SMORGASBORD: Crime, Poetry and Other Misdemeanours

In the discussion after the screening of his film “The Poet and the Con” at the Actors Studio Theatre a few weeks ago, Eric Trules said that a Malaysian would “never” make something like it. He has not seen many Malaysian works at all, but his observation came about from living in the country for the past few months on a Fulbright grant that has involved teaching at universities in Sabah and Serdang, as well as writing and acting workshops with groups of the burgeoning creative community of Malaysians.

It would be easy to take his statement as a casual dismissal. But he’s on to something. I’ve certainly never seen a Malaysian film or play that is as nakedly self-revealing as “The Poet and the Con.” During an interview a few days later, he told me that he finds Malaysians to be a “quiet and giggly” lot. People find it difficult to state their opinions, to the extent that, instead of just saying “No”, they’d come up with elaborate means to avoid keeping appointments. “Something about not wanting to cause offence?” I offered, thinking of a post-colonial study that characterized this form of prevaricative demurral as a “strategy of resistance”, “a weapon on the weak.” Unlike in several other countries, the natives here did not confront their aggressors in armed warfare, but created a system of subterfuge that involved double-speak, procrastination, avoidance – which lead to caricatures of “the lazy Malay” and so on. Such orientalist stereotypes have continued to characterize the prescriptive discourse with regards to present national policy, which continues to have the tone of hectoring and dragging its unwilling subjects into the rushing, inexorable stream of modernity — all for our own good of course.

All of which might be to stray somewhat from the point of Trules’ film. But I wished that he could read an excellent performance like Jit Murad’s “Spilt Gravy on Rice” (which he saw) as being, in its own way, just as nakedly revealing, just as marked by Tolstoy’s image of “slashing open a vein” to create a piece of writing that is cathartic to its author and intended audience. Of course, the operative phrase here is “in its own way.” Jit’s impressive play delineates the modern Malay/sian dilemma in a supple manner that encompasses class, race and the inherited blinkers of history and politics. Trules’ work, which deals the neurosis of family dynamics and the controversial link between crime and creativity, is much more upfront and in-yer-face – much more “American”.

Is forthrightness an inimitably American trait? Trules’ fascinating film excavates personal baggage that would seem shockingly candid to many of us. It’s a line that includes many American personalities from Whitman to the Beats to the performance artists and stand-up comics of today. At its most raw and sensationalistic, you get the tabloid kitsch hysteria of Jerry Springer’s guests. I wonder how much of this comes from the American cult of individualism, coupled with the heterogeneity of its society, which together breeds a multitude of competing voices, each wanting, indeed demanding, to be heard and disseminated. “But even in America, I am considered a left-field, bohemian type of person,” Trules says. “I wouldn’t say what I do is typical of Americans.”

His film is a “personal voice” documentary. What separates it from a traditional documentary is that its maker is both subject and articulator. Rather than making a show of objectivity, of giving the air of coolly sifting through, examining and then presenting external data, the material of its director’s life is laid bare and then offered up to scrutiny. Thankfully, his background as a performer (which has included performance poetry as well as a stint as a professional clown) keeps the show lively, engaging, a mixture of the candid and calculative, in other words: artful. If art is a combination of smoke and mirrors, his is the type that uses more of the latter. His film is edited to the rhythms of his beat poetry- it’s edgy, confrontational, dynamic. It doesn’t descend into a subjectivist mess.

I told him that the film it most reminded me of was “Crumb”, the popular documentary about the cartoonist R. Crumb and his family, whose members take the term “dysfunctional” to a whole new level. The roots of Crumb’s creativity are traced to, but not simplistically or reductively explained by, his personal demons. Everyone has their own demons, after all; we are all part of the walking wounded. Some have exorcised them through crime, others through art, still others through random acts of cruelty or, most boringly American of all, long sessions on a psychiatrist’s couch.

The link between art and crime is seen in the title of the film itself. Is there an invisible set of hyphens in it, as in “the poet-and-the-con”? The 80-minute film was shot over the course of seven years; it charts the relationship between Trules and his uncle, Harvey Rosenberg, a career felon whose string of offences ended with a murder charge. “He appeared on ‘America’s Most Wanted’, which of course means he’s a Bad Person,” Trules sardonically says. “I wanted to show that even a Bad Person has many sides to him.”

The film unfolds chronologically like a drama; there is very little distancing, contextualisation or editorializing apart from the beat of his poetry, which can be ruminative but is more often mocking and urgent. Is there something in the dynamics or genetics of this Jewish American family that encourages criminality? (Trules himself was charged with commercial burglary during his stint at a Hollywood movie studio). Unlike, say, the philosophical writings of Jean Genet, Trules does not propose a wider political reading of the functions of crime and creativity in society. He is more personal than political. The parallels between himself and his uncle {both were social outcasts, both had to deal with cancer) are left for us to explicate, either as a cautionary tale or as a telling indicator of the intersections between societal expectations and the more mysterious, perhaps even unfathomable, thing called personal will.

“The Poet and the Con” is shot in a mixture of black-and-white 16mm film and colour video. Trules edited it down from about 30 hours to its present lean duration of 80 minutes. Although there are interviews with family members and extracts from his performances, the movie in bulk is a persona! journey. The last segment, which imagines Rosenberg’s cross-country run from the law, even looks like a road movie, yet another seemingly quintessential American genre. The beautiful wide-open skies of the American highways are contrasted with an equally pitiless look at the judgemental powers of family and other institutions of control.

Some parts of the film, even to Trules, are too painful to watch. But just as its making afforded the opportunity for a form of personal redemption, watching it also opens up all sorts of vistas for us. He does not know if he will make another film. The long production period has left a toll. He is older and seemingly calmer than the person we saw on the screen. But the film that we saw will continue to have an impact on us, like a bruise that does not quite heal.

First Published: 23.08.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…