The Poetic Film Triptych of Director Ian Pringle (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

The music in Wrong World is minimalist, almost experimental, with harmonica, strings and drums which are almost incoherent like the mind of Moir. Certainly the music doesn’t seem to belong, much like Moir.

Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities trailer which is in German

He runs across Kennedy again and says “a rich friend” is funding him, shouting her Chinese, when she’d prefer a doner kebab.

“When it comes down to it – we’re all on our own,” she tells Moir about his helping her.

He says it’s like two people existing in the same world and for both of these people it may be one where they may not belong for different reasons.

Wenders apparently on the Alice in the Cities set. It packs a wallop.

“We’re in different worlds at the same time,” he says, trying to relate to Kennedy the atomic world and how things don’t exist until they’re discovered.

“Right,” says Kennedy, cigarette in hand and not up to intellectual speed.

Pringle’s scripts are slow and meditative. I have called them poetic, as there is a poetry to people’s lives being lived tragically – and yet there is a beauty still to these flawed people. It is the tragic people and poetry of the street in Wrong World.

I’m not really big on poetry and sometimes I question whether I understand poetry at all… but isn’t there poetry and feeling in that very thought? I don’t know… I guess I’m not up to intellectual speed!

Richard Moir also has a key role in An Indecent Obsession (1985) trailer

While Wrong World is the poetry of the street and even the road, The Plains of Heaven is poetry of the wilderness and the intrusion of man into it on an almost mindboggling scale… and when we get to the final in the triptych, it is the poetry of the world of prose and poetry and that perhaps uselessness of those arts as nothing more than a device to drive man to distraction and madness. That is the reason I find film a far more settling, grounding and nourishing medium. That and the odd horror movie!

Kennedy overdoses and Moir takes her to a motel where he too gets high on morphine.

“I started taking morphine because I couldn’t sleep,” is his excuse and he admits everyone has an excuse. When she comes around he agrees to take her to her sister’s place in the country so she can escape druggies whose stash she stole.

Thus begins the road trip and the last third of the movie. Act Three if you like.

Jo Kennedy plays a car video game once-removed in a roadhouse in Wrong World

New German Cinema’s Wim Wenders road movies and his movies in general are an influence on Pringle and he would immerse himself in German culture for the next film.

“They won’t get me… no-one knows where I’m going,” says Kennedy as they drive through the night.

“I do,” says Moir, almost matrimonially.

Roger Miller sings King of the Road

He picks up a pair of sunglasses at a café and he relives Bolivia and a tale of a boy who didn’t care if he lived or died… and how as Moir listened “everything I was doing and everything I believed in was meaningless.”

Such ordinary and mundane situations about two dropouts or losers are in fact insightful or “extraordinary” as Moir puts it. Life is still special to the viewer and for some reason we care for these characters.

“I knew you were smacked out the other night,” says Kennedy as they stop at a rural racetrack. Soon they’re at another motel and then onward to a roadhouse where Kennedy buys the legendary Aussie chocolate bar a Polly Waffle. Through the night in the car, they discuss family and dope – not Moir’s family, he is disconnected – and there are silences as they make the next motel. Moir is writing in a book which ends the echo: “I met a woman in a bar…” The line is also a premonition of The Prisoner of St. Petersburg and its Dostoyevskian-like meeting.

The mythical Polly Waffle

“I think I took a wrong turn,” says Moir about their trip, when they end up nowhere. He may well be talking about his life and Kennedy is amused. She has no choice but to return to the dump she grew up in and she discovers his notebook… “God, is this your idea of a good time?,” she chuckles about his musings.

On the teevee at the next motel, there is a picture of a truck on the open road.

“That’s America,” says Moir, seemingly unaware he is already in that picture, or bookended by it. Australia is America just as Wender’s German triptych of road movies show his country invaded by American culture. The teevee breaks down and they invent a story about escaping Nazis… and then Moir and Kennedy kiss. Their courtship or “romance” only a dead semblance in Moir’s case – is complete.

Ray Charles sings Born to Lose which seems apt

In the middle of the night Moir almost flees the motel and instead reminisces about his innocence when he first hit New York through to his disillusionment in Bolivia. The man can never escape his past and I feel like I should cry at this moment in the film but I am bled dry by Moir’s nihilism, left empty like the country roads they continue on through… Kennedy sings a Ray Charles song as they continue their journey, it is one from her sister’s LP collection she listened to as a youth when she came home from school… “It means he’s lost the will to live, I’m so lonesome I could die.” It’s like what Moir said earlier in the film, they are both souls who inhabit the same planet but despite being together they are still in different worlds. Kennedy sings it beautifully and she says it’s when you’re with other people you can feel the most lonely and the windshield breaks, shattering any illusion of home or togetherness in the car.

“I’m not going. I feel sick,” she says. Is it homesickness? Going home.

The open road could be anywhere in the world

Moir says he’s going back to Melbourne – it’s a surreal journey because in reality it wouldn’t have taken so long – and Kennedy says they could keep going…

“Where to?,” he says, with no illusions of their relationship, while Kennedy tells him again like she did when he went on about the sub-atomic world: “Things just happen.” And they part.

Bored with a disinterested sister coughing indifferently in the background at home, Kennedy finds the Ray Charles album. She puts the cover of the blind singer’s LP beside her in the American driver’s seat on the couch so to speak, while Moir drives off into the great unknown with Kennedy’s singing voice echoing in his ears… He falls asleep at the wheel while driving, perhaps finding a final semblance of peace. Cue teardrop.

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry as sung by Hank Williams

I have watched Wrong World several times now and the more I watch it, the more I get involved and live it. Moir was never better as a man living his own failure of the past in a drug addicted present of a world which he really doesn’t belong.

The Prisoner of St. Petersburg starts with actor Noah Taylor (1969-) thumbing through his Gogol or Dostoevsky novel as he apparently takes a train to somewhere. It is Berlin and he seems to be a transient heading for a rundown neighbourhood. He passes out on the stairs and dreams he is on a train like the beginning of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot speaking Russian and on his way to St. Petersburg.

Noah Taylor in The Prisoner of St. Petersburg (1989)

His dreams are also the obsessions of Dostoevsky in real life – capital punishment being one. He see’s a woman, who he calls Sonya, like the character out of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who is an innocent soul in the book who must sell her body to support her family. But they don’t speak – it is dreamlike. He wakes and sees an old woman who he thinks is the moneylender, also out of the novel Crime and Punishment, and gets a piece of wood and apparently kills her. He had spoken to her in Russian but she is German and can’t understand.

Writer Dostoevsky looms large

“But there is no such thing as punishment, if you’ve got nothing else to lose,” he says. Poor Noah obviously has a Russian literature fixation, especially Crime and Punishment. He also suffers epilepsy, as did Dostoevsky for much of his adult life. Approached by a homosexual at a gay beat, Noah responds as if the man is a policeman who knows about his crime… two street-girls walk past, played by Solveig Dommartin (1961-2007 heart attack) and Katja Teichmann. Noah immediately thinks Dommartin is his long lost Sonya and he follows them watching them through a café window as the pair discuss how Dommartin refuses to live conventionally… Noah sees himself in 19th Century uniform dancing with Dommartin. He hangs around a bar where he has followed them.

And the novel looms large too

“What do we do?… He must be an idiot,” says Katja in a reference to the novel, in which the title character’s lack of guile and open-hearted simplicity had him taken for an “idiot”.

Is Noah really a good person, suffering some sort of split personality? Or could it simply be his epilepsy causing amnesia? He tells Dommartin he met her “in 65 or 66 I think” when Crime and Punishment is set in the 19th Century. They get drunk the three of them together. They have met in a bar like the characters in Crime and Punishment.

“She got what she deserved,” Noah blurts out, at least partially conscious of his crime against the old woman. They hit the steets and Noah is paranoid about a newsreader talking about the murder he committed on a teevee in a shop window. Asked why he committed it: “To be caught of course.”

Noah walks the streets of Berlin after possibly committing murder

For all the references to Crime and Punishment, this talky movie is surprisingly less pretentious than its pretensions would have it be. In fact, it works quite well as Noah rants on about Gogol and Dostoevsky, pulling out a map of St. Petersburg, where he says he is trapped forever within, despite being in Berlin. Dommartin escapes in a cab and Katja has a crush on Taylor.

“I’m mad, I’m sick, I’m dangerous,” says Taylor, saying he must escape St. Petersburg.

The film is an Australian-West German co-production and is shot in black and white. It owes a debt to the New German Cinema which was defunct by 1982. Dommartin was a life companion to Wim Wenders, that master of alienation, whose road trilogy of Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976) are all shot in black and white. Dommartin appeared in his later movies too.

Wim Wenders’ “ultimate road movie” Until the End of the World (1991) trailer

When I first saw Alice in the Cities for the first time with its ending of the trains parting and the end of a transitory relationship, its solitariness and loneliness and alienation hit me as I drove home alone from the theatre. I was almost sobbing. Wenders’ Germany of the 1970s was one invaded by American culture causing a sense of cultural dislocation and alienation… With Pringle, obviously a big admirer of Wenders, there is a dislocation of the characters and how they do not belong to the landscapes as well as each other. Moir’s characters in particular. Like Wenders, it all seems transitory, especially in Wrong World. There is also that other world of America, that mythical place, which is nothing more than music and television… like in The Plains of Heaven and Wrong World. The empty highway is the same wherever you go. And Berlin in Prisoner is any city too.

Rudiger Vogler and Nastassia Kinski in Wenders’ Wrong Move. Suggests Pringle’s title!

But back to Pringle’s St. Petersburg and Noah thinks he must leave St. Petersburg because he doesn’t belong there, it has become a prison and his crime makes him want to doubly flee or doubly its prisoner… he is trapped in his mind and doubly alienated from the real world and by the fact he is in another city altogether! It all sounds mind-boggling!

Russian writer Gogol

“Why are you doing this to me? Torture, torture… I’m a murderer,” he says as plans to escape on a truck ends when he is ejected from the cabin… and yet he and Katja continue to hang out together as the night progresses, with Katja in tears because Noah won’t have her… he falls to her feet to placate her tears.

I may be missing many references to the Russian writers, as I don’t know them all too well. But I don’t think it precludes anyone from enjoying this film if they are not fully initiated.

Katja reflects about waiting for a prince to take her away as they almost fall asleep on the stairs in an apartment building… as Noah imagines the murder scene before crumbling into an epileptic heap.

Noah imagines himself dancing with Solveig/Sonya

“Dostoevsky used to have it and he was a genius,” says Noah about the condition as he tells another ghost from the literary past, which he imagines, to “bugger off”.

They meet Dommartin back at her apartment.

“No-one can take away my harmony,” she says and that is why Noah is special because he doesn’t take her harmony. “I feel safe with you.”

Noah may seem like an idiot: “Sometimes I get very confused. Very confused,” almost in a world of his own and shaking with fear. He has been so immersed in his literary world for so long… it has taken over his subconscious and the connection with the two girls is his last connection with reality and his “good” self. Again, it is a world of its own… not Dostoevsky and not Berlin – certainly not St. Petersburg. It could almost be any city. Morning comes and they go to the train station to help Noah escape – but it’s a circle line. There is no escape! With no money left they go to a bar near another station and have to sell Noah’s possessions which include a tooth and a Gogol book.

Beautiful Solveig Dommartin plays the object of Noah’s affections

Prisoner has art film written all over it. Like Pringle’s previous features, it is slow and deliberate and despite what some critics called “pretentiousness” is worthy of several viewings. Maybe I should go back to reading fiction!

Noah is excellent. The Aussie actor doesn’t try to hide his accent and we don’t know the original nationality of the character. From what I gather he fits the description of the character in Crime and Punishment: “..slim, well built with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair.”

In the early hours of the morning in that nameless bar, we find humanity as the auction is a success among the few patrons and they go to the train station.

Noah fits Dostoevsky’s description of the main character in the novel

“Don’t send me away,” says Noah as he is about to board and they return to the bar, where an Irishman who participated in the auction, toasts Noah for his love of Russian literature. He tells Noah the only escape is through “the love of a good woman”. That woman is Dommartin and Noah stares at her eyes and she is as Sonya was, in Russian dress. He puts his head on her shoulder and they are transported to a Russian palace which they approach hand in hand…

The title credit as it appears in the movie

Will Noah escape from his conscious state through the love of a good woman? Is he no longer a prisoner? It’s really the dark night of the soul. For Noah there is too much meaning to what is really just a piece of fiction. We may ask that if Noah is not a fictional character then the future is unwritten… as long as he is not Dostoevsky’s prisoner, St. Petersburg’s prisoner… time and place isn’t necessarily written and dictating Noah’s fate. I like to think that if the future isn’t determined that he shan’t always be a prisoner… which maybe, as the last images show. Perhaps he can be a prisoner who can reconcile his unreal world of Sonya with the real world of Dommartin and find balance. Sane inside insanity, to quote Rocky Horror Picture Show! Or the other way round which is the way of the world though it would like to deny it!! Will he get away with murder? If indeed the woman is dead!

Sufism founder Hazrat Inajat Khan

Certainly the Great Russian writers despite being long dead have an influence which is remarkable to this day… and obviously overwhelming for some.

“There is no rebirth without a dark night of the soul, a total annihilation of all that you believed in and thought that you were,” to quote Hazrat Inajat Khan (1882-1927).

Khan was founder of the Sufi Order, something mentioned by Dommartin indirectly when she talks about “harmony” being a major part of her life as it is with Sufism, which has a following in parts of Germany.

And there we have Pringle’s triptych: beautiful and poetic in their own way.

Pringle’s Isabelle Eberhardt makes the cover of Cinema Papers.

I’ll mention Pringle’s last major film Isabelle Eberhardt (1991), which is about an early French feminist in Algeria at the turn of the 20th Century.

Eberhardt (1877-1904) was a journalist who adopted Algiers and Islam despite her Swiss birth and parentage. Seen as an early agitator for decolonisation – the French ruled it – she is played by Mathilda May (1965-), so memorable as the naked space vampire in Lifeforce (1985). Never a strong actress, she has worked steadily over the years and here has her best assets hidden by Arab robes and her hair cut short. It is said sex scenes in the movie were excised. May does well in a difficult role. It is a mini-epic, certainly a low-budget one which uses Peter O’Toole as a marquee name trading on his fame in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), probably the most epic of Middle Eastern movies.

Director Ian Pringle’s career ended abruptly…

It is written that Pringle realised while making the film that no-one could really do justice to Eberhardt’s story, which ends with intrigue and an early death.

Other stars include Tcheky Karyo (1953-) and Richard Moir as a hissable villain. The film’s budgetary constraints didn’t help its box office expectations but it is far more commercial than Pringle’s previous work. In fact, it is a total departure and an arrival into stardard romantic subplot and formula storytelling.

Please note that Pringle wrote and directed the film Wronsky (1980) before he wrote and directed The Plains of Heaven and Wrong World. This is probably the true triptych as he didn’t write the screenplay for The Prisoner of St. Petersburg. The screenplay is credited to Michael Wren who seems to have no further credits. I would love to hear the story from Pringle! I have found it impossible to see Wronsky and it is barely a feature at 70 minutes. As I am a journeyman/hack, forgive this article’s impurity but still enjoy Pringle’s art! I don’t think this article is a forgery as a result. Like the artist Martin I’d like to think of it as a Romantic vision… And doesn’t the Tate Gallery only own two of Martin’s triptych anyway!? I like the way these three hang on my screen!!

What Ian Pringle could have delivered with more experience and confidence and bigger budgets we may never know, as his career ended rather abruptly… but that is another story! He has returned to the movie scene more recently with The Legend Maker (2014) which is also hard to catch. I understand he is still active in the arts.

For an interview with Ian Pringle about these movies PRESS HERE.

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