Tim Winton’s The Turning & Lovelace

September 28, 2013
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Tim Winton may be the most overhyped writer in Australian history. This is not to deny his talent, merely to question the kind of reverence in which he is held by so many intelligent people. Personally, I’ve never found his books to be particularly interesting. There’s something irritating about his characters. They are not simply ordinary, they are proudly ordinary. Their ordinariness is worn like a halo.

It’s reminiscent of John Berger when he began writing essays about the innate goodness of peasants. These people may be close to the earth, but the ‘peasant mentality’ is synonymous with being tricky, avaricious and narrow-minded. This mean streak is also absent from Winton’s vulnerable, sensitive protagonists who seem to be forever searching for the meaning of life.

One misses the satirical edge, the sheer disgust, with which Patrick White describes the Australian suburbs. Neither are Winton’s characters like those of J.D.Salinger – extraordinary beings in an world that is persistently “phony” and disappointing. There is a kind of Christian forebearance in Winton, a sense that the world is to be accepted on its own terms. And then there are the mannerisms, such as the way every character is described in terms of his or her smell, whether it be sweat, milk, cheap cologne, or some less likely fragrance.

So when a film – or rather a “film event” – comes along, based on the 17 linked stories from Winton’s 2004 book, The Turning, I entered the cinema as a skeptic rather than a True Believer. Nevertheless, I’d recommend reading the book first if you want to get the most out of this ambitious anthology put together by 18 separate directors. The list includes a high percentage of first-timers, including two wellknown actors, Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham; choreographer, Stephen Page; and video artist, Shaun Gladwell. No-one fails to deliver, but very little could be described as inspired.

There are 17 stories but 18 directors because Marieka Walsh has contributed an animated introduction based on a scene from the book, and the lines from T.S. Eliot that gave Winton his title. The project was the brain-child of Robert Connolly, known for films such as Three Dollars (2005) and Balibo (2009). Connolly, who has directed the story called ‘Aquifer’, speaks of The Turning as if it were a group exhibition for which he acted as curator.

It’s a reasonable analogy. The film even comes with a catalogue which helps viewers make sense of the interwoven narratives and recurring characters. This is a useful supplement because many viewers will find the movie as confusing as anything one might see at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Turning is a brave, perhaps unique, experiment in film-making, featuring what is probably the greatest array of Australian talent ever to appear in a single movie. The list of stars includes Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne and Richard Roxburgh, although nobody gets more than a few minutes. If The Turning were only two hours long, it might have been a more palatable proposition. At three hours, it puts the viewer’s patience to the test. One suspects that even Tim Winton’s greatest fans will find themselves counting off the chapters.

The actual length of the film is less of a problem than the difficulty of absorbing 17 mini-narratives in which we have to constantly reacquaint ourselves with the characters. We are dimly aware of the links between stories, but the range of different approaches creates a set of puzzles. The most avant-garde part of the process is that the same character may be played by several different actors who don’t bear the slightest resemblance to one another.

The central protagonist, Vic Lang, is played by eight separate actors, who range from indigenous (Joseph Pedley) to a carrot-top (Matthew Shanley). His mother, Carol, is played by Susie Porter, Di Adams and Robyn Nevin. As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the sequences also leap about in time.

The mixed-up chronology is also a feature of Winton’s book, but at least readers are able to form a single image of Vic Lang and the other characters. Winton provides a lot of information that some of the directors choose to omit. The most radical refashioning is Yaron Lifschitz’s ‘Immunity’, which becomes a wordless dance sequence, but there is a general tendency to simplify. In ‘Long, Clear View’, Mia Wasikowska shows the young Vic aiming a rifle at unsuspecting passers-by, but removes the background to this scene. The effect is to make Vic’s actions seem psychotic rather than motivated by genuine fears. He might have stepped out of a novel by Albert Camus rather than Tim Winton. Tony Ayres does something similar in ‘Cockleshell’, where we feel a much stronger sense of unspoken trauma in the character of the taciturn girl, Agnes.

A few directors add material, perhaps to compensate for  internal monologues in the book that hardly lend themselves to the cinema. Two of the straightest interpretations: Claire McCarthy’s ‘The Turning’, and Simon Stone’s ‘Reunion’, are probably the most dramatically effective. In the former, Rose Byrne gets the best role in the entire production, playing Rae, a battered wife and bogan, who finds Jesus in a snow dome. ‘Reunion’, which stars Blanchett, Roxburgh and Nevin, has a comic, joyous quality unlike anything else in the film.

J.D.Salinger was horrified by the way Hollywood adapted one of his short stories, but Winton has shown no controlling tendencies. He has given his blessing to this enterprise, and is happy for each director to impose their vision on his work. Watching the movie he may even have felt that his stories might have benefited from some paring back. The key, for both writer and director, is to give the viewer enough information to follow the narrative but not so much that it closes down the space for imagination.

It’s a delicate balance that may be upset by one unnecessary sentence, but in a long, long film, with so many different voices those moments come and go like figures jumping on and off a bus. There is no still point in this turning, suburban world.

There is an equally delicate balance in telling the story of a porn star in a movie that barely warrants an MA rating. Indeed, it’s hard to know what sort of thinking lies behind Lovelace, a bio pic about the star of Deep Throat (1972) -  a movie that had a remarkable impact on the mainstream culture of the 1970s. The novelty of Deep Throat was that it was virtually the first hard-core porn film to run at the same length as a mainsteam movie, with an actual plot and high-end production values. Or so the story goes. In fact it was congenial trash that fitted in with those countercultural values of sexual liberation, as epoused by figures such as Hugh Hefner.

The commericial prospects of Lovelace rest with a large potential audience titillated by the prospect of watching a movie about the porn industry. The justification – one hesitates to say moral justification – lies with a quasi-feminist exposé of the way Linda Boreman, (AKA. Lovelace), was exploited by her sleazebag husband, Chuck Traynor, and the movie-makers.

Exploitation is not hard to spot when one learns that Deep Throat reputedly grossed US$600 million, while its star was paid US$1,250. It becomes more problematic in the accounts Lovelace gave of her experiences, in which she claimed to have been forced at gun point to perform sex acts on film. There is general agreement that Chuck Traynor was a sadist and a bully, but most of the people who were involved with the movie are scornful of Lovelace’s account.

Lovelace’s career as an actress was brief but tumultuous, being restricted to two features and a handful of shorts. After the publication of her tell-all autobiography, Ordeal (1980), she became an ardent anti-porn campaigner on the college lecture circuit. When she died in as a result of a car accident in 2004, she was leading a settled life as a wife and mother in Denver.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedmann have used Ordeal as the basis for this film, which portrays Lovelace as a nice girl from a devout Catholic family, who allows herself to be seduced and manipulated by the wrong man. They avoid the most inflammatory accusations but still portray the abusive Traynor as less of a husband than a pimp.

Amanda Seyfried is a peculiar choice to play Linda Lovelace. Not only does she look entirely different, despite the fluffed-up 70s hair-do, but her big-eyed ‘girl next door’ demeanour is the antithesis of Lovelace’s lean and rather hard features. Seyfried is cute – a word that could never have been applied to Lovelace. Even topless she looks like she should be cuddling a puppy or eating ice cream.

Lovelace comes across as nothing more than a telemovie that has fluked a theatrical release. The plot is thin and unconvincing for a supposedly true story. The screenplay is pedestrian, and there is no attempt to escape the heavy-hand cliché of the good-hearted girl who falls in with bad company. The first part is all fun and games, the second is ghastly recrimination.

One of the curiosities of the film is that it features Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck, and Bobby Cannavale as Deep Throat producer, Butchie Perraino. Both may currently be seen playing very different roles in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. This will be slightly mind-bending for cinema-goers moving from one film to another, though we can at least be thankful that Cate Blanchett was not prevailed upon to play Linda Lovelace.

 

Tim Winton’s The Turning, Australia, rated MA, 181 mins

Lovelace, USA, rated MA, 92 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 28, 2013

 

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