Junkworld

I watched some films. What they have in common is that they are less-famous works by celebrated writer/directors. There are also some thematic similarities.

Light Sleeper (1991), written and directed by Paul Schrader, starts right on the streets of New York. A very 80s soft rock soundtrack plays over them.

The streets are clogged with piles of garbage at every corner and by every lamp post, and most places in between. The sanitation workers are on strike throughout the duration of the story and the result of them not doing their jobs leaves all the scum and unpleasantness of this city in plain sight.

Willem Dafoe is John Le Tour, a recovered drug addict who now looks respectable but is employed in a partnership with Ann (played by Susan Sarandon) and Robert. Their business is drugs, supplying them to high-class customers. Ann is management, Robert does the basic admin and John has to be the courier, taking the product out in a limo for delivery to various smart people in smart places whilst looking smart, even if he has to step over garbage to get in amongst the garbage.

He lives quite well in an old apartment block, trying to write his own memoirs and meditations, though perhaps some of the garbage in the alley outside is from him periodically throwing his notebooks away.

Ann talks of getting out of the drug business and concentrating on her other career as a cosmetics entrepeneur, but John is smart enough to know this isn’t going to happen. Meeting up with his old girlfriend Marianne, who has also been clean of drugs for the past few years, and getting on with a respectable living, gets him wondering what he’s going to do. Does he want to carry on hanging around with the deadbeats like that guy who calls himself Jealous, played by young Sam Rockwell.

But nothing could ever be simple and one of the gang’s sleazy customers does a bad thing that John can’t turn away from, even if he didn’t have a homicide detective on to him to turn informer. His therapist can’t help him much, and so he has to go to a rather down-market venue than he’s used to, in order to buy a second-hand gun in case he needs it.

It all curves around to a short and nasty climax, and John is exhausted with his whole life and quite happy to quit this city and go away for a while.

The best character in this film is the city itself, caught between the 80s and 90s, the world that American Psycho (published that year) was describing. The figures in the foreground are animated scenery and they can feel it, that’s their problem.

For more figures in a landscape, we turn to Quintet (1979), Robert Altman’s attempt at post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

No date is given on when this New Ice Age has started, but we see enough debris of 20th century culture to suggest it might not be too far in to the 21st. The time one of the characters describes a dream about being with her mother it seems the memory is of a world like ours. The physical structures in this ice-land appear to be the decaying remains of what were the most advanced citadels of our civilisation, now falling in to ruins where dogs maul at the corpses lying amongst the rubbish in the streets, or rather corridors (it seems the cities are single enclosed structures like shopping centres).

The image is always blurred around the edges, perhaps to suggest this is all seen from a single perspective – a dream sequence? No explanation is given. Maybe it just represents the frosting everywhere in the deep cold, that caused everyone to wear furs and one character to enjoy sticking her hand in fire.

Decoration in this metropolis includes large black & white reproductions of what looks like mid century photo-journalism, as well as odd sculptures and religious murals.

The people in these places are dressed in quasi-medieval costumes and are either the struggling traders and workers we see scuttling in the background, or the privileged elite who seem to do nothing except play the board game of Quintet, at home or in the great casino.

In to this world comes Essex (played by Paul Newman), who travelled south for a few years to try to survive as a hunter there, but is now coming back again to the city, with his younger pregnant partner Vivia. He goes to the shattered remains of the data centre to find his way about. How it got shattered is one of many obscurities in this world.

He meets up with his brother, but is soon drawn in to the murderous conspiracies around the great Quintet tournament. These over-privileged wasters have nothing to live for but the most destructive and self-destructive extremes, and nothing can fill the void. It would be better if they didn’t take up any of the void at all, they’re just getting in the way of the ruined city, which once again is the best character on screen. We only get to see it in terribly dull TV movie style direction and with an orchestral soundtrack just as tiresome and intrusive as the 80s rock that was dogging John Le Tour everywhere. The cast are usually delivering their lines in that dreadful Hollywood-does-Shakespeare portentousness that you can hear in the medieval section of the original Westworld; when they drop out of that they just sound like Americans of 1979, with no effort to suggest any cultural development. This could have been a dreamland of mystery or it could have been a hard sci-fi yarn with a detailed backstory of how we got to there from here. It fails to be either, and I would have preferred the former as there are enough ideas in the visual design to make a real enigma. An empty city silently unfolding to the solitary traveller whose reality we can also doubt. A city containing strange messages, such as the one in the picture at the start.

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