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Be careful what you wish for ... (a.k.a. Mr. Nick comes calling)

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Twenty years ago this month, Robert Altman’s amazing film Short Cuts, based on nine short stories and a poem by author Raymond Carver, was released and deftly wove these stories together to create one of my favorite films of the 1990’s.

And one of the stories embedded within Short CutsSo Much Water So Close To Home – is followed pretty closely by Altman. After we are introduced to waitress Doreen Piggot (Lily Tomlin) and alcoholic limousine driver Earl Piggot (Tom Waits), we transition to a scene in a diner where Earl drops by to see Doreen and get a tuna melt. At the counter, meanwhile are Stuart Kane (Fred Ward), Gordon Johnson (Buck Henry) and Vern Miller (Huey Lewis).

The trio, led by Stuart, are planning to go up into the mountains on a fishing trip and while at the counter, the men make sure Doreen bends over to pick up some butter on a lower shelf, just laughing and goofing off. At one point, Gordon looks over at Earl and does a wink-wink-ha-ha and Earl plays along but soon leaves in disgust because his wife is being ogled by these juvenile fishermen.

Their fishing skills will soon be needed, once at their remote fishing spot, since it is there that they discover a dead woman floating in the river. Instead of reporting their gruesome discovery, the men tie the dead girl to some rocks and commence their fishing fun.

In the Carver story, the point of view is from Claire, Stuart’s wife, who is disgusted to later find out that Stuart and his fishing buddies waited to have their fun before reporting their discovery of the dead girl.

In 1989, the same year the Short Cuts screenplay was created, incorporating Carver’s story, Australian folk-rock band Paul Kelly & The Messengers released the album So Much Water So Close to Home, produced by Scott Litt, who had worked with R.E.M.

On the song “Everything’s Turning to White,” Kelly sings about this very situation, sung from Claire’s perspective: “In the moonlight they saw the body of a young girl floating face down / And there’s so much water so close to home.” Clearly Claire is feeling sad and alarmed that Stuart and his friends were so callous about the situation. Later, Claire (through Paul Kelly) says/sings: “The newspapers said that the girl had been strangled to death and also molested / One the ay of the funeral the radio reported that a young man had been arrested / I went to the service a stranger …”

A glacier-like divide develops between Claire and Stuart, she says/sings that she feels “frozen inside” and that “everything’s turning to white.”

It’s a powerful song and Paul Kelly would later co-write the score for the award-winning 2006 dramatic film Jindabyne, starring Gabriel Bynre and Laura Linney, and filmed in Australia.

And it was two years after the release of Jindabyne, while director Terry Gilliam was wrapping up the editing of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, that Australian actor Heath Ledger – considered one of the best of his generation – died of a drug overdose, this as The Dark Knight film was being prepared for release. Ledger’s role as The Joker was widely hailed and described as “mesmerizing” and “heroic” while his Joker is effectively “sinister and frightening.”

Ledger’s final roles, both as Tony in Doctor Parnassus and The Joker in The Dark Knight, are both stunning and tragic – almost Shakespearean, really.

Which is interesting is that Ledger plays diabolical roles (although due to his untimely death, the doppelganger-like actor friends Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law step in as “Tony” in parts of Gilliam’s “magical retelling of Goethe’s Faust story”) with his Joker opposite English actor Christian Bale, who plays Batman.

… and Bale also plays American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who while a successful Wall Street yuppie who also happens to be a violent, cannibalistic serial killer with a penchant for the pop-rock sounds of Huey Lewis & The News.

Regarding Huey, in a famous scene in American Psycho, Bateman tells an unwitting victim: “He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.”

And watching Short Cuts, it is clear that Huey Lewis, or at least his Vern character, is lacking certain empathetic qualities …

“In ’87, Huey released this, Fore!, their most accomplished album, I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip to Be Square,” a song so catchy, most people don’t listen to the lyrics, but they should, because it’s just not about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends, but also a personal statement about the band itself …” Bateman says as he works himself into a lather and butchers his Wall Street buddy with an ax as “Hip to Be Square” blasts on the stereo …

Bateman looks absolutely demonic in the above scene, as blood spatters his living room with each swing of the ax.

Meanwhile, the less demonic-looking, but sinister-yet-charming Mr. Nick – the “Mephistopheles” character in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (“Mephistopheles is not your name, But I know what you’re up to just the same …”) played brilliantly by Tom Waits, is lurking about waiting to collect on an age-old deal from Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). We see Parnassus (a monk of old, thousands of years old and given the gift of immortality by El Diablo) pulls a card from his Tarot deck and it is “The Hanged Man,” foretelling the appearance of the greedy and deceptive Tony, played by Ledger, who is found by Parnassus’s troupe, hanging from a London bridge.

Mr. Nick, a consummate smoker in his black porkpie hat and his pencil-think moustache, has given Parnassus the ability to allow people to enter their dreams via a magical mirror aboard the troupe’s wagon. Valentina, Parnassus’s daughter, must go to the Devil on her 16th birthday, something his daughter does not discover until about an hour before the stroke of midnight on her 16th birthday. Parnassus is willing to do what it takes to avoid having his beloved daughter suffer for his poor decision. Souls, however, must be delivered on demand, Mr. Nick says. Five total. 

A broken bottle becomes a hall of jagged mirrors and the scarlet daughter has a final “dance” with the Devil and payment is received.

But it is ultimately “The Hanged Man” who gets his due, and Mr. Nick, always looking for a “betting man” seems satisfied as he offers his knowledge … err  …  an apple to clutch of nuns on a city street. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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