Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day 124: “ The mad story of a true man”

Sean Penn is a rare talent, of that there is no question. As an actor and director, he has already established himself as not only the consummate professional in his field but a man with a conscience too.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is one of the most heartbreaking films I know. Based on “true life events”, it’s the story of Samuel J. Bicke (Penn), a 44 year-old “everyman” who in 1974 “wants to believe in something...anything”, but through circumstances that continually thwart, frustrate and undermine him, is eventually driven to plot, and attempt to carry out, the assassination of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States of America.

At the beginning of the story, Sam Bicke is separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and their three young children. He no longer works in his brother’s tyre company because he could not be the “lying” salesman his brother, Julius, demanded he be. Instead, Sam Bicke has been tipped out of the frying pan and into the fire of a family run office furniture business, headed up by the conscienceless bully that is Jack Jones (Jack Thompson). Jones offers the stuggling Bicke, Nixon as a role model:

Jack Jones: “What was Nixon’s sales pitch in ’68. He said he would end the war. He would get us out of Vietnam. And what did he do? He sent another one hundred thousand troops in and he bombed the living shit out of them, that’s what he did. What did Nixon run on last year? Ending the war in Vietnam. And he won, by a landslide. That is a salesman. He made a promise, he didn’t deliver and then he sold us on the exact, same promise, all over again. That’s believin‘ in yourself.”

Time after time I want to look away from the screen when watching this film, it’s that painful to witness Sam Bicke’s journey and struggle, and what I’m witnessing is the disintegration of a human being, his hopes and dreams and his belief in the word. This film is searingly chilling in a way that very few horror films can ever aspire to be.

Sam Bicke chose to reveal all his thoughts and feelings in a correspondence to the great American composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein - because his music is pure - which affords the film the opportunity of a beautiful sountdrack to leaven, counterpoint and echo the agony of what we see Bicke wrestle with. The slow movemnet from Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, conducted by Bersntein and listened to over and over again by the protagonist, weaves it’s way, around and throughout the story and is worth the ticket/rental price of the movie alone.

On the “making of” short film that comes with the DVD package, the director and co-writer says that there are “great films” about today, but no so many “thoughtful” ones, films that “cause discussion and debate” afterwards. My belief. is that he’s right and wrong. I agree in that thoughtful films are hard to come by but I disagree on the subject of apres-film discussion. Mckee offers that when we’ve seen a film that has proundly moved us, it silences us, there is - for a moment at least - nothing that we can say, whilst we are left alone with our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

There isn’t much I want to chat about, immediately after watching The Assassination of Richard Nixon, I am silenced.

Day #124 Tip: The Pathetic Plot
Working my way through the archetypal story/plot forms - as outlined by Norman Friedman (‘Form and Meaning in Fiction’, University of George Press, 1975) - we come to The Pathetic Plot.

The word “pathetic” might have a bad rap these days; it’s origin lies in the 16th century in the sense of “affecting the emotions”, via Latin from the Greek, pathetikos, based on pathos, ‘suffering’.

The story at the heart of The Assassination of Richard Nixon might lie somewhere between The Disillusionment Plot and The Pathetic Plot, but what drew my attention to the latter was this, in Friedman’s words: “...such a plot is a favourite of those works where a brooding sense of human frailty and futility pervades the whole, leaving one with a feeling of pity, sorrow and loss in the face of the inscrutable steamroller of circumstances crushing the mewling kitten of human hopes. Sometimes, however, a certain ambiguity lingers over these works as we are not sure whether it is in fact society or nature which has done the protagonist in. If it is society, then we are not left with the melancholy satisfaction of that’s the way things are, but rather with a disturbing sense of what’s-to-be-done?”

The run-up and campaigning to a Federal election is taking place here in Australia as I write this. I don’t know whether the candidates I’m being offered are selling me their lies, but I do know that they avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question, they obfuscate, dodge, duck and love blaming each other.

Indeed, what is to be done?

I can’t recommend study and application of these archetypal story forms enough and whilst Norman Friedman’s book is almost impossible to get hold of, Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ is equally as useful and imperative a writer’s manual, and in most bookshops today.

Tomorrow the ‘plot’ thickens.

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