Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Passion of Darkly Noon


I am still touring Appalachia in my sumptuous fuchsia motor home, filming bits for the American Dairy Council’s What a Friend We Have in Cheeses campaign. We have moved on from Kentucky to West Virginia where we are using a natural bridge across a gorge as our next location. I am to dangle from a rope beneath it (which will later be digitally erased) doing a lovely aerial ballet while the back-up dancers form a kick line on the bridge singing Roquefort of Ages. I smell a Clio award. My choreography is something to behold, a sort of Cirque de Soleil meets The Matrix which will show off the lovely gauzy draperies I’m wearing, tie-dyed to represent Blue Cheese.

Miguel, my driver cum masseur, has been most helpful this trip. Not only does he make a wonderful Cuervo Gold Margarita, but he is also a whiz with a needle or an iron. He was able to remove the coal dust stains from my Monterey Jack robes with a little club soda and it’s hanging freshly pressed in the wardrobe. He also added several new layers of lace trim to my favorite peignoir during the night. Now if I could just keep him from wearing it. He’s busy maneuvering the motorhome along the back roads of Mercer County at the moment, dodging the coal trucks and the occasional stray dog. He’s really quite a good driver but the swerving does cause me to spill my drink rather more than I would like.

As we won’t be on location for several more hours, I have had time to sit back and relax with a film. The rooftop cable dish is somewhat limited in its reception here in the hills but I was able to pick up Showtime for a few hours and caught the 1997 film, The Passion of Darkly Noon with Brendan Fraser and Ashley Judd. This is the second film from writer/director Philip Ridley, following his 1990 debut, The Reflecting Skin. That film was a somewhat incoherent, but watchable, mess involving possible vampirism. This film is an incoherent and somewhat less watchable mess that wants to make significant symbolic statements about religion, but which loses them in lovely photography of giant glitter disco shoes floating on mountain lakes.

Brendan Fraser plays Darkly Noon, an escapee from the massacre of a fundamentalist Christian religious commune. This Koreshian backstory is not seen, but alluded to throughout. It’s referred to in somewhat heightened terms making it difficult to understand whether this was a literal or a metaphorical incident. In fact, the cast is so busy dealing in both verbal and visual metaphor, that it’s impossible to decide what is real and what exists only the characters’ minds. It’s also not possible to decide if we’re dealing with modern society or some otherworld parallel dimension. Anyway, young Darkly wanders off into the woods (very much a metaphor), fleeing his persecutors. He collapses and is found by the local undertaker’s assistant (Loren Dean) who befriends him. He takes him to the isolated home of young Callie (Ashley Judd). Callie is supposed to be an ethereal free spirit, existing outside the bounds of conventional society so she is, of course, played by one of the most earthy of young actresses. Callie nurses Darkly back to health and he is soon in competition with her boyfriend Clay (Viggo Mortensen), a mute woodworker who makes the coffins for the undertaker. Darkly is torn between his lust for Callie and his puritanical upbringing and when he meets Roxy (Grace Zabriskie), a crazy older woman who lives in a trailer even farther back in the woods, he starts to snap. He’s egged on by Roxy’s railings against Callie (she’s Clay’s estranged mother and she thinks Callie bewitched him.) Soon the triangle is headed for an inevitable violent conclusion in which people are painting themselves red, burning houses down, and running around with shotguns.

Philip Ridley has a gifted visual eye. The photography of the forest is lovely and he uses painterly compositions that are, on occasion, exquisitely beautiful. Unfortunately, he undermines himself with his insistence on using portentous symbolism throughout. Subtlety is not his strong point. His talented cast were obviously drawn to his archetypal characters and to the violence of the emotions espoused by them in key scenes. They make the best of the material but can only go so far before the whole thing starts to resemble a college acting class exercise rather than a fully realized feature film. In the central role, Brendan Fraser does his best to express his inner conflicts. His lines are underwritten so he does much with his body language, especially his hands. Some of the scenes between him and Viggo Mortensen, in particular, are actually quite good as, given the muteness of Viggo’s character, much must be done strictly with eyes and hands. The weakest of the cast is Ashley Judd; her Callie, dressed in scanty gingham prints, wants to be a woodland nymph, freed from conventional mores. However, she comes across as an out of place truck stop waitress. I kept expecting her to call everyone ‘hon’ and start offering them coffee warm-ups and another order of fries.

I must admit, that even as I was shaking my head in disbelief, I could not bring myself to turn the film off and return to something more constructive, like cuticle care. Even a truly rancid scene, centering on the undertaker (Lou Myers) who emotes like Richard Dreyfuss as Richard III in The Goodbye Girl, kept me entertained in a rather horrific way. The film is a bit like an accident on the interstate. You can’t help but rubberneck. I wouldn’t go out of the way looking for it but there are worse things to do with your time, like ironing.

Ancient pictographs with anachronistic horses. Trailer living. Naked Brendan Fraser. Semi naked Ashley Judd. Semi naked Viggo Mortensen. Ants on face. Gratuitous dog funeral. Symbolic disco shoes (assorted sizes). Burning bedroom. Gratuitous circus elephant.

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