Sunday, October 6, 2013

The sunglasses on the cutting room floor

The movie Chopper, about the Australian celebrity criminal Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read, had developed a rather mythic reputation for violence in my head over the years.

Since I used to confuse it with Romper Stomper -- due to the similarity of their titles, their country of origin and their subject matter -- I imagined that it would contain the kind of gruesome brutality that would make a lesser man than me queasy. Romper Stomper, a movie about Australian skinheads, had some such violence.

I also figure that the sunglasses had something to do with it.

The thing that made the title character in Chopper seem all the more menacing was the fact that you couldn't see his eyes. Eyes are the window to the soul, and some really nasty eyes can indicate a really nasty character. However, a person can also have kind eyes and still be nasty. Eyes alone are no guarantee of what you're getting. Eyes can clean up well.

When you can't see the eyes at all, it severs the person's ties to humanity. They could be anything. Not knowing what they could be, what they're capable of, is perhaps even worse than the cold stare of a killer.

Chopper's sunglasses in the poster above shroud his eyes in just such a way. They're an indispensable part of what makes that image of him -- of Eric Bana playing him, I should say -- iconic. 

This is why it surprised me that when I finally saw Chopper on Friday night, those sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.

That's right -- nearly every scene involving Chopper takes place in a prison, indoors or at night. There's only one scene when he's outside during the daytime, when he's being interviewed by a TV journalist, and he wears no sunglasses. Producer's orders, I'm sure.

So even though I really dug Chopper, I would have dug it more had there been a scene that fulfilled the Robert DeNiro-in-Taxi Driver promise of Bana's cross-armed pose of defiance.

It makes me wonder how that became the defining image of the movie's campaign in the first place. Clearly, they had Bana in the sunglasses at some point in order to shoot the image for the poster. (Unless they Photoshopped the sunglasses in afterward, which seems unlikely, especially back in 2000.) Was there a scene in which he wore the glasses that was left on the cutting room floor? If so, why would they do that? If not, why wouldn't you get in a scene with the glasses, even if you had to force it?

The fact that it's based on a real person and needs to adhere to the real facts of his life doesn't excuse the decision, or non-decision, in this case. An on-screen graphic tells us right up front that this is a fictionalisation (using the Australian Z-less spelling of that word) of Read's life, not a biography. That gave director Andrew Dominik license to indulge in whatever artistic flourishes he wanted, including a scene where Chopper's sunglasses make him even more badass than he was in real life. (Or may have been -- there's some doubt as to the veracity of his claims in his autobiography.)

In a more general analysis of the movie and what it says about Australian culture ... it's funny how a nation that takes such pains to under-emphasize the fact that it was founded by criminals ends up lionizing so many of them. Ned Kelly, the famous police-killing bushranger who wore homemade armor to try to survive a firefight, is one such example. Chopper Read is another. He's still a bit of a celebrity here, though my wife tells me that he's now dying of liver cancer. (Given the life he lived and how many times there was a contract on his head, it's hard to believe he's lived to the ripe old age of 58 in the first place.)

Really, it's not so much that Australians love criminals, just that the criminals here tend to be so colorful ... so Australian. One great example when it comes to Read is that he never even exacted revenge on the guy who stabbed him about six times in prison, because it was one of his best mates. He compares it to having been stabbed by his mum. It's a perfect example of the logic-defying loyalty that characterizes Australian male friendships.

If someone stabbed me even once, he'd be off my Christmas card list for good.

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