Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 14, 2004 6:45 pm 
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The Kitchen Sink School of adultery

[Published on CineScene]

Who is Alexander Trocchi? He’s the author of a Brit Beat cult novel called Young Adam and a fascinating figure of whose writing William S. Burroughs once said “He has been there and brought it all back.” Fledgling Scottish director David Mackenzie has brought it all back to the screen, having performed the difficult feat of getting adequate funds to film Young Adam and gathered an able cast headed by Ewan MacGregor, Tilda Swinton, and Peter Mullen to act in it.

A worthwhile project and a logical one for those involved. It makes sense that MacGregor of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave and Mullen of Trainspotting should try to jumpstart British cinema again by bringing this bold forgotten classic set in Scotland to the screen. The result may not be a revolution, but it’s a good watch, a beautiful dark lusty little movie with some rare nooks and crannies to it.

Indeed it was Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh who spearheaded the revival of interest in Trocchi and his novel. Glasgow-born Trocchi (who died in ’84) spent so many years as a wild drug intellectual figurehead in Paris, the US, and England that people had pretty much forgotten he’d been a good writer admired for his style and his "sexistential" plots.

Besides being a heroin-opium-cocaine-marijuana addict, pimp, magazine editor, translator and rare book seller who never gave up the wan hope that he’d do some good writing again, Trocchi once also penned pornography for cash. His own lust sticks out all over this story, as does his freewheeling sensualist nihilism.

The sexually predatory Joe (MacGregor) is a failed writer with a dark secret who’s run off to become a hired hand on a barge running coal along the Forth and Clyde canal between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Ella Gault -- a typically powerful, merciless role for the bold and talented Swinton -- is the barge owner, often contemptuous of her husband Les (Peter Mullen). It’s obvious Joe and Ella are going to be between the sheets in short order. We suspect also that as in Jean Vigo’s classic Parisian barge film L’Atalante, somebody’s going to have to leave. The small world is made even smaller by the presence of a son, “the kid” Jim (Jack McElhone) who peeks through cracks to see the humping. This is the Kitchen Sink School of adultery.

Before long Les gets the picture and moves off, but we know from flashbacks and concurrent affairs that Joe is a stranger to commitment. Eventually it emerges that he knew a lot more than he said about the body of the girl in the slip he and Les fished out of the canal at the movie’s outset. The story that unfolds about that body and its owner is a huge example of Joe’s endless capacity for non-commitment. Could it be there’s more than a little of Alexander Trocchi in Joe Taylor? You bet. But Joe’s a pre-drug Trocchi whose only substances are the alcohol he gets in pubs and the cigarettes he always has dangling from his mouth.

The lusty nihilism of this story may owe something to Henry Miller, but it's more usually described as a sensual and earthy version of Camus’s The Stranger, and like The Stranger, Young Adam has a trial at the end (it seems somewhat patched in, and it is – it’s not in the book). Joe experiences greater priapic pleasure than Camus’s Meursault. He doesn’t seem to get a lot of fun out of it, though. He’s a failed author making it with every woman who comes along to forget his writer's block and his guilt. He’s a handsome, sexy devil who doesn’t so much seduce women as look them in the eye and wait to pounce. It’s hard to see how anybody else could be better than Ewan McGregor in this role. Working on home turf again for a change -- like Colin Farrell in the casual, quick-witted recent Irish film Intermission -- MacGregor has never looked or acted better. Swinton, Mullen, and Emily Mortimer (as the former girlfriend) are equally good.

Mackenzie’s postwar Glasgow canal world is an authentic-feeling place where the interiors are chiaroscuro and exteriors bleached out and tinged with yellow. The shots are often striking in unexpected ways. The trouble with the movie is it isn’t emotionally affecting. The wild sex scenes – including the notorious ketchup rape -- are no more than bodies rudely colliding. There’s more beauty in the arch of McGregor’s eyebrows or the rust of a barge in the late sunlight. There’s a grimy glamour also to the barge interiors, the luminous air of the pubs, canalside humps and slick dark streets; but the hero’s aimlessness destroys momentum and the movie fizzles out at the end.

As Joe drifts through Young Adam the present is mixed with the flashbacks of an equally aimless past and things get a bit confusing. There isn’t any of the acid trip intensity (and ultimate clarity) of Cronenberg’s brilliant Spider and the pace drags at times. Let’s hope Mackenzie’s work on his next movie pans out: it’s an adaptation of Spider author Patrick McGrath’s novel Asylum. His first movie was a fiasco. This interesting effort is his second. With luck he may make another leap forward next time.


Guardian background article on Alexander Trocchi by Tim Cumming.

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