Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Misfortunates - The Shittines of Things
If you could redeem your childhood halfway through your life with your conscience intact and everything else retracted, would you really want to celebrate what you’ve savored all your life and relive them all one by one, moment by precious moment? More interestingly, would you with just your scarred conscience, try and alter the course of your future to spawn a better you in the future? Or would you rather face the future unknown, that lies ahead of you and let fate take its vehement course? People talk about childhood memories like they were filled with confetti showers, picture-perfect memories festooned with innocence and simpler days with all the time in the world to think about nothing, with every disposable resource at your command, to fulfill the one purpose that the world existed at your feet: you. If you now reflect upon your past with that sort of fondness you find inexplicable, were you honestly aware of how dear those moments really were when you were actually living them? And would you be reflecting on what you are today, twenty years from now with the same amount of relish that you bestow upon your childhood? Why then do we find it so hard to see our present in the same light as we would from a mere filament of memory? Definitely, memory is no equal a substitute for reality. Or maybe, that’s what memories are for, archiving ourselves, a multi-hued reconciliation statement that stands testimony to what we are today, whatever they may represent. Questions and answers such as these appear like soap bubbles in air, while you watch the life of Gunther Strobbe unfold from the past into what he is today: a frustrated author sitting at a table holding a publisher’s letter of regret, regret at not finding his work interesting enough to publish, regret at not finding his life interesting; because it’s a templated apology for sending off his own autobiography into the trash. And with that, Gunther knows his whole life has come a full circle: from a childhood carved out of a garbage dump to a trash-can containing his whole life, documented. What has brought him to this abhorring point in his life? What is it that makes his life-story lying in a trash-can look ironic? Let’s roll back a decade. Kenneth Vanbaeden is Gunther, 13. Welcome to the Strobbes. Here’s your mug of beer. Let’s listen to that Roy Orbison tape, please.
The Strobbes aren’t exactly nice people to live with, especially for a maturing boy like Gunther. His uncles Beefcake, Koen and Petrol seemingly have little or no purpose in their lives, apart from drinking enough beer everyday to turn their bodies into huge, live alcohol faucets; and engaging in bizarre community activities that culminate in,.. well what else but more beer and stupor-style-sex.
The Strobbes live for the moment. Time is never a quantifiable aspect of their lives, rather it’s a mere constance of proportion within which they simply exist. They’ve all landed back at their aged mother’s spare hearth due to their particular problems: blackout drinking, compulsive gambling, non-stop whoring and chronic fighting. Not exactly solid-citizen types and certainly no role-models for Gunther. Gunther’s mother had long since abandoned the family because of his father, Marcel who being the eldest among the Strobbe brothers is the booziest of the lot, quite literally an ashtray inside a beer-bucket type, perpetually drunk and smelling of sweat, urine and vomit. He makes even his rowdy siblings look cultured and sober. Gunther himself barely fourteen, has taken up alcohol ages ago. He shares his room with his uncle who has sex on the floor next to his bed and who feeds him beer for breakfast. You can’t but help becoming increasingly worried at the moral peril this boy lives in. Gunther faces the brunt of the social life outside his home and at school, where a wider society fails to see in him, a boy in need of help and shuns him aside as one among his uncles and the rowdy gang of misnomers. His one honest attempt at gaining the trust of a friend is thwarted when the parents disallow the frienship for fear of bad influences from a Strobbe.
It is to be understood that child welfare services have tried to extract the boy from such living conditions, with dire results that had involved a lot of violence. The Strobbes believe that their home, small as it is, is one of the best places for Gunther to grow up in. Now, this is not fraught without sufficient reasons. Uncouth and nasty as they are, the Strobbes are one fiercely loyal, tight-knight family, whose love for each other remains genuine, in spite of the fact that it is horribly flawed. They are proud of their family, whatever there is to feel proud of, and stress the importance of some sort of a heritage within their hippie-lifestyle. Gunther loves them for all they are, and this is what makes it all the more harder for him to break free. The only sane member of the household is the Grandma, (whose character is unfortunately not detailed upon, leaving much to the speculation of the viewer) who sees the paradox in Gunther’s affection for the family. And so with her help, it isn’t long before the boy decides to take things into his hands and leaves home for boarding school, after violent and emotional moments in the house.
A few years from when we first see him as the failed author, Gunther has now become a respected novelist who’s well into his fifth book. But he still doesn’t want to let go of his family, and at the same time, he feels furious for having been deprived of so much, that has made him the mess he is today. His girlfriend’s pregnancy makes him scared of the responsibility, one that awaits him when the baby comes. He feels that the baby will turn into something worse than what he is today, being raised by one such as himself with a scarred conscience. The grandma is now in a home for the aged, with Asperger’s syndrome. His father and uncle Beefcake are no more, having drunken themselves to death. Petrol and Koen still haven’t lost their ways, beer bottles in hand. It takes a lot to reach back into your past with an eraser in your hand. But whether our Gunther is emotionally strong to break free to be the father that he has learnt not to be is to be seen and applauded in this rare gem out of the frugal platter of movies that Belgium manages to offer every year.
The cinematography is a revelation. If all you’ve ever seen of Belgium are from movies like In Bruges, JCVD, Dominique Deruddere’s Everybody’s Famous!, Lucas Belvaux’s films and L’Iceberg, don’t jump molten-eyed into that vacation plane before you watch this gritty, grimy version. Rubens Impens has sculpted a landscape out of filth and gloom in true cinema verité style, with a balanced, artful use of color and texture. The dreary existence of people’s lives disturb you. The Strobbes seem like the only ones with a laughter-vein within them. Residential neighborhoods feel eerie and closeted. The predominant public have an air of perpetual, stubborn joblessness about them. Everyone displays a profile of dejection. People don’t talk freely. Courtesy is rationed. I’m not well versed with history lessons, but was there some kind of civil disturbance at that time (70’s-80’s), I wonder..
And here’s that soundtrack you could die to lay your hands on, if you’re a seventies fan of rock music. Jeff Neve’s original compositions are a delight. And what could be crazier than seeing three grown men, drunk up to their red noses, crying and bleating to Rob Orbinson performing “Pretty Woman” on the telly?
The heavy essence of nondoctrinance and reckless, stagnant lifestyles along with depressing themes of decay shouldn’t keep you away from a charming movie such as this one. You’d only feel sad and puzzled as to why the Strobbes had never thought of becoming full-bloom hippies, which would atleast give a clear non-conformist foundation for Gunther to build upon, rather than to coerce their fun into societal violence. And it’s even sadder because none of this is mere fiction.
By Fazil (at PassionForCinema.com)
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