FADED REFLECTIONS AND CONTEMPORARY PROJECTIONS: THE 57TH ANNUAL EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

“YOUNG ADAM” ^ SCOTLAND, 2003 – UN-RATED – 98 MINUTES – 4 STARS
Yet another flickershow from Sigma Films, and another good ‘un at that.
“Young Adam” is the new Ewan McGregor vehicle and, for the record and for the ladies, yes, he does get his cock out: he must have a special ‘lightsaber flasher’ clause built into every contract he signs for adult movies. Reminds me of Dennis Pennis (this faux comedic celebrity interviewer on this side of the Atlantic from a few years back who would ask stars the most ridiculously insulting questions for laughs) asking Demi Moore that, if the script and price were right, would she keep her clothes on in a film?
(Brief aside here. I bumped into Irvine Welsh at the EIFF two years ago at a screening of “Ghost World.” Walking back into the city center with him, I told him that they were making a film of “Young Adam,” which he didn’t know at the time. I said it was a good book, and he agreed: “It’s jist aboot this cunt on a barge,” he said, which I think will make a great adline for the filmmakers in America if they want to use it.)
This new, dark, existential effort is based on the novel of the same name by (now deceased) writer Alexander Trocchi, the only Scottish writer to hang out with the Beat Poets. Pornographer, literary magazine editor, barge-hand, Scotland’s first registered smackhead (oh, what a proud boast!) and wife-pimper-for-heroin, ole Trocchi certainly was a card. A man of fearsome intellect, he left narrow-minded parochial Scotland in the 50s to hit France and hang out with Sartre, Beckett, Burroughs and other literary giants. Writing sex novels for money, he blazed an opiate trail across the world, nodding out on couches from France to America to Scotland, never fully fulfilling his potential as a writer of genuine talent.
“Young Adam” (directed by the talented David McKenzie, who directed the excellent The Last Great Wilderness, which screened at last year’s EIFF) is obviously a labor of love for Sigma Films. They have taken the name of their company from a personal project of Trocchi’s. To quote from the scattershot bio book ‘A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi’:
“The focal point of (Trocchi’s) activity in the early Sixties was project sigma, an organization of a worldwide linking up of intellectuals, poets and writers to effect a revolutionary transformation of Western Society. The methods deployed by sigma are eclectic, ranging from the setting up of sigma centers (free universities) to participation in global chain-letters (Potlach), from architectural projects (shadow cities) to developing new forms of publishing (cards/billboards).”
To which you could obviously now add making films. Trocchi was nothing if not ambitious, eh? ‘Shadow cities’…that just sounds so cool. He and his half-forgotten literary oeuvre have been undergoing a bit of a critical resurgence in Scotland over the last few years, after the reprinting of some of his books and the biography the above quote comes from, and he is now regarded as a slumbering-but-waking literary giant in hipster wordslinger quarters.
Young Adam is an odd novel. An existential tale about a disturbed young man on a barge on the Forth & Clyde Canal (which runs between Glasgow and Edinburgh), it was first published by French publisher Maurice Girodias under his legendary Olympia Press imprint. Girodias, a publisher of both pulp sex novels and high brow literature (Naked Lunch, Lolita) that other publishers were afraid of, demanded at first that Trocchi insert many sex scenes into the book to titillate his faithful stable of readers (numbering people like JG Ballard amongst them).
This he did, and it was published as an existential bodice-ripper! The surplus sex scenes (if indeed such things exist) were excised for later publication, but the final printing – and the one currently widely available – had one shocking custard-inspired ‘rape’ scene inserted back into it. This scene is currently in the film. More on which in a minute or two, because this is a scene which has caused a lot of controversy, and I find it hilarious – for my own reasons.
Okay. Lost the plot Graham, get back to it. The film stars off with barge-worker Joe (McGregor) and his boss Leslie (an excellent-as-usual Peter Mullan) dragging the drowned naked body of a young woman out of the canal. Turned on by this discovery (something made much more explicit in the book, which highlights a major problem with bringing existential literature to the screen – you can only hint at what’s going on in a character’s head a lot of the time, and the necrophiliac subtext to some of the sex in the book is lost on the screen – but maybe that’s no bad thing) Joe starts an affair with the barge owner’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and Leslie slings his hook.
Joe has had a past relationship with the dead woman and is appalled when an innocent man is arrested for her supposed murder, which Joe knows has not been murder at all, merely a tragic accident. Should he give himself up to the police and risk hanging? It’s a dilemma Joe is confronted with, grappling with conscience until…
…you see the film and find out the end for yourself.
Now. This is an extremely well made film, all moody dark shots of canals and an industrial Scotland now vanished into the mists of time forever. Looking at this set-up in my country decades ago from a contemporary post-industrial viewpoint was weird, like a grimy picture postcard glimpse into the time of my parents and, more properly, my grandparents. It’s incredible to think that Scotland was once like that, no constant electronic buynsell bombast and jobs better than working in a fucking call center. It was a hard time, no doubt about that, but in some ways better. And in other ways worse – let’s not romanticize it too much.
Shit, I dunno. Reaching here for words that don’t exist. It made me think, that’s all.
As befits an adaptation of a sex novel (heard it called ‘sexistentialist’ which seems quite appropriate) there are many sex scenes in the film, and fairly explicit ones at that. McGregor performs cunnilingus on Swinton in a scene that you can (ack!) smell and taste, and then there is…that ‘rape’ scene.
As I said earlier, that scene was (ahem) inserted into a later edition of “Young Adam,” and is really only there to spice things up a bit. Wannabe-writer Joe (something we don’t find out until late in the book and film, which is a failing to me, although we do see numerous shots of him reading on the barge) sits at home chasing his muse when his girlfriend of the time, Cathie, a beautiful young woman (with a truly amazing body – she was sexy as hell) comes home from work.
Pissed off and wet through from a walk home from work in the rain, she asks him what he has been doing all day. He replies that he has been making custard. She replies that he knows what he can do with his custard. To which he replies, well, I know what I’m gonna do with it, and tips it over the by-now half-naked Cathie. He then proceeds to tip various sauces over her before paddling her ass with a piece of wood and then fucking her hard. Later on we see them post-cum-and-custard curled up together in domestic bliss, in ‘indulge-the-crazy-writer-and-his-wacky-nonsense’ fashion.
So let’s examine that scene. We have a topless woman in stockings having custard thrown across her before being spanked and fucked. What does that sound like to you? That’s right…it’s a straight fetish scene, and never mind all this chin scratching on the ‘meaning’ of the scene. It comes out of a sex novel after all…have people forgotten this? It’s hilarious! Once again, a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.
“Young Adam” was the film opening the EIFF this year. I found it hilarious that Jack McConnell, Scottish New Labour First Minister, was in attendance, sitting watching existential custard-smeared fetish sex. Then again, that sleazy bastard (from a worthless insane government of sleazy lying bastards) who has been caught with his pants down before, probably got a hard-on and some new ways to go home and fuck his wife. And mistress.
Trocchi would have been proud.
And on that note my tired-eyed reader…that’s me shot my load for this year. But I hope it wasn’t too uninteresting a ride – after all you got sex, drugs, custard, Jackie Chan, booze, suicide, illegal immigrants, auto-mutilation and blue guitar-playing aliens for nothing. What more do you want? And I do realize I mighta painted a fairly grim picture of contemporary Scotland. Well, that’s just the way it truly is, at least from my own jaundiced lizard’s-eye-view perspective. Sure you could get many others.
In fact, if any of you single ladies in other countries are looking for a 33-year-old Scot with a vocabulary and an attitude…gimme a call. I’m sure we can work something out marriage-wise. We’ll make a heartwarming film about our international nuptials, cheering up Scottish cinema at the same time. We can then appear at the festival in a year or two as the talk of the town and let some other guttersniper do the bitching.
Next move’s yours…
Onwards…

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Posted on August 29, 2003 in Festivals by
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