Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: The Eternity Man

The Eternity Man
Dir. Julien Temple
Year: 2008
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 63mins

Julien Temple's The Eternity is a not a movie one should watch if they enjoy the delights of plot, dialogue or subtlety. If, instead, you enjoy your movies to be all pyrotechnics and razzle dazzle mise-en-scène then perhaps it is for you. And even then you will have to get past the singing. Oh yes, there will be singing. I will be the first to admit that opera isn't exactly "my thing", but I can handle it all well and good in small doses and if, ya know, performed well. And yet while I can't call myself a particularly good judge of what makes one opera good and another bad, I must say I found the nauseating operatic warblings in The Eternity Man to be an insufferable mess.

Starting with a ten minute long sequence that recalls the opening passages of Baz Luhrmann's equally radical musical Moulin Rouge! that features Christa Hughes decked out as a 1920s flapper gal in Sydney's Luna Park, Temple's film feels as if it is trying to assault your senses with as many bizarre images as possible. At only 65 minutes in length the film has less time than usual to show its images, and yet there are enough shoved in here to last a good half an hour more. I actually enjoyed this opening stretch. I found myself admiring the beautiful costume work of Wendy Cork (this being her first foray into period costumes) and the production design by Felicity Abbott. It was crazy and vaudeville, but I liked it nonetheless.

Unfortunately, then the story kicked in. The Eternity Man follows the story of Arthur Stace, a reckless drunk, who converts to a life of God and, for the rest of his days, writes the word "eternity" in chalk all over Sydney. International readers would be surprised - and perhaps even a few locals too - to learn that this is actually a true story and that the mysterious graffiti (as it was called) was once seen as a pest to the city until in the year 2000 when it was emblazoned on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in New Years Eve fireworks.

To say there's not much plot to the film is putting it lightly, but Temple more than makes up for that with his bravura visual design. Cinematographer Mark Wareham (Clubland) does a wonderful job in recreating eras and atmospheres, however it is the visual conceit of projecting classic stock footage upon buildings, surfaces and people that gives the movie it's visual edge. Sure, it's a very theatrical idea that would have worked just as well for the stage version (it is an adaptation after all), but it works equally well on film. The insertion of stock footage into the narrative, too, helps to create a dynamic energy. One particular scene that condenses the horrors of war into a brief but explosive couple of minutes is especially well done.

However, the one aspect that brings the film crushing down to Earth is its very reason for existence; the opera itself. As I said before, I can't claim to be an expert on this style of performance, but the singing on display within here is quite excruciating. Star Grant Doyle is responsible for most of it and his deep croaky voice does the material no favour, allowing a good large portion of the lyrics to become incoherent. Christa Hughes, as Arthur's sister Myrtle, fares little better especially during her big climactic scene at the docks during which she sounds like a cat being put through a mixer.

The story of Arthur Stace is perhaps one that could have been very fascinating, and without the music The Eternity Man would have been a beguiling visual exploration of a period of Australian life that is rarely, if ever, portrayed on screen. However, the film's sole reason for being is the music and so I think it is fair that this music should be the ultimate basis of the film's success or failure. At only a fraction over an hour in running time there isn't even all that long a time to have to grin and bare it. And yet as the film continues on exploring the decades that Stace was active as the graffiti artist of Sydney I could not overcome the frustration that boiled out of the score and its meandering nittying. On that basis I can't give a grade based on anything else. C-


Anonymous said...

Readers should check out Lawrence Johnston's documentary called "Eternity" that is about Arthur Stace's story. It was made in the early 90s and is a beautiful film.

Rena Riffel said...

Hi Glenn,
Hope all is wonderful down under ;-)
I really enjoy your blog! I have a blog on here, too.. I am trying to add you to my favorites, "follow" you. Have you seen the new movie I made? It's a musical, satire, horror film.. very Warhol meets Ed Wood... a trashy art film. It's like Rocky Horror on crack. You might like it. The trailer is on . You can contact me if you would like a screener :-)
Much Love,
Penny/Hope forever XO