Bliss – The 8 year love letter

“Harry Joy was to die three times, but it
was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him…”

There was some excellent cinema in the 80’s, sadly lost in a sea of lamentable tosh.  I’ll attempt to extricate the silver from the sludge with more wordy stuff on my favourite movies from that decade. You may have already read my decidedly turgid impressions of 1988’s ‘The Big Blue’.

Three years earlier, another film managed to leave an indelible mark on my meagre experience. This is where I introduce you to Australian writer Peter Carey, if you are not already aware of him. He won the Booker prize for True History of the Kelly Gang.  I believe he’s one of only two people to ever receive the award twice. Send emails full of blustery diatribe if I am in error.

In 1981, his first novel  Bliss was published. Some inspiration was drawn from his life in the  mid 70’s, when he juggled an improbable existence – rotating between 1 week in Sydney as a part-time advertising executive, and  four in an alternative lifestyle community near Yandina, QLD.  In 1985, he adapted the book into a screenplay. Peter collaborated with the relatively inexperienced director Ray Lawrence, and the resulting 135mins failed, probably because it attempted to preserve the fidelity of the source text through a very literal transposition. At Cannes the film received a less than favourable critical reaction. That’s putting it mildly. Bums left seats en masse. Poison ink soaked the notepads of critics.

Carey responded by re-cutting the film to 110 mins, remaining faithful to the source material but managing to concoct a rare alchemy – literary myrrh into cinematic gold . It is this celluloid gem that I have come to savour more as it’s vintage sweetens over time.

I put it to you, prized reader, that such a treasure should be retrieved from undeserved obscurity and screened again in cinemas around the world. Instead, someone has seen fit to turn the thing into an operatic production. I shall reserve comment. At least this will renew interest in the book and more importantly, the film.

The morality of Bliss was clearly delineated and uncomplicated. Some reviewers at the time found this simplicity hard to reconcile with what they saw as the art house pretensions.  Not to mention their difficulty with the contentious metaphors (see sardines) and the antipodean quirkiness.

Avoiding spoilers where I can, the last quarter of Bliss resonated with me the most. The idea of a redemptive love letter that takes 8 years to be delivered appeals directly to the rather large part of me that is the incurable romantic.  The icing on the cake being a nice little irony which forms the crystalline seed of one of my most cherished movie scenes. Make note of how Lawrence adjusts the ambient hues as each act in Harry Otto’s existential odyssey is played out.

Carey’s film was well ahead of it’s time, and set the standard for many quality Australian films of the 90’s.  Often when something so bold and innovative comes along, it is rejected at first, before eventually being accepted, and later celebrated. The birth of a cult classic is nearly always fraught with hardship.

This March 2010, I far better understand how upheaval and the weight of emotional isolation can break the back of a normally rational person. Our protagonist, Harry Otto, sees his life descend into a hell on Earth – all of the certainties and comforts of his life prior to his momentary death are now laid bare as mocking torments, licking at his skin like the flames of a biblical Hades. However we reconcile our crisises, there are often times when we require the absurdities of our dream lives to provide structure, accompanied by the inevitable flight from rationality. There is solice in illogical beliefs, and we embrace them as keenly as we once ridiculed them. Unlikely saviours also are wont to emerge from the molten turmoil of difficult times. For Harry, this is the hippie hooker girl, Honey Barbara. The emphasis is on her first name. When you see the ending, hopefully you’ll enjoy the connection.

Watch this movie, if you can bother with the considerable effort involved in obtaining a copy. Something akin to locating the Ark of the Covenant I’d say. However, success in this endeavour will afford you a many great rewards.



One response to “Bliss – The 8 year love letter”

  1. wagjaw says:

    Just checked Quickflix and they have it – looks like a 2 disc set…will have to check it out. I’ve seen two foreign language films in the past 3 days. “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (hmmm….not bad, what you’d expect I guess…a bit too much rape in the story for my taste) and Mongol – apparently first in a 3 part series about Genghis Khan. Really enjoyed that one. Oh and my wife made me sit through the 6 part miniseries of Pride and Prejudice again.

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