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Glasgow Central (2000) director's cut: Rick Ajo McGrath
Synopsis: two Canadian media thugs visit Glasgow in search of the missing ashes of Alexander Trocchi, local heroin writer and compadre of the international Beat movement. Rating: R (some coarse language, graphic sex and violence)
Glasgow. Night. Decorator lights extend the length of Buchanan St., bathing the flag stones of the pedestrian mall and the sandstone Victorian commercial buildings in a blue, gradient complexion.
Young chick in white sits on a bench in a lazy lotus position, listening to a busker play an A-major/D-minor dirge nearby on his Les Paul Jr.
Middle-aged man, black leather coat, long hair, could be anybody, a Prof, an old rock star, a Presbyterian screen writer looking for action, lingers nearby. Camera switches between the chick, the busker, the long-hair.
Meanwhile you hear the following exchange off-camera:
Female: That's not a Scottish name.
Long-hair ("Johnson") moves into frame again, wanders towards the busker, drops something in his guitar case. Could be money, could be dope. Chick in white is smiling as she flicks the ash from her cigarette. Blue lights seem to multiple, extend to infinity....
an elegant expression of human madness
Glasgow Central exists somewhere between the raw documentary grab of cinema verite and the montage propaganda method of the TV commercial. The latest film by the former Toronto advertising executive Rick "Ajo" McGrath -- who says "advertising is just a cliche dressed as a tart"-- you're left wondering just what is going down here. The film could be a cliche dressed up as a tart, but the action is so ambiguous the tart might well be a man. Who is Alexander Trocchi? Who are the two men seeking him? Sometimes they come across as a contemporary Boswell and Johnson duo searching Glasgow for a forgotten cultural icon... at others as a couple of clowning hitmen like Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in the neo-noir classic The Killers.
Consider the Necropolis sequences. After meeting with a shadowy facilitator known as "13" in the Necro Bar ("where it's o.k. to drink yourself to death"), the two are taken by 13 to the Necropolis, a large cemetery on a hill nearby. As they stand on the causeway looking at the sepulchres on the hill, Johnson murmurs, "Have you ever seen such an elegant expression of human madness?" They enter the cemetery, ascend the hill by a rough track, in places overgrown with coarse grass and ivy. They pause below the vaulted statue of a naval hero, a stone anachronism in living green mildew:
B: All rich guys buried here.
They continue on, seemingly on a spiral through the statues, obelisks, gated tombs and deco pergolas. The city emerges below, an ocean of office towers, apartment blocks, factories, streets, motorway cuts, autumn parks, birds in flight. Two young women pass, descending silently. As they resume talking, the camera examines goodlookin's long red hair hair, gentle ass, the split in her skirt. Her friend, fading, says (in the Glaswegian vernacular): "Am glad she got it... ah didny like the look on her face anyway...."
Who got it and who got what? Typical of the verite action, the moment tantalizes, accelerates our expectations.
Group of punks, male and female, smoking dope in the shadows of a large folly, steps, stone columns, dome. Immediately start cavorting, emitting jeers. "Put me in yer movie"... "Ah shagged Dracula"... etc. Boswell engages an unshaven lout with a nose ring and a blue RAF greatcoat, stoned and lurching, brazen and leering.
B: Your family's tomb?
We're not sure if 13 is somehow in association with this crowd of dopers, if in fact they are pilgrims at a shrine for Trocchi, or a bunch of groupies at a photo shoot for a rock band. Nearby stands the tall column that supports the statue of John Knox, the Protestant reformer. Junk yard or theme park? The photo-montage continues... they detach themselves from the dopers, proceed through the elongated shadows to a small tomb with a chained gate and an enamel sign, Danger: Keep Out, above the entrance. In the background three steel chimney pipes of a small power station extend like white rockets against the blue October sky.
Everywhere contradiction. In the chamber of the tomb a man is shooting up -- who is it? The image is a flash frame insert, a recollection, a precognition. 13 stands beside the chained gate like the Keeper of the Elephant Man, smiling with pusillanimous intent... altho the sun might be in his eyes or he might be deranged.
Johnson circles the tomb, encounters a man emerging from the low autumn mist into the amber sunlight. This is Nails. We notice his scarred hands and the transparent quality of his skin.
N: I'd watch that man if I were you.
Nails drifts off, disappears among the stone markers.
Johnson circles the tomb, rejoins his associate who is less than happy with "13"... no urn, no ashes, no Trocchi. Donovan's Season of the Witch kicks in on the soundtrack as the scene slowly lap-dissolves from the scowling faces of the "facilitator" and his clients into the ancestral waters of the Clyde....
in search of Alexander Trocchi
Alex Trocchi, b. 1925 Glasgow, d. 1984 London. Cremated (apparently), his ashes mysteriously disappear shortly after the event. Best known for his 1961 Grove Press publication Cain's Book, a seminal junky journal of vivid, lyrical fragments where "I" is the unity, self-reference the dream. The action? A scow trolling the Hudson River. Trocchi's (a.k.a "Necchi's") downtime is consumed with finding heroin in New York and recording his experiences in his journal. Post-modern? Of course.
In Western culture, the post-modern illness -- namely, that there are more writers than readers -- is typical of his style and method. If the subject of art is art, then the subject of writing is writing. Escapism becomes a service for the writer rather than the reader... and the objective is the act rather than the document. In Cain's Book, Trocchi writes: "For a long time now I have felt that writing which is not ostensibly self-conscious is in a vital way inauthentic for our time... my friends will know what I mean when I say that I deplore our contemporary industrial writers... let them dedicate a year to pinball and think again."
Yet you can never say that Trocchi's writing is beside the point like, say, a student practicing syntax rather than story. His syntax is heroin, his story is Trocchi. Fiction is pornography, journalism is truth. Thus Trocchi becomes not only a symptom of disintegration but also of the transition from a society of readers to a society of writers.
Like the majority of Beat writers, his (later, mature) personalized style of intense fragments and analytical observations are harnessed by the metaphor of dream. Compare his surrealism to that of William Burroughs, his better known counterpart: while the Burroughs junky fragments into the inhuman, the Trocchi junky fragments, yes, but continues to be sensual. In Burroughs, sex is murder. In Trocchi, sex is poetry, is dream. The voyeurism engages the self.
Which isn't to say that Trocchi is polyperverse/morphous and infantile ad nauseam. While his early erotic writings read like the storyboards for a comic book publisher, poetic phrases and subversive situations always redeem their absurd plots... the panderings of a born pimp, some might say, have said. "Cosmopolitan scum" is the slur most commonly repeated, although coming from the lips of a professional Highland bogman, it has to be received as a compliment. Indeed, as is commonly the case with addicts, the addiction starts with sex, then sex is replaced with drugs.
Typically, much of his erotic writing is hidden behind a haze of aliases, a necessity created in part by the limited publishing possibilities of the 1950s. Trocchi is said to have written Volume 5 of the notorious Frank Harris autobiography, My Life & Loves. Fragments continue to surface -- such as The Dummy -- which may or may not be part of the legitimate Trocchi portfolio.
Although Trocchi continues the drug-consciousness tradition of De Quincey, Alfred Jarry, Aleister Crowley, Genet and others, his immediate peers are alienists like Mishima (Confessions of a Mask) and Camus (L'Etranger). And while he appears to stand outside the tradition of Scottish literature, the obvious precursor of this sort of confessional journalism is, of course, the great eighteenth century writer James Boswell (Journals).
© Lawrence Russell
Culture Court 2000