Acute Misfortune

(Thomas M. Wright, Australia, 2018)


I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again: in 1995, I attended a media preview at the Kino cinema in Melbourne of Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible. Only a handful of people were present at that session, and wandering out into the foyer at the end I realised that one of them was the singer-songwriter Nick Cave. At the same moment, an obviously rabid fan of his clearly experienced the same click of recognition. This guy raced up to the wary Cave and blurted out: “So, Nick … what did you think of the film?” The celebrity replied sotto voce: “Well, I liked its message”. The fan was thrown by that, and demanded to further know: “The message? … What was the message?” Cave looked at him if he were a prize idiot and responded: “ Well, you know, the message is … Life is Shit”.


At that precise second, around 15 years of culture, local and international, short-circuited in my brain. All the people I had known – artists, students, writers, magazine editors – who worshipped William Burroughs, Céline, David Cronenberg … and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Drugs, sex & violence, pain, noise music, nihilism, transgression! “Death-driven”, to put a Freudian term to it – and with peppered theory infusions from Georges Bataille & co. (as in the critical writings of Jack Sargeant). In the Australian context, having by then lived in the inner-cities of both Melbourne and Sydney, I had observed, at close quarters, an ephemeral late ‘80s underground wave of hardcore “industrial culture” post-punk style (in music, design, the Super-8 avant-garde, poetic “small magazine” writing); and then, in the ‘90s, a solid, overground swell of so-called grunge joining many fronts, including best-selling novels (such as Andrew McGahan’s Praise, Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia and Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded), commercially released films, and frequently-curated, award-winning art (sculpture, painting, performance).


About the former, ‘80s moment, I had briefly polemicised (against it, mostly, although I could never get away from its presence all around me) – and, for my troubles on that score, I heard myself parodied on stage in a song semi-improvised by a pack of conceptual-thrill jokers (subversive types who, in some cases, later took a rather corporate, institutional or mainstream turn in life). One lesson arising from all this bohemian living is simple: if you hang around people who take drugs any harder than plain old weed, you are bound to encounter this eternal cult of “dark side” cultural worship. At the time, all throughout the ‘80s, the sleek volumes of V. Vale’s RE/Search magazine seemed to sum up this particular vibe – with their ingenious montages of J.G. Ballard and Z-grade movies, Throbbing Gristle and Octave Mirbeau, Burroughs and Henry Rollins. It was an intoxicating brew, even if (like me) you “ideologically” itched to dissociate yourself from it.


By 1995, however, I had disconnected, in sensibility and sociality, from the grey, putrid fog of grunge. But, checking back through what I still have on my bookshelves today, almost 25 years on, I see that, at least in artworld terms, I knew quite a few people who were then swimming, even basking, in its mainstream resurgence: in and around the art school milieu of that decade, top-level critics like Ted Colless, then-budding journalists like Andrew Frost, hopeful publishing entrepreneurs like Ashley Crawford, and emerging media-culture scholars like Catherine Lumby were all, at some level or other, singing the praises of those hard, brutal, ugly truths of a new, savage kind of artistic expression. And Adam Cullen (1965-2012), the subject of Acute Misfortune, was at the eye of this particular storm.


Savage, expressionistic art, wild slashes of paint on canvas – but underwritten by the wily irrationality of Antonin Artaud. Now, in my own experience, I travel back to the earliest point of this history as I lived it: at the very start of the 1980s, there was a rather bogus but mediatically effective “war”, cooked up by various parties, between the representatives of the “new Pop Art” (I was with them), high on Warhol, American B-movies and Roland Barthes; and a bunch of “neo-expressionists”, an aggressive and drunken art-school lot (as I recall them) who liked to paint big and loud (David Larwill became the best known of that pack). It was, in the local Melbourne tags and labels of the time, “Popism vs. Roar Gallery”, or something equally silly. Not long later, the lines blurred and sometimes very forced rapproachments were made; but a certain “return to painting” (or return of painting), allied with an often obscure philosophical agenda, more-or-less emerged triumphant, in figures such as Dale Frank, Tony Clark and ‘70s performance-art survivor Mike Parr. In fact, it was at an arts festival seminar circa 1983 that I probably first heard a demure, influential curator sigh and actually giggle in public under the spell of this raw but cryptic art: “It confronts me with things … that I would rather not think about!”


But let’s think about Acute Misfortune and its emergence in the cinemas of 2019. It’s based on the book by Erik Jensen, who is incarnated in the film by Toby Wallace. Jensen, a hot-shot journalist at age 19 (and today, all of 30, chief editor of Melbourne’s Morry Schwartz-powered Saturday Paper), was invited by Cullen (here well played by Daniel Henshall) in 2008 to write the artist’s biography, on the basis of an appreciative review-profile that Jensen had already published. Beware of art criticism! Royally sucked-in over the course of the next four years – Cullen turned out to be a compulsive liar-fabulist on almost every point and at every conceivable level – Jensen found himself variously thrown off a motor bike, shot (and left to dig out the bullet-pellets himself), spied on in creepy ways, psychologically abused, cajoled and generally menaced by the artist and his animal-shooting, drug-dealing mates. Women are conspicuously absent from the Cullen empire of savage culture.


What does the director Thomas M. Wright (co-scriptwriter with Jensen, and actor in many previous things) do with this story material? Before getting to that, let’s consider what the film is not. It’s not about any of the microscopic artworld contexts of intrigue that I’ve so far mentioned – apart from a fairly generic “anxious art dealer” figure looming at the edges, there’s nothing about the 1990s milieux of art school, the salivating critics, or the diverse “movements” (such as grunge or “scrounge” art) with which Cullen was, at one time or another, associated. The film kicks off, effectively, at the beginning of the end: eight years past the “Archie” (Archibald) portrait award that made him a highly marketable star, Cullen has entered a deadly, self-destructive spiral of drugs, ill health, lack of hygiene, and other invariably disgusting behaviours.


You could say that, by this point, and all the way to his inglorious-bastard death, Cullen lives out the myth he clearly craved for himself: to ascend or descend to the position of Bad Boy artist of the Dark Side, junkie, nihilist, misanthrope (and, more acutely, misogynist), an unholy stew of Van Gogh and Brett Whiteley, Goya and Burroughs, Dostoevsky and Jackson Pollock – firing guns to splatter paint on canvases and throwing off bon mots for his shorthand-taking biographer like: “There’s nothing in history that you can’t find in the suburbs”. Real life is elsewhere, say the intellectual theorists and philosophers … but no, mate, it’s right here! (Here is a real-life flashback: a drug-taking hardcore music fiend lecturing in my face in 1982, spreading spittle and inadvertently quoting Uncle Charlie from Shadow of a Doubt  [1943]: “It’s all happening in these suburban houses, the real reality is right here, if you could just tear off their facades and see the pus …”.)


Does Acute Misfortune celebrate this black, demonic reversal of the Male Artist Genius image? Not likely; the guy is on the skids from the start, and what little art we see him scratch out in his last years is way below par. Is it about – in a tradition of the notable artist portraits or biopics by Jacques Becker, Robert Altman, Julian Schnabel and others – the cynical vultures of the art market, hovering to cash in over the artist’s dead body? No, the film steers away even from the inescapable irony that Cullen’s own quoted diatribe on this point – “They want me dead! Count the art dealers at my funeral!” – finds its queasy correspondence or fulfilled prophecy in the existence of Acute Misfortune itself both as book and movie phenomenon.


But what is it about, then? Why tell this particular “decline and fall of the artist” tale? It’s intriguing (even instructive) to recall the clever, salutary way that Jensen’s book begins: as an email exchange with Dale Frank, a friend of Cullen in the latter’s peak years of creativity in the ‘90s, who essentially refuses to be part of the reporter’s dubious/suspicious project of possible hagiography – and who claims, with brutal but admirable candour, that Cullen was, after all, just another one of the very many shining art students of that era, looking to make his way in that world by whatever opportunistic means necessary …


Wright has tackled Acute Misfortune not as an artist biopic (of whatever selective or fragmented kind) but as a two-hander drama – the story of a relationship between two men. On that level, it is almost a kind of intimacy thriller: why does Jensen stick around for all this punishment? Beyond the gruesome, sadomasochistic push-and-pull of their co-dependent bond (one needs his legend written, the other needs a story to write, like in Best Seller [1987]), Wright pushes for a kind of “sentimental education”, or at least an emotional-psychological arc of development, in the Jensen character. To that end – and to avoid the inherent “passive blank” that can result at the centre of film adaptations of eyewitness-observer/recording-angel literary accounts, such as happened with Michel Hazanavicius’s pulverisation of Anne Wiazemsky’s autobiographical memoirs into Le Redoutable (aka Godard mon amour, 2017) – Jensen is given a callow-young-jerk backstory at the start, some fragments of family and working life (in particular, an older, no-nonsense female mentor played by Gillian Jones) along the path, and an obsessive life-raft prop (his shorthand notebook, forever on display in frame). There’s also a faint note of Hitchcockian “ironic reversal” or transference in the slow-reveal of the painting Cullen makes of Jensen at their first meeting (the film´s final shot, laboriously obscured until then); and the dropped hint that Cullen may have had some severe, self-deforming problems with repressed homo- or bi-sexuality. Not quite convincingly portrayed is a crucial factor insisted upon in the book: the artist’s charm, which only peeks through here in the clumsily handled scene of Jensen’s 21st birthday party. (By the way, the film does wield a momentary film/reality frisson in its casting of the artist’s second cousin, well-known actor Max Cullen, as his father.)


Curiously, in place of an artworld intertext (of the kind I’ve mentioned above), Wright provides a filmic one, a veritable Great Aussie Cinematic Tradition. How much this is justified by documented facts, I can’t say, but Acute Misfortune goes for it all-out: the nihilistic-dark-side-toxic-blokes-in-living-hell tradition that leads from the animal slaughter in Wake in Fright  (1971) to the murdering families of Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders, 2011) or Animal Kingdom (2010) via what is, stylistically, the Big Daddy of them all (and itself connected to the ‘80s Sydney art scene evoked above), Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998) – which, here, Cullen (portrait-painter of its star, David Wenham) appears to know by heart. This is more than a handy, adjacent, shorthand reference for Wright: it’s the key to the thick, jagged, moody, mumblecore-ish, immersive-subjectivity style to which he himself aspires as a filmmaker.


The Boys-own style is what makes Acute Misfortune both initially intriguing and, finally, a rather claustrophobic and limited dramatic experience. Down-into-the-hole nihilism becomes its own justification as powerful screen spectacle: this is the temptation to which so many filmmakers (from Uli Edel in Last Exit to Brooklyn [1989], adapting another impeccably grunge literary classic, to Gary Oldman in Nil By Mouth  [1997]) have succumbed. For some curious reason, it’s a place to where artist biopics often want to take us – madness growing in the close space between painter and canvas or sculptor and material – and the best, most complex ones dip in there but then pull focus at another, broader level, whether to evoke social swirls of pressure (as in Peter WatkinsEdvard Munch, 1974) or the tight little art-communities of intersubjective binds and breakdowns (as in Ed Harris’ underrated Pollock  [2000], or Maurice Pialat’s sublime Van Gogh [1990]). Finally, you want a little more than the only fleetingly and joltingly edifying Nick’s (not Plato’s) Cave message that Life is Shit.

© Adrian Martin 30 May 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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