This piece is written by The Late David Turpin, our first (and to date, only) Writer in Residence. Read David’s other essays here. He also contributed to our compilation of favourite 2013 films from “friends of Spooool.ie”.
DON’T HATE ME COS I’M BEAUTIFUL
An alternative end-of-year honours
There were a lot of wonderful films that got their due this year – Blue is the Warmest Colour, Upstream Colour, Gravity – as well as the usual raft of middling awards bait (Prisoners) and a clutch of utter disasters, some that were called out (The Counsellor) and some that weren’t (Rufus Norris’s turgid Broken). I saw as many films as I could in 2013, and if there was one current in the mood in the year’s cinema that caught my imagination, it was this: Films are getting really lurid.
Take even-toned arch-stylist Stephen Soderbergh, whose alleged valedictorian lap toured two very different strains of the outrageous: Behind the Candelabra was a beautifully acted, classically structured biopic that didn’t stint on plastic surgery disasters and UV-lit backrooms; meanwhile, anybody who ever wondered what a direct-to-video erotic thriller would feel like with blue-chip production values and our generation’s Garbo in the lead role got their answer in the form of the scandalously entertaining Side Effects.
There was a time when Disney test-tube stars like Anne Hathaway sought liberation through “serious acting” assignments in Nicholas Nickleby and Brokeback Mountain. Not so Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, who made their bid for freedom in Harmony Korine’s scurrilous morality play Spring Breakers, a fever dream that pulsates like a migraine and radiates the kind of colours you only see when you close your eyes and press down on the lids. Both actresses are, incidentally, very good in the film.
Not everything lurid was appealing or even convincing – Baz Luhrmann’s woefully miscast The Great Gatsby was worse than anybody could have feared, while a macho posturing exercise like Prisoners jumped the shark around the time it tried to goose viewers with a literal box of snakes. The authentically unhinged was (over)ripe for the picking though, with perhaps the strongest concentration to be found in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, in which Kristin Scott Thomas served up a villainess for the ages. The film’s detractors, of whom there are many, have dismissed Scott Thomas’s demon matriarch – lock-jawed with hatred for everything and everyone she encounters – as “camp”. Not so. If camp is misplaced sincerity, then Scott Thomas is about the only thing in this hellfire bauble of a film that isn’t camp. Her acid precision tempers the molasses pacing and portentous atmosphere in a way that makes the film actually work. In fact, Scott Thomas was a big part of why I found this deep dive into neon depravity mesmerising, when I’d felt mainly irritated by Drive’s disingenuous combination of ultra-violence and sentimentality.
If I had to choose a winner from the year’s lurid offerings, I’m afraid there’s no contest – not least because the film in question is the least stable, the least conscious of its own insanity, and therefore the most dangerous and alluring. Lee Daniels followed his Harlem Gothic extravaganza Precious up with two very different features, both of which were released in Irish cinemas in 2013. If The Butler expanded rather glibly upon Precious’s attempt to address the suppressed history of Black America in the 20th century, then The Paperboy ran with the other thread, whipping up a delirious swamp-thing soap opera unlike anything else this century. Loosely adapted by Daniels and Pete Dexter from Dexter’s own novel, The Paperboy involves an assortment of grotesques and fetishists who accrue around a murder case involving the gutting of a sheriff in late-1960s Florida.
As a murder mystery, it’s rudimentary, and principally disposed of in voice-over by Macy Gray’s fantastically over-it (and inexplicably omniscient) housekeeper. No matter: Daniels is even less interested in who killed the sheriff than his audience are. Instead, around his wisp of plot, he builds a tawdry totem to human desire and delusion that’s as incendiary and strangely appealing as a piñata full of fireworks. Acting wise, The Paperboy is unlikely to be mentioned as part of the surprise renaissance in Matthew McConaghey’s career, which is a shame, because he manages to find the sympathetic in the sleazy – no mean feat when the sleaze is cranked up to eleven. Elsewhere, as well as dusting off the razor sharp comic timing she displayed in To Die For, Nicole Kidman brings depth and pathos to the part of a nymphomaniac floozy who says things like “I gotta go to the beauty shop, my wig ain’t sitting right” and mimes a sex act in a prison visiting room. Even Zac Efron deserves some kind of commendation for holding his own under the scrutiny of what has to be the most leering directorial gaze this side of Larry Clark.
Photographically and editorially both ravishing and ragged – witness the extraordinary, deliberately botched zooms and impenetrably dense layered montages – the film has a grindhouse feel far more authentic than anything Quentin Tarantino has managed in his bloated, self-regarding attempts at “tribute”. At the same time, it can be extraordinarily beautiful, in an utterly direct manner that’s more akin to the naked sentiment of pop music than the more complex construction of cinema. Titter as we may at the infamous beach scene in which Kidman urinates on a character’s jellyfish stings, the opening shot of the sequence, in which Efron’s face dissolves out of a clear blue sky that precisely matches his eye-colour, is pure David Hockney made flesh. In fact, the dissolves alone are endlessly fascinating in The Paperboy. Surely there’s wry humour at work in the way the sole “healthy” sex scene of this violently libidinous film discreetly fades to black, with Gray’s voice-over chiding us for our voyeurism. Editing eccentricities are just the tip of the iceberg, and if The Paperboy never really hangs together, it does something arguably more arresting: it lets everything hang out in a way few films have done since the drive-ins closed. The folly and utter compulsion of desire is laid so bare in this film that it’s difficult not to look away, or to laugh. Either might be an appropriate response.
Whatever its failings, The Paperboy is a work of utter conviction, guided by its own lunatic energy as it ricochets between the heavenly and the hideous, sometimes within a single shot. A true once-off, it might be a long way from being “Film of the Year” but it’s hands down the most fun I had at the cinema in 2013.
David Turpin is a recording artist (as The Late David Turpin) and occasional academic. His latest album We Belong Dead, was released in September 2013. Read more at: www.thelatedavidturpin.com.