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Art Without A Net
by Peter Craven, The Australian (December 18, 2004)

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 Craven.

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 his money.

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 continuity.

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.