Without A Net
by Peter Craven, The Australian (December 18,
The ABC's new series Carnivale aspires to be
art, but it just could be one of the greatest
pieces of baloney to air on TV, writes Peter
No one can doubt the power of HBO. This remarkable
independent company brought us mainstays such
as Sex and The City and The Sopranos. It brought
us the razor blades and rape realism of the
prison drama Oz and that subtle variation on
soap, Six Feet Under (so good in its heyday).
And with the power there was the glory: Emma
Thompson directed by Mike Nichols in Wit, Al
Pacino and Meryl Streep in Nichols's extraordinary
version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
Alas, what comes with
the power and the glory is the pretension. Carnivale
is a series that aspires, with absolute seriousness,
to be art. It is an ambitiously conceived, spacious,
uncompromising attempt, full of the shimmer
of speculative fictions and the shadows of expressionist
technique, to create an arthouse television
that will give, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder,
in his Berlin Alexanderplatz phase, a run for
It may also be one of
the greatest pieces of baloney to air on American
television. Yes, it has Michael J. Anderson,
the dwarf from Twin Peaks (as Samson, the narrator
and gnomic wise guy) but it makes David Lynch
at his most self-abusing look like the Hitchcock
of Psycho or Vertigo. This is television so
leaden, so deeply inducing to boredom that it
will make rooms full of Aunty devotees lust
for blood and guts and the nearest escapism.
Indeed for any form of escape.
Heaven knows what self-annihilating
impulse led the ABC first to buy it and then
-- like a total inversion of Seven burying of
some its best programs -- to show it on Sunday
night in prime time for the benefit of Attenborough
lovers and aficionados of the best of British.
The six-part Carnivale,
was nominated for a wad of Emmys, so there must
be some people out there capable of falling
for its dark enchantments or its capacity to
con the culture-conscious.
It begins with a rapid
edit flicker of trench warfare horrors and twirling
tarot cards as Anderson mutters in archetypal
cliche. We're then transported to the dustbowl
of Oklahoma where our hero Ben Hawkins (Nick
Stahl) is attempting to deal with his dying
mother, who for some reason recoils from him
in dread on her deathbed as if he has the mark
of the beast.
It's the '30s, the time
of the Depression and some nasty company with
a sadistic bulldozer driver does its best to
prevent Hawkins from burying his old Ma until
he is suddenly rescued by the circus, the Carnivale
itself, with all its metaphysical freight of
angst and wonderment. They not only rescue him
but give him a job.
Meanwhile, he continues
to have hideous dreams of the Great War, dreams
of things he is too young to have experienced,
with Expressionist horrors that involve monster
circus bears in caps with blood-gushing faces
and which also involve the face of another man
he seems not to know but who the audience comes
to know as Brother Justin Crowe (played with
eloquent intensity by Clancy Brown).
A cassocked evangelist
who tends his flock in California, many of them
Okies, Crowe is an increasingly sinister figure
as the drama progresses. Things of more than
usual portentousness tend to happen in his vicinity.
In the first 50 minutes
(of this punishing two-parter) he discovers
that an old Okie woman has stolen a dollar from
the plate only to have her throw up a vast profusion
of dollars as if she were afflicted by all the
plagues of Egypt or at least of magical realism.
It's hard to convey the full uncanny awfulness
of Carnivale. It seems to have been conceived
in essentially literary terms and therefore
allows itself the kind of combination of clustered
magical improbabilities and narrative slackening
that can sometimes work on the page but is deadly
on the large screen, let alone a small one.
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp
Fiction is arguably the most notable Hollywood
film allowed the narrative licence associated
with the loopier kinds of postmodern fiction,
though David Lynch's Lost Highway Mulholland
Drive also plays games with the audience's heads.
Each of them is like a fast action movie compared
with the serpent's egg of deadly slowness that
producer-writer Daniel Knauf has dreamed up
for his directors -- Rodrigo Garcia in the first
half and Jeremy Podeswa in the second -- to
perform thwarted balletics around. Then again,
so is Lars Von Trier at his most self-reflexive.
Carnivale is an attempt
at utterly uncompromising television even though
each of its elements is familiar. It exploits
the bag of tricks you might encounter in a Paul
Auster or a Peter Carey novel, where the magical
or playful elements are only so many beads for
the artistic intelligence to string on its thread.
A sustained exercise
in atmospherics, the fact that it's expressionism
meets The Grapes of Wrath in the vicinity of
a circus, which is also going to disclose to
us the mystery of it all, may make this creaking
disaster of a raree-show sound much more attractive
than it is.
Hawkins is instructed
by circus manager Clayton Jones (Tim DeKay)
to clean out the nonexistent baggage trailer
-- a time-honoured carny jape -- but instead,
he makes a startling discovery. In the meantime
he has done all sorts of things, including rescue
the tarot-reading Sophie (Clea DuVall) from
being raped. She communicates telepathically
with her catatonic mother, who doesn't speak
but who rises at night to come to stalk Hawkins.
Sophie reads Hawkins's
cards and he's a great magus whose powers lie
unused. Not that this stops him from curing
a little girl who is afflicted with polio.
The difficulty with all
of these threads is that they are never brought
together as a story that can sustain interest.
They sound arresting but they exist as isolated
daubs of colour in an incoherent program that
never gets off its artistic high horse long
enough to tell one story with any kind of compelling
The whole of Carnivale
is full with the suggestion of the richness
that will come tumbling -- dream-like -- from
its labyrinth of cultural awareness. As if Fritz
Lang and Georg Grosz and all of the early modernist
Viennese masters who depicted the crippling
of lives deranged by sex and longing were fated
to meet in a carny show collision between the
John Ford-John Steinbeck America and the 1930s
of Hitler and the full holocaustal horror show.
The trouble is that Carnivale
never gets beyond advertising its own gestures
in this direction. Brother Justin, for instance,
fulminates saying that the owner of the nightclubs
in Chinatown must hand them over to him. In
context, the speech is an inane rant without
preparation or point. The dislocated images
of an older man poring over the body of a little
boy (out of presumed lust) and the subsequent
image of the nightclub owner putting a gun to
his head are equally arbitrary, equally pointless.
Stahl (whom many will
have seen in the ghastly Terminator 3: The Rise
of the Machines) is a fine young actor. He was
wonderfully malevolent and killable in the title
role of Larry Clark's masterpiece Bully and
he can be seen in everything from In the Bedroom
(he plays the son of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson
in this Oscar-nominated film) to Terrence Malick's
The Thin Red Line.
He manages to look like
a Schiele painting here, which is certainly
grist to the mill of Knauf's vision. In similar
fashion, DuVall (who is superb in The Slaughter
Rule with Ryan Gosling and David Morse) is wasted.
These are just laconic
youth roles in a sea of sawdust and symbolism
that is unlikely to keep anyone's attention
for more than 10 minutes. It's a pity because
Carnivale drips with such highbrowism and higher
purpose that it's a shame it just splashes it
all against the wall. It's almost like a biblical
injunction against pretension on television.
It's enough to make anyone prescriptive.
If you want to do something
grand on television, it suggests, take a novel,
as Fassbinder did in Berlin Alexanderplatz or,
more modestly and more recently, as the Taviani
brothers did in their fine adaptation of Tolstoy's
Resurrection that was shown on SBS several months
ago. Or take a play, such as Angels in America.
Either adapt something that already exists or
go down-market. Don't, in any case, try for
the patina and wide-ranging profundity of high
art. If you do you're liable to end up with
a turkey like Carnivale.
Carnivale screens on
Sunday on ABC, at 8.30pm.