looks up to, but she counter punches as well as the best of them. As she explains, she has nothing personal against the chief. She put his name up there in huge font, she says, only because the buck has to stop somewhere. He assures her in his turn that he deeply regrets not having been able to make headway in the yearlong investigation.

The film, arguably, is at its flimsiest when Mildred’s dysfunctional family comes under scrutiny. Her ex-husband, a jumped up former cop, has sought solace in the arms of a girl about the same age as his and Mildred’s lone surviving child Robbie (Lucas Hedges). As portrayed in a crucial flashback, Angela is precocious and nasty. Plenty of teens would be flat out denied use of Mom’s car, but few would react to the negative in the way she does. Is Mildred, a year down the road, riddled with guilt that she and her daughter parted on such a spiteful note and endeavouring in her twisted way to come to terms with her loss and heartache? Seeking justice? Vengeance? On the other hand, back in the present, Lucas Hedges as Robbie makes a good fist of the still coming to terms son and brother frustrated and angry that his mother has dredged up the whole awful business again.

If Chief Willoughby’s days are numbered, the way in which they do finally end represent another example of Mr. McDonagh’s characteristic ‘rug out from underneath’ tendency. The chief has his own surprises to pull too, though their ramifications are felt postmortem. And if the auteur is best at revealing other – frequently more human – sides of characters we may be just about ready to give up on, he succeeds as admirably with Officer Dixon as any of the other players.

There is something quite touching in Sam Rockwell’s ‘momma’s boy’ cop (Sandy Martin plays Momma in an excellent turn), especially when he oversteps the mark and finds himself all at sea. We are ultimately led to believe the faith his chief had in him, contrary to the multitude of dissenting voices, might not be misplaced after all. What he has learnt about himself could go on to stand him in good stead. Both he and Mildred, unlikely allies once the dust settles, have dabbled in fire, but appear set for a tandem assumption of greater responsibility for their actions in future.

Ben Davis’s cinematography sits well with Carter Burwell’s original score. Also evocatively featured, to name a few, are a haunting rendition of Last Rose of Summer (Thomas Moore) by Renee Fleming, Townes Van Zandt’s Buckskin Stallion Blues, and The Four Tops cover of Left Bank’s golden oldie Walk Away Renee.

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Method … to the Madness!

Rooted in the Konstantin Stanislavski system, method acting may be defined as a dramatic technique in which actors identify as closely as possible to the characters they are depicting by correlating experiences from their personal lives to those characters. At least this was the spin Lee Strasberg placed on Stanislavski’s ideas. Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner were the other two American teachers most often associated with the Russian actor and director, but emphasised aspects to the approach different to the psychological ones crucial to Strasberg. Adler’s stress lay on the sociological side, while for Meisner the behavioural facets were uppermost.

Given this disparity, the method technique may be more accurately termed an elaboration of Stanislavski’s original system. Lee Strasberg taught many prominent American actors in the latter half of the 20th century, among them Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and Jack Nicholson. Two other prominent actors from the same era, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, were students of Stella Adler, whose break with Lee Strasberg occurred after she concluded that his adaptation of Stanislavski was ‘too limited’ and therefore inauthentic. By contrast she taught her students to go beyond personal experiences, to imagine the scene’s ‘given circumstances’.

Meisner thought similarly to Adler, describing acting as ‘living faithfully under imaginary circumstances’. Robert Lewis, another influential teacher who broke with Strasberg, felt that method acting neglected vocal and physical training, deficiencies certainly not apparent in some of Brando’s and De Niro’s tour de force portrayals.

To digress a moment, the case of Jack Nicholson is interesting, this being an artist who has built a career lasting several decades upon hard to ignore performances reliant on his own particular brand of the ‘method’. There have been notable exceptions, such as his David Staebler in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), but he can appear to correlate from his own life to such an extent that one is left with the feeling that it is not an actor playing a character so much as a character playing the movie star Nicholson. Perhaps this type of method actor acts from a conviction that no fictional figure they might be called on to represent could be as inherently interesting as themselves, the movie star.

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Such an overriding need for authenticity, for realism, in a medium founded upon deception, the trickery conjured by an interplay of shadows and light. This need has become greater since the coming to the fore of so-called reality television. If fictional output in the audio / visual realm has always had to wage a battle for relevance with the ‘real’, it is a battle increasingly pitched in this day and age, when ‘realism’ is preponderant.

In the form of nightly news bulletins, current affairs analyses, documentaries, et cetera, a type of reality television has been in existence forever, but never before in such quantity. Many practitioners of fiction, perhaps fearful of floundering in the wash-up, have responded by lacing their ostensibly fictional work with actual incident, thus muddying the line between what is real in their product and what is staged.

This has been going on for decades. Clearly, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider’s sexual congress in Last Tango in Paris (1972) is simulated. But what caught a great number of people by surprise many years later was the revelation that Brando and the film’s director Bernardo Bertolucci ‘ganged up’ on the French actress in the moments before the cameras rolled for some of the more notorious scenes, all in the name of enhanced authenticity.

More than four decades after the film was made, rumours continue to abound regarding the possibility that Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie had bona fide sex in a pivotal scene from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). As if such is, or was, a major factor in determining the artistic merit or otherwise of the film. But even if the two leads and the filmmakers dared be so bold in the early seventies it was hardly a step minus precedent.

Years before that, Swedish director Vilgot Sjoman’s films I am Curious – Yellow (1967) and I am Curious – Blue (1968) garnered attention for their unsimulated sex. The Swedes may have indirectly helped usher in a succession of ‘art’ films that traded on the supposed infamy of authentic sex, among them In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Fruits of Passion (1981), and Devil in the Flesh (1986).

By the time Baise-moi (2000) and 9 Songs (2004) were made and released it had all become passé. Why a director of the calibre of Michael Winterbottom, who has made some fine quasi-documentary films, bothered with a fictional veneer in 9 Songs is puzzling. He might have done just as well to call his film a quasi-documentary about two actors who spend most of the film having sex. The quality of the films mentioned above varies widely, but the poorest of them are tedious in the extreme, their unvarnished sex notwithstanding.

Ruggero Deodato’s sleight of hand in Cannibal Holocaust (1980) fooled many, hilariously culminating in his indictment for the murder of his cast. His exoneration would come when his alleged victims made a public appearance, thus proving they had not lost their lives to the cause of film art after all. One can smile at the blackly comic mockumentary Man Bites Dog (1992), which deals with a filmmaking crew who at first passively record the exploits of the serial killer they intend to make a documentary about only to gradually become active participants in the killer’s sprees. As Kenneth Tynan points out, it is ‘a troubling, often funny vision of what the movies have done to our souls … ’

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Oh for the days when the movies only had to compete with occasionally graphic (if still heavily censored) news and documentaries! Now it is up against an upstart that goes by the name the World Wide Web, the appearance of which categorically changed the parameters for all time. Those with a yen for it can now with a few clicks access as much real sex and real violence as they can stomach. 24 / 7.

Be that as it may, on present evidence it may be a while yet before those whose province is, in essence, fiction get the picture. Seeking solace for their dilemma in a periodic resort to some grandiose über reality (usually real sex or, less often, real blood), they fail to understand that it is precisely this realm audiences do not wish to inhabit when they turn to works of fiction.

Picture, if you will, a person who makes a living counselling rootless, emotionally fragile, harried people bereft of any genuine vision of what their lives could be. Is such an individual, on heading home after their daily eight hours labour, likely to have the slightest wish to unwind in front of, for example, a John Cassavetes film? I think not. Method actors tend to take like ducks to water to the mundane and easily relatable ground that Cassavetes once upon a time explored and that hundreds of other directors, in true believer style, now plough. But when unrestrained these same actors can emote to a degree so off the meter that it is painful to sit through. Witness Peter Falk’s insufferable displays as Nick Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Robert Bresson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were two directors not the least bit interested in mirroring real life. They insisted their actors underplay. Uncannily – is it despite, or because of, this imperative? – their work reveals more about reality, or how things really are, than countless purportedly realist films. If the only thing movie watchers wished for from the product they paid to see was a replica of the sorts of experiences they might encounter every day of their lives they would be done with it and benignly immerse themselves in non-fiction and nothing but non-fiction. This they do not want. Fiction would do well then to maintain its place, stay as separate as it is able from the ho-hum real. The more closely it comes to reality the less it will serve to enlighten, the very purpose for which much of it is made.

To return to the method – an acting method, by the way, that is no longer held sacrosanct. The greatest actors may be those who, appreciating Stella Adler’s broader view of Stanislavsky, look much further than their own selves in creating character. Their adherence to multiple acting techniques equips them to ‘get’ just about any character, to bring off roles with an aplomb divorced of over the top theatrics. In a nutshell, they are character actors. There is never any doubt they are playing a role, but they are often brilliant at what they do. In the words of Charles Laughton: “Method gives you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting.”

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The coati

Translation of Quirgoa story El Coatí:

The coati is a little animal as long of head as it is of tail, with both arched upwards, possessed of the cry of a bird, high-pitched and rash, and with a curiosity that devours it alive.

There is nothing, in effect, that the snout and paws of the coati spares. To see what lies inside, it is capable of busying itself in opening an oven heated to 1000 degrees. If there are ten books within its reach and only one of them is neatly wrapped for posting, only this one will interest it, and it will investigate its cover and the cover beneath that, leaving it bare and with all the leaves scratched, because perhaps there might have been something between them.

The one we owned, besides its diabolical curiosity, wielded a strange effect on men – though not on women – because a mountain man had bred it.

The coati had never known its mother. It owed everything – warmth, cuddles, food – to that solitary man, who had been its father, mother, and childhood companion. As a result, already grown and in our keep, its natural affection and the warmth of its heart, so to speak, was directed toward men. It accepted women’s caresses equably, but no sooner did a man approach than it spread out its paws at once.

Tutankamón, which was what the children had called it, was innocence itself in the face of life’s perils. No one is ignorant of the fact that coatis and dogs are antagonists in the animal kingdom. Tutankamón drove away the dogs that barked in its midst, throwing himself at them … to play with them.

His heart was that of a man and no other creature. He reserved his most lively antipathy for a coati skin that he carried round the house and sniffed without respite, deeply burying his snout in every part, until he pulled out all the hairs, as if that skin belonged to his worst enemy among the species. He ate however much he could. Whatever it happened to be, he awaited it on two paws. He especially loved oranges, which he scratched and scratched speedily with his claws until he opened them. If we gave them to him cut up, he scratched them just the same.

Whatever hour of the day we passed by his hut, he was ready to sleep for a moment in our arms. If we did not gather him, he climbed as high as our chests nonetheless and instantaneously fell into a deep dream.

Dreams of caresses, in vain, because his paws never remained still for more than a moment: pockets constituted too powerful a temptation for him.

Thus the cigarettes I carried in my shirt pocket were damaged by contact with the coati. Within a moment of falling asleep, clinging to my neck, I would feel Tutankamón’s silent hand in my pocket though his eyes would still be beatifically shut. I would then reproach him for his bad deed, his abuse of my trust, with words that he understood perfectly well, I am sure, to judge by the way he remained unmoving with shame and sorrow. But while I continued speaking to him, I noticed him look at me out of the corner of his sleepy little eyes while his paw slowly climbed once more toward the cigarettes.

Our coati did not fall victim to his curiosity. He is still alive, though at a distance from us. I know, however, of another coati, suffering from a stomach tumour, that opened up the abscess with his own claws, appearing content with the result because he no longer had to worry himself about that.

But without doubt the scarring stung him and he again used his claws to pick and pick inside until he removed something next to the wound.

His curiosity inflamed, he picked and picked without stopping until he completely emptied his belly on the floor. With that he was finally satisfied and died.

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The Gratuity

The Gratuity:

http://www.fairlightbooks.co.uk/short_stories/10-minutes/the-gratuity/

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Coming Home

Story set in Timor-Leste:

http://anaksastra.com/current-issue.html

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Authors Reading review of Inevitable

Lindsay Boyd’s book, Inevitable, spins out two stories of murder that take place on the fictional Caribbean island, New Mendoza. One murder was by  Boyd’s protagonist,  Vanburn Holding, who was quickly apprehended by Chief Inspector Dino Farrell and sentenced to life without parole.  However, there were extraordinary circumstances surrounding the first murder. Vanburn Holding was only fourteen when he killed a neighbor girl, Ronnie Ray. Although he was just barely a teenager, he was tried as an adult and was found guilty of the heinous crime.  Much of the story is told by Vanburn Holding who recounts how his mother would often remind him that Ronnie Ray got the death sentence and he got the life sentence.  Some interesting events happen and Holding is released from prison after serving a little over 12 years.  He has a new life and he proclaims to the world that he is looking to make amends for his crime beyond even what punishment the justice system dealt him.  Will he really redeem himself?

Another murder occurs in New Mendoza, and this time it is a teenager from Mississippi named Gloria McDonagh.  She is with a group of others from her high school but sometime during her stay she disappears.  This murder is not as easy to solve as the previous  Ronnie Ray case. Years go by, and the case remains unsolved. The investigation intensifies, and a few clues lead to a couple of young men who are thought to be the murderers, but are they?

Unlike the Ronnie Ray killing, the new murder makes international news, and New Mendoza is deluged with reporters and TV crews. Gloria McDonagh came from a wealthy family, which quickly attracts low lives who try to prey and capitalize on the parents’ grief and desperate desire to find their daughter.

Vanburn had promised to dedicate his life to making a difference to others.  He reiterates his dedication to change during a prison visit with Candice the older sister of the girl he had killed. He claims he wants to help his fellow incarcerated brothers reenter the world and make amends.

 After Vanburn’s release from prison, he joins a group of individuals in Thailand that dedicate themselves to making the world a better place and helping people who have major issues. One of his mentors is a woman named Roong who greatly influences Vanburn’s way of thinking, but can he really be changed?

Dino Farrell, previously the New Mendoza police Chief Inspector, wonders if there could be a connection between the two murders.  Others have claimed responsibility for the latest murder, but he has a feeling that makes him think otherwise.  Once a killer always a killer?  “Inevitable,” is a spellbinding murder story for lovers of crime stories. 

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Feature article in Townsville Bulletin 16/6/18

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