Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Great Acid Cinema: The first 11 minutes of HOLY SMOKE (1999, Jane Campion)

Ah, what to do with Jane Campion? For every step forward, she takes two steps into her navel. Emboldened by her success with THE PIANO (1993), Campion forgot herself and went too deep therein, alienating us new fans with PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996) a film so bogged down in weird costume design and John Malkovich's overacting that it forgot it was supposed to be about a feminist, not a dumb woman who falls for the first artsy dude she meets. Then there was HOLY SMOKE (1999). At least it's not Malkovich the protag falls for this go-round, but Jeeze Louise, or should I say, Kali Durga Smurga!? 

And yet--and it's a freakin' big-ass yet--the opening minutes, set to Niel Diamond's "Holly Holy," are perhaps the most brilliant thing in all cinema: a delirious free-flowing montage of Winslet and her pal's trip to India, meeting a holy man, riding up in an elevator; Winslet having her third eye opened, literally, in a brilliantly animated scene; intense and delirious and full of the chugging momentum into the white light which Diamond's song is all about. Winslet's just trusting herself to be led forward and winds up awakened in the power of this guru who zeroes right in on her third eye and slits it open with a touch of his finger. As the badass Niel Diamond song increases in intensity--slowly and surely, to its epic spiritually cool heights--so does Winslet's spiritual homecoming euphoria. It's perfect, blissful. You can feel it in your saliva; your Kundalini energy serpent stirring from its slumber at the base of your spine and commencing his slithering climb to your crown chakra. What's going on? How can cinema have such magic power, how can Neil Diamond be the trigger to our third eye opening?

Then of course -- the crash. She has to go back to Australia, and that's where the problems start as her mom doesn't like the idea of her being one of a hundred wives marrying this crazy swami, etc. As with Campion's other shrill Aussie hick humor films, like SWEETIE, she forgets she's supposed to be artsy now, not stupid art school artsy but badass brilliant artsy like she just was, two seconds ago, and then Harvey Keitel shows up and you're like "But he was the original Bad Lieutenant, how can he be such a wuss?"

It would be great if Winslet's spiritual seeker just stayed in that free-flowing opening credits, but then again, that's what spiritual awakenings are all about: the crash, the come-down or as the book says, "and then the laundry" or "chop wood and carry water" or "joyful participation in the sorrows of existence." The awakening always brings you eventually right back to tedious suburban wasteland hell you escaped from and then, what? How are you going to infuse your awakened self into the banal mix of unconscious consumers slurping their way through meaningless existences all around you?

Then again, was it ever really banal, or were you just not participating with full interest? Isn't even the dullest Wal-Mart parking lot a place of beauty have we but eyes to see? Good questions to ponder, but does the film ponder them? Frankly, I forget. All I remember is the great opening, and the downhill slope from thence. I'm sick with a bad summer cold... raisins dancing in a dish, and like the gas chamber, Varla. And then the darkness.


  1. I just had that cold. Hope you feel better!

  2. You have just perfectly encapsulated why I hate and love this film. Though nothing beats the absolute brilliance of those first 11 minutes, Harvey Keitel wailing in the wilderness and seeing Kali while Kate Winslet is locked in a truck was kind of awesome, too.

  3. I hope you rewatch the film when you are feeling better. Holy Smoke was one of those films that stayed heavy with me for a couple days after watching it. The discussions with Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel are great as they discuss religion, life, and love. You can't beat their acting either.


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