Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

Why I wanted to see Holy Smoke: Harvey Keitel. If he’s in it, I’ll watch it. Also, the Cheech and Chong-like title. But it’s not about dope. It’s about various kinds of obsession, and although this is pretty much left unverbalized, it’s about who gets to make decrees about what obsessions are acceptable.

Ruth (Kate Winslet), a young Australian, visits India, and decides to stay. She joins an ashram. The family hires “exit counselor” PJ Waters (Keitel), who has deprogrammed nearly 200 former cult members and is considered the best in the business. He advises them to tell Ruth that her father is at death’s door. They are to trick her into coming back to what they still consider as her home, regardless of how she feels about it. If you’re the thinking type, you’ve already started thinking by now. Can any honest enterprise be founded on a lie?

When PJ Waters arrives, his swaggering demeanor is immediately appreciated by Yvonne (Sophie Lee), who spends most of her waking hours wearing only panties and a bra. (It’s very hot in certain parts of Australia.) At the first opportunity, she says Howdy with a blowjob.

Ruth, still in her sari, is taken by PJ Waters to a remote cabin where they are to be sequestered for three days. He works on her head. She spells out HELP with rocks on the ground, which is seen by pilot who calls up her family to report it. They have to make an excuse.

Supposedly these would be days of isolation, but they go back to the family homestead so everybody can watch a video about cults. It’s heavy on the Charlie Manson, and here’s where that pesky thinking kicks in again. You ask yourself, “Wait a minute, isn’t there a difference between a Manson, and a Maharishi or a Bhagwan?” And there is. Granted, many allegedly spiritual groups turn out to be nothing more than gangs in funny outfits, and I’m thinking specifically of some of those Hare Krishna thugs. But if you’re going to grant the basic premise that a lot of people want to join up with religions (and we must accept it, since it’s undeniable), then no religion should be judged on the basis of what its worst adherents do. If a whole religion is to be discredited because of its most notorious miscreants, well then, there goes the entire Catholic church.

Next, it’s the middle of the night, back at the cabin. PJ Waters wakes up to find that Ruth has set one of the outbuildings or something on fire. He goes in the yard to size up the situation, and Ruth approaches, out of the flickering darkness, not wearing a stitch. I just can’t spoil this for you, but I will say it is the most bizarre seduction scene.

So they wind up in bed, but PJ Waters gets more from the experience than Ruth does. Uh-oh. In the morning, a raucous crew of friends arrive, saying never mind the three days of isolation, something important needs to be celebrated. So they go to a club, and this is confusing, because the scene is like Sodom and Gomorrah. Who parties like this in the morning? PJ Waters gets all parental, and tells Ruth “I don’t think you should be drinking.” What a hypocrite. Isn’t this what he supposedly is aiming for, to get her out of her spirituality and back into the world? So, what’s his freakin problem? To taunt him, Ruth gets out on the dance floor and necks with a woman, and not a very attractive one, at that. PJ Waters casts the evilest of evil eyes in their direction, but Ruth doesn’t care.

“Two can play at that game,” he figures, and gets Yvonne to dance with him. He’s supposed to be this superior, psychologically hip guy, and he doesn’t know that you can’t make somebody jealous who doesn’t give a shit about you. Meanwhile, Ruth disappears and he finds her being extensively manhandled at the hands of three men. He does the tough guy thing and gets rid of them.

Back in the cabin, the head-trips multiply exponentially, because now Ruth is in full stride. She becomes seductive again, and PJ Waters says, “You’re playing with me, Ruth” Hah! His whole life is playing with people. Never does it occur to him that her scorn might not be age-based. He’s oblivious to the possibility that she could hate him because he’s kidnapped her and is trying to brainwash her. He wants to talk about the sex they had last night. “How was it for you?” he asks. “A bit revolting,” she says. (The first rule in this kind of situation is, if you have to ask, it wasn’t good.) PJ Waters is defensive and full of wounded vanity. “I was young once too, and handsome. You’d have been impressed.” She flings back, “I wasn’t born!” Then they go at it again.

Not long afterward, his woman arrives. He had sent for her, as his best, trained assistant, but that was before he went to bed with the client. She is mightily pissed off. And that’s all I’m going to tell. The important thing to know is, it gets very bizarre. I haven’t seen anything this weird in a long time. It is way at the top of the unusualness chart.

Little things to like: “Baby, It’s You” and an Annie Lennox song. We don’t hear enough Annie Lennox on soundtracks.

If you see Holy Smoke with somebody else, and sit around talking about it afterward, here are a couple more things that could come up. For a lot of people, the most difficult place to be spiritual is in the childhood home, or indeed anywhere with the family. The biological family doesn’t own a person, any more than the guru does. There’s an argument to be made that a person’s spirituality is nobody else’s business, and that electing to interfere with it is the real crime.

Here’s something else to consider. It’s illegal for a religious leader to brainwash people into committing suicide for a spiritual reason. But the government is allowed to brainwash people into thinking it’s glorious to commit suicide by joining the military and dying for your country. Not only is it okay for the government to brainwash people into thinking it’s good to sacrifice their own lives, it’s okay for the government to brainwash people into thinking it’s okay to kill others. And the difference between the government and Charlie Manson is… remind me?


Anna Campion, writer
Jane Campion, writer and director

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