IVANS XTC

“I tried to find an image, one worthwhile image, and couldn’t find one goddamn thing”

Dir: Bernard Rose

Enos/Rose, USA, 2000

Starring: Danny Huston, Peter Weller, Lisa Enos

Deep within the sinful confines of Los Angeles sits an agency office overflowing with untruths, greed and artificiality. Here sits Ivan Beckman, man of the hour, gratuitously rewarded for his ability to lie, manipulate and orchestrate depravity. Deep within Ivan Beckman lies a festering sadness, a constantly dwindling optimism which poses to him a question – is this a life which he believes is worth living? Does he consider that the role he plays in the overarching narrative of humanity is one which stretches any further than his luxury house, his designer suits and the beautiful women available to him with apparent ease? Deep within Ivan Beckman this sadness rots his soul, and though this revelation is a recent one to him, it eats away at his very being and demands that he participate in a life of worth or else die alone in a hospital bed, his brain addled by a cocktail of prescription pills, cocaine and morphine.

His family wished for him to be an artist, his sister gleefully mocks his decision to stray from the family career of choice and into the materially rewarding world of agency. His father, though seemingly proud of his son’s success, represses similar feelings. Ivan’s girlfriend is deeper involved in a relationship with her cocaine habit than she is with him, and his friends adopt a forged smile when they converse. A few days previous, Ivan was told by a doctor that he will soon die.

A modern retelling of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the narrative relocated from 19th century Russia to turn of the millennium LA, Ivansxtc (2000) charts the final downward trajectory of a man deeply affected by both his own regrets and the terrifying reality of his impending death. “I tried to find an image, one worthwhile image, and couldn’t find one goddamn thing” he slurs, drink in hand, no one particularly listening. At points, Ivansxtc is the cinematic equivalent to a conversation with a nihilist and poses as many existential questions towards its protagonist as it does to the viewer and the wider circle of society. The glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous are deconstructed to a point of unfamiliarity and the common depictions of wealth skewed beyond recognition, the warped reality of LA demonised and vilified but never blamed, Ivan accepts that this doom is of his own making and slides into death with surprising grace and beauty.

Though initially incredibly dark, blinding streams of light penetrate through the smog as the film progresses, finally reaching an almost straining level of intensity at the climax of the film where his promised fatality is finally portrayed.Ivansxtc is certainly a film concerning death and corruption, but this is counterbalanced with a powerful emotional core which highlights the immense regret and sadness of Ivan towards the lost opportunities and all the squandered years.

Shot fast and cheap on digital film, director Bernard Rose substitutes cinematic flair for poignant reality, drawing focus to deep introspection where so many would instead concentrate on the world around Ivan.  The linchpin of the film however, is Danny Huston, underrated and underused, his performance as the eponymous Ivan combines subtle nuance and intense extroversion to depict a man who viciously attempts to hide his sorrow behind a mask of snarling grins and wide eyed enthusiasm. Huston strips the character of Ivan to the bare bones, revealing to the audience a crumbling skeleton of a man whose core motivation was the promise of more money, drugs and glory, and simultaneously, a man who is tragically aware of the effects these elements have upon him.  From beneath a layer of cocaine induced euphoria, Rose is able to extract the human emotion of a man who has vehemently attempted to conceal his passion for life in the final days of it.

This is not a film which is easy to observe, there is no promise of optimism or the possibility of an escape for Ivan, instead, it is a study of intense sadness. There are moments of brief happiness for him, albeit generated by drug use and hedonism, but these soon dissipate and the intimidating skyline of Los Angeles returns to focus to remind him of his worthlessness, his overpowering greed and the abuse he has subjected his body to.

Unable to escape the enclosing fog of death he ponders the value of suicide and explains to the women he has invited over that, the previous night, he had taken “every pill in the goddamn house” but that ultimately the pain did not recede and he remains trapped in a cycle of self loathing and sorrow. Rose’s film is one which rewards patience and observation with a deeply human show of emotion and a stunningly intelligent comment of the value of life in an environment which seeks to degrade and erode the soul.

Ivansxtc is a modern classic in the sense that it is an updating of an established classic, taking the literary power of Tolstoy’s writing and skilfully transferring it into another medium, subsequently adding a contemporary perspective to the message articulated in the source material. The subjects of religion, the human condition and the merits of life are all approached with care and thoughtfulness and where the film so easily could have strayed into a preaching lecture concerning excess, Rose refrains and exhibits a tenderness rarely seen in portrayals of LA. The messages and comments articulated by the film are ones which suggest rather than insist and whisper rather than shout, but nonetheless lodge themselves deep in the memory to be reflected on long after the film, and Ivan’s life, has ended.

  • Kristofer Thomas

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